The Final Act of the Lacrosse Building Opera

Lacrosse the Opera

When something catastrophic goes wrong, there are usually smaller incremental events leading up to the devastating event. However, the aggregation of small events may point to systemic problems.

The current Australian architectural landscape continues to be turmoil. One component of this turmoil is the result of the VCAT determination regarding the Lacrosse building. Even the state Premier Daniel Andrews has been talking about it.

For smaller practitioners, as a result of the flammable cladding issue, PI premiums may rise 20-30%. Many of these small practitioners would only dream of the $3.9 Million in fees, as stated in the VCAT report, that the architects signed up for in June 2007 on Lacrosse. For larger practices who are carrying more risk, it could be even more.

It’s incredible that when Jean-Francois went to have a smoke on a balcony, that he would set in train a series of events, that would have long-lasting ramifications for Australian architects.

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VCAT, Predator and Bucky’s Tensegrity. 

As the VCAT report notes, this was around 7 and half years after the first design meeting concerning the Lacrosse project was held on May 2007. As the VCAT ruling states the architect:

“described the design intent at around this time as comprising two towers with a futuristic visual appeal incorporating design features such as tensegrity screens. The intention was that the buildings have “a focus on technology” and to be perceived as being buildings for the future.

In the architects Lacrosse media kit, (if still available online) the architects describe the influences that shaped the scheme:

“influences as diverse as Predator, ancient urban design, origami and the natural world could come together to create this response, but like all of our projects, the answer lies with process rather than design.

 

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 Lot’s of great concepts in the above quote and to think all these things are integrated with the process. The practice responsible for the scheme emerged from a particular scene and context centred on RMIT Architecture school in the early 2000s. What else could there except concepts and process. You undoubtedly didn’t need theory. This was a social milieux that in architectural terms combined a fashionable social elitism with sound-byte concepts and digital techniques.

Getting it on with the Developers. 

The architects of Lacrosse were selected to exhibit their work at Venice in the 2008 Abundant Exhibition. Around this time there were quite a few articles by notable architectural critics, in the Australian Architectural press about the Lacrosse architects. Only a very few critics, in these predominantly puff pieces, made an effort to assess this work in relation to critical theory or any sense of ambivalence. Most critics seemed to praise the architect’s engagement with developers and celebrated the architectural language of the architect’s facades in several projects. After all, it was all about the facade.

If architects couldn’t do much else, because of developer constraints, at least they could do the facades. Right? This was conceptual architecture with a capital C. Architecture formed in the furnace of a seemingly talented, fashionable and pedigreed circle. The facade concepts of this architecture would shine through the developer and contractor dross. Architects were now going to serve up a shit load of funky facade architecture to the developers. Architects were going to force-feed the developers with architectural ideas and concepts and black polo-necked glamour. In one interview in Architecture Australia, the architects of Lacrosse stated that:

 “our architecture is read in the round. The effect of the building as one moves through it, as one walks around it, is composited and layered. It is not a hero shot, it is cinematic architecture.” 

A Visit to Lacrosse

Yet, when we cross the railyards over Latrobe street Melbourne and look at the Lacrosse building, it seems more like it has been designed as four elevations. Plus, I am clueless as I don’t really get the whole predator thing. There is a bit of shape to the plan, particularly at the south end with an extruded curve a pattern of randomly placed windows that suggested some kind of architectural artifice. The gap between the East and West slabs doesn’t look like a ravine, or an ancient urban design (inspired by that Northern Summer trip to Petra?). These slabs look more like an effort to cram two slab blocks together and get as many units in. Of course, the architect has typically no choice but to maximise the number of units.

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This two slab plan has been extruded and placed onto a black podium. And maybe that is the “Predator” bit. As a compositional or tectonic unit, the podium has been butchered by various pragmatic additions. It’s hard to know which of these bits are either intentional or unintentional or added later.

The idea of triangular tensegrity is I think far removed from Buckminster Fuller’s original tensegrity concept. The tensegrity screen, if we can call it that, is little more than a hollow decoration, an additive melange of aluminium and mesh that veils what is underneath a pretty ordinary building. I am not sure what Buckminster Fuller would think of this.

Some of these parts of the tensegrity screen simply collide landing at the endpoints of balconies and vertical panels. There is no elegance in the construction detailing. Being ignorant of such matter, I have no idea how the screen works in terms of sun-shading or heat loading. There is no sense in any way that the triangular screens may have interacted or given some sense of meagre humanity to the inhabitants of this building. When Jean-Francois went out for a fag if he was looking at the tensegrity screen, he probably didn’t have an architectural epiphany.

I love architectural irony because, in situations like this, it can help save the architect and turn a bad situation into a better one. But, there is no sense of irony in the use of the materials in this developer-driven context. There is no joyous sense of craft when one material meets another. There is not even the most limited sense of material play with different light, shade, texture, construction jointing or colour. I don’t want to start sounding like some kind of Carlo Scarpa inspired sap here. There is no struggle with how these materials might be bought together and might work in any kind of light. This is a kit of product-parts-approach strung together in the hope the marketers will get the job done and sell the product.

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Given the location of the building as it faces back to the grid of the city, the opportunity to mirror and comment on that grid is lost, this façade just looks at us blankly as we walk over the Latrobe street bridge. It’s like the building is saying there is nothing to see here, so just move along.

