Longlist exhibition

What was it?

An unsanctioned exhibition of non-shortlisted entries into Stage 1 of the Flinders Street Station Design Competition (FSSDC). Co-ordinated by Edwards Moore at Sibling in Fitzroy, it was part design display, part political protest and part social gathering.

27 of the 112 non-shortlisted entries were exhibited, including our own discussed in a previous post here. The tightness of the exhibition area and briefness of the evening, combined with the event’s enthusiastic attendance made it difficult to conduct an in-depth analysis of the submissions. However, we can say we liked a lot of what we saw and were able to glean a number of exciting ideas from the proposals.

Design display

Though each of the projects within the exhibition possessed its own unique architectural language, we were intrigued to discover many shared urban strategies. One of the most popular was to roof most or all of the station precinct and cover it with green landscape. BKK Architects‘ proposal was most convincing. It offered an ordered, multipurpose garden cascading purposefully down towards Flinders Street along the north edge and the Yarra River along the south. Towers dotting this civic space at regular frequencies provided programme activation as well as substantial pedestrian traffic. The garden was well resolved and genuinely enticing.

Other ideas consistently applied from project to project included the concentration of development density over the Banana Alley vaults; the provision of hit and miss building massing to minimise shadowing over Northbank; connections through the site east to west and north to south; void spaces above the platforms; light-filled canopies fronting onto Swanston Street; programme activation of the Yarra River frontage and conscientious preservation of the historic Administration Building along Flinders Street.

Inconsistent was the level of resolution among submissions. Many were very sketchy, with perhaps wasted effort dedicated to laboriously resolve programme that got lost in the fine print. In contrast, it was clear Elenberg Fraser had spent a lot of money on professional renderings, though their glitzy proposal did put us immediately in mind of Zaha Hadid‘s BMW Central Building in Leipzig, Germany, one of her least successful projects.

Adam Pustola and Feng Cheah’s gregarious proposal took the position championed in recent years by the likes of ARM and Lyons that large urban sites deserve to be populated by a plurality of colourful ideas. Pustola commented: “anything else would be spreading too little butter on too much bread”.

Political protest

There has been much discussion since the completion of Stage 1 over the unwillingness of the competition convener, Major Project Victoria, to publicise the competition entries. This discussion has ballooned into outright controversy in recent days with articles here, here, here and here questioning its position.

The opposing paradigms are simple enough to describe:

  • MPV is interested in protecting the probity of the competition, thus any publicity of proposals would unfairly affect the shortlisted architects still working on their Stage 2 submissions.
  • We, along with many other entrants, recognise that one of the greatest opportunities offered by the competition is to spark a meaningful discussion both within the profession and out amongst the general public. This can only happen if the submissions, shortlisted or not, are released for comment and debate.

Prior to and since the Longlist exhibition, this simple difference in opinion has caused a bemusing and complex behind-the-scenes series of correspondence from MPV, full of political intrigue and public relations mismanagement.

With exclusive insight, we reproduce this series here:

First, a letter from MPV warning shortlisted entrants against attending the Longlist exhibition. The highlighted sections, particularly the passage that reads, “participating in the [Longlist] event, including as an observer, would constitute a breach of the competition conditions,” impinge on the human right of free association, which, as a Victorian government body, MPV is in fact bound to uphold*:

Second, a series of tweets reversing this position by publicising an Alan Davies article for Crikey together with a number submissions referred to by Davies. This culminated in a tweet to our architecture studio’s account, Mihaly Slocombe, declaring that entrants are free to publicise their submissions as they wish:

Third and finally, the deletion of the abovementioned tweets and a retraction on MPV’s Facebook page stating that “all entries should remain confidential until the close of Stage 2” and in the comments trail below that “this is to protect entrants’ intellectual property”:

What do we think of all this?

Well, it is clear that whoever is managing the social media accounts at MPV is not talking to the person writing letters. It is also clear that they should get some decent legal advice on the limitations of the competition conditions – as far as we’re aware, no contract can override governmental compliance with the charter of human rights, nor as Charbonneau notes in the Facebook comments above, is the function of the conditions to protect the entrants’ intellectual property*.

There is also certain truth in the saying that all publicity is good publicity. We saw a readership spike of 200% on our blog and 150% on our studio website following the Crikey article and subsequent social media hoohah. We suspect that other architects who have published their competition submissions online have received similar increases in traffic and can only hope that this means that more people are engaging with the content of the competition.

A social gathering

So, back to the Longlist exhibition and its attendees, who had mostly submitted proposals to the competition and were predominantly young architects, hailing from medium sized design practices or running their own small studios. This cross section of the profession made possible one of the most enjoyable aspects of the exhibition, namely taking the opportunity to talk to other architects about their entries. We noticed this happening frequently – impromptu design presentation sessions taking place in front of competition boards. In this way, we gained insight into the work of BKK Architects, Pustola & Cheng, Studio (R), Gresley Abas and Andrew Burns among others.

Good, bad and ugly, the greatest value of the non-shortlisted competition proposals has proven to be their ability to inspire conversation and debate. Despite reports that the State Government will not build the winning proposal, here we have already witnessed the competition’s true value: it can start a conversation about the future of Melbourne.

