How Soon Is Now?

Adelaide; Aerial; City; River

The Australian Institute of Architects‘ annual national conference, How Soon Is Now?,  was held last month in Adelaide. Creatively directed by Cameron Bruhn, Sam Spurr and Ben Hewett, it explored the “agency of architecture to make real changes in the world.”[1] The directors identified the expansive conversation of last year’s conference, Risk, as a precursor, and proposed to “empower architects to actively participate in the massive transformations occurring to our cities, societies and the sustainability of our planet.”[2]

Around 1,100 delegates attended this year, almost all of whom arrived from interstate. The usual crowd of familiar Melbourne faces made the city feel like home, with the Pink Moon Saloon by Sans-Arc Studio (of recent Architecture Australia fame) frequented well into each night. I was also fortunate to meet some of the local contingent, and be taken out for drinks and late night yum cha. It was an energising reintroduction to a city I haven’t visited for years, and like the Making conference in 2014, a reminder that good Australian architecture, food and culture extend well beyond the parochial borders of Melbourne and Sydney.

How Soon Is Now? developed many patterns of its recent predecessors.[3] Once again, there was a clear delineation between Australian and international speakers, with the former confined predominantly to roles of commentary or criticism. Indeed, none of the keynote speakers were both Australian and working in Australia.[4] And true to Bruhn, Spurr and Hewett’s focus on agency, a sizeable number of speakers weren’t architects at all, but allied professionals engaging with the built environment through non-traditional models.

28th Street Apartments; Adaptive reuse; Mixed use; Los Angeles
28th Street Apartments by Koning Eizenberg, Los Angeles

In focussing on agency and change, How Soon Is Now? paid real tribute to the themes of risk and reward covered last year. There are similarities with Alejandro Aravena’s Venice Biennale too, which has just kicked off and runs until November. All three events demonstrate a keen interest in the social, political and economic contexts of architectural practice.[5]

Hewett neatly summarised the directors’ very broad agenda in their opening address, promising that the conference would ask “how architecture is dealing with tomorrow’s problems today.” The two days that followed revealed a diverse interpretation of what these problems might be. Climate change, population growth, overcrowding, refugees, transport, gender inequality and the widening gap between rich and poor all put in appearances.

To curate this diversity, the conference was split into two days of distinctly different ambitions. Day 1 examined what’s happening now, while Day 2 speculated on what happens next: the present then the future; evidence then strategy. The conference title, derived from The Smiths’ powerful 1985 rock ballad, shed further light on the directors’ intentions. It imbued the discussion with a sense of urgency, even panic.

When you say it’s gonna happen now
Well, when exactly do you mean?
See I’ve already waited too long
And all my hope is gone[6]

How soon is now? Never soon enough.

Safari Roof House; Kevin Low; Small Projects; Malaysia; Courtyard
Safari Roof House by Kevin Low, Kuala Lumpur

The prevalence of non-architect speakers, together with panel discussions at regular intervals, had what I imagine was an intended side-effect: the glossy image was firmly sidelined in favour of critical conversation. Indeed, barely a handful of actual buildings were presented across both daysThis focus away from built form was not received universally well by the delegates, one of whom bailed on the conference entirely and spent Day 2 touring a local wine region instead. The more I reflect on the experience however, the more I realise that Bruhn, Spurr and Hewett crafted a remarkably well choreographed event of two acts. Evidence and strategy; present and future; context and closure. Too many pretty pictures would have distracted from the central themes, and neither day made sense without the other.

Day 1 – Evidence
Keynote speakers
Nasrine Seraji, France
Vicente Guallart, Spain
Sadie Morgan, England
Jeffrey Schumaker, United States of America
Julie Eizenberg, United States of America
Amica Dall, England
David Sanderson, New South Wales
John Wardle, Victoria
Greg Mackie, South Australia
Andrew Beer, South Australia
Sharon Mackay, South Australia
Abbie Galvin, New South Wales
Gabrielle Kelly, South Australia
Nick Tridente, South Australia
Maree Grenfell, Victoria
Sandra Kaji-O’Grady, Queensland
Charles Rice, New South Wales

Day 2 – Strategy
Keynote speakers
Astrid Klein, Japan
Urtzi Grau and Cristina Goberna Pesudo, Australia
Kevin Low, Malaysia
Thomas Fisher, United States of America
Angelique Edmonds, South Australia
Ken Maher, South Australia
Tim Williams, New South Wales
Matt Davis, South Australia
Karl Winda Telfer, South Australia
Timothy Hill, Queensland
Kerstin Thompson, Victoria

To further explore the above, the conference program can be downloaded here.

Adventure playground; London; Playground
Glamis Adventure Playground, London

Day 1 – Evidence

As an exercise in context, Day 1 cast an unexpectedly depressing light on the shortsighted decision-making that plagues Australia. Guallart, Morgan and Shumaker were particularly brutal. Each shared insight into exemplar major infrastructure projects happening elsewhere, unhappy reminders of the positive outcomes achievable when city planning is divorced from politics.

The UK is investing in a high speed rail link that will eventually connect its entire southern half, and has placed Morgan in a central role to ensure that good design is at the heart of its implementation. She observed that the massive size of the project and the billions of pounds that will be spent on it don’t obviate the need for good design. Big things still need to bring small moments of joy to the everyday. Barcelona meanwhile is currently demolishing an elevated highway that runs through the centre of the city, one built only 25 years ago. Despite this emerging as a trend amongst some cities eager to undo the damage done by the car-obsessed 20th Century, to even suggest such a thing here is unimaginable.

These examples of foreign ingenuity were simultaneously inspiring and heartbreaking. It’s all Melbourne can do to get a new metro built, whether or not its design is any good is barely part of the conversation.

Every theme that emerged seemed only to hold up an unflattering light to its local counterpart. Eizenberg presented a glimpse into her studio’s extensive portfolio of social housing projects, anchoring her discussion in broader ideals of social benefit and civic duty, “We’re not saints, we’re just income blind. It doesn’t matter how much money someone has, we believe they still deserve a house.” In Los Angeles, only 20% of the housing stock can be afforded by people on the median wage. I imagine a similar statistic would hold for Melbourne and Sydney, where housing is treated as a commodity not essential infrastructure.

From the panel discussion I attended after lunch, Culture and Development, I was interested to hear Beer discuss the idea of disintermediation, or the erasure of the middle-man. It’s a role already under substantial threat in many markets, will architecture be next? He asked casually who will become the Amazon of architecture, as though this manifestation lies somewhere in the future, though alarmingly I suggest it’s already happening.

Across Day 1, the speakers championed architecture beyond or even without form, a fundamental idea that to me was at the very centre of the entire conference. Morgan discussed the politics of good design outcomes; Eizenberg proposed that design should begin from social function; Dall peeled back the skin of form entirely; and Sanderson urged architects to think beyond the naïve form-making that dominates most disaster relief housing.

There was great value in much of this content, though it was hard to find hopefulness in it. Dall and her fellow Assemble Studios director, Giles Smith, in some ways encapsulated this despair with their highly critical assessment of the carefully designed Granary Square in London, and contrasting enthusiasm for the evolved or undesigned chaos of Glamis Adventure Playground. I couldn’t help but feel that architects are no longer in a position to be champions of the built environment, doomed instead to faff about at the edges while the real business of our cities gets done elsewhere.

I trudged out of the conference centre feeling pretty glum.

OE House; Fake Industries Architectural Agonism; Aixopluc; Spain
OE House by Fake Industries Architectural Agonism and Aixopluc, Tarragona

Day 2 – Strategy

Mercifully, the morning session of Day 2 was a refreshing antidote. Klein opened with a burst of cheerful pragmatism, calling her lecture “More than architecture” and discussing opportunities for value creation in what were otherwise pretty unremarkable commissions.[7] Grau and Pesudo followed with a handful of relentlessly conceptual projects, including some insightful discussion of their shortlisted Helsinki Guggenheim competition entry. I was particularly taken by Pesudo’s characterisation of the Finnish sauna as one of the most sophisticated civic institutions of our era: a group of naked, sweating strangers beat each other with branches in the dark, and reach consensus on the sauna’s ideal ambient temperature.[8]

Low closed out the morning session with a repeat of his superb Australian lecture tour in 2013, an act of laziness that at first made me question his inclusion in the conference program. Surrounded on all sides by architects with eyes firmly focussed on the future, Low’s work is sublime but anachronistic. He spoke of the sacred and the profane, of embracing imperfect construction, of subtlety, nuance and richness in the built form. He is the embodiment of the 20th Century architect, the sole-practitioner, the master craftsman. I felt he would have been perfectly at home amongst the speakers at Making, but what on earth was he doing at How Soon is Now?

Three important things, as I discovered.

First, he was the typist sitting in a room full of computer scientists. At times grumpy, he pushed and prodded and complained. It was fun to watch his panel discussion, Advocating Futures, and I’m pretty sure he deliberately provoked Pesudo with a scathing critique of the value of contemporary architecture. He was an important addition to the discussion, not so his nostalgic position might triumph, but to provide a critical lens through which to examine the alternatives.

Second, he offered the most sensible target for architectural advocacy I’ve ever encountered. In a brief respite during the Advocating Futures panel, where Hewett facilitated Twitter questions from the audience, I asked the panellists how and where they thought advocacy should be directed. Low said simply, “Education”. In a world changing under our feet, with scarce resources to impact public opinion, and architects regressing in our capacity to contribute to the city, how better to prepare for the future? By teaching architecture students how to be something other (and more) than an architect. The right word in the ears of the thousands of architecture students who graduate each year might yield our profession’s Steve Jobs, Larry Page or Elon Musk.

