Footsteps of Leplastrier

Nashville; Photography; Landscape; Rural

Day 1

It’s a Sunday lunchtime in late August when we leave Melbourne, giving us plenty of time for a leisurely drive through the Yarra Valley and out to Murrindindi. We’re following in the footsteps of the great architect Richard Leplastrier, who camps out on a site to feel the land and place as he designs. The weather has been wet in recent weeks so we drop into the Croydon Bunnings to buy gumboots. The smell of the sausage stall is too hard to resist, so we pick up snags and munch them happily on our walk back to the car.

As the road opens up along the Melba Highway, we crank the radio and watch the countryside rolling by. The hills get more pronounced the further we drive, and greener too. They look like a giant has dropped a bright green tablecloth onto the ground, the peaks and creases of its fabric forming the ridgelines and valleys of the lush landscape. Everything seems full of life, winter must be losing its grip on the world.

We arrive at the property and meet our clients, David and Louise, and the two youngest of their four children. While the kids fire up their peewee motorbikes, we pull on our boots and head out to explore the land. Nestled at the foot of a valley, the twenty acre property is mostly flat, with vineyard-covered hills rising up towards the south and west. The Murrindindi river gurgles noisily along the eastern boundary, carving a steep embankment and levy on its way out to sea. We stick close to the boundaries during our circumnavigation, enjoying the edge of the tree line. “Ah, the serenity,” we joke as the motorbikes buzz past.

Murrindindi; Nashville; Photography; Landscape; Rural; Country; Countryside; Motorbikes; Peewee

We head back to the shed that will be our sleeping quarters, kitchen, bathroom, lounge and studio during our three-day stay. There used to be a modest weatherboard cottage on site, but it was demolished and cannibalised to convert the wool shed into a temporary place to stay.

Nashville; Photography; Landscape; Rural; Country; Countryside; Camping

The evening sets in, Louise heads back to Melbourne with the kids, and we spread out a 1:1000 copy of the land survey on the dining table. Covering it with yellow trace, we jot down our observations from our walk: the valley funnels the wind so it comes from the north all year round, both hot and cold; there is a long view of mountains to the south; shorter views to the north need landscaping to screen out the closest neighbour; the river offers paddling spots at specific points. We talk about the old house site, and the necklace of mature trees that circle it. In particular, there’s a beautiful Manna gum with a crown at least 18m in diameter. We pop back outside to step it out, “Yep, it’s a whopper.”

Soon, our stomachs remind us they need to be fed so we finish up for the day and head out to the local pub.

Nashville; Photography; Landscape; Rural; Country; Countryside; Dawn; Morning; Mist

Day 2

We wake up to an extraordinary mist blanketing the property. The house site is only 50m away but barely visible. Near the road, a huge Oak looms out of the mist, at once eerie and beautiful. This is why we’re camping here, why Leplastrier’s process is so inspiring. The mist gives us a tiny nugget of insight into the site, helps flesh out our sense of the place.

David cooks up a hearty breakfast of eggs and bacon. After we’ve eaten and are clearing away the dishes, he heads off to mess with a couple of fallen trees. We hear the sound of a chainsaw being fired up. Is there any power tool more rural than a chainsaw?

We pull out the tracing paper again and get to work. Once more, our conversation turns to the land and its opportunities. There’s a wonderful rawness to our dialogue as we sketch and chat. In the suburbs, our primary interests are often manufactured: heritage building fabric; town planning; the needs of neighbours. Here, we discuss place, the relationship between house and land, view corridors, light and shade, trees, habitat. These are the essential qualities of architecture, and a joy to explore.

As we talk, we draw another overlay to our site analysis, highlighting important elements of the landscape and connections we want to make with the house. The distant view to the south is restful, maybe a good fit for guest bedrooms. The river view is more active, the sound of water would make a good backing soundtrack for the kids’ retreat. The light comes from the north of course, how do we elongate the house to make the best use of it?

