Pretoria travelling studio

paul kruger streetPaul Kruger Street, the major arterial route of the Pretoria central business district

Hello, my name is Jake Taylor. I am in my final year of the Master of Architecture course at the University of Melbourne and was given the opportunity this summer to attend a travelling studio to Pretoria, South Africa. The subject was coordinated by Elena Bondareva and Dominique Hes from Melbourne, together with Chrisna du Plessis of the University of Pretoria. It had a multi-disciplinary approach that included a mix of students from architecture, urban planning, landscape architecture and research backgrounds, all taking part in a two week overseas charrette on steroids. Our aim was to generate context-appropriate sustainability interventions in an a city experiencing dynamic social and environmental transition through a fusion of multimedia, design, foresight and venture development.

The studio started in November and initially consisted of discussion on an online blog where everyone was required to contribute extensively to break the ice and get ideas and dialogue flowing within the group. This impersonal method was complimented with organised social interactions, namely an evening at Joost Silo and a VEIL eco-acupuncture workshop day.

The majority of the workload occurred overseas while in the midst of our case site, Pretoria’s central business district. Upon my arrival, it took me by surprise how stark, deserted and unsought after the CBD is. The area has struggled since the fall of apartheid, with property value plummeting and all wealth in the area shifting to gated communities in the eastern suburbs. These changes have left behind a highly developed but abandoned region, with significant issues of crime and security. On our first night in Pretoria, I was to hear that most of the local students participating in the studio had never before been into the CBD at night.

After touching down in Pretoria the first two days were a massive blur. There was so much valuable information, so many new faces, so much activity that bombarded us all at once. This hectic ethos was a continual part of whole trip. It was frantic but enjoyable from day one to day thirteen. After these first two days, we had developed a base knowledge of the area, an idea of the needs of the site and an understanding of our colleagues.

We then split into small groups of three to five students to complete the project. The group selection was left up to us to allocate, which was one of the more nerve-wracking aspects of the whole trip. We were required to quickly talk to ten different people and identify whom we felt linked in well with what we were hoping to do. I started this process, but soon realised that I wanted more than just a quick chat. I really wanted to know why people had come up with their concepts and what their way of thinking was, as I was about to spend a pretty intense ten days with them studying and wanted to get it right. In the end, I only really spoke with two people. Both eventually formed a crucial part of my group of four Melbourne and one Pretoria students, so I felt it was time well spent.

church squareChurch Square, Pretoria, where our group allocations took place

Within our group we had an amazing array of backgrounds and skills that helped us immensely: from architecture, to industrial design to students with construction and commerce credentials, and a touch of agriculture to round the group out. This diversity wasn’t limited to just my group: the whole studio benefited from a great blend of interests coming from every food group. The four research students, who were conducting their own research projects in Pretoria, mingled with all the groups and contributed invaluable insight. I had never experienced such a mix of disciplines in my university work before, which made me a little envious and saddened that it had take four years of study to be exposed to this kind of collaboration. I think architecture students and the professional in general would greatly benefit from the introduction of more cross-department subjects as they really open up other world views that improves everyone involved.

Due to the multidisciplinary nature of the studio, each group possessed different skill sets lead to a diverse range of projects. These included a project that focussed on the revitalisation of the waterways and water quality of Pretoria; one that attempted to prompt spontaneous conversation within the city to dismantle barriers to social cohesiveness; another that looked at ways in which local skills and crafts might be reinvigorated for economic and social benefit; and one that activated the roof spaces within the CBD through a modular plant and occupation system. My group’s project looked to improve the street quality and retail opportunity along Paul Kruger Street by establishing a formalised market environment.

tlholego groupA group photo of the travelling studio as we were departing the Tlholego Ecovillage.

The studio ran flawlessly apart from the occasional memorable incident such as our van breaking down (where the headlights of the twelve-seater van were accidentally left on at one of our stops and we were required to push start it to continue with our tour). I feel the success of the studio was due to its balance of people, interests and activities. For instance, half of our time was spent in fast-paced Pretoria and half in the serenity of the Tlholego Ecovillage, while the hustle of work during the days was complimented by the fun of social events at night. It was these balances that kept us poised, refreshed and most importantly optimistic and happy, allowing us to have a fantastic time and produce high quality work.

exploring the african wildernessExploring the African landscape in Tlholego

The middle week in Tlholego resulted in vast levels of work being achieved, with each group presenting every day on different aspects of the project forcing us to work intensively and holistically. This week quickly passed us by and before we knew it we were standing in front of the final jury in Pretoria with dreary eyes after several sequential late nights. I’m happy to say that our project, Share the Glow, was completed and received very positively by the jury!