And third, Low’s entire lecture revolved around the opposition of form versus content. He argued that the best architecture derives from content, from narrative, and eschews the glossiness of perfect form. It was a familiar position that resonated with much of the discussion on Day 1, but took the important step of explaining why the profession’s obsession with starchitecture, formalism and the consumption of the glossy image are impoverishing the built environment.

I interpreted the narrative-driven craft of Low’s work as a metaphor for the need to develop a similarly narrative-driven commitment to the entire profession’s output. We need to reign in our adulation of the newest chunk of self-indulgent formalism and establish new territory as essential agents in the development of cities, economies and culture.

The two panels I attended on Day 2, Transforming Populations and Advocating Futures, further explored these themes. In particular, Guallart lamented that “Architecture is suffering because it has more to do with fashion than with building the city. The Bilbao model hurts the built environment – governments now think that they just need to deliver an icon, no further discussion needed.” From many angles and in many discussions, both days criticised the shallowness of form and praised the delivery of content.

Leaf Chapel; Klein Dytham; Japan; Weddings
Leaf Chapel by Klein Dytham, Tokyo

Agency and the future

During afternoon tea on Day 2, energised by the Advocating Futures panel, a few colleagues and I enjoyed a vigorous discussion on the subject of the future. We spoke about the traditional role of the architect, and pushing beyond its boundaries. Rory Hyde’s excellent book on the subject, Future Practice, got a mention. We discussed computer coding, and its role in the frontier of new economies, in disrupting seemingly unshakeable markets from books to taxis to holidays. We touched on the sophisticated problem solving performed by architects and its relevance in activities beyond the making of buildings. And we discussed education – if the scope of the traditional architect is diminishing, and there are as yet unformulated roles ripe for our involvement, how should the universities prepare graduates today for the opportunities of tomorrow?

It was an exciting conversation, feverish even. It gathered together all the many threads covered in the preceding two days and narrowed my focus to a single question: what is the architect of tomorrow?

A moment later, I was sitting down for the final keynote of the conference. Thomas Fisher took to the stage, and in a truly cosmic reflection of our casual conversation, set out to answer this very question. “There are a lot of opportunities for architects to continue to design buildings. But there are many, many more non-physical systems that would benefit from an architect’s design attention. We could all have more work than we could ever address in our lifetimes.”

He argued strongly for an expansion of the role of the architect, speculating we could become, “Public intellectuals, provocateurs, visualisers, unsolicited strategic thinkers, generalists, holistic thinkers, strategists, pragmatic futurists.” As part of the making of buildings, we might proactively shift our services to the savings side of the spreadsheet, servicing “the economic structures that surround and facilitate architecture.” And beyond buildings, we might engage with the sharing economy, actively designing for initiatives like AirBnB that make more intensive use of a city’s scarce spatial resources.

It was a much-needed conclusion to a conference that had just spent two days ripping apart the value of architectural activity.

Adelaide Convention Centre; How Soon Is Now?; Australian Institute of Architects; Conference

So despite the rocky start to How Soon Is Now?, I’m glad I hung around for the punchline. I enjoy attending the conference each year for a number of reasons. It’s an opportunity to take a step away from the minutiae of life as a practicing architect. I catch up with people I don’t see all that often and chat avidly about architecture with them. I learn some things, and get inspired to do some others. Low’s contribution to the conference might have crystallised the parameters of the debate on form versus content, but it was Fisher who made the most interesting suggestions on how to act on this acknowledgement.

Heading home after any good architecture event, I struggle with the concept of inspiration. What do I do with the things I learn? How can I internalise and act on them, make use of the event beyond the silo of its own neat calendar slot in my life?

Last year, Risk compelled me to take on more risks in my business. After five years of running Mihaly Slocombe from our spare bedroom, we finally moved into a proper office that now doubles as a profit-making coworking environment. Well, almost profit-making, it’s early days yet. Still, the key ingredient was to exploit our skills as architects in crafting a working environment for others, a small yet successful instance of speculative agency.

How Soon Is Now? has left me with a similar itch.

I find myself eager to seek opportunities outside the traditional model of architecture practice. What can I do that will buffer our studio against the storm that’s approaching? How can we use our carefully honed skills in creative thinking, systems design and problem solving to benefit the world beyond our small collection of private clients?

We stand at an important moment in time, with the threat of great change in our profession, the built environment and even the planet looming in front of us. How Soon Is Now? captured this moment perfectly, imparting both desperation and hope.

In particular, the agency of architects is under threat. Our traditional model of practice is tied strongly to the old way of doing things, and continues to steadily diminish in its scope and opportunity. Global markets, the sharing economy, the internet of things, disintermediation are all poison pills for the profession, yet most of us continue to blithely practice in the way we always have. If the current generation of architects continues on our current path, will there even be a profession for the next?


  1. Cameron Bruhn, Sam Spurr and Ben Hewett, creative directors; How Soon Is Now? overview; accessed May 2016.
  2. Ibid.
  3. A full list of my reviews and interviews from past conferences can be accessed here.
  4. Julie Eizenberg was born in Australia but practices in Los Angeles, David Sanderson from the University of New South Wales works in Australia but is American, and Urtzi Grau and Cristina Goberna Pesudo work in Australia but are Spanish.
  5. For some insightful reflections on the Biennale, see Jeremy Till; The architecture of good intentions; transcript of a talk given in Venice; May 2016.
  6. Steven Morissey; How Soon Is Now?; From the album Meat is Murder by The Smiths; 1985.
  7. I almost wrote value adding but couldn’t bring myself to use a phrase that has been so utterly disembowelled and shamelessly co-opted into developer double-speak.
  8. This in fact underpinned Grau and Pesudo’s Guggenheim proposal, a museum of atmospheres and interiors. Note that this project was completed in collaboration with Jorge López Conde, Carmen Blanco and Álvaro Carrillo.

Image sources:

  1. Adelaide by Andy Steven; image sourced from Skyscraper City.
  2. 28th Street Apartments by Koning Eizenberg; image sourced from Detail.
  3. Safari Roof House by Kevin Low of Small Projects; image sourced from Small Projects.
  4. Glamis Playground; image sourced from Play by Nature.
  5. OE House by Fake Industries Architectural Agonism and Aixopluc; image sourced from Dezeen.
  6. Leaf Chapel by Klein Dytham; image sourced from Klein Dytham.
  7. Adelaide Convention Centre theatre; author’s own image.

Reflecting on Risk 2015

tribe studio

What was it?

The Australian Institute of Architects‘ annual architecture conference, held two weeks ago in Melbourne. Creatively directed by Donald Bates, Hamish Lyon and Andrew Mackenzie, it explored the changing role of risk in architecture. The directors framed the discussion by observing that “No one wants to be a safe architect. Safety assumes the conventional and the predictable. Who wants that? Unless of course you want to stay in business… This conference will explore the troubled nexus between the architectural necessity of risk-taking and a building environment predicated on the minimisation of risk.”[1]

This was the third conference in three years that I’ve attended, continuity that has allowed me to start detecting both trends and innovations across their formats.[2] Gone were the subthemes that distinguished the speakers for Making 2014, replaced by a more filigreed thematic engagement. Gone also was the regional specificity of Making, the list this year having more in common with the internationalism of Material 2013. And in contrast to both was an invigorating series of panel discussions, with concurrent sessions providing respite between the more serious keynote addresses.

Though Bates, Lyon and Mackenzie eschewed the limelight somewhat, their curatorial hand in both speaker selection and discussion topics was firmly evident. Their combined experience across large practice, education, media and procurement flowed cleanly into a conference that looked pleasingly beyond the usual parochialism of the architecture profession.

Educators, journalists and emerging practitioners shared as much of the stage as established architects. And in a worthwhile first, the Planning and Architecture panel discussion was a collaboration with the Planning Institute of Australia’s Planning Congress 2015. Delivered to a packed house of both architects and planners, in many ways this session epitomised the broad agenda of the conference, positioning the practice of architecture within its larger, more ambitious and multi-disciplinary context.

With the concurrent panel discussions expanding the usual eight sessions to fourteen, the list of speakers this year was necessarily long:

Keynote speakers
Gregg Pasquarelli, SHoP Architects, United States of America
Carline Bos, UN Studio, the Netherlands
Deborah Saunt, DSDHA, United Kingdom
David Gianotten, OMA, the Netherlands
Amanda Levete, AL_A, United Kingdom
Jeremy Till, Central Saint Martins, United Kingdom
Cynthia Davidson, Anyone Corporation, United States of America
Kasper Jensen, 3XN / GXN, Denmark

Local practitioners
Suzannah Waldron, Searle x Waldron, Melbourne
John Choi, CHROFI, Sydney
Camilla Block, Durbach Block Jaggers, Sydney
Paul Morgan, Paul Morgan Architects, Melbourne
Finn Pedersen, Iredale Pedersen Hook, Perth
Kristen Green, Kristin Green Architecture, Melbourne
Ben Hewett, NSW Government Architect, Sydney
Jeremy McLeod, Breathe Architecture, Melbourne
Juliet Moore, Edwards Moore, Melbourne
Charles Wright, Charles Wright Architects, Cairns
Thomas Bailey, Room 11, Hobart
Hanna Tribe, Tribe Studio, Sydney

John Daley, Grattan Institute, Australia
Mitchel Silver, New York City Parks Commissioner, United States of America
Cheong Koon Hean, Housing and Development Board, Singapore
Manfred Grohmann, Bollinger Grohman, Germany
Ian McDougall, Ashton Raggatt McDougall, Australia
Vivian Mitsogianni, RMIT, Australia
Anthony Burke, UTS, Australia

searle x waldron

What did I think?