Clandestine as the Longlist exhibition was, and as limited as the opportunities it provided to examine the projects, we still managed to have this conversation. Imagine what could happen if the State Government and MPV make the bold decision to put all of the entrants out into the public eye right now, together with a detailed jury report explaining why the shortlisted entrants were chosen. The conversation could spread far beyond the borders of a hundred or so dedicated architects out into the public domain. The benefit to the competition, the architecture profession, the city and its inhabitants would be incalculable.

* Neither Warwick Mihaly nor Panfilocastaldi is legally qualified. No reliance is to be placed on any legal opinions made or alluded to in this article.

Leap of faith

What’s on Your Desk? – November Process

We attended Process at Loop earlier this month, a session of the Australian Institute of Architects‘ long running young architects’ talks entitled, What’s on Your Desk? Presenting current projects and a few miscellaneous ideas were our friend and colleague, Steve Rose, together with Jack May and Andy Yu.

Killing Time by Ricky Swallow

Standout content included Rose’s neat life-imitates-art-imitates-life reference of Ricky Swallow‘s Killing Time that explored draped stone detailing for his kitchen benchtop. Of lasting interest, and the subject of this post, was a discussion sparked by Yu’s explanation of what he called, Unsolicited Architecture. Inspired by his lack of what he referred to as the holy trinity of young architects – rich family, rich uncles and rich friends – he explained he is forced to produce the architecture first and find the clients later.

In most instances, the realisation of this idea in Yu’s work is less aggressive than it sounds, relying principally on competition entries. However, it sparked an interesting question from the audience, wanting to know how Yu made a living off this approach to practice. Yu’s answer was: he doesn’t. He works full time elsewhere and undertakes competition entries and small collaborative projects in his spare time. This was a somewhat deflating response that diminished our perception of Yu’s determination to succeed in architecture: working from the safety net of a salaried job, he can afford to dabble during evenings and weekends. Far more exciting would be an individual risking all on the value of his ideas, Howard Roark style, creating architecture then finding clients to pay him.

Following this question, Rose, the most established of the three architects and the only one with built projects to his name, was asked how he got himself started on his own. He responded by revealing a promise he had made himself while still employed at Perkins Architects: when he was able to accumulate 4 private jobs simultaneously, he would start out on his own. We asked, why 4? He admitted that while it was in large part economical, it was also gut feeling: 4 projects were involved enough to keep him busy and numerous enough to provide sufficient buffer against a couple of them drying up.

This got us thinking, what did it take for us to make our leap of faith?

For starters, ours was less a leap than a gradual submersion. It started with our first commission in early 2000 to design Hill House for my parents while we were still students. We finished this project a few months before I graduated in 2006. To maintain progress on our second built work, Basser House, I kept Mondays free while working 4 days a week with Perkins Architects (where I met Rose).

In 2009, with a few years of experience under our belts, we decided we would travel, see the world and live in Milan, Italy. It was a natural break in our work lives, so without labouring the idea too much we established our company, Mihaly Slocombe. It was less a decision than an intuitive inevitability. We kept working on a couple of projects while we travelled, though not regularly. Our travel instead evolved, as it does for many architects, into an architectural pilgrimage: we experienced many great buildings across the Northern Territory, Asia and Europe.

Upon our return before Christmas 2010, more worldly and inspired, we resumed work on a full time basis with three or four active projects. Cashflow proved an early stumbling block however that required Erica to seek contract work with O’Connor and Houle for a period. By the end of the year, our project list grew to six or seven and Erica returned to Mihaly Slocombe. Though we are always on the lookout for more work, this number of projects is just enough to sustain us.

What have we learnt?

Reflecting on the evolution of our practice, it is clear that we should not be so quick to judge Yu’s safety net. Ours is a well-established trajectory that relies on knowing (or being related to) the right people, the early cushion of  salaried jobs, plenty of hard work and word of mouth. Though we enter an architecture competition at least once a year, we have yet to receive paid work through this avenue. Instead, with the exception of one current project, all our projects to date have come through an ever-expanding circle of relatives, friends and friends-of-friends. The exception, Farmer House, came to us thanks to determined self-publicisation by way of awards, exhibitions and publications.

Such is the power of word of mouth that had my parents wanted a restaurant fitout or a factory or a library instead of a house, we are certain Mihaly Slocombe would look very different from how it does today. Thus Yu’s holy trinity is both an invaluable source for project commissions as well as a significant determining factor in the shape and direction of an architecture studio.

Beyond today, we understand that the most reliable way of securing longevity is to seek clients in as many ways as possible. Our social network will always remain an important element of this, but so we hope will competitions, expressions of interest, awards, printed media publicity and social media presence. We never know who will want us to design a project for them next, nor how they’ll find us, so it’s best we be prepared.

Come see me participate in the upcoming December Process, which will have me polishing my rusty high school debating skills in response to the question: Are competitions beneficial to architectural practice?

Melbourne Architecture Annual

What is it?