When I look at Lacrosse now, I wonder what went wrong with all the glistening hope and ambition of the fashionable scene and milieux that gave birth to it. The idea that architects could have concepts, mix it up with developers, and do something. Perhaps, the fire exemplifies the broader failure of a particular kind of architectural culture. This is the failure of a system to engage with the necessity of creating an authentic public language of architecture.

Where did it all go so wrong?

I never want to sound overly strident in my observations, but how did, we as architects, sacrifice our sense of materials? When did we debate all of this loss, this loss of control over construction technique? When did we debate or theorise this not seeing, this blindness in the gap between the money, developers and the aesthetics of architecture?

What we see here is the result of a socio-cultural system that produces, not merely a specific building failure. But also a systems crash of architectural production in relation to architectural theory, aesthetic knowledge, patronage, publication and provincial celebrity. We can hardly blame the architects of this building for all of that.

When will architects stop seeing the vacuity of conceptual spin, stop seeing the ways to use materials is more than just product deployment and smeared on curtain wall systems. Hey, hit me up with some more super tall CTBUH Carbon monuments.

If I had the opportunity to write the Lacrosse opera, I would call it The Jean-Francois balcony smoking scene, would be the final act of an opera centred on architectural vanity and hubris. We are all responsible for that and perhaps we should not be too harsh in our blame.

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The same old mistakes: Emerging practices, the cult of timidity, underpayment and overwork.

Last week, two things happened related to early stage architectural practices. Firstly, it was related to me how a young architect had started working with a larger practice because she was sick and tired of the overworking, underpaid and disorganised nature of the seemingly emerging practice that she was in. A practice that might be described as a social media icon. I then went to the Architeam Awards, and it was great. This is my favourite tribe of architects. Of course, as everyone knows I am positively biased towards Architeam after the RASP project.

Architeam Awards

It was a great party, and for those who know me I am trying to party as much as possible during this end of year architectural season, and it makes the AIA awards seem like a dreary and pompous affair with the alcohol. The Architeam awards are a fun, less formal and more casual party where everyone gets to mix and actually talk. No long drunken monologues form the small coterie of architects who get the awards all the time. Architeam is a diverse organisation with its base in the architectural community. It is a cooperative governed by a diverse elected board. This year there were six judges for all the awards categories, perhaps a better system than what the AIA does.

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As my favourite professor once said to me, “just tell the practice students it’s all about the money.” As a small practitioner or any kind of practitioner for that manner, it is much cheaper to be involved in the Architeam awards than the AIA awards. They even have a Youtube clip by Bowerbird to help architects prepare their award for the mass media.

One of the more exciting awards was for the Contribution & Innovation Category.  This Award is to recognise contribution and innovation to architecture beyond the design and production of buildings.

Commendations were jointly awarded to 4 entries in the Contribution and Innovation category: Accessibility in the Built Environment by Visionary (now that I am actually disabled I think Mary Anne Jackson is excellent): New Architects Melbourne (NAM) by New Architects Melbourne (NAM); Sydney Architecture Walks by Eoghan Lewis; and Our City Our Square campaign by Citizens for Melbourne – all contributed greatly to Australian Architecture in a variety of innovative ways.

It was great to see Our City Our Square campaign by Citizens for Melbourne get an award as well as (NAM) by New Architects Melbourne. I am not sure either of these groups would get an award in the AIA system.

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Emerging Architects and Politics?

But lest you think this blog is just an Architeam love fest: one of the more interesting comments made to me by a winner on the evening is that “young architects are not interested in community advocacy and politics” and seemingly uninterested in being engaged in public advocacy.

Both of these tales, made me wonder if our young early-stage practices are making the same mistakes like those made in the past.

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Mistake One: Not speaking out (plus mistake 1A misuse of social media)

A disengagement with urban and local politics motivated by the fear of not getting work if a particular practice or a group takes a position or a stand. Let me be savage and cynical, I am over the wishy-washy view of architecture with its comb-over of good intentions: sustainability, saccharine placemaking and a residue hipster style social media presence.

For some, it’s all about the emojis and the insta-likes. Oh, gee whiz, I just posted another exotic image of a long-lost fragment of brutalism. Let’s see some insta-images from architectural influencers that mess with people’s heads rather than saccharine gumpf (mistake 1A). I am over the mild-mannered, but a little bit quirky, modernism; you know a little bit Eamesy, the limed wash joineries, the laminated timber tables, the affectation of funny windows, the micro snapshots of architectural ephemera, and the cult of vibrant youth studio pictures. It looks all so perfect, but is it? How can it be perfect when everyone is getting overworked and underpaid.

It goes without saying that architects will not add value to public debates, or achieve a policy presence unless the emerging networks of young architects are more militant. Policy advocacy and militancy are sorely needed in the profession.

I don’t know what it is about the AIA that makes them so weak. Others would use harsher terms. Sure, I know lots of people on the various chapter councils. Many are excellent and notable architects. But maybe it’s something to do with governance, the lack of leadership and management capabilities, or the spineless devotion to not rocking the boat. Meanwhile, all of the other interest groups in our broader industry have no compunction in pushing their own agendas.

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Mistake Two: The same old same old of traditional practice. 

Small and newly formed practices have a chance to make it different. Practice culture is set in the first year of practice. Sure, small scavenger practices are all desperate to get jobs and survive. But overwork is not going to get you there. Have a business and marketing strategy and shit have an actual business plan. Get your practice organised with a few basic systems at the beginning of the practice. Basic business accounting systems, contact databases, timesheets and actual strategy.

