A new advocacy player

ArchiTeam; Architecture; Logo; Graphic design; Melbourne; Australia
This article is co-published with ArchiTeam.

In July last year, ArchiTeam launched a working group tasked to find ways it might “educate the public about the value of architects through marketing and public outreach”. This endeavour proposes to engage in both marketing and advocacy activities, a canny mix of pragmatism and altruism that I believe has the power to simultaneously promote our profession and protect the built environment.

But before I elaborate, it’s worthwhile asking the question, why?

There are at least a dozen different organisations competing for a slice of the Melbourne architectural advocacy pie, and ArchiTeam is far from the largest, best funded, most widely known or most experienced in the sector. These are pretty compelling reasons not to get involved with the often poor rewards of architectural advocacy. However, they hardly paint a full picture of the importance of this work, nor the role ArchiTeam might have to play.

Pub; Demolition; Rubble; Raman Shaqiri; Stefce Kutlesovski; Developer
The Corkman Pub, illegally demolished by developers Raman Shaqiri and Stefce Kutlesovski.

Why get involved?

As I have discussed previously (herehere and here), the built environment has too many enemies reaping profits from it at any cost for the architecture profession not to have a go at stemming the tide. Increasing housing unaffordability, ever-present developer greed, the emerging effects of climate change, and a conspicuous lack of planning leadership from government are all hacking away at the future legacy of contemporary architectural production.

Confronting these challenges can seem a mountainous task, but as Gregg Pasquarelli has poignantly described, the architecture profession is guardian of the built environment. Our often lonely role in pursuing quality over quantity demands that we enter the fray whenever and however possible.

This means it’s not enough to just produce the built environment, we need to proactively defend it as well. Lawyers have successfully achieved this within the legal system by exploiting case law, an area they know best. Doctors have done it too, setting up referral systems between general practitioners and specialists that support the entire profession. Architects must do the same.

And indeed, there’s no time like the present. In Melbourne, Daniel Andrews is proving to be far more open to engagement than his predecessor, who infamously met with the Australian Institute of Architects only once during his tenure. In Sydney, the proposal to demolish the Sirius Apartments has met with considerable and coordinated public resistance. And in both cities, festival calendars are overflowing with architecture and design events attended by audiences numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

Now might also be the best time to address a rarely voiced truth: it’s not just the built environment that needs help, the architectural profession could do with a hand also. We are losing the fight for Darwinian supremacy, with any number of rival professions beating us at our own game. Have you ever heard of a cheaper version of a lawyer? Of course not.[1] Architects meanwhile must fend off competition from every project manager, building designer, draftsperson and real estate agent thinking they can do it better. If we don’t start protecting our territory with the necessary ferocity, we will soon find ourselves filling a curious yet extinct ecological niche.

So it isn’t really a question of why ArchiTeam should compete for a slice of the advocacy pie, but how.

Advocacy; Logos; Graphic design; Nightingale Housing; Parlour; Pecha Kucha; Open House Melbourne; Robin Boyd Foundation

How to get involved?

Fortunately, there are some shining examples of successful advocacy already at work in Melbourne. They operate at different scales and with different forms of agency, but all share the common goal of promoting architecture and architects. Some have been in action for many years, laying the groundwork for an increasingly design-aware public.

It’s important to distinguish here between public advocacy and government lobbying. The latter is a more procedural endeavour, with all manner of special interest groups clamouring for the same rarefied airspace. There are lots of special interests, but not so many politicians, so lobbying needs to be focussed and internally consistent. As our peak professional body, the Australian Institute of Architects has already assumed this role of government liaison, and should be supported in presenting a unified position to Canberra and Spring Street.

Public advocacy is in many ways the opposite of government lobbying. It is grassroots not topdown, generalised not specialised, conversational not dogmatic, and has room for diversity. The millions of individuals that comprise the general public all have their own interests and passions, and are constantly forming and reforming into tribes searching for chiefs. Want to knit some scarves for trees? There’s a society for that. Can’t get enough parmigiano reggiano? There’s a collective for that too.

So there’s room within the public advocacy domain for ArchiTeam to find its own voice, and its own tribe. To my mind, the organisations that have already carved their own successful niches and are undertaking the best public advocacy work in Melbourne right now are:

  • Melbourne Open House attracts hundreds of thousands of participants each year to its behind-the-scenes tour of the city. It captures the voyeur in everyone, inspiring intense curiosity in buildings and architecture.
  • The Robin Boyd Foundation has allowed a somewhat smaller but perhaps even more passionate audience to discover many of Melbourne’s best private houses. The Spring open day of residential award winners in particular gives a glimpse into the amazing things made possible by working with an architect.
  • Pecha Kucha is a global network of public presentations with architecture at its heart. It’s short, sharp and unpredictable, the diversity of speakers ensuring an equally diverse audience.
  • Nightingale Housing is an alternative housing development model that aims to disrupt the profit-incentivised status quo. Primarily an organisation that builds apartment buildings, it has dramatically altered the conversation around affordable housing within the profession and beyond.
  • Parlour has demonstrated that it is possible to affect positive systemic reform where business as usual is both entrenched and harmful. It has successfully injected gender equity into the centre of design, practice and leadership decision-making.

It’s also worthwhile mentioning the excellent Save Our Sirius campaign in Sydney, which is fighting to retain the brutalist Sirius building on the Sydney Rocks. Tracing its lineage to the Green Bans of the 1970s, this is an incredible example of smart advocacy that utilises a rich mixture of crowdfunding, legal action and public events to further its cause.