Murrindindi; Nashville; Photography; Landscape; Rural; Country; Countryside; Kate Seddon

Before we know it, it’s late morning and we hear a car pulling up. Kate Seddon is the landscape designer we’ve recommended to David and Louise. We’re excited to have her design input on the project, to put as much consideration into the outdoor rooms as the indoor ones. As we’ve only spoken with her over the phone prior to this, her visit is both an opportunity to familiarise her with the site as well as talk design philosophy. We circumnavigate the property once again, and talk about tree species, earthworks, materials and water. Kate spots one of the fallen trees, “That would make a great bench seat within a garden,” she says. We discuss the way we want the house to emerge from the landscape. We discuss the swimming pool and fire pit, outdoor living and family barbecues.

Murrindindi; Bricks; Pallets; Building

Kate leaves after a couple of hours and we head into town to grab a quick lunch of meat pies and vanilla slice. Then we rendezvous with a local craftsman called Chris, who has some bricks he wants to sell. There are around 18,000 of them stored on pallets. “I pulled these out of the old church on Murrindindi Station when it was demolished years ago,” Chris says. The church dated back to the 1860s, one of the first civic buildings in the area. The bricks are a burnt orange colour, smaller than contemporary ones and curiously don’t have frogs. How can we make use of them? We do some rough calculations – we have enough for 44m of double skinned wall. Not enough for a whole house. We chat about Guilford Bell’s masterly use of brick as an inhabitable surface. Perhaps we’ll use them on the floor instead, or around the fireplace.

Returning to the property, we spend the afternoon focussing on the house site. Its slightly elevated position, existing necklace of mature trees, history of inhabitation and proximity to the river make it the best choice. Glenn Murcutt talks often about putting the house on the worst part of the site – there’s no use putting it on the best part, it’s already perfect. How can we use this to inspire us? Our sketches begin at 1:1000 and meander their way down to 1:200. Everything we draw and say seems to come back to the Manna gum. It’s far too big to wrap a house around, but can we stretch a house along its north edge, or slide one in to the south?

We make a list of the rooms David and Louise have requested in their brief – an open plan living area, plus a connected kids retreat, a master bedroom suite and a handful of extra rooms for kids and guests. Adding a mudroom, laundry and a few bathrooms brings us to around 250sqm. “Don’t forget the wine cellar,” David calls as he walks past on another errand. Okay, 250sqm plus a cellar.

Then there are the qualitative aspects of the brief, our loose conversations with David and Louise in our studio and on site. These are always the most important insights we get into our clients’ lifestyle and aspirations, the nuggets of personality that have the power to drive a whole project. David and Louise live in town, so the Murrindindi house will be an escape from city life, an antidote to the Internet, a place for their children to get comfortable with the natural world. The kids are really getting into the motorbikes, so perhaps the landscape needs to accommodate some natural obstacles. They’ll often have friends over, as will David and Louise, so the kitchen and meals area need to be the heart of the house. The valley traps the heat in summer, so a swimming pool is essential.

We draw bubble diagrams, stringing together rooms in an order that will facilitate these connections both inside the house and out. Distinct functional zones emerge – living, services and sleeping. We chop and change the relationship between rooms, aligning them to different parts of the landscape. We agree that the living room wants to face the sweep of the sun and views to the north. The master bedroom wants to face east to catch sunrise over the river. Do the kids’ and guest bedrooms face west? That might give them views over the neighbouring vineyard but will create heat gain issues. Maybe the south? There’s the long view towards distant mountains, but this is also likely to be the entry point for cars. We’ll need to consider privacy.

We have a lot of ideas, but not yet much resolution. It’s getting dark now however and the pub beckons. A conversation for tomorrow then.

Murrindindi; Nashville; Photography; Landscape; Rural; Country; Countryside; Manna gum; Eucalyptus

Day 3

In contrast to the chill and mist of yesterday, the day dawns bright and clear. We repeat the rituals of eggs and bacon, quick rinses in the outdoor shower, and a saunter outside to take stock of things. David once again heads off and we get back to the tracing paper.