Think about how you will manage staff and outline some goals. Pick up on a few managerial skills. Learn how to collaborate with others. Go and network and coffee with other people who are not architects even if that means not getting desperate about cutting your fees for that next miserable job. Talk to some of the marketing consultants who know the profession well. And for fuck’s sake don’t underpay, or overwork, your female staff members compared to your male staff.

All of this is about building your small practice infrastructure and capabilities ahead of time. Instead of falling into a miasma of panic, desperation and making it up as you go along.

The design studio cult of overwork, underpaying staff, long hours, bidding for low fees, should not be a part of the culture of newly emerging practices. Starting a practice is an opportunity to change this and set a new culture and explore new ways of doing architecture. The firm’s that do this now, without following the path of traditional practice culture, will be the ones that will survive and prosper in the future.

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Getting back into it 

If I was to start practice now, rather than when we did in the early to mid-90s, I would probably do it all differently, everything has changed, but its like we keep making the same mistakes.

Yep, even I would be up for starting a small practice and this time around I am thinking of a ground-up tribe of practitioners working collaboratively, with great governance, considered strategy and an activist architectural politics. Not only do we need ground-up professional organisations but we also need ground-up and community-based practices.

Let me know if you are up for it. I reckon a collaborative group of six to twelve architects (plus a few poets or painters or performance artists) would be enough to keep everyone employed and well as enough to quickly kick ass. The time of the traditional practice is over.

 

Design Activism: Architects need to be a-holes and it’s time to stop being nice.

Architects need to be a-holes, and it’s time to stop being nice. We need to be more like sea urchins: prickly.

A few things this week have made me think that the lack of advocacy skills amongst architects is really putting our domain of knowledge, agency and economic sustainability at risk. But there are more ominous and insidious signs about the state of architecture in a way these signs may seem subtle, but they point to a continuing malaise that architects should try and reverse.

Firstly, there is the drama over the departure of the CEO of the AIA; and it seems to me that the AIA is caught between wanting to advocate for architecture and wanting to provide its members with actual services. Does the AIA actually effectively lobby government?

Secondly, and seemingly unrelated, is the move by the banks and the Housing Industry Association to cut architects out of the mix when it comes to building contracts. Warwick Mihaly of Architeam writing at the ACA about this here.

Thirdly, of course, there was the win for the anti-Apple people, many of whom are architects, regarding Federation Square and its Heritage protection. Of course, Heritage “protection” in my neo-liberal city can often mean very little, and I wondered if wins like this actually mean anything. Perhaps not if the 19thC as well as the mid 20th C city has been, and continues to be lost. Architects do not have the organisational and industry infrastructure in place to effectively advocate on a range of issues.

Meanwhile, the chosen few, those architects who manage to win the golden casket lottery of fame, tell us that all we have to do is say to our clients how well-meaning we are and that we are dedicated to “Authenticity, Generosity, Civicness and Beauty”, and everything will be ok. Niceness is too often a mask for the social systems that imprison architects. For me, this is a bit like taking a Bex or a Panadol, or smoking a bong-pipe when your house is burning down.

Sure, I am yet to go down to this year’s pavilion and check it out. But, I am sure it will be better than last year’s Pavilion (strange that REM had such a real disconnect with theory when he spoke about it). But again, I think we are smoking the crack-pipe of Read more

Surviving the Design Studio: Why are architects so fucking serious?

I went to an advertising function a few days ago, the Moet was flowing amongst the producers, copywriters and account service people I ran into an ex-architect now working in advertising and he looked me in the eye and exclaimed: why are architects in Melbourne so fucking serious? Good point I thought, and I had to agree as the verbal case was laid out over the champagne. And my agreeance, was not merely politeness because this claim struck me as the truth. So, I thought given the amount of auto-ethnography I had done concerning architects in Melbourne, in one way or another, I thought I would accept the claim and then try and develop a theoretical model around it.

Melbourne Architecture is probably the epi-centre of architectural seriousness. I guess I can’t talk about Sydney but maybe the model developed below can also be generalised to encompass other places.

Serious Architectural Insects 

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The first lot of serious architectural insects I met were at the tail end of the early seventies mud-brick, alternative living, roll your own spliff movement. This time was a kind of cross between the post 68 countercultures, Alastair Knox’s mud-brick houses and the Sunbury rock festival. It was a kind of blues and roots and Whitlam thang. Everyone hated Malcolm Fraser. My shared house flatmates got busted for growing marijuana. At Archi school we had self-assessment, my first project was a long essay on alternative energy sources, my second I learnt how to design in the style of MLTW’s sea-ranch (think, planimetric chamfers). At archi-school our orientation camp was at a monastery where a guy played the bongos and as I listened my head span around and around and mesmerised by the sound I vomited. It was a serious vomit and set the tone for the rest of my architectural education.

 

No need to shed tears of nostalgia for this long lost era. Funnily enough, I think a lot of it is now back in fashion, and the common denominator is and has always been, the seriousness. For the earnest or humanistic architect, the architect without irony wanting to do good in the world, the seriousness is a natural state of being. However, this too often masks a desire for economic gain or a proclamation of egocentric vanity. For seriousness, the parametric architects are the worst and take the cake. Since when was coding a computer to make Bucky Fuller like domes, and their squishy variants, ever considered to be in any way fantastic.