While Material and Making were inspiring and engaging conferences, it must be said that the timelessness of their subjects dulled their urgency.[3] Risk suffered no such problems. Firmly rooted in what is surely the biggest challenge facing contemporary architecture practice, the dangers and rewards of risk-taking are at the very heart of the crisis that beleaguers our profession.

As Till noted in his address, “it used to be that the entire architectural project was a zone of invention and risk, but this has now been narrowed down to the slimmest of opportunities.” We were once a profession of risk-takers, driving the development of new building typologies, technologies and structural systems. In the golden age of the early 20th Century, architects were rewarded with the power to shape entire cities. But recent decades have witnessed the rise of the project manager and the novated contract, of suburban sprawl and foreign wealth. Our influence has been eroded to the point of superfluousness. It could be argued that we have never before been so close to the brink of our own demise.

Thankfully, amidst the debris there are glimmers of hope, embryonic opportunities opening up to new generations of savvy risk-takers. In New York, Pasquarelli is forging joint venture alliances with developers and fabricators, investing sweat equity in return for a stake of the profits. In London, Saunt is “placing herself in the path of luck,” leveraging a string of boutique projects into a startling array of significant commissions. And in Copenhagen, Jensen is pursuing non-traditional commissions for non-financial reward.

The Australian engagement with risk-taking is less dramatic but equally well articulated. In Melbourne, Waldron is tackling the often criticised competitions pathway to win new projects, “worthwhile wagers” that have nourished her emerging practice. In Hobart, Bailey is shaking off the conservative need for “architecture to be all things for all people,” creating a string of remarkable, almost sculptural projects. And in Sydney, Tribe is designing “house portraits” that test the poorly understood relationship between architecture as luxury and commodity.

So we are at a crossroads, or to reach for a more suitable metaphor, in the depths of a valley. If recent decades have unravelled the visionary agenda of the modernist era, then the opening years of the 21st Century are suggesting they might ravel it back up again. Risk positioned itself right at the nadir of this transition, capitalising on both the precariousness of the profession’s position, as well as our new enthusiasm for risk-taking.


What were the highlights?

Even before the first speakers took to the stage, we were treated with a rare, and I must say, profoundly encouraging opening statement from new Victorian planning minister, Richard Wynne. As he announced the return of the OVGA into the Department of Premier and Cabinet, I couldn’t help but feel a thrill of excitement run through me. For those of you who weren’t there, you’ll just have to imagine it: a politician announcing a new government initiative, not to an audience of farmers or miners or teachers, but to a room full of architects! There couldn’t have been a better or more contextually appropriate beginning to the conference.

Across the two days that followed, it became clear that although risk most commonly conjures images of leaking roofs and insurance claims, there are many (much more interesting) ways to define, engage with and respond to risk in architecture. Particularly prevalent was the attempt to define different loci for risk:

  • New business development
  • Extending the boundaries of traditional practice
  • Experimental projects

By exploring new avenues for where risks can be taken, the speakers foreshadowed Till’s recommendation at the conclusion of his presentation, to “radically engage with risk… and redescribe what practice can be.” They may have each pursued different strategies in their engagement, but they all possessed a shared dissatisfaction with the status quo. It was this restlessness that separated the most riveting speakers from the least, and, I think, underpinned the true value to be taken from the conference.

The panel discussions I attended, Planning and Architecture on the Friday and Pedagogy on the Saturday, were lively debates that looked beyond architecture practice to bigger and essential questions of urban planning and education. But for fear of bloating this already lengthy article, I won’t address either discussion here. I did however have the highly rewarding opportunity to interview John Daley, chair of the Planning and Architecture panel and CEO of the Grattan Institute, after the conference, and will reproduce the interview in weeks to come.

New business development

In his presentation, Gianotten undertook a commendably open dissection of the history of OMA. The majority of his slides weren’t glossy pictures, but charts: charts that analysed the relationship between risk and profit on construction projects; charts that looked at the annual growth in OMA‘s insurance premiums; charts that revealed the startlingly small number of their commissions that result in built projects; and charts that plotted the past and future development of the OMA business model.

One remark struck me in particular. While working through all the material that would combine to become S,M,L,XL, a weighty tomb that should (and probably does) sit on every architect’s shelf, OMA almost went bankrupt. They had committed so many resources to it that anything other than resounding success would have ruined them. It was an enormously risky leap, but one that allowed them to relaunch their office into the global powerhouse it is today.

Waldron presented a similar appetite for taking calculated risks, discussing the procurement process for the Ballarat Art Annexe. She understood that Searle x Waldron lacked the experience of their more established competitors, so went well beyond the requirements of the brief to craft a particular story for the project. She reflected, “what if the client didn’t like our idea? But actually, it allowed the client to buy into our idea right from the start.” It was a gamble that paid off: the idea reflected the client’s own ambitions for the project, they won the commission, and their entire practice was launched into existence.

Extending the boundaries of traditional practice

I have written before about the work of Pasquarelli’s studio, SHoP Architects (here and here among others). Once again I was impressed by the creativity with which they manipulate the architectural process. From embracing 3D documentation technologies long before they were popularised; to extending their involvement beyond architecture to fabrication, construction and finance; to developing new technologies and software that reshape the limits of practice.

Most importantly, Pasquarelli explained how all of SHoP‘s initiatives are grounded by an absolutely fundamental insight, that “design should be seen as a profit centre, not a cost centre.” In other words, design has an extraordinary capacity to deliver more than the low risk, conventionally designed strategies employed by much of the construction industry, and architects are uniquely equipped to both define and deliver this value.

One recent project was captivating, as much for the skills it required of SHoP as the ideas it embodied. Envelope is a web application that distills the contents of New York’s hefty 1,000 page planning code into an interactive plug and play questionnaire: enter the details of your site and the software spits out its maximum building envelope. The data can then be downloaded in a digital model or spreadsheet format, reducing a process “that normally takes many, many hours to one that takes under 60 seconds.”

Experimental projects

The first session on the second day was a pre-recorded video by the absent Levete. At first skeptical (isn’t the whole joy of conferences to actually have the speakers in the room?), I was swiftly won over by the effort she had put into its production. What followed was a densely packed tour of the Future Systems cum AL_A opus, each project its own thesis on materials, construction and structure. Thankfully, Levete managed to avoid the pitfalls of a portfolio presentation, constantly weaving the conference issues into her discussion.

Each project seemed more outrageous than the last: from the Spencer Dock Bridge, whose fluid concrete form was achieved using CNC routed polystyrene formwork, to the Lord’s Media Centre, built by yacht builders and the first semi-monocoque building in the world, to the Victoria and Albert Museum renovation, which pushed the technical capacity of ceramics to their limits. The languid Levete was the embodiment of the starchitect: no country was too remote, no brief too challenging, no law of physics too immutable.

Choi’s commentary on CHROFI‘s Lune de Sang offered an interesting counterpart to Levete’s superhuman projects. He observed that, “architecture is the opposite of mass production, where you design it, break it, and design it again. Architecture needs to be perfect first time, built by people who have never built it before, and meet everyone’s expectations.” It was an important reminder that all architecture, no matter the scale of its ambition, is at its heart experimental. Lune de Sang is a stunning project, but it wasn’t built by yacht builders, nor did it retrofit an entire ceramics factory for its production. It nevertheless demonstrated the same, and indeed more accessible, commitment to experimentation.

room 11

What did I learn?

Returning to work on the Monday following Risk was an inevitable anticlimax. The very reasons I love attending the conference each year – to take a break, remind myself of the big picture, be inspired – made it hard to return to the daily grind of practice. This got me thinking. I’m regularly inspired by the conferences, lectures and seminars I attend, but what am I to do with this inspiration? How do I translate new knowledge into productive outcomes?

More so than either of the previous conferences I’ve attended, Risk left me with a number of valuable and, most importantly, actionable lessons:

  • To stay healthy, the architecture profession needs to take the occasional irretrievable leap, an all or nothing risk where both dangers and rewards are high. As a finance friend advised me recently, businesses need to constantly reinvent themselves to remain competitive. If the deaths of MySpace, Kodak, Nokia, Lonely Planet and countless other seemingly unshakeable juggernauts can teach us anything, it’s that businesses (and make no mistake, architects, the AIA and the profession at large are all businesses) are like sharks: we must keep moving or we drown.
  • Architects need to become more courageous in testing the boundaries of our daily existence. There are any number of ways we can do this: we can offer a broader service to our clients; we can become builders, or fabricators or suppliers; we can get involved with politics. The good news is that it isn’t as hard as it sounds: SHoP have already shown us the way. You see, the best thing about their various initiatives are their scaleability: not how easily they scale up, but how easily they scale down. My small practice is hardly in a position to enter into sweat equity arrangements on multi-residential towers, but we can embrace new technologies, digital fabrication and smart materials thinking on even the most humble of residential projects.
  • And finally, true reform in the architecture profession needs to start with our educational institutions. It was once the tradition for practicing architects to remain heavily involved with teaching throughout their lives. This is sadly on the decline, yet the relationship between education and practice is as important as ever. Practitioners bring great wealth to our schools, which in turn have the freedom to experiment and assume much needed positions of leadership.