We sketch plans over and over again, gradually evolving our ideas into three distinct proposals. The cranked house takes shape first, then the long house, and finally the compact house. They each preserve the essential zoning characteristics we settled on yesterday, but offer unique entrance sequences, and unique ways to engage with the glorious Manna gum. It’s hard to work out which we like best. The cranked house has a little of John Wardle about it, with its angled strands and busy junction at the centre. The long house is very long, 55m in fact. “Peter Stutchbury would like this” we say, pleased. It has more than a little of an Indonesian Longhouse about it. The compact house with its sliding walls makes us think of Kerstin Thompson. Is this our chance to finally have a play with breezeblocks?

We like to be open at this early stage of the design process, to encourage our clients to think creatively about the strategic layout of their house and engage meaningfully in its direction. We keep our rough sketches hidden from David for now, but reassure him that all will be revealed when we next meet. We mention Frankenstein’s monster to him, predicting that he and Louise will inevitably like parts of all three houses. “Option four will be better than all three of these,” we say, “It will have your stamp on it as well as ours.”

Once we have the rough dimensions massed in, we duck outside to check our handiwork. We pace out walls, squinting at the space between us as we try to imagine a house sitting there. There’s a dip in natural ground level to the east that would be the perfect spot for a swimming pool to emerge from the ground. With a bit of earthworks, it could be its own pool fence. Are we too close to the Manna gum? What about the old water tower and the Blackwood growing up through it? Can we snake the driveway around it and turn it into a treehouse for the kids?

Murrindindi; Sketch; Yellow trace; Drawing; Diagram

Ideas fly everywhere, and we rush back to our makeshift studio to scribble them down. Words flow freely and excitedly but are soon forgotten. We need to be careful to capture them all, the little sketches will remind us.

We draw repetitive series of pitched roof forms, simple narrow volumes with lean-tos. We want the house to be humble, connected to the strong Australian heritage of rural construction. There are countless corrugated sheds dotting the landscape, their long forms and gabled roofs powerful inspirations for our own intervention. The house will have its origins in the archetypes of fire pit and tent after all: a place to come together after a day out on the land, and a place to rest in anticipation of tomorrow.

We talk about the bricks, about building fireplaces and fire pits and screens from them. We talk about running them in strips along the floor. We talk about corrugated steel, plywood, timber and glass. Can we do this without structural steel? We like doing magical things with modest materials.

Finally and somewhat reluctantly, we pack up our gear, our sleeping bags and drawing tools. We feel we’ve accomplished more in three days on site than we might have done in three weeks from the studio. Leplastrier clearly knows what he’s talking about.

Murrindindi; Nashville; Photography; Landscape; Rural; Country; Countryside; River

We head back to Melbourne, our heads full of possibility. We feel we have it all worked out, but at the same time it’s all still up for grabs.

The article first appeared in the December issue of Mezzanine.


Image sources:

  1. Murrindindi, author’s own image
  2. Peewee motorbikes, author’s own image
  3. Campsite, author’s own image
  4. Morning mist, author’s own image
  5. Walking the perimeter, author’s own image
  6. Murrindindi bricks, author’s own image
  7. Manna gum, author’s own image
  8. Design sketches, author’s own image
  9. Murrindindi river, author’s own image

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
Panellists
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
Panellists
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?


Footnotes:

  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.

You can’t sell an idea

money

Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.[1] Thomas Edison said this in an era when inventions of the mechanical, electrical and medical varieties were constantly rewriting the script of modern life. Anyone can have an idea, he suggested, indeed good ideas are floating around all the time and all over the place. But success, and the genius that achieves it, lie in the months and years of effort to execute the idea, to turn it from fantasy to reality.