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The cult of the seriousness tars even those Australian architects who appear, on the surface at least, to pursue irony and absurdity. Just have a look at the northern end of Swanston Street in Melbourne. An entire block of very very serious architecture and perhaps it would have been better if WB looked happier. Nowadays all the universities are getting into their very own Archi-serious capital works programs. The serious architectural sensibility too often about branding of one kind or another; the branded pomposity of neoliberal and market-driven clients.

And surely the absurd gymnastics of super serious architecture without whimsy is a terrible and empty thing to behold. Paradoxically, architectural seriousness has always had its darker hues. All this seriousness is serious. But what would I know as I am really really serious too?

But hey these days you would be fooled into thinking seriousness never really exists. This situation is the case if you looked at architects and social media, it all seems light and fluffy, and oh so we don’t need theory we are just doing what we do. Little arches, trellises and meshes. However, even this frivolity seems too serious especially when it is aligned with the torrent of nostalgia around the history of Melbourne architecture. This is too often a history all about the cute little 1950s housing boxes; Boyd in all his Brahmin caste politeness; the sanitised and domestic machines of the Small Homes Service; the little follies and gems of architecture recycled as serious doodoos. In Melbourne, there were lots of serious insect architects in the 1950s: Neil Clerehan, John Mockridge, James Earle, David McGlashan, Peter Jorgenson, Ken Hardcastle, Geoffrey Woodfall, Peter Burns and David Godsell. In posh Toorak, there was Guilford Bell, Rosenthal and Holgar and Holgar. Hit me up with a bit of Mid-Century Modern nostalgia insulin.

So what is the unhappy dynamic driving this seriousness and what is its pathology? Below are a few thoughts towards developing an all too slight model that might explain all of this architectural seriousness.

Insularity

Insularity the idea that nothing exists outside of the autonomous culture of architecture is the first factor. The realm and boundaries of this culture are strictly reinforced. A larger scale of geography often determines the insularity. For example, a Melbourne School or a Sydney school. However, other factors may define the boundaries of each of the clubs, clans tribes and influence networks that each city has; different ideological and theoretical ideas formed at architecture school, and even at secondary schools, may also determine these different clubs and clans and sets within the larger geographic realm.

Jargon

A peculiar language often emerges in the different architectural tribes. The utterances, aphorisms and codes often emanating from these groups often constitutes a private language. As someone remarked to me if you met these people at the dinner table, it’s difficult for an outsider to understand the lingo. Within each group, this language might evolve a little over time. Rarely is there any thought that this way of speaking might be a real bore at dinner.

The group’s jargonistic expressions will ensure that its central tenets will remain stable over time. To the initiated, some of these words and sayings seem to have magical and talismanic powers. To the outsider, this private language is instead of explicit communication and plain English. As many architectural websites attest to plain English is not often pursued. To the outsider. Let alone the client, and this results in an impenetrable language that can only be deciphered if you are in the favoured circle.

Abstract Language 

A key feature of seriousness is a verbal language of abstraction based on logic. As if to say, either reasoning and abstraction confer authority (I prefer the ravings of Artaud any day). Eisenman was good at this as was Colin Rowe and perhaps this way of speaking has its sources in the late 1980s and early days of the American architectural journal Assemblage. In any case, any of the Architectural engagement with continental philosophy since the 1970s has not helped this. Anyone reading this who may have heard Brian Massumi, Deleuze and Guattari’s translator, speak about architecture should know this.

Pecking Order

Within the circle of seriousness, the pecking usually determines who has the most power over language. Many architects will be familiar with the traits of these orders. Pecking orders are primarily determined by pedigree. Class, school of origin, architecture school, or whom you did studios with and the office you may have worked for. Alpha males win out most of the time in these orders. Having independent wealth may also help. Combine both of these attributes and will do better than most. Architects are fascinated by genealogies: Who worked for whom, who can trace their family tree back to a master or a heroic figure. Even I have claims to tracing myself back to Robin Boyd. Ridiculous, I know.

Deification

Within this system, some are architects, or deities, are bestowed with power. This endowment may or may not translate into commissions or a legacy in the canon. Usually, only men are deified, and they can then determine who the enemies are. There are always perceived enemies in the cult of seriousness, and the idolised gods have a number of tactics to relegate you to the enemy camp. We have all be written off by those helicoptered in well-pedigreed leaders who only recognise their own kind. That’s how architecture works I guess.

Maybe the above is because the notion of the enemy has a long history in the creation of modernist architectural history. From CIAM onwards there was always an enemy for modern architects to fight against. Across the globe, in the provincial market-towns of architectural culture making and remaking enemies is a constant sport.

Lack of Fluidity

In this ecosystem of seriousness, architectural experiment and the fluidity that goes with it is often abandoned. This move is in order to maintain power. Creating design knowledge is secondary and expanding the stock of architectural knowledge is secondary to maintaining a status quo. In other words, all of the above, all this seriousness, is not there to enhance the discipline or to create new knowledge and promote an engaged discourse or think about architecture as an evolving and dynamic field of expertise. No, architectural design is posed as something to defend, an inviolable territory of privilege. This defensiveness is, for the most part, a ruse to maintain and enforce power in whatever local architectural culture that power is claimed and employed.

Masculinity

All of these processes emphasise norms of masculinity within the profession. The single architectural voice with all of its mystifications, contrariness, rationalisations and self-importance has no interest in more fluid notions of identity.