Share the Glow was chosen to be a part of the upcoming 2014 Pretoria Cool Capital Biennale and will be published in an upcoming issue of Earth Works Magazine, both very exciting rewards for our hard work. A video recording of our presentation can be viewed here.

share the glow
Share the Glow, by Dayne Beacon, Mimi Davey, Nick Pappas, Carla Taljaard and Jake Taylor

Doing this travelling studio was one of the best opportunities I have ever been offered. The amount of first times was ridiculous (ox tongue, snails, flying overseas, meeting lion cubs, white bee stings) and I am very appreciative for having been involved. Overall the studio was really well executed and I think all the credit goes to the studio leaders, for their organisational work, and the invaluable contributions of the Pretorians who allowed us to seamlessly fit into their lives.

lion cub

More than one way to skin a building

alexandra lange

What was it?

The first in the new Agenda series of lectures and discussions courtesy of the University of Melbourne’s faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning. Keynote speaker at the first event held last Thursday was Alexandra Lange, freelance architectural critic and blogger for Design Observer, Architectural Record and The New York Times among others. Joining her on the panel were four local critics Justine Clark (chair), Karen Burns, Rory Hyde and Michael Holt.

The event was well attended, perhaps assisted by the free entry price. As we tweeted on our way in, the regularity of architecture events over recent weeks leaves us in no doubt that the 2013 calendar is well and truly in full swing.

Lange set the tone for the evening, beginning with a sophisticated assessment of the substantial changes architectural criticism has experienced over the past 10 years. As digital media has come to dominate the field, Lange has witnessed a shift in the financial structures that support and fund criticism, a decline in average payments for her articles, corresponding increases in the volume and diversity of writing she needs to produce, the blossoming of online communities she shares with architects and other critics, and the strengthening of relationships with her audience.

The conversation that followed was enlightening, with valuable input provided during both the panel discussion and question time from the floor. Perhaps encouraged by the lecture content, a number of both audience and panel members broadcast a steady stream of 140-character updates on proceedings. Following the #abpagenda hashtag on Twitter as the evening progressed provided bite-sized summaries:

  • @taniadavidge In the shift to online you do not see a building review in the same way as print.
  • @Red_Black_Archi With a change in media we can change what [architectural criticism] is.
  • @msdsocial Downside of traditional critic – a lot of power & big role in the shaping of the city. More critics, more voices, more dialogue.
  • @ammonbeyerle It’s hard not to see how limited it all really is today. Pointless? Think Flinders Street.
  • @_LindaCheng An Urban Spoon of architecture reviews. Great idea for an app! I’m stealing it.

That so many of the architects whom form part of our Twitter community were not only at the event but tweeting about it, served as elegant reinforcement of Lange’s observation that architecture communities have benefitted from online meeting places.

What did we think?

Though the discussion covered a lot of ground, three ideas in particular have stayed with us:

Our experience of buildings is cultural not physical

Hyde noted that the rise of global media has forever shifted our experience of architecture. The volume of buildings we are in a position to visit, mostly in and around Melbourne, pales into insignificance when compared to the volume we experience via books, journals, news bulletins, websites and blogs. We may have never visited the buildings of BIG, MVRDV or Diller, Scofidio and Renfro, yet we are nevertheless familiar with their work and have formed opinions on it.

This imbalance between those buildings experienced in the flesh and those via representational media is not new. However, the proliferation of both online resources and the tools by which to access them has greatly tilted this balance in favour of non-corporeal experience.

Since such experience is strongly influenced by the critiques we choose to read, the blogs we follow and the bulletins to which we subscribe, our experience of architecture is coloured by an unavoidable cultural filter. The people and organisations responsible for the media we read and watch now have a stronger say in how we understand architecture than they ever have before. Like it or not, the way we engage with architecture has become dominated not by the physical inhabitation of buildings, but by their cultural interpretation.

The cult of personality

Burns, a self-confessed member of the pre-digital generation, criticised the manner in which Twitter permits the consumption of architecture. When architects and critics pepper their feeds with personal as well as professional tweets, she argued, we are inevitably drawn into a celebration of their personality, at times at the expense of their work or critical content.

We have a different view of this, one much more aligned to Lange’s position.

We see Twitter as not just an opportunity to broadcast our work out to the masses, or as we have discussed previously, to participate in the solipsism of the polylogue. Twitter is a place for community, the new public plaza or forum. When we read an opinion, it is not obscured but enriched by the personality of its holder: we come to understand the values and interests of the people we follow; we develop an appreciation of their comments’ context; and most importantly, it enables us to establish and reinforce relationships out in the real world.