The conference successfully captured the current zeitgeist of the profession, both the shortcomings that have lead to our diminished state and the opportunities that a greater appetite for risk can bring. Bates, Lyon and Mackenzie are to be applauded for tackling this herculean subject, a task that also happened to include a substantial evolution of the traditional AIA conference model.

The bigger Australian picture is changing, with an array of important regulatory reforms shifting the landscape of architecture practice. Among others, a recently implemented Competitive Design Policy in Sydney exchanges greater floor area for a quantifiable investment in design excellence, while in Melbourne, successful lobbying has resulted in a new State government promising positive changes to apartment design.

We need to take the lessons of Risk 2015 to heart, and collectively seize this moment of opportunity by the scruff of its neck.


  1. Donald Bates, Hamish Lyon and Andrew Mackenzie, creative directors; Overview; Risk 2015 National Architecture Conference; accessed 17th May 2015
  2. A full list of reviews and interviews from past conferences can be accessed here.
  3. The exception being the making impact subtheme last year, which critically analysed the opportunities of architecture beyond traditional practice.

Image sources:

  1. Schmukler House by Tribe Studio, photograph by Brett Boardman.
  2. Art Annexe by Searle x Waldron, photograph by John Gollings.
  3. Lune de Sang Shed 1 by CHROFI, photograph by Brett Boardman.
  4. GASP Stage 2 by Room 11, photograph by Ben Hosking.

Interview with Jo Noero

Jo Noero is the principal architect of Noero Architects, based in Cape Town, South Africa. Noero is renown for his work within the shack settlements of South African cities, and is as outspoken on issues of ethics, professionalism and the built environment as his projects are engaging.

Noero visited Australia recently to present a lecture for the National Architecture Conference. I had the pleasure of interviewing him after his presentation, and enjoyed a conversation that touched on many and varied subjects.

red location museum entrance

Thank you for your spirited presentation today. A central part of your work is the importance of quality buildings within disadvantaged contexts, and the possibility they present of influencing the surrounding built environment.

Exactly, this is very important.

Can you talk about how this relates to your Red Location project in Port Elizabeth.

I’ll tell you how it all started. Many years ago when I was teaching, I felt quite alienated from mainstream architectural practices in South Africa, and I was looking for somewhere where I could locate both my research and practice interests. The places that I was drawn to were the informal shack settlements on the periphery of the city. I figured at that time in the country they were the only places where people acted with unfettered freedom in shaping their environment, even accounting for their extreme poverty. I have always held the idea that authentic culture grows from the bottom up: the people living in the shack settlements were outside government control and were just building for themselves, so I went and had a look to understand how they were building, and ended up spending two years researching the settlements while I was teaching.

Out of that experience grew an interest in taking the structural systems and materials that were in use in those areas, and formalising them through my work. I hoped to show local people a connection with what they were already doing themselves. It shows great resilience and energy to build something from nothing, and by incorporating this spirit into my own buildings I was also showing respect to the people living in the neighbourhoods around them.

I’ve read interviews with you where you discussed using packing crates from car manufacturing factories in your projects, a material already being used in the shack settlements.

You saw my talk this morning?


And the reading room I did at the Red Location library, clad in timber?


That’s the same timber that people use on their shacks, except that we took it, sanded it down, fixed it properly and varnished it. It’s the same material but we used it to clad the most important building in the project and in the neighbourhood.

red location archive reading room

Do you know whether that more refined material is now used within vernacular construction techniques?

I’m not sure. My sense is that people appreciate what I do, but I haven’t seen much evidence of whether they are actively trying to take those systems and develop them in the same way I have. The opposite does occur though: the timber cladding I used on the Red Location Library is now starting to find its way into rich houses, built by master craftsman in a shabby-chic style for a tremendous amount of money.

Really, I’m not even sure whether I want people to follow what I’m doing. It’s just me saying that I honour the people living in the shack settlements, I’m honoured to work in their space, so I look at how they build and work in the same kind of way. It’s simply that.

The shabby-chic style is curious. There was a bit of Twitter activity following your discussion.

Oh there was Twitter activity, good! Was it positive or negative?

Both sides of the fence were represented. Somebody said they really like the shabby-chic look.


Others suggested it’s a very dishonest architecture, cladding wealth in a surface of poverty.

Exactly, it’s an architectural camouflage. It’s saying, “I’m rich but I identify myself with the poor, I’m a comrade in arms…”

Is it dishonest then, or just a less sophisticated form of honouring the context?

I think it’s a style, that’s all. Some stylists have got hold of the idea and suddenly shack-chic has become fashionable and people follow it. But the connection between the style and the people in the poorer parts of the city is usually lost in translation. I like to think that at the very least there is some residual subconscious sense of the discrepancy.

There is a man called Neil Leach who has written about this process. Around fifteen years ago he wrote a book called The Anaesthetics of Architecture that describes two things that happen in the world. First, is that the greater the flows of information, the smaller the knowledge base. This particularly affects students, who have a tendency to place predominance on the image over everything else, without understand its context.

Because the issue with the modern day is not that there’s not enough information, there’s too much.

Yes, and I don’t think we’ve learnt how to filter it effectively yet.


The second thing that Leach describes is that capitalism depends upon novelty; it’s what sells things. Novelty is as much image based as it is commodity based, and architecture has fallen victim to that. We have to be novel; we have to produce new things. But the problem with new things is that once they are consumed they are no longer of use any longer. So we abandon images as quickly as we consume them. We have this lumbering machine called architecture which takes five or ten years to get a building from inception to completion, and it’s held victim to these lightning fast movements of novelty, images and consumption. I don’t think architects have done a good job of managing or understanding it, or trying to find ways of countering it through other means.

That’s a very fascinating idea. I’ve always thought that architects are largely opportunistic; we do the work that is offered to us. Flipping that status quo around and seeking work out is immensely difficult to do, particularly when we have to make a living off our labour.

Let me talk about what it’s like to be in practice. I get offered lots of houses, and usually they’re these big McMansion briefs, 1000sqm on the beach, all cantilevered, and I just say no. Houses like these are unethical. I don’t think you need anything more than 150sqm to live comfortably. We have limited space in the world and many people with nowhere to live at all, so how can you be given the right to waste resources?

The two or three people who have agreed with that philosophy have been the clients for the two or three best houses I’ve ever done in my life. I don’t think we do enough of that, enough proselytising. We are so stripped of any self-esteem or dignity as architects that we see ourselves as an industry there to serve public. But the public kick us around and tell us what to do. They’re not prepared to take wise advice from us, and I don’t understand why that should be the case.

house sapieka front

I’m not sure if it makes me feel better or worse that this is happening to you in South Africa as well. In Australia, there are so many other voices competing for attention within the built environment, and most of them are focused on all the wrong things. Clients regularly have a real estate agent or builder mate whispering in their ear, saying, “You’ve got to do this because this is what the market wants.”

Absolutely. But I think there are useful ways of dealing with that situation. When I was in Peru about six or seven years ago, I spoke with a lot of architects practicing in Lima. It’s a tough city hit by civil war, but what a lot of the good ones do is build as well.


Yes. And in Buenos Aires in Argentina, the three to four storey, middle class apartment buildings are all built by architects.

Is that legislated or is it just how it works?

No. It’s just how it works. What they do is they find groups of people online who are willing to put money together to build something. It’s an opportunity to get a tailor-made apartment, even if it’s very small, because you are talking face-to-face with the architect rather than having to buy something that some developer has made.

So apartment buildings crowd funded by the end users?

Yes. Some of the best architects in Lima said to me they make money out of the building side of things. They build their own projects and the money they make is used to support them while they enter competitions. So they get the one good project to do, rather than running around after awful people doing shit that they don’t like.

My wife and I are starting to build speculative houses ourselves, tiny little ones. I’ve worked for so many people who make money out of my efforts, I thought, why don’t I put my money in the bloody ground and build something myself? We have two houses that are coming out of the ground now. I think there are lots of new and different ways that we can imagine working as architects in the world.

But the important message from my lecture today was that whatever strategies we put in place to survive have got to support the ideal of architecture. We can’t just want to become project managers because project managers are making money. I’m only interested in finding alternative ways of making buildings because maybe I’m being thwarted in one respect. In the end, I just want to make good architecture, it’s what gives me pleasure, and to make a bit of money out of it as well if I can.

house sapieka courtyard

house sapieka interior

If you don’t mind, I’d like to change subject back to the Red Location project. You talked today about how long it has taken, but also how good architecture takes time to get right. For the design and construction of one project to be spread across a generation, I feel that maybe the building is not the only end product, that there’s something even more meaningful to be achieved. Is there value in such a lengthy process?

Well, the project brief set up in the competition has changed over time. I’m still doing work on the project and it’s still seen as part of the competition, but it’s different from where we started. There was lots of community participation up front to formulate the competition brief, after which we built the museum. But then there was a hiatus when we started to talk to people again about the new buildings, and the brief changed and time got gobbled up. There were also issues of funding, and there was a change in local government, so it just took a long time to get things done.

It can be frustrating because the bureaucracy in South Africa works slowly, but having the luxury of a couple of years to work on a library is fantastic. I can design very fast, but then I can take it and show it to people in the community and adjust it if I need to. Buildings just get better when you have time to work on them, that’s all it is.

How important was the community consultation process?