This gendered voice seeks influence, authority, power and sometimes a pathetic kind of social notoriety and deification. This voice continually seeks to prescribe and fix its own identity. Perhaps, we have all wanted to be there and have saught this. In contrast, collective notions of design, or architectural theory, that questions fixed identities is belittled or relegated. Consequently, the design process itself is ring-fenced and quarantined in a way that always links it to fixed architectural identities. As a result intersectionality and its attendant approaches are never something that comes into play. Any suggestion by anyone that points out the jargon, mystifications, influence, and deification that result in this seriousness is overlooked and at worse silenced.

The paradox is that architectural whimsy, a lightness of being, has a more significant potential for emotional and political nuance than the strictures of seriousness. And I don’t mean a whimsy devoid of politics. Perhaps all we can hope for an architectural culture that embraces a collective lightness and openness, as much as any other sentiment. But hey, who am I to talk when I am also so serious. But anything is better than vainglorious seriousness and insane pomposity that characterises much of the profession. Architecture as a genuinely collective endeavour and a contested field of knowledge deserves more.

Due to work commitments, I have not been able to get the blog out as much as I would like. I did manage to get to ARCOM in Belfast, and my co-author Loren Adams and we won a prize for the most innovative paper! Read it here if you dare. However, more about that in later blogs. For those of you in my own special identity cult don’t worry too much: I am alive, but only just.

Writing the Unspeakable: Sean Godsell’s Chapel at the Holy See in Venice

In keeping with the theme of #Freespace, the Holy See has commissioned a number of small chapels on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore for the Architecture Biennale. There are 10 chapels in all. The commissioner was His Eminence Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi. For whatever it is worth Cardinal Ravasi is the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture. Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore is the site of the chapels and the place where the Benedictines first inhabited Venice in the 10th century.

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The curators were Francesco Dal Co and Micol Forti. The curators asked the invited architects to consider the chapel as a place of:

“orientation, encounter; meditation, inside a vast forest seen as the physical suggestion of the labyrinthine progress of life and the wandering of humankind in the world.”

Magnani and Traudy Pelzel were the architects of the introductory pavilion, where the exhibition starts with a kind of small chapel dedicated to Asplund’s Woodland Chapel of 1920 located in the cemetery of Stockholm. A suitable introduction to the architectural explorations of the 10 chapels.

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The invited architects were Andrew Berman, Francesco Cellini, Javier Corvalàn, Eva Prats and Ricardo Flores, Norman Foster, Teronobu Fujimori, Carla Juacaba, Smiljan Radic, Eduardo Souto de Moura, and the Australian architect Sean Godsell.

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I never thought I would say it, but Sean Godsell’s chapel is an exceptional contribution to this endeavour. Let me repeat that. Indeed, I never thought I would write these word’s, but the small chapel designed by Sean Godsell is tremendous and certainly better in many respects than the chapels by the other architects.

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Catholic liturgy

The Godsell chapel does not seem to just recreate what one might expect of some of the auteur architects represented here. What’s more, it seems to speak to an understanding of the Catholic liturgy that is not merely superficial, thematic or the usual riffs about sunlight, the sky and the meditative life.

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The Godsell project’s strength is that it is a discernible celebration of the Catholic liturgy itself. A celebration of its gestures, and a celebration that intimates that once its panels are closed, they could then be re-opened. The laity seating is distant from the altar, and the altar itself is all hot-blooded galvanised steel; above which is a gold metallic light shaft, even the hydraulic canisters, which support the verandah like panels, seem to suggest that this is not a static place but a working and operating chapel. The hex screws look like they have been drilled in so hard they are stigmata. The small primitive half-log benches for the laity are outside of the main area but these face the altar. The message is clear: the priest-architect is at the centre of this chapel.

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The galvanised steel work reinforces a sense of temporality in the way that appears to imply the chapel can be opened and closed. It would be interesting to see how the light on this chapel changes with the season of the Venetian lagoon. One could certainly imagine rituals, Catholic or otherwise, taking place here. It is orientated to both the sky and the lagoon, as well as a focus that directs worship towards the central liturgy of Catholicism.

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The BBQ and the Design Hub 

I have heard a few of the other blokes sniggering to say that altar looks like a BBQ, in the summer heat of Venice its natural to think you could easily fry a few strips of kanga on it. I am not sure how our collective critical faculties came to such blithe readings. Its always easy to scoff at the architect-priest driven by intuition, who readily conforms to the trope of the holy monster or outsider architect. But hey whats wrong with the barbie. Isn’t that what the Catholic liturgy is all about in a way: red meat, eggs and poking forks into flesh. Every Ozzie, Ozzie, Ozzie, Oi, Oi, Oi, BBQ is a kind of transubstantiation in its own way.

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Now I am being blithe, but more seriously, this project in Venice suggests that a reading of Godsell’s largest project to date, the Design Hub, could be seen differently; a jewel box or casket, a kind of crematoria and chapel situated in a profane world. Arguably, the pragmatic controversies surrounding the Design Hub have distorted a critical reading of it and the architect’s intentions. No matter how much that intention might be the result of an intuitive and primal sensibility adrift from theory.