Discourse is more important than criticism

And finally, a comment from the floor courtesy of Simon Knott, architect and co-presenter of The Architects on Triple R.

In Australia, where architectural discourse in the public arena of any kind is extremely limited, the audience for traditional architectural criticism is small. The unfortunate truth is that few laypeople are interested in the considered assessment, analysis and discussion of an architectural project, certainly not in the same way that they may be interested in the similar criticism of food, literature, film or theatre. Here, architectural criticism’s true audience consists almost exclusively of architects: the critic is thus restricted to preaching to the choir.

Dismissing the power of traditional criticism to affect positive change within architecture, Knott suggested instead that criticism can much better serve the built environment as a vehicle towards wider discourse. In other words, that criticism should first and foremost be an opportunity for advocacy.

Does this mean it should appeal to the lowest common denominator, reduce the discussion of architecture to mere description?

If you have ever spent time listening to The Architects, you will know this need not be the case. Knott, together with Stuart Harrison, Christine Phillips and, from time to time, Hyde, maintain an elevated and sophisticated discourse. They regularly reference the works of other architects, speak about issues of urbanism, design strategy and architectural practice. They assume a certain minimum level of comprehension in their audience. Yet for all this, their show is still approachable: informed and considered criticism nestled within or possibly even masked by advocacy.

We understand that the cosmopolitan cities of Lange’s native United States have an enviable history of architectural discourse within the public arena: the big newspapers have architectural critics on payroll; freelance critics have access to a prodigious number of publishing outlets; design schools teach criticism along with design. The audience for architectural criticism is as widespread as it is for any other art.

Alas, architecture does not enjoy this same elevated position in Australia: the major newspapers rarely publish discussion of architectural works; the readership of the more critical journals is dominated by architects; as demonstrated with the still-secretive Flinders Street Station Design Competition, our State Government is not interested in encouraging public discussion; even the Architects Act prohibits us from criticising the work of fellow architects.

Thus, we echo Knott’s suggestion. It is a sad acknowledgement to be sure, but how can we expect criticism to thrive in Australia, when a public discourse barely exists to start with?

To build is good

What is it?

An approach to architecture practice offered by Brian Donovan, principal architect of the former Donovan Hill. Donovan presented his work last week in the first instalment of a new lecture series, Zeitgeist. The series is a collaborative effort between the Centre for Cultural Materials Preservation and Robin Boyd Foundation, and will be held on the last Tuesday of each month for the rest of the year at the Foundation’s Walsh Street premises.

Charged by this unusual yet complimentary combination of archival and architectural interests to discuss the relevance of material in his work, Donovan spent the majority of his time presenting the extraordinary C House (1998). He followed this with discussion of recent commercial high rise projects, Santos Place and AM60 Office Tower (both 2009). Question time went on for considerably longer than was allotted and was almost exclusively focussed on the recent and surprising merger between Donovan Hill and BVN to become BVN Donovan Hill.

c houseC House, Coorparoo Brisbane (1998)

C House was the result of a meticulous design and construction process, one that spanned four years in the studio and a further five years on site. In order to save costs associated with the co-ordination of multiple trades, most operated independently of one another in a protracted linear sequence. The upside of this approach was a careful and highly detailed relationship with the trades as they each progressed through their section of the works. Principle among these were the carpenters, who worked closely and reciprocally with Donovan Hill to craft the beautiful timber elements for which the house is so well known.

Reflecting this emphasis on process, Donovan’s presentation was not restricted to glossy finished photos of the house, but also included hand-drawn construction details, construction photos and recent, lived-in photos. The resultant collage provided fascinating insight into the labour of making that went into a house that has been cited by Phaidon as “one of the great houses of the 20th Century”.

santos placeSantos Place, Brisbane (2009)

Santos Place and AM60 Office Tower are both commercial projects with, as Donovan put it, an emphasis on the typical developer’s priority of maximum leasable floor space. Representing a project typology that has only surfaced within the Donovan Hill oeuvre within the last five to ten years, both were produced within a design and construct contractual arrangement. This is a commercially oriented approach where the architect is employed not by the client but by the builder, who is focussed on delivering the project at a guaranteed price for maximum profit.

Proving the terrible soullessness of this arrangement, Donovan took us through the deeply disheartening story of Santos Place, that saw idea after idea stripped away to the absolute minimum. Design concepts that explored the colours of place, opacity and transparency, and an evolving connection with sunlight all ultimately found their way onto the cutting room floor.