These and other examples can act as touchstones by which ArchiTeam shapes its own approach to public outreach. They catalogue the forms of agency already covered, or even saturated, and reveal the mechanisms by which other organisations are getting it right.

Game of Thrones; Small; Dwarf; Powerful

Small but powerful

So how does ArchiTeam fit into this heady cocktail?

Well, first and foremost it is unique in being a Melbourne-centric member organisation for small practice architecture. 80% of its 500 or so member practices are concentrated in Melbourne and rural Victoria, and almost all have fewer than five staff. This is in contrast to the AIA for instance, whose 11,000 + members are spread across every State and Territory, and work within every size and type of architecture practice.

Second, ArchiTeam members are pragmatists, and already positioned at the coalface of public advocacy. Fooi-Ling Khoo, a sole practitioner and director of ArchiTeam, observed to me that “we’re typically the first architects people work with, or even meet, and are often the ones who convince them they need an architect at all.” Crucial advocacy work is done on this one-on-one level, through an extensive collection of invisible and laborious interactions.

In the context of public advocacy work, small and pragmatic may in fact be better. The AIA was noticeably absent from the powerful anti-tollway sentiment that grew up around the Napthine Government’s doomed East-West Link. It was perhaps prevented from taking a strong stance by having to wrangle with the political implications of large practice members who were involved in the project.[2] The much smaller Australian Institute of Landscape Architects faced the same conflict-of-interest dilemma, but felt no qualms in taking a position and advocating loudly for it.

While larger organisations must somehow grapple with the conflicting and regularly mutually exclusive demands of a diverse membership, ArchiTeam is largely homogenous. It represents predominantly small studios, most of whom work on residential projects. These qualities make ArchiTeam more focussed, more nimble, less stymied by governance red tape, and better able to jump on an advocacy opportunity when presented.

Being small should allow ArchiTeam to concentrate on initiatives that resonate across its membership, to craft a singular voice on issues of interest to the general public, and to react rapidly when opportunities erupt from nowhere and evolve quickly. In time, this will allow ArchiTeam to become a public authority on small practice architecture, and contribute meaningfully on issues where small practice has a qualified opinion. This is an important ambition, and one that honours the member interest that sparked ArchiTeam’s decision to engage in advocacy work in the first place.

As a member of ArchiTeam’s advocacy working group, I’m excited to see where the energy of the membership will lead. The working group has now met a number of times over the second half of last year. These preliminary sessions were aimed at working out the why, the how and the what of advocacy, and have arrived at some inspiring conclusions.

I’ll cover my experience of this process in a subsequent post, but will leave you for now with this pertinent observation from Noam Chomsky:

“If you assume there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to a better world.”


Footnotes:

  1. Conveyancers perform a similar role to lawyers on simple property transactions, but there is no confusing them for the real McCoy.
  2. The AIA did release a position paper on the proposal, but avoided wading into the political battle. It instead focussed only on the proposal’s design qualities.

Image sources:

  1. ArchiTeam logo, sourced from ArchiTeam.
  2. Corkman Pub, sourced from Consulado España Melbourne.
  3. Advocacy logos, sourced from Nightingale Housing, Parlour, Pecha Kucha, Open House Melbourne and the Robin Boyd Foundation.
  4. Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister, sourced from HBO.

Architecture and compromise

Make Architecture, Architecture, Design, Timber screen, Melbourne, House
Local House by Make Architecture

The Robin Boyd Foundation‘s winter open day was held last month, with ten recent Australian Institute of Architects award winning projects open to visit. The unseasonably warm August Sunday was filled with at least 600 architects and architecture lovers roving around Melbourne, enjoying houses and apartments converted for the day into temporary museums. With our 3 year old and 7 month old in tow, my wife and I were grateful to at least make it to three of them:

Local House and House 3 firmly belong to a Melbourne way of making architecture, in their use of space, materiality and detailing. They felt familiar to visit, perhaps because the design challenges they address – a temperate climate, tight sites, ResCode, the changing needs of growing families – are the ones I face everyday in our practice. Sometimes these challenges are inspiring, sometimes they’re painful, but they always imbue a project with a certain Melbourne DNA.

As I nosed around each house, I found myself nodding in agreement. I could understand their design moves, the intent beneath the surface. I recognised both the challenges Make Architecture and Coy Yiontis would have faced and their accomplished solutions.

Each is a clear example of doing plenty with little. Local House cleverly matches a simple form with rich detailing, concentrating the money where it can do most good. House 3 seems hindered less by a limited budget than limited space, tiny bedrooms exchanged for a generous and varied living environment. They are both Melbourne in a nutshell, strong contemporary expressions of Kenneth Frampton’s critical regionalism.

Mexican Contemporary House is, in contrast, an exercise in otherness. Commissioned by an Australian Mexican couple after living for a time in Mexico, it was designed by a protégé of the great Luis Barragán and then documented and administered locally. That it is located in Melbourne seems more of a coincidence than a catalyst. It pays scant heed to climate, planning controls or even the desire for comfortable living. Its DNA is international, even its house-ness is questionable – as much a monastery as a family home.

These are not criticisms, just observations. I loved it. I loved the voyeuristic quality of visiting it, witnessing how the other half live. I loved the quality of its materials and strangeness of its details. I was amazed and delighted to discover that it even smelled like overseas (I still can’t figure this one out: was it the enormous Pine timber floorboards, the Cedar timber joinery, the concrete walls? Whichever, the scent reminded me nostalgically of the convent where I lodged in Rome as a student).

Finishing on this alien masterpiece put