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Christ Almighty 

Can we just write off such architectural contributions as ecclesiastical outliers for the faithful? Or can we scoff at them in with all the instruments of secular rhetoric? Does religiosity, whatever form it might take, really matter and is its representation in architecture anything we need consider? Interestingly, the Melbourne School of architecture (let’s call it that for the sake of simplicity) has been driven by a big swathe of Christological narratives. By focusing and drawing attention to the actions of the ritual itself Sean Godsell’s approach is different to the embedded symbolic narratives of Howard Raggat’s designs for our city and probably more straightforward than Peter Corrigan’s work and the complexities of his theatrical catholicism. What is interesting is a big swathe of our city, and the tribal life of its architects, has its origins and legacies in the work of these very Christian architects.

Catalan Pavilion

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A useful comparison to the Holy See’s contribution at Venice is the Catalan Pavilion. This pavilion is suitably distant from the main centres of biennale action. Of course, given the politics of Catalonia, it appears telling that the Catalan architects RCR, recent winners of the Pritzker prize, would be on the margins of the Venetian lagoon. Approaching the Catalonian exhibition you find a tin shed; another temporary fragment built on all the other fragments and accretions that have made Venice. But unlike many of the other National Pavilions of this year’s Biennale, including the Australian pavilion, this exhibit presents a dream sequence of images rather than some polemical rhetoric about architectural nationhood. As the architects themselves say:

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“Architecture shouldn’t be about doing difficult projects and iconic buildings but about creating spaces in which people can have their own experiences and develop their own creativity,”

The Catalan pavilion “Dream and Nature,” evokes the landscapes of Catalonia and the relationship of the architects to this place.

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Filled with glittering plastic lenses, grainy media projections and whimsical images of nature the Catalan pavilion presents a series of unstable images that seem to exist between waking and dreaming. If one of the primary tasks of modern architecture is estrangement, to make us perceive things differently, then this pavilion achieves this. (Shklovsky’s literary notion of defamiliarisation and estrangement and its relation to the forms of a tradition have always seemed fitting theory in this regard).

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RCR’s Catalan pavilion, called “Dream and Nature,” takes the visitor far away from Venice’s canals by evoking the woodlands, fields and volcanic hills of Catalonia. The pavilion presents images of 120 hectares of land in Catalonia that the three architects bought and have started to turn into what Mr Aranda called “our legacy” — a farming property that they aim to make a place of study and reflection about architecture and how it interacts with nature and with other disciplines.

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There was a moment in the Catalan pavilion, projected onto one of the lenses, where the architects are walking through a forest. It is like they had abandoned architecture and had become children at play, positioning architecture between nature, folklore and the spirit creatures of their own land. That’s the kind of kool-aid I want to drink.

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The Burbs 

As for the spirit creatures in our suburbs. They have all been killed. Killed by the big roofed Christian churches, Ronchamp look-a-likes and basic brick sheds next to the suburban freeways. Yet, both Corbusier’s Ronchamp and Asplund’s chapel advance an architectural language based on a ancient animism celebrating a primitivist and folkloric nature. A natural and organic world separated from the strictures of organised religion. For modernists and those who succeed them religious buildings have perhaps always presented a dilemma. What are the appropriate modes of representation and architectural language for such buildings? How do Architects build programs that represent different faith communities? The efforts in Australia to build mosques that counter Muslim racism indicate other examples of this genre. Moreover, how do we build on country?

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Nowadays every city has its own little-bejewelled icons. Little nuggets and follies designed to travel through our social media feeds with dreamless iconicity. Image canoes determined not to dissolve or get swamped or sunk or lost on Insta or Twitter. Canoes attached to confected outrage or bland boosterism.

What is the point of follies, or exhibitions if they do not estrange our minds, or take us to past rituals and lost dreams. So what can we say about sacred liturgies, pagan rituals, dreams and wanderings at a time where every city has its follies and pavilions. Have we become slaves to a political economy of iconicity that is really not making our settlements any more living or sustainable or resilient or smart?

10 things Architects learnt from the Apple at Federation Square Debate

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All that remains of the Western Shard at Federation Square is an imprint on my Shard protest t-shirt. 

In case you missed it the Open House Melbourne debate regarding the Apple store at Federation Square took place last week. I watched the live stream at home on my Apple iPad. I couldn’t get a ticket and something else was on at work at the same time. But I decided to stick it out and settled down with my APPLE Gold iPad Mini (yes, terrible I know to admit, obviously I am some kind of unwitting sucked in APPLE consumer; Oh, and I should say I am typing this on an Apple Power Book that is owned by my University).

I hate getting on bandwagons no matter the cause. Cause orientated bandwagons always seem too cultish and clubbish for my liking. But hey, at least I was involved with the effort to Save the Shard. I still have my T-Shirt to prove it. What worries me now are the echoes of that debate in this one.

I watched it on the live stream for more than the entire 2 hours. I am thinking the whole thing is going to make a great case study for my Design Activism course in September.

Its great Open House Melbourne organised this debate. It was seen by many as a mature debate around issues of urban design and public in our city. But, if the debate was mature, then we can also ask, how nuanced was this debate ?

So here is everything you need to know about the debate at Federation Square in 10 easy to digest points.

1. Let’s face it the Yarra Building at Fed Square became a bit awkward. 

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As hinted at by Donald Bates one of the architects of Federation Square, in his debate speech. The Yarra building never was the best bit of Federation Square, it was worth a try at the time, as a commercial space, so why not change it now? Why not redesign the Square? Or should we just keep the Yarra Building as a piece of so-called heritage?

2. Some people like to say the word Activation a lot.

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I must have done my post-graduate urban design degree so long ago at RMIT that it was before this activation word came into vogue. Donald Bates mentioned it a few times but Ron Jones on the Anti-Apple side mentioned it a lot. It even made the internet tabloids.