What did we think?

Despite loving C House, despite being inspired by the historical work of Donovan Hill, and despite recognising in their older designs an invaluable sensitivity to materiality and climate, we were thoroughly bewildered by Donovan’s presentation. From the nature of the questions afterwards, and from chatting with colleagues as we left Walsh Street, it became clear that we were not alone in this sentiment.

Our bewilderment stemmed from confusing and contradictory statements emanating from Donovan himself:

The Santos Place story was an almost archetypal illustration of the commercial developer’s disregard for the quality of the built environment. Despite Donovan’s herculean efforts, the finished building looks much like any other skyscraper and could easily be shoehorned into any other climate and culture. These are qualities at direct odds with the past works of Donovan Hill. It might have been an entreaty to push harder for design-focussed outcomes within the commercial building framework, but Donovan instead presented it as a story of silver linings, one that produced many unrealised but nevertheless valuable design ideas.

Similarly, when we commended C House for its intimate and meticulous craft-driven philosophy, Donovan curiously denied its craft origins, arguing the fastidious semantic point that it was not craft-driven but crafted. In other words, while the project was always intended to be of the highest possible quality, it was never intended for it to explore the craft of making. The craft just happened, accidentally.

With great respect for this master of fine architecture, who is Donovan kidding? C House is an undisputed triumph of craft. Whatever his intentions, they speak nowhere near as loudly as the process that facilitated this remarkable project: a process that prioritised quality; that placed craftsmen of talent and integrity at the heart of the project; that clearly benefited from a client passionate about the place he was to call home. Why would an architecture practice shift from this story to the one of Santos Place? A story where design had to be fought for; where ideas were regularly and unceremoniously stripped; where the individuals at the heart of the project were passionate not about design but profit margins.

Herein lies the crux of the matter: why on earth would Donovan Hill, an architecture practice with a rich history of high-quality, craft-driven, award-winning residential design, not only shift its focus to developer-driven commercial construction but then merge with a national architecture practice like BVN?

This is not to diminish the quality of BVN’s work. Some of it is quite good. But BVN has a documented history of absorbing smaller practices and appropriating their market niches. Donovan Hill’s 30 or so Brisbane staff have now been subsumed within BVN’s 250. Their studio is dwarfed by BVN’s other offices in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and, if the grapevine is to be believed, soon-to-be-opened offices overseas. Even the post-merger website has not bothered to update its domain name, surely indicating that after a suitable transition period, the Donovan Hill suffix will be quietly dropped.

We just don’t get it… Or do we?

For a lecture series concerning itself with material, the choice of Donovan as its inaugural speaker was both inspired and disastrous. Against all expectations, Donovan embodies an architecture that used to concern itself with material but has given this up in favour of commercial success.

Perhaps the secret lies in the title of this article. To build is good is a phrase with many potential meanings. It could mean, simply, that to be involved with construction is good. It could have a slightly more nuanced meaning: that having one’s architecture built is a good in the Platonic sense, the necessary expression of architectural ideas. However, our less charitable interpretation of the phrase, and one that we remain shocked to discover fits well with Donovan Hill’s history, is that to build is good, no matter the quality of its architecture.

We asked Donovan whether the shift from small buildings to larger, commercial ones was a planned move or accidental. He responded by saying that he and his partner, Timothy Hill, never had any plans at all. Donovan Hill started as an opportunity for two guys to make buildings and was never formalised, never shaped by a 20 year plan. The shift to commercial typologies happened simply because Brisbane was building lots of skyscrapers, the opportunity came along and they took it.

With this vital insight, the inexplicable trajectory of Donovan Hill becomes less so. Like many architects, including our own, their opus has been powerfully defined by opportunity: maybe at first by their friends who wanted to build houses; later by the broader Brisbane construction industry. A cynical voice would suggest that Donovan and Hill are now selling out, cashing in on their hard-earned market niche. But the architecture profession is hardly in the business of furnishing golden parachutes. Perhaps the merger offers them the chance to escape the results of their opportunities. Could it be that they have grown dissatisfied with the skyscrapers, but feel an unshakeable loyalty to the welfare of their staff? We can only speculate.

We hope though, for the sake of good architecture everywhere, that the secret plan is to strike out once again, fresh and anew, two guys wanting to make buildings.

c house sectionLongitudinal section, C House


Image sources:

  1. C House, source unknown
  2. Santos Place, Wikimedia Commons. Photography shared by Kp 22 under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported licence
  3. C House section drawing, C House – Coorparoo Queensland. Section drawings by Donovan Hill