I’m not a great one for upfront community participation. People don’t know what they want. If you just ask, you’ll find that everyone wants a three-bedroom house with two cars on a nice site overlooking the ocean. I find that the best way of getting people involved is to provoke. I make a proposition, present it and then kick it around. I think people feel much more comfortable with that as well. They don’t feel that they are being put on the line to make big decisions. It’s only through an interactive design process that you can reach some kind of consensus.

So when you present the initial concept on a project, which I presume is already a fairly resolved building…


Do you find it changes in response to the community commentary you receive?

Yes, it does. Look, when I talk about participation, I mean talking to all the different groups who are involved in a building, from the local people who use it, to city officials, politicians, community representatives, the architects, library services, gallery services etc. So there are all these layers to the process and the design gets filtered through all of it. A project can take years to work its way through every group, and at every stage adjustments have got to be made.

That’s for me what community participation is. The common idea that you sit down with a group of people and they tell you how their grandmothers lived in the UK isn’t what community consultation is at all. You need to sit down with the people who are actually going to use your building, the workers and the visitors and the cleaners. Why should this be any different when we deal with poor people or rich people? People get strange ideas when you talk to a poor community, that the process is somehow special. But I don’t see any difference between talking to a community or a family or a business. It’s just briefing.

red location museum interior

One of the things I thought about when you were presenting was the earlier lecture by Beth Miller from Philadelphia’s Community Design Collaborative. I felt quite anxious when she was talking about architects working pro bono. There has been a lot of controversy in Australia recently about architects working for free when the whole profession is struggling to make a living.

I never work pro bono, ever. I had a clear lesson on this when I first started working in Johannesburg. I did some work for the Anglican Church under Desmond Tutu. The first church I worked on I did for nothing. You know, I thought that’s the thing to do when you work for really poor people, but all I got was trouble from everyone. I went to speak to Desmond and I said, “Look, I don’t know what the problem is, but these people don’t respect a thing I do.” And he asked, “Are you charging them fees? Make sure you charge them money.”

People respect what they pay for.

Absolutely. From that time onwards it was their money on the line and they listened to everything I had to say. We shouldn’t ever have to work for nothing. I believe strongly in the dignity of labour. It’s like these architects who have interns but pay them nothing. I find that insulting.

That’s the controversy in Australia actually.

Well, I think anyone who takes someone on without paying them should be deregistered as architects. It’s immoral and unethical. What you’re saying to that person is that the value of their labour is worth zilch.

The immediate past president of the Victorian Chapter of the AIA, Jon Clements, made an impressive speech on that recently. I also read that RIBA has established a protocol that removes an architect’s accreditation if he or she is found to be employing someone without pay.

They did that in the US as well.

It will be a challenge to see whether or not there is enough steel within the Australian profession to do the same thing.

Look, I think the work Beth Miller does is great, but one of the things I’m interested in is the difference between architecture and social work.

Yes, you made that comment at the end of your speech.

I think there’s a distinction between being a professional architect and maintaining active citizenship. I mean, I’m actively involved in my country, but I don’t believe that through my architecture I’m going to create political change. If I wanted to do that I’d join a political party and I’d go out there and change things. Architecture doesn’t work like that. So it’s about understanding the limitations of architecture. Once you understand what architecture can and can’t do, you can be much more effective as an architect.

When I went to the last Venice Biennale, the American exhibition was essentially social work. It was about helping people learn to grow vegetable gardens in their back yards. I mean for fuck’s sake, that’s not what I want to do as an architect. That’s not stuff architects do, it’s what social workers do. We do other things. I think we’ve got to be a bit careful that the pendulum on social accountability doesn’t swing too far and we lose sight of everything.

In the end, the best thing we can do is make purposeful space that’s beautiful, which is bloody difficult to do as it is. If poor people get richer or sick people get healthier in my buildings, then that’s great, but I don’t think it’s a predictable outcome.

You know, I don’t go and look at any buildings I’ve done, I really don’t. When I hand a building over to my clients, it’s theirs and they must do with it as they see fit. I’m not going to go and sniff around and find out what they’ve changed, it’s their right to do whatever they like. For God’s sake, knock a hole in the wall, change the front doors, change the roof, it’s your building, do with it what you want.

Interesting. It’s an understanding that architecture involves the dignity of exchange.

Obviously, the client has paid for it. There’s a famous essay by Adolf Loos called The Poor Little Rich Man, it’s exactly this criticism. This poor little rich man, he went to the architect who designed anything, and then whenever he wanted to change a painting in his house he would have to ring up the architect to get his permission, and to get his advice. Is that what architecture is? That’s not architecture; it’s something else, control beyond any reasonable limits.

I agree, and I really think this shows in your well-built but humble work. Thank you for your lecture today and your candid discussion.

My pleasure.

red location gallery

This article was commissioned by, and first appeared in, Architecture AU.

Images sources:

  1. Red Location Museum entrance, Noero Architects. This and subsequent images courtesy of the architect.
  2. Red Location Archive reading room, Noero Architects.
  3. House Sapieka front, Noero Architects.
  4. House Sapieka courtyard, Noero Architects.
  5. House Sapieka interior, Noero Architects.
  6. Red Location Museum interior, Noero Architects.
  7. Red Location Gallery, Noero Architects.

Interview with WHBC Architects

Wen Hsia Ang and BC Ang are the two halves of WHBC Architects, a young studio in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. As they explained in their presentation at the recent National Architecture Conference, they regard architecture as an exercise in problem solving. Each project demands a singular idea that can define and carry it. To attest to this philosophy, their website catalogues their projects according to simple sketches: if they can’t draw a single sketch to explain the core idea of a project, then the idea isn’t strong enough.

I had the pleasure of interviewing them after their conference presentation, and found much in common with their passion for ideas, craft and the making of buildings.

durian compoundDurian Shed, Negeri Sembilan

Thank you for your lecture, it was very engaging.

Wen Hsia: Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it.

Even though I was familiar with a number of your projects, the discussion of your thinking behind them offered new insights. Can you describe your work in its geographical context, whether you see it as particularly Malaysian?

BC: We believe geographical boundaries are man-made, so we relate first of all to the climate, which is pretty similar in Malaysia, Indonesia or other Asian countries. But on another layer, when you look at the construction context in Malaysia we have a combination of migrant and local workers. These different kinds of craftspeople make a big difference to the design. The climate, the people making the buildings and the people we are making them for all influence us. For us, there is no Malaysian design per se.

WH: Yes, we are always constrained by our tropical climate, the budget and the way our buildings are made. Certain materials may be cheap in Australia, but expensive in Malaysia. We do a lot of our projects in concrete because in Malaysia it is cheaper to build with concrete than steel or timber.

BC: Labour is cheap in Malaysia.

That was my next comment actually. Labour is cheap, concrete is cheap because it’s essentially just dirt, but steel is expensive.

BC: Yes, we have a labour-intensive culture, of building with wet works, reinforced concrete frames, bricks and mortar. This culture has existed in Malaysia for thirty to forty years and is cheaper than doing for instance a steel building.

As an Australian architect, I’m envious of the possibilities inherent in that culture. Here, the labour component of a project may be 60% of the construction budget, so we make decisions that use less labour but more materials.

WH: Yes, this affects our design decisions, but the other way around.

BC: We use concrete whenever it is appropriate as a way of responding to the Malaysian construction industry. Even when we are doing our early design work, we are already thinking about who can build it, which craftspeople have the skill to do it. If they are not available, we might have to relook at it…

WH: We might have to simplify some of the details, so the details evolve with the job. We have to think about how the builders will work and try and adjust our designs accordingly.

At last year’s national conference, Yosuke Hayano from MAD Architects in China discussed the challenge of building very large, highly technical buildings with old-fashioned construction techniques and labourers. Does this issue affect the way your ideas find their way into your projects? Do your ideas sit in the details or, knowing that the details aren’t necessarily going to be executed the way you want, in the bigger picture?

WH: That’s a very interesting question. We like our design concepts to be very strong. If our idea is strong enough, even if the details are not what we expect, the idea can carry the whole weight of the project.

BC: We like to be very pragmatic. On any project no matter its scale, the important component for us is still to have a good idea that solves a good problem. If our project can solve that problem, we go into the project with our eyes open, knowing that execution might not be as good as we really want it to be. We believe that doing good things is more important than crafting them perhaps.

WH: We do believe that all buildings should be well executed, and we try to be very particular about that aspiration, but in order to achieve it then we have to really think about how the building is going to be carried out and then work backwards.

So we struggle with exactly the same issues, no matter which country we are practicing in! Sometimes a project comes along with a very low budget and you know that you are not going to be able to execute it to the level of craftsmanship that you would like, so you make design decisions that can be achieved by a lower quality of craftsperson on site. It’s not ideal, but it’s a job and you do it…

WH: As long as the idea is achieved, that is something that we cannot compromise.

BC: If a project comes to us and we are just supposed to build the building, without adding any value or solving any problems, then there is no point doing it.

Do you say no to many projects?

WH: Yes, yes we do.

Is it hard to say no? It takes a lot of confidence to turn down a project…

BC: (Laughs) Even after we start working on a project, if we find it not working out then we will just have to move on.

That’s great. One of Glenn Murcutt’s pieces of wisdom that has always struck with me is that the future of our lives as architects is defined more by the projects we reject than the projects we accept.

WH: Exactly, yes.

dog hotelDog Hotel, Negeri Sembilan

What I think is interesting about your work is that there is actually much more than pragmatism, there’s also whimsy and humour. Like the skylights in your dog hotel, why wouldn’t a dog want some skylights? Is this a conscious process for you?