This is more true today than it has ever been before: the world is a small place now and the hurdles to creating something are at an all time low. Success, however, is as elusive as ever. Pop quiz: have you ever heard of PicPlz? How about Everpix or Color? No? Well, they have two things in common: 1) they are photo sharing apps for smartphone and web, and 2) they have all been discontinued.[2] Despite positive critical reviews and millions in seed funding, none made the cut. In contrast, Instagram is the archetype of success. It currently has around 150 million users worldwide and sold itself to Facebook in 2012 for AU$1.1b.[3]

This is as clear evidence of Edison’s insight as we have ever seen. The essential idea of Instagram is the same as its failed competitors, so cannot possibly be the reason for its success. The recipe of its genius instead involves ingredients outside the core idea, things like its functionality and style, the timing of its release and the networking of its founders.[4] In other words, the 99% for Instagram was about making sure the idea worked well and looked good, then executing it at the right time and knowing the right people to turn it viral. Luck, too, may have been a factor, though we believe you create your own luck… Build it and they will come.

How does this relate to the practice of architecture?

Comparing architecture to the volatile, manic depressive and massively lucrative world of software development may seem a bit of a long bow to draw. But dig a bit deeper and we discover that all creative fields are underpinned by the same influences. The methods may vary, but the parameters of commercial success exist independently of scale and industry.

The analogy of Schrödinger’s architects

schrodinger

A family wants to build their dream home. They are wealthy and passionate about architecture, and they want a house designed by one of Melbourne’s most recognised and highly awarded residential architects. They interview John Wardle, Sean Godsell and Kerstin Thompson. But they can’t choose between them, they love their work equally. So they commission all three to design their home.

Each design is unique and wonderful. Wardle’s is an exquisitely folded volume, its timber and zinc surfaces sliding over one another, its details impeccable. Godsell’s is an unapologetic masterpiece, a perforated, operable steel skin filtering the light to bold interiors. Thompson’s is considered and subtle, hugging the landscape, concrete and glass revealed in their natural beauty. The family retreats into a closed room to contemplate the three projects and make their decision.

Outside the room, the architecture community awaits the announcement. Which design will be successful? Much like Schrödinger’s unfortunate cat, at this moment, any of the three is equally likely to be chosen, and any of the three is equally likely to result in a magnificent building. The moment drags on.[5]

Considered in the broader context of Australian architectural production, does the outcome matter? We’re sure the family would live long and fulfilling lives in the Schrödinger house no matter its architect, but it would be less notable for its individuality than its position in an enduring body of work. The residential projects of Wardle, Godsell and Thompson are excellent, very different, but excellent. But if we and the family are unable to differentiate between them based on merit, what separates them?

The answer of course is the 99%: communication, style, persuasiveness, amicability, networking. In any competitive environment, the armature surrounding the architectural idea makes the difference. We thrive or perish depending on our relationships, how we present ourselves, our past experience, our enthusiasm, our fees. This armature influences how desirable we are to potential clients, the prestige of our commissions, our profitability, our success.

What can we learn?

The architecture profession dedicates considerable time to the 1%. We go to design lectures, read design journals, attend design conferences. We love our work and we love talking about it. Our ideas have great cultural value, they have the power to affect positive change in the built environment, but they aren’t going to make any of us Instagram. If success relies so heavily on the other 99% of our efforts, why aren’t we doing more to improve them?

Getting better at the hard work of executing our ideas, carving built reality from visionary fantasy, would benefit us all. The world of ideas is still welcome to operate within this framework, we suggest it would even benefit from such solid footings, but the 99% deserves more airtime. Imagine: we attend a design lecture and learn about the inspirational work of the speaker. But we leave with more than a sense of awe, we leave knowing the strategies the architect used to explore her ideas, the methods she used to convince her clients of their merit, the experimentation she did on site to resolve them. Simon Knott touched on the importance of this issue on The Architects preceding an interview with Indian architect, Bimal Patel.[6] He said,

“Coming up with good ideas is a small fragment of what architects actually do… Getting them built is the real challenge. Advocacy skills and your ability to fight to the death for an idea are critical. People working in really good design practices understand there’s a real doggedness to pursuing things to the end. Whether it’s a cupboard handle or a hinge or a screw fixing, it’s an attitude that flows right through the project.”