Its zombie urbanism concepts like this that a sliming (or slimeing?) our cities with low-grade commerce. Does “activating an edge” mean putting in little coffee shop, or kripsy kreme, tenancies all along a so-called urban “edge”.

3.Politicians still need to figure out that community consultation processes for large-scale projects are needed.

I think Cr. Ron Leppert was able to set out the case for the failure amongst our political class (the non-greens class) to adequately consult and to be transparent.  It was great when he kept saying something along the lines of “I am not an architect”, but I am still going to tell you how to plan the city. That was so “plannersplain.” Designing planning schemes without an architectural perspective = more zombie urbanism. Read about it here.

4.The Committee of Melbourne elites have yet to develop a more nuanced argument than the zombie concepts of Melbourne 4.0.

The Committee for Melbourne CEO Martine Letts, ably outlined the standard neoliberal  position: more change, more disruptive technologies and get ready for more global competition. We are all on this hamster wheel. But maybe the Committee for Melbourne might have more success in these matters if it wasn’t full of so called “movers and shakers.” Let’s see a few “bogans” on their board. This is definitely a group that could do with a dose of real people and learn about community development and consultation. God help us when F2, (neo-liberal speak for Federation Square East) gets going.

5. The Victorian Government Architects Office needs more funding and independence.

Yes ! That might help get some transparency back into these processes. When will politicians stop listening to Treasury and listen more to architects?

All too obviously, this situation is the product of the autocracy, elitism and lack of transparency when it comes to the procurement of major civic projects in our nation. Architecture is too often sidelined. But something like this is bound to get a backlash. When will our political classes and neo-liberal elites figure this out? It was the same at Sirius in Sydney and there will be other examples in the future.

6. No one from Foster’s office or evil Apple seemed to be at the debate.

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I have written about the Foster design for Apple HQ here. As someone noted in the Open House debate when these stars come to our great southern land they don’t necessarily do the best job. Usually they just do second rate job then fuck off back to whence they came (Lab Architecture Studio was actually an amazing exception to this).

7. The design of Federation Square didn’t just happen

I fear that many in the audience didn’t know this (maybe the audience was packed out with too many of Ron Leppert’s Green’s party planner mates and that’s why I couldn’t get a ticket),  but the design actually evolved and emerged over time. Yes, architects actually design things through iteration. Designs don’t just pop out of architectural heads fully formed. Donald Bates said something like this and its worth quoting from my rough debate notes:

“This is a Drawing showing one tenth of all the iterations of the design process. The design developed by iteration and possibilities emerging. It is about a design of relationships and not specific objects. The fixation on objects is not embedded in the DNA of the Square

8. It is a hate the big brand thing

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It is correct to say Fed Square is not retail Chaddy or Bunnings. But it doesn’t matter because according to the no case, Apple, will make Fed square into a giant Shopping Mall. A huge giant giant shopping mall. Just like they have in the suburban badlands. They will sell you stuff and every Insta photo in Fed Square will feature them. It’s a brand thing the No-Apple side is fighting against.

In response to the Apple proposal its easy to rail against the perceived evils of the big brands. Apple’s personal consumerism, its awful tax regimes, its blind technological march to the singularity. But what does that have to do with site specific architectural arguments in this instance?

9. The Koori Heritage Trust gets a much better deal out of this proposal. 

Shouldn’t that be the highest priority for Federation Square as a public and civic space? If it was me I would put KHT where the Apple store is supposed to go and Apple into the Deakin building. I would, if I could, decolonise the square and let KHT own all of it ! Maybe thats what we should be thinking about rather than the populism of big brand hatred.

10. Its train wreck

This issue is a train wreck of big brands, naive and not so naive political populism. Not to mention, architectural ignorance, conflicting theories of architecture, planning and urban design in our civic politics. Space prevents me from writing how we got to this point. It may sound strange but I partly blame that huckster Jan Gehl and his slippery urban design populism for watering down our urban theories and analytical instruments. I think the crazy comitteeee for Melbourne has a lot to answer for. Check out what they thought about the minimum apartment standards. A veiled attack on those standards in the name of a pro-development flexibility. Yet, this is a group that claims to be all about sustainability and future liveability.

Outrage cycles and populism 

It’s so easy to be populist in this social media age. Easy to rev up the shock jocks and the tabloids. Perhaps this is why it’s the No-Apple bandwagon that also worries me in this debate. In embracing populist notions of public space, architecture and urban theory are too easily erased from the public discourse. This has what has happened in regards to this issue. Digitised Outrage and Outrage and Outrage that blunts any real analysis of the plight of our civic spaces. Paradoxical when all the genuine and self serving outrage is facilitated by Apple devices. Architecture and any deeper architectural and urban arguments get swamped.

The architectural and urban arguments for Apple, as presented in the debate, were analytical, nuanced  and refined (to echo the Victorian Government Architect) and actually grounded in architectural process. Arguably, it is the architectural argument that bridges the complexities between architecture, urban design and the social realities of the mercantile.

Having said that, we also need to recognise that the position underlying the Pro-Apple argument, and indeed the original scheme, is based on a stream of architectural theory that has never really resisted, and always accommodated capital. There never was a secret about that in this city. So why are people upset now? No one screamed when QV was pillaged and privatised. Of course its because we all love Federation Square so why don’t we now listen to one of its architect? But do we really care about pursuing real public space and architecture?