WH: (Laughs) Well, we love to have some sense of humour in all our projects. We tend to not take ourselves too seriously. We try and have fun with our projects.

BC: We have fun if the clients are good. With most projects, with the pole house and dog hotel, we become good friends with our clients.

WH: We know that we only have so much time, if we waste time on a project that we’re not happy about, then we can’t do really good work.

Yes, and then you start getting a reputation for doing bad work and all of a sudden more opportunities for bad work come to you.

BC: It’s like a vicious cycle.

telegraph pole houseTelegraph Pole House, Langkawi

You are partners in life as well as in business. Do you have complementary skills; do you share the roles on a project?

WH: It is actually quite good; we complement each other because we are two very different people in terms of architecture and in terms of thinking. The way BC thinks is quite German.

BC: We think in nationalities, I’m German or Japanese, very logical.

WH: And I’m more French (laughs), more intuitive and passionate. If I don’t like something, I’ll just come out and say what’s on my mind. We started working together seven or eight years ago and found very early on that we can be completely honest with each other. In Malaysia, people can be quite shy. But we have a partnership that works well because of our honesty with each other. We can tell each other off, I can tell BC that his scheme is really bad.

BC: So we have a fight about it (laughs), but then we get over it.Sometimes we both try to work on a design for one project, and will come out with different proposals. Whoever has the best idea leads the project, or whoever gets on best with the client.

WH: It changes from project to project.

Having been in practice together for a while now, do you know what you want for your future? Do you want your practice to stay the size it is now or grow? One of the issues with a small practice is being limited in the scale of projects you can take on.

BC: We are happy with the scale of our office now, just the two of us, but I disagree, I think a two-person office can do a very large project, but only one at a time.

That’s interesting. There are some strong similarities there with fellow Malaysian architect, Kevin Low. Has he influenced your approach at all?

BC: Yes, Kevin influences us a lot; he used to teach us both at school. I also worked with him at GDP Architects [a large Malaysian architecture office] before he set up his own practice. So yes, Kevin does influence us but the context of where he operates and where we operate is the same

Is the architecture community close in Malaysia? Is it knitted together across the whole country or if you’re practicing in Kuala Lumpur you don’t really know what’s happening in other cities?

WH: I think everyone does influence each other…

BC: But we are very quiet people so we don’t really go out and mingle. What’s more important is the craftspeople, the materials and the climate: they are the same problems that all architects in our region will face.

As you were saying earlier, it’s important to have the right craftspeople on a project. This reminds me actually of Low’s approach to construction, where he has developed an attitude where errors in construction are not necessary bad, and shouldn’t be replaced and covered over.

BC: I don’t entirely agree with that. I believe that you can’t start with the attitude on site that there are going to be errors. If you start with that attitude you will breed complacency. The industry will not improve; it will keep deteriorating.

How are your relationships with the builders and craftspeople on site established then? Do you deal only with the head builder, or deal directly with each trade?

BC: We normally engage each trade separately.

Is that typical?

BC: No, it’s not very typical. We used to practice by engaging the main contractor, and they would have their own sub-contractors. But then we started finding that the preferred sub-contractors would be busy and we would get someone less competent instead. This created whole kinds of trouble on site, so we started engaging directly with the trades.

WH: We request our clients to trust us while we are doing their project, and we trust our builders as well. In order to build that trust we need time to do the project our way. If a client can’t give us that trust, they will have to go to someone else.

So you are closely involved in construction, not just as observers?

BC: We don’t manage the site, but we are closely engaged in it. When we draw, say, concrete formwork using 8 x 4ft sheets of plywood, this equates roughly but not exactly to 2.4 x 1.2m. If we draw our lines at this distance apart, the builders have to spend their time cutting 20mm from every sheet that comes to site. So the builders speak to us about the materials they are using and we are able to save a lot of time, resources and money. Simple things like this engage us in the construction process. They allow us to change things to make building our designs easier not harder.

WH: This conversation doesn’t just happen on site, it happens while we are designing as well. When we design we are quite clear of the ideas that we want to have in our projects, but we are relaxed about the small things.

So we finish where we started: architecture is an exercise in problem solving. The central idea, as represented by the simple sketches you make for each project, is most important.

WH: Yes, that’s right.

Thank you both very much for your time.

house in chempenaiChempenai House, Kuala Lumpur

This article was commissioned by, and first appeared in, Architecture AU.

Images sources:

  1. Durian Shed, WHBC Architects. This and subsequent images courtesy of the architect.
  2. Dog Hotel, WHBC Architects.
  3. Telegraph Pole House, WHBC Architects.
  4. Chempenai House, WHBC Architects.

Reflecting on Making 2014

perth from the air

What was it?

The Australian Institute of Architects’ national architecture conference, held last month at the Perth Convention and Exhibition Centre. Creatively directed by Sam Crawford, Adam Haddow and Helen Norrie, it explored the “act of making; in the dirtiness, directness and honesty of architecture… both the machinations of the process, and the beauty, delight and surprise of excellence.”[1]

This was the tenth conference since Kerstin Thompson was appointed the first creative director in 2005, and addressed a decade of recent history that saw international speakers drawn predominantly from Europe, North America and Japan. In their opening address, Crawford, Haddow and Norrie showed map overlays of this tendency, revealing a sizable hole in our own backyard. Thus they explained the strong regional focus of Making, with most speakers selected from Asia.

The directors noted that the conference location in Perth – another first in a decade – was unanticipated when they were appointed, but serendipitous. The city’s position on the west coast of Australia is closer to some of our regional neighbours than it is Melbourne and Sydney. With the world’s epicentre shifting to China and India, this is a timely and welcome acknowledgement of the architectural value to be found in Asia, one for which the directors should be applauded.

The conference was divided into four subthemes that sought to extend an intuitive definition of making: an exploration of not just the physical act of building, but its more ephemeral effects. Making culture, making life, making connections and making impact were each anchored by an Australian architect, who presented their own work, introduced the international speakers, and chaired thematically driven discussion panels. This division of duties had the curious side effect of reducing the prominence of the Australian voice within the broader discussion. We were interviewers, not interviewees.

Making culture
Andrew Burns, Australia (anchor)
Richard Hassell, Singapore
David Adjaye, England

Making life
Elizabeth Watson-Brown, Australia (anchor)
Wen Hsia and BC Ang, Malaysia
Cazú Zegers, Chile
Vo Trong Nghia, Vietnam
Marina Tabassum, Bangladesh

Making connections
Emma Williamson, Australia (anchor)
Sek San Ng, Malaysia
Gurjit Singh Matharoo, India
Andra Matin, Indonesia
Lyndon Neri, China

Making impact
Timothy Horton, Australia (anchor)
Justine Clark and Naomi Stead, Australia
Beth Miller, United States of America
Alejandro Echeverri, Colombia
Jo Noero, South Africa

sekeping serendah

What did I think?

While website descriptions of the way each subtheme would be explored were clear enough, overlap between all but the making impact theme had the unfortunate side effect of rendering them essentially indistinguishable from one another. This would have been less confusing if all the speakers reflected on their work with reference to the conference themes, but a few resorted to cookie-cutter lectures that failed to address them in any meaningful way.

For instance, Lyndon Neri was very entertaining, but his image-heavy lecture was light on insights. Andra Matin was invited to speak thanks to his role in establishing a network of young architects in Indonesia, but neglected to discuss this entirely, offering little more than walkthrough descriptions of his projects. This was a disappointing distraction that had me questioning the wisdom in including the subthemes at all.

In a thoughtful and detailed email response sent to me after the conference, Norrie explained that the subthemes were however never meant to establish a rigid thesis or architectural taxonomy. The intent was to develop a “curatorial framework” that would broaden the scope of making and provide direction for discussion and audience reflection. Programming the conference was a fluid task, with speakers constantly moved between themes: the directors went through twenty-one iterations before settling on the final programme.[2] Even then there was crossover, with some speakers presenting under one subtheme and participating in the discussion of another.

Retrospectively assessing the conference, it is clear how this approach encouraged debate amongst the delegates and interrogation of making. One colleague commented that architecture cannot make life or culture: life and culture make architecture. I suspect Crawford, Haddow and Norrie were interested however in exploring the role architecture plays within these fields, both as a recipient of and agent for change. Tabassum’s sublime Independence Monument and Liberation War Museum was a good example of this duality. A tribute to the tens of millions of people killed or forcibly displaced during the Bangladesh Liberation War, it is a project both shaped by political events of the past and able to influence a country’s sense of identity in the future.

chempenai house

What were the highlights?

The best speakers were those able to provide meaningful self-reflection and an analysis of their work within the broader contexts of not only the conference themes, but architectural production and national identity also. Richard Hassell was fascinating, the prodigal Perth son whose casual demeanour is a mask for extraordinary success across Asia. Wen Hsia and BC Ang presented a portfolio populated by small projects in concrete and timber, each executed with delightful creativity. And Sek San Ng’s irreverent humour aligned perfectly with his resourceful and honest design work.

Above all, the making impact subtheme stood out, differing from the other three in the clarity of its purpose and focus of its speakers. Populated by individuals operating outside the traditional territory of architecture practice, it was interested in outcomes beyond the built form, like gender equity and community wellbeing.[3]

Timothy Horton’s wide-ranging experience as a political operator made him an excellent choice for anchor. In his introduction he made reference to Rory Hyde’s impressive book, Future Practice: Conversations from the Edge of Architecture, a pioneering series of short interviews exploring similar questions of architectural territory. He recalled some of Hyde’s descriptive titles for contemporary practitioners operating on the edge, titles like the Urban Activist and the Community Enabler, suggesting an exciting world of new opportunities for a profession in crisis.[4]

The presentations of both Alejandro Echeverri and Jo Noero demonstrated the positive influence of high quality public buildings on the informal settlements of Medellin in Columbia and Port Elizabeth in South Africa. Their carefully considered architectural interventions inspire urban and social change in cities with deeply segregated populations. They slow the progress of downwards-economic spirals and act as foundation stones from which disadvantaged communities might begin to rebuild themselves.