With the strength of Wardle, Godsell and Thompson’s design ideas being equal, the Schrödinger house would get built by the architect most capable of relating to the client, the one most persuasive, most seductive and most passionate. But no one teaches these lessons in school, and no one talks about them in the profession.

Don’t get us wrong, we love ideas. They’re what we fall asleep thinking about, and the reason we get up to go into work in the morning. But we need to loosen our collective grip on them, they’re holding us back from seeing the bigger picture. We need to take a leaf out of Mr. Edison’s book: ideas are all well and good, but genius is in being prepared to do whatever it takes to turn them into reality.


Footnotes:

[1] Thomas Edison; spoken statement circa 1903; published in Harper’s Monthly, September 1932.
[2] For an obituary of PicPlz, see this article on TechCrunch. For Everpix, see this article on The Verge. For Color, see this article on Mashable.
[3] Eric Jackson; What would Instagram be worth today if it IPO’ed?; Forbes; New York; September 2013
[4] For other commentary on the success of Instagram, see Why is Instagram so popular? on TechHive and Why Instagram is so popular: quality, audience and constraints on TechCrunch.
[5] Schrödinger’s Cat is the famous thought experiment devised by Austrian physicist, Erwin Schrödinger, in 1935. It illustrates superposition and entanglement, two of the fundamental questions of quantum physics. This short video explains the paradox.
[6] Simon Knott and Rory Hyde, co-presenters; Show 368: Interview with Bimal Patel; The Architects; May 2013; 6.05 – 7.00min.

Image sources:

  1. Money. Author’s own image.
  2. Erwin Schrödinger, Top Yaps. Copyright Arun Thakur, modified by author.

Presentations to Juries 2012

What are they?

As part of the annual Australian Institute of Architects awards, architects gather in each state and territory for a day to present their projects to category juries. Though only 10 minutes are provided for each architect to woo his or her jury, the sheer number of projects means the entire day is filled with new designs across residential, public, heritage, interior, sustainable, commercial, urban and small project typologies. The quality of the projects varies, as does the size of audiences that cram themselves into the small presentation rooms. While all attract respectable crowds, established architects like John Wardle or Kerstin Thompson and emerging studios like NMBW or Andrew Maynard fill their rooms to capacity and beyond.

We don’t know how successful the presentation days are in other states (please tell us about them if you do), but in Victoria, it is the single most unmissable day on the architectural calendar.

What did we think?

Held up until recently at the University of Melbourne, for the past two years it has been shifted to Monash University‘s Caulfield Campus. We’re not certain why the move was made (political, financial, functional, philanthropic?) but whatever the case, we are disappointed in the shift: Monash is harder to get to, less easy to navigate and has no room to rival the beautiful Yasuko Hiroaka room at Melbourne to accommodate the larger crowds that always flock to the new residential presentations.

Venue aside, this year’s offerings held its fair share of gems and duds. Of those we were able to see (falling into both categories) the most notable follow.

Heller Street Park and Residences by Six Degrees is located on the site of a former pottery kiln, abandoned for many years as too contaminated to use and too difficult to clean. Comprising two thirds public park and one third apartments, a cleverly terraformed landscape manages a natural yet subtle transition between the public and private domains. This interstitial zone echoes the many front verandahs of the Brunswick area, regularly inhabited as front rooms from which to engage in lively social activity with the local community. The apartments themselves are loaded with rich timber and plywood detailing, typical of Six Degrees’ work but uncommon in the more conventional oeuvre of multi-residential design. This project is an excellent demonstration of the successful outcomes possible when a multi-residential project is lead by an architect rather than a developer.