Campaign 2016 Debate
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, right, shakes hands with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at the start of the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

It’s way too much like Hilary versus Donald. 

It seems ironic to me but in a strange way the Pro-Apple team was a bit Hilary-like (actual experts, politicians and neo-liberals) whereas the Anti-Apple team employed Trump-like (or maybe John Howard) populism. A populist backlash that seems to be saying: we are the people, we are angry with the neoliberal and global elites, we are angry about the public spaces in our city, we hate the outer suburban shopping centres, and so WE should get to decide who comes to our Federation Square shores.

What a train wreck the whole thing is and I am not even sure the punters care that much. Because, after all is said and done, Federation Square has free Wi-Fi.

Surviving the Design Studio: Architects have the best Christmas parties.

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Now that the festive season is just about upon us I thought it might be good to be less serious, after some very, and all too serious recent posts, and to reflect on why the architectural profession is such a great a great thing to be a part of.

Architects have the best parties 

One of the main reasons people are so desperate to do architecture is because architects are the best at doing parties. In comparison the parties at my business school were never as good as the parties at my old architecture school. I have been to numerous  birthday parties (recently hosted a great 75th) , christenings, pre-wedding parties, weddings (including a few of my own), engagements, parties, cocktail parties, dinner parties and exhibition openings as well as other various events in genteel polite society.

I know to my friends on  the outside I look like a boring middle-aged academic. But actually on the inside I am really a wild party animal. Once I realised this in my late teens I vowed to have a big party at each decade milestone. After a three of these so-called milestone partays I thought it was better for the entire city not to continue. I know this sounds a little narcissistic, but a Raisbeck birthday party usually has reverberations that go beyond the immediate event.

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I have not been to my Faculty Christmas for 5 years after a kind of self-imposed exile. Maybe its only 4, but I can’t really remember a lot about the last one I went to, I vaguely remember going to the party, maybe it was at the ARM Recital centre, or maybe it was ACCA, or the Abbotsford Convent, and then I remember the bar on the Yarra, and I don’t remember much after the tram-ride. Unfortunately, just when I was about to venture back to the Faculty festive party this year, it was cancelled because of the prospect of dangerously bad weather. The whole city was shut down.

If architecture is dangerous then architectural parties are potentially very dangerous. We should all worry about what we do at the end of season partays. Any personal information revealed at a party, and distributed across social media, may be of interest one day to the HR types, who seem as young as my teenage son these days, or  promotion and interview panels, who, we are led to believe, scour the interwebs for details of our past lives, just to make sure we are not crazed alcoholic or drug infested maniacs. Not to mention the local and judgemental village gossips that every organisation seems to have in its nooks and crannies. I am constantly amazed at the antics of the Kardashian generation on Instagram and Snapchat and I fear that when they are my age they will regret all those terrible bathroom selfies.

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I better get back to the point.

Engineering parties are not great, still a lot of shorts and white sock action. Quantity Surveyors have not been known to kick their heels up and the conversation soon goes stale. They tend to choose wine and food that is prudent but not lavish. Think, smoked oysters (lavish) wrapped in slivers of bacon (prudent). Planners and parties don’t really mix as these can get argumentative if you attend as an architect. They will usually have a healthy selection of celery sticks, carrots and dried apricots. Its amazing to watch them dip the dried apricots into the little containers of hummus. They are planners after all.  Builders and sub-contractor parties are really a no-go-zone for architects; best not to say why. Let’s just say they are yet to discover craft beers and so they only drink beer from brown glass stubbies.  Plus, you wont get in with any black and without a fluoro hi-vis vest. Its amazing what they will do to each other at the end of an evening when they are drunk. Thats exactly when you should try and get them to tender. Its incredible to think, you have to virtually bribe them to get them to tender on any architecture project under 0.5M$. The parties of Project Managers are not much better. There is a lot of kabana sausage bits, pineapple and yummy glaced cherries (PMs love shiny cheap things) on skewers sitting alongside buckets of Costco dips. They always forget the crackers and the party never starts on time. Then they blame the architect.

Whatever why you look at it: Architects have the best parties.

Avoid Lawyer Parties. 

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In my experience the worst parties are the ones where there are too many lawyers. The worst thing about the Lawyers is that they also try and dress fashionably. But, then they always get it a little bit wrong (except the lawyers who are my actual friends).  We should give them style lessons. But then they will probably sue us anyway.

They all get down one end of the room and talk about the law. Then their actual partners are, usually sort of down the other end of the room, and if you tell any of the partners you are an architect they will say things to you like:

“oh, so your an architect, how interesting.”

“oh, my partner wanted to be an architect but he became a lawyer instead.”

“oh, our architect (insert name of appalling fee cutting architect) has just finished our Georgian style renovation, do you know them?”

“oh, I went to school with an architect, do you know them?”

“oh, we have a garage extension that needs doing what do you think?”

“oh, what do you think of the Opera House?”

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Its better if we only go to architect only parties as they are more fun. As you should be able to discern from the attached images here. This particular party was a great exercise in brand building. It really makes you want to do business with this office.

For those architects averse to parties, my advice is to loosen up, if you want to build your brand the best thing you can do is have a great end of season party. Invite me along. I will be one of the last to leave. After all is said and done there is nothing like having fun and partying to the max as architecture goes down the gurgler in Australian public life.