The Community Design Collaborative in Philadelphia, of which Beth Miller is executive director, matchmakes deserving community projects with architects who work pro-bono to prepare sketch design proposals and seek financial backing. The CDC believes that good design is not a luxury but a public right, and since 1991 “have coordinated the donation of 100,000 hours of volunteer design work to a portfolio of 600 not-for-profit organisations.”

Finally, Justine Clark and Naomi Stead’s research through Parlour into gender equity has established a far-reaching and invaluable tool for understanding the current state of Australian architecture practice. Broadening the scope of their findings from women specifically to an entire profession, they argued that, “women architects are like the canary in the coalmine,” their equity issues indicative of much more widespread problems. Positive change to this status quo is to be sought from “pragmatic, collective and sustained advocacy.” The conference coincided with the release of their Guides to Equitable Practice, an important milestone towards a fairer Australian architecture profession.

The making impact theme was exceptional for two important reasons. First, more than any of the others, it demonstrated that architecture is not only influenced by its various contexts but can in fact exert influence over them. And second, it was most expressive of the conference’s aspirations, expanding the realm of architectural activity beyond buildings. For Australia, where the services offered by the architecture profession are continuously marginalised, we need to be proactive about uncovering new ones. Making impact offered substantial proof that our profession can be more than mere beautifiers of facades, more than a luxury service affordable only to the wealthy.

The work of Parlour strikes me as most radical in this respect. It is unprecedented for the architecture profession, not just for Australia but possibly the world. Could the Parlour research team generate sufficient expertise to start exporting its services? Could it transcend its scope as an auditor of an industry to an industry in its own right? In the battle for new territory, this is as good evidence as I have ever seen of the architecture profession creating new value from our unique and often underappreciated worldview.

red location museum

What did I learn?

During the making impact discussion session, the outspoken Jo Noero memorably broadsided Dutch architecture studio OMA for designing a media headquarters for “one of the world’s most oppressive regimes.” He added that, “arguing China will develop a more moderate approach to freedom of speech in 25 years isn’t good enough. As architects, we need to do it now.” Noero has a well-earned reputation for unwavering and polemical morality, inspiring more than one of his fellow presenters to confess their feelings of guilt over the wealth of their clients.

Noero’s comment raised a provocative and enduring question in my mind, one that was accentuated by the choice of speakers for the conference and the region they represent. According to the World Bank’s index of per capita gross national income, Australia is the eleventh wealthiest country in the world. China is ranked 83rd, Indonesia 109th and India 118th, their combined GNI measuring just over half of our own.[5] By focussing on Asia, South America and Africa, the conference inevitably targeted speakers from some of the poorest countries on the planet.

This disparity was not explicitly addressed by the conference themes, but it was implied everywhere: from the costly burden of air-conditioning in tropical climates, and consequent necessity of natural ventilation; to the opportunities provided by materials-light but labour-intensive construction techniques; to the repeated celebration of resourceful architecture. This commentary established a fifth and not-so-subtle subtheme running through every presentation and discussion: making money. The genius of the creative directors, intended or otherwise, was to ensure that the entire socio-economic spectrum be represented, from Sek San’s orphanage built entirely from donated funds and village labour, to Wen Hsia and BC Ang’s work on both private housing and social projects for indigenous Malaysian tribes, to the extraordinary lavishness of Matharoo’s pivoting marble-clad walls.

Noero was provocative, declaring his refusal to design any private house larger than 150sqm, but he was only pointing out the obvious elephant in the room. What role do architects have to play in addressing inequality? When Matharoo or Matin or Neri accept a commission for another expensive mansion, what responsibility do they have to the welfare of the millions of their countrymen and women irrevocably unable to afford their services? What responsibility does an Australian architect have to the same (though less extreme) divide here?

For me, this was the most striking subject to be drawn from the conference. It was not the first time such issues have been raised in public forums and nor will it be the last. I can’t say with any certainty what responsibility architects have in challenging poverty or deep economic segregation, but I hope that future conferences continue to focus their gaze on our region and on the great inequality that continues to exist here. Such a focus is an essential extension of the questions explored by the making theme and one I would like to think is given significant attention by our profession in coming decades.

Overall, Making 2014 was an engaging, contextually relevant and at times inspiring conference. The creative directors successfully curated a selection of speakers producing meaningful work far outside the starchitecture with which we are otherwise bombarded on a daily basis. Above all, it was a rewarding opportunity to recharge my batteries, to step back from the daily activities of being an architect and remind myself of the bigger picture.

I look forward to next year’s conference, Risk 2015, to be held in Melbourne and explore the troubled nexus “between the professional necessity to take calculated and creative risks and a world incapacitated by risk minimisation.” It will look backwards at humanity’s historical architectural achievements and will, I hope, show how we can rediscover our preparedness to take risks for the sake of great rewards.

I can’t wait.

This article was commissioned by, and first appeared in, Architecture AU.


  1. Sam Crawford, Adam Haddow, Helen Norrie, creative directors; Overview, Making 2014 National Architecture Conference; accessed 11th May 2014
  2. Helen Norrie, Making 2014 creative director; private correspondence with author; May 2014
  3. Even Jo Noero, the only practitioner within the making impact subtheme, is arguably a political activist first and architect second.
  4. Dr. Rory Hyde; Future Practice: Conversations from the Edge of Architecture; Routledge; London; 2012
  5. In 2012, the GNI of Australia was $42,540, of China was $10,900, of Indonesia was $8,750 and of India was $5,080. These figures are in international dollars and based on the gross national income per capita at purchasing power parity i.e. taking into consideration the relative strengths of the listed countries’ currency to achieve a more realistic comparison. Source: GNI per capita, PPP; The World Bank Databank; accessed 20th May 2014

Images sources:

  1. Perth from the air; modified from the original photo by Kristian Maley
  2. Sekeping Serendah by Seksan Design; image courtesy of Sekeping Serendah resort; author unknown
  3. Chempenai House by WHBC; modified from the original photo by Aina Liyana
  4. Red Location Museum by Noero Architects; image courtesy of Noero Architects via Abi Millar‘s insightful article, Architecture of Necessity

Postcard from Perth

bellavue terraceBellevue Terrace interior, by Philip Stejskal Architecture

yeovil crescentYeovil Crescent interior, by David Barr Architect

beach roadBeach Road form the street, by David Barr Architect

A series of fringe events around the national architecture conference, Making 2014, were conducted last week, providing visitors to Perth an opportunity to see more of the city than the conference centre and their hotel. One such event, held in conjunction with Open House Perth, was a tour of three recently completed houses, two by David Barr Architect and one by Philip Stejskal Architecture. Having been slightly ambitious when booking this tour, we had to rush to its starting point in the city directly from the airport, lunch missed and luggage in tow. Once on board the shuttle bus however, we were treated to a gentle drive through the south of Perth, the familiar landscape of Australian suburbia made strange by little details: unusual markings on street signage, and pedestrian crossings paved with unexpected materials.

The three houses on our itinerary were modest in scale. Weighing in at a tiny 20sqm, Stejskal’s Bellevue Terrace was the smallest, a dining room and bathroom extension that has left the front of the house untouched. Despite its small size, it was ambitious in its execution. Three of the dining room’s four walls opened out or up or across to reveal glimpses of the sky and surrounding gardens, and provide shielded ventilation for Perth’s hot summer months. Vernacular materials and off-the-shelf door hardware were used economically to achieve deft complexity. The overall effect put us in mind of a child’s playbox, supersized to an adult’s scale.

This clever use of basic materials was a strategy present in all three projects, with weatherboard and cement sheet common. Barr’s Yeovil Crescent was the most experimental, using exposed oriented strand board panels to the walls and ceilings of new living areas. This is a product aimed squarely at the volume builder market, and intended to be lined internally and externally, but Barr capably celebrated it for its structural efficiency and rough beauty.

The projects also shared what we expect is a language particular to Perth, or at least to a latitude more forgiving than our native Melbourne. There was a lightness and thinness to their materiality, and looseness to their construction. Barr’s Beach Road comprised a lightwell and staircase clad in translucent plastic, timber framed walls unlined on one side. The plastic was detailed simply and the exposed timber framing painted white, its noggins perfect shelves for knickknacks and family photos. This project also demonstrated an interesting exploration of pocket spaces. The lightwell was the largest of these, but the idea was carried all the way through to window apertures in bedrooms, triangular day beds in living spaces, and joinery nooks in the kitchen. This house was creatively designed, its modest scale acknowledging the legacy of the fibro shack and beach hut, as much of its place as they.

What struck us most about all three houses was their resourcefulness, perhaps most evident in Stejskal’s tiny extension. It punched far above its diminutive size and modest budget, the charming complexity of its operable skin indicative of an architect enthused about any project, no matter its scope. It was a pleasure to visit such smart local architecture, and a fitting start to an architecture conference that would address questions of resourcefulness, regionalism and social conscience.

This article was commissioned by, and first appeared in, Architecture AU.