William Buckley Bridge by Peter Elliott is an exercise in contradiction. On the one hand, its timber detailing is intended to reference the adjacent heritage-listed, 1927 road bridge, but on the other, it is in fact mere façadism, the timber used as veneer only, cladding wrapped around a concrete structure. On the one hand, Elliot’s presentation discussed at length the use of timber, but on the other, his photos are mostly long-distance views concentrating on the formal presence of the bridge not the qualities of its detailing. Elliot is an architect whose works we have always admired, but we feel this project falls just short of the mark.

Merricks Residence by SJB shows what happens when a client with too much money goes to an architecture practice with a focus on glitzy, high-rise development and asks them to build a one-off house. Looking uncannily like the penthouse of any of SJB’s projects transplanted onto a rural piece of land, this project is bloated, unwelcoming and indifferent to its environment. Apart from the rammed earth walls, its Alucobond cladding, aluminium windows and enormous, convoluted footprint (the second kitchen is for the maid) are anything but the “simple beach shack” the architect took great pains in calling it.

Finally and positively, McGlashan Everist may have had their heyday in the 1960s, but their renovation of Frederick Romberg’s Ormond College is a beautiful exercise in architectural regeneration. Long smothered by dated joinery within and unkept plants without, McGlashan Everist have not only revived the building but successfully injected a vitality that didn’t even exist in the first place. It is the perfect synergy of revitalisation and modern intervention that respects both the original building and future aspirations. Of particular note is Associate Professor Rufus Black, Master of Ormond College, who shared in the project’s presentation with a highly infectious enthusiasm and obvious passion for the design.

We may not have had the best luck in getting to see the best projects on offer this year, but we nevertheless enjoyed the opportunity to socialise with, and glimpse the fascinating activities of, our peers. We eagerly await the juries’ decisions.

Presentations to Juries was held on Friday the 23rd and Saturday the 24th of March.

Melbourne Open House – Speaker Series #1

What is it?

A free lecture organised by Melbourne Open House on Tuesday night that explored the works of seven established Melbourne architects. Run in collaboration with the Department of Planning and Community Development, the architects presented residential projects that have been selected by the DPCD as Good Design Case Studies. In addition, each nominated their favourite Melbourne house – a fascinating snapshot into the diverse tastes of our profession.

Speakers included Kerstin Thompson, Clare McAllister and Karen Alcock, George Metaxas, Karl Fender, Eli Giannini, Luke Middleton and Robert Stent. Favourite houses included Newman College (Giannini), Robyn Boyd’s Walsh Street House (McAllister and Alcock) and Heidi II by McGlashan Everist (Middleton).

Taking place in Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony’s still extraordinary Capitol Theatre, every seat was taken with a few audience members forced to hover in the aisles. It was encouraging to see so many people, be they architects or simply the architecturally-inclined, attending a mid-week lecture on a cold winter’s night.

What did we think?

The content of the presentations were of variable interest. While it is always intriguing listening to the unique paradigms of architects, most of the projects were quite old and therefore already well known – McAllister and Alcock, for instance, discussed their Wynnstay Road development from 2004, while Thompson presented her Napier Street Housing project from 2001 (both of which we nevertheless think are skilled and beautifully composed works). Perhaps the bureaucratic processes of the DPCD are to blame: presumably there are many time-consuming hurdles that must be jumped before a project can be declared a Good Design Case Study.

It is worth noting that Fender presented a truly hideous multi-residential proposal for the Geelong waterfront that was thankfully scrapped after being rejected at VCAT. The building that was eventually built is significantly better, proud but gracious in familiar Fender Katsilidis fashion.

What we found most inspiring by the evening was the manifesto of Melbourne Open House itself. Aiming to transform Melburnians into tourists within their own city, MOH annually stages a weekend of open buildings around Melbourne. This year’s is taking place on the 30th and 31st of July, with 75 public buildings opening their doors. Theatres, architecture studios, houses, hospitals and office buildings, historical and contemporary, will all be free to enter and explore.

We are looking forward to MOH 2011 with great anticipation – we will wander our great city, cameras unashamedly in hand, gazing at it with fresh and unhurried eyes.