Previously known as Melbourne Architecture Week, Melbourne Architecture Annual (MAA) is a festival that has taken place the past two years in the last week of October. Its aim is to engage the broader community with both architects and architecture. Festival activities therefore tend towards content with wide-ranging appeal, including ask an architect sessions, LEGO for children, open houses, films, debates and lectures.

We attended three events this year: Moshe Safdie’s oration, Megascale: Order and Complexity; the festival keynote address, Community and Architecture; and OpenHaus’ conversation, What is… Public Architecture?

What did we think?

Megascale: Order and Complexity

In conjunction with publicity of his soon-to-be-built Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music at Monash University, Moshe Safdie delivered not just a lecture, but an impressive oration at the suitably grand Hamer Hall. Proceeded and followed by musical performances from Monash students, and introduced by an entourage of starry-eyed professors and chancellors, Safdie proved himself to be a gifted speaker, more than capable of rising to the gravitas demanded of such an occasion.

His interest in place-making and his commitment to an architecture that respectfully utilises its context and the natural materials that shape it struck a deep chord within us. He spoke powerfully of values-driven architecture, one far removed from fashion and imagery. He somehow managed to transcend his international portfolio, revealing a design philosophy that is the antithesis of the starchitecture often associated with other architects of his lofty pedigree.

That said, we find Safdie’s work varies greatly in quality. Some projects – the seminal Habitat 67 and more recent Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum for instance – are at once visionary and poetic. Others feel chunky, institutional and immediately dated. We suspect the School of Music will fall into the latter category, awkwardly bookending Monash’s Clayton campus and, strangely revealing a disregard for local context, appearing to be a facsimile of Safdie’s recently completed Kauffman Centre for the Performing Arts.

Community and Architecture

The keynote address, hosted at the wonderfully open BMW Edge, was presented by four individuals with strong backgrounds in community driven architecture: Esther Charlesworth of Architects Without Frontiers, Jefa Greenaway of Indigenous Architecture Victoria, Kate Ferguson of CoDesign Studio and Paul Pholeros of Healthabitat.

Presentations focussed on the inspiring projects undertaken by each organisation, too often cheerfully dismissed as the “bottom end of architecture”. Though on the surface they appeared worlds apart, from toilets in Nepal (Healthabitat) to a youth centre in Frankston (CoDesign Studio), the projects all shared a recognisable DNA. All engaged communities in active, meaningful and lasting ways, all responded to significant yet often overlooked issues, and all arose thanks to skilled and passionate people setting out to right injustices in the world.

Paul Pholeros was not alone in gently condemning the architectural profession for wilfully removing itself from the needs and responsibilities of the world, but he was most poignant. Observing that during his lifetime, our profession has surrendered structural engineering, landscape architecture and sustainable design (to which we add finances and project management) to other professions, soon there won’t be much left that we can do. His suggestion, echoed by the other three, was that architects need to re-engage with meaningful projects, take on responsibility rather than shedding it. We need to reeducate ourselves in the craft of making and seek to use that craft to improve the places we inhabit.

What is… Public Architecture?

Held on the last day of MAA, also at BMW Edge, this was the fourth in a series of presentations coordinated by the energetic OpenHAUS, with presenters Donald Bates of LAB Architecture Studio, Melanie Dodd of Mufaus, Jill Garner of the Office of the Victorian Government Architect and Simon Knott of BKK Architects. Unfortunately, it dropped the debate format of the previous three iterations, a great pity we believe as it lost much of their humour and spontaneity.

We ultimately found much of the material to be dry, covering territory well travelled in various other lectures over recent months. Simon Knott’s presentation of his studio’s work on public toilets for VicRoads was an exception. Undoubtedly polished by his work on RRR’s The Architects, his engaging discussion revealed the complex dualities of the toilet block – at once the most utilitarian and expensive of public spaces. This duality was mirrored in BKK’s design strategy: a successful synergy between serious research and deft architectural lightness.

What did we learn?

Given the lasting impact it has on the daily lives of each and every one of us, architecture does not receive the public attention we believe it deserves. Generally overlooked by the front section of the paper in favour of development and real estate, and by the supplements in favour of fashion and design, we have grown accustomed to reports on the built environment gathering comment from every profession, industry and authority but our own.

The architecture profession does not, we confess, do much to help the situation. We prefer the company of other architects, typically only discussing the product of our hard work with other architects, be it in published, exhibition or lecture format. This closed-door paradigm is most acutely revealed in the statistic that 90% of the readership of Architectural Review Australia are architects. Our self-imposed isolation is inevitably interpreted as snobbery by the general public, serving only to intensify our marginalisation.

MAA is an opportunity for us to break this cycle. Its diverse range of activities and strong ties to culturally important Melbourne locations will, we hope, lower the communication barrier between architects and the public. This can only be a win-win situation – a better appreciation of architecture for the public and a better understanding of the public’s needs for architects.

Though we strongly recommend a change back to the old name (Melbourne Architecture Annual is both confusing and ungrammatical) and a move to any week other than the one where all architecture students statewide are frantically finishing off design projects, we hope that with time and continued energy it will grow into an important event on Melbourne’s already jam-packed festival calendar.