Image sources:

  1. Beach Road by David Barr Architect; this and subsequent photos taken during Residential Tour South by Open House Perth, author’s own image
  2. Bellevue Terrace by Philip Stejskal Architecture
  3. Yeovil Crescent by David Barr Architect

Material 2013: An overview

melbourne convention and exhibition centreThe Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre

What was it?

The Australian Institute of Architects‘ national architecture conference, held two weekends ago at NH Architecture‘s polished Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre. Creatively directed by Sandra Kaji-O’Grady and John de Manincor, it explored the subject of material, asking questions like: is fog an architectural material? What would a brick answer to a robot that asks, “What do you want to be?” In the wake of asbestos, what scope is there for architects to experiment with new materials?

The conference website stated:

The materialisation of built form is but one strand in the complex web of our discipline. Architecture’s material presence weaves around individual experience and defines the fabric of the city. The 2013 Conference will explore contemporary applications and ideas surrounding material in architecture.

Kaji-O’Grady and de Manincor elaborated on this broad agenda on the morning of Day 1 by recalling the late 1960s conceptual art of Robert Barry, whose sculptural materials included inert gas, radio waves and telepathy. This reference underlined the directors’ interest in fringe interpretations of material, a natural continuation of Kaji O’Grady’s early-noughties research work into meat and architecture. Thus widened, the scope of the conference looked well outside the familiar: mud, pollution, air pressure, plastic hose and windmill blades were a few of the materials presented in the two days following.

What did we think?

Aiming to “avoid fixed styles in the selection of presenters”, Kaji-O’Grady and de Manincor assembled a heterogenous group of speakers: from Matthias Kohler’s research into robotics, to Kathrin Aste’s sublime interventions in steel and concrete, to Cesare Peeren’s radical approach to upcycling. The collective presentation material cannot be said to lie along a single gradient, though fellow delegate, Sarah Herbert, made this valuable offering. Instead, we felt that three clear themes emerged to both align and distinguish the speakers’ areas of interest:

New technologies
Billie Faircloth, United States of America
Jose Selgas, Spain
Virginia San Fratello, United States of America
Philippe Rahm, France
Jorge Otero-Pailos, United States of America
Matthias Kohler, Switzerland

Cesare Peeren, the Netherlands
Emma Young, Australia
Tim Greer, Australia

Aesthetic form
Yosuke Hayano, China
Carey Lyon, Australia
Manuelle Gautrand, France
Kathrin Aste, Austria

We will examine in detail these themes in future articles, together with some of the ways they were explored by the speakers, and what relevance they might have to contemporary practice in Australia. For brief summaries of the presentations, we recommend Michael Smith’s blog post here or Robert Bedon’s article for Architecture AU here. For now, we have restricted ourselves to discussing the broad scope of the conference and the insights we took from it.

One such insight was the contrast between Australian and international speakers. As might be expected from a conference aiming to exhibit ideas and individuals unfamiliar to its audience, the bulk of the speakers were international. Inevitably, though perhaps unintentionally, the Australian representatives in Young, Greer and Lyon embodied the classically Australian practice of research through built work. They communicated a gritty determination to build first and extract architectural intelligence second, a frequent side effect of the wealth of construction opportunities in this country.

It might be argued that we would benefit from the considered resourcefulness of the Europeans, as displayed by Peeren’s repurposing of windmill blades as play equipment, or the scholarly exuberance of the Americans, as conveyed by Otero-Pailos’ development of scents for Philip Johnson’s Glass House. Certainly, the presentations of Young, Greer and Lyon had far more in common with China’s Hayano, who with MAD Architects builds large and fast and often, than they did either their European or American counterparts. However, this regional association might not be such a bad thing: on the one hand, the hurdles of finance and construction diminish the possibility of truly radical ideas, yet on the other they permit an evolving dialogue between design, theory and the built environment. A subject for a future conference perhaps.

lecture theatre
The lecture theatre fills on day 1 of Material 2013

To our minds, only a few of the speakers were as persuasive as the best speakers at the World Architecture Festival we attended in 2010, whose focus on urban renewal continues to resonate with us. Unfortunately, we suspect this was as much a reflection on delivery as it was on content. A worrying number of the speakers ignored the first and most basic rule of design communication: Show it don’t say it. The worst offenders were Faircloth, whose rapid speech rate at times made her unintelligible, and Rahm, whose data-heavy slides were repetitive and tedious.

In stark contrast, San Fratello was captivating, a seemingly unanimous audience favourite. She discussed some of her practice’s delightful small building work before dipping into her more recent interest in 3D printing. She wove stories around each project, unpacking their ideas, processes and executions: the homeless man whose first, negative reaction to Sukkah of the Signs gave way to advocacy; or the recycled glass tubes in SOL Grotto whose combined market value of half a billion dollars made it the most expensive art piece ever. She spoke a lot about materials, as well as contexts for their use: the ideas for the temporary Straw Gallery, whose gestation tracked through two other projects, and whose hay bales were ultimately returned to the farm from which they originated.

hedge galleryStraw Gallery by Rael San Fratello, 2011

Selgas, Peeren, Young and Aste were also stimulating. Together with San Fratello, they each presented fascinating projects, and were able to communicate their essential qualities while also addressing the conference subject.

This is not to say that none of the other speakers presented interesting ideas, only that their presentation styles failed to fully engage. Though Paul Finch managed to do it at WAF, it is difficult to suggest how this might be systematically avoided: we suspect Kaji-O’Grady and de Manincor wanted to host speakers from whom they had never heard, uncovering interesting architects without knowing for certain that they could perform in front of an audience. They did take a tentative step towards thematic integration, with most speakers sharing paired lecture slots to highlight common investigations. This could have helped break into the content of prepared lectures and initiate cross-examination of ideas. Unfortunately, it proved to be little more than a scheduling device as negligible opportunity was provided for the speakers to respond to, or critique, one another’s work.

Kaji-O’Grady and de Manincor explained that in order to accommodate all twelve speakers within the two days, inter-speaker conversation and question time were to be limited to a single discussion panel at the conclusion of the conference. They invited delegates to relay questions for the panel via Twitter and SMS, a clever idea that encouraged #material2013 related commentary. Again however, it appeared only lip service was to be paid to true conversation. The panel, hosted by the verbose and densely academic Nadar Tehrani, whose collaborative work with John Wardle on the University of Melbourne Architecture building we have discussed previously, was wearying and managed to ignore all but two of the delegates’ generally excellent questions.

This oversight capped a thought-provoking and uplifting conference with an unnecessarily sour ending. Delegate questions were displayed on the big screen behind the panellists, scrolling by as the discussion panel studiously ignored them. Having requested the questions in the first place, it seemed as if Kaji-O’Grady and de Manincor thought they were unworthy of responses: both insulting and untrue.

What did we learn?

Attended by around 1,000 architects from around Australia and across the Tasman Sea, the conference is the most substantial national event run each year by the AIA. Its value lies not only in attending the lectures, but in discussing the merits of their content with both old colleagues and new. Over the course of lunch or evening drinks, indecipherable presentations were reinterpreted with new meaning, glamorous presentations were deconstructed into trivialities, and banal presentations became contentious.

Rahm’s lecture was an example of the former. It may have been badly mis-aimed, but the ideas behind it, of an urban environment scientifically tailored to counter undesirable climatic conditions, were worthy of lengthy discussion. Gautrand’s lecture on the other hand exhibited a succession of beautiful forms and playful textures, which upon closer examination proved to be without context or reason. And finally, Kohler’s lecture on robotics appeared to be interested primarily in the sensational, but managed to divide the audience between those who saw him as wasteful and those who saw him as a visionary.

We commend Kaji-O’Grady and de Manincor for undertaking what would have undoubtedly been an organisational task of mammoth proportions. In their closing address, both noted how much time was required of them to do it justice, with Kaji-O’Grady even disturbingly referring to their children as conference orphans. It is immensely gratifying that the role of creative director for these conferences is so highly sought after, and draws individuals of such diverse and productive interests.

To offer some constructively critical feedback: a notable absence in the themes covered by this conference was the traditional material (and perhaps dying art) of building. We would have liked to hear from architects who are unequalled in their ability to direct craftsmen in the use and execution of physical matter, who, like Le Corbusier, “can control tonnes of concrete like an artist controls tubes of paint.” Given his recent Pritzker Prize, Toyo Ito might have been a big ask, but Peter Rich of South Africa or Brian MacKay-Lyons of Canada would have offered meaningful voices to this complex subject.

Material 2013 boasted only a few disappointing misses and many satisfying hits. The dull discussion panel and poor use of social media were unfortunate lapses that need to be significantly improved for next year. However, the conference was suitably glamorous, with glossy lanyards, slick visual introductions and high quality food imbuing it with the gravitas it deserved. Intellectually and socially, it was a great success. We enjoyed meeting Michael SmithBobby ShenNeph WakeSarah Herbert and others, all architects whom we had previously only known online. That such a community can exist, geographically divided across Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and Auckland, but united by shared passions, is a testament to the hypermodern world of communication.

Despite our various criticisms, our overall impression of Material 2013 was very positive. Learning what we don’t like is at times as important as learning what we do. This was our first AIA national conference, but it will not be our last. The 2014 conference, to be directed by Adam Haddow, Helen Norrie and Sam Crawford, will be held in Perth for the first time in a decade and explore the theme of making: “the dirtiness, directness, and honesty of architecture.” We’re excited by this announcement, the chance to visit the west coast and attend a conference whose theme might speak to our own interests in architecture.

We can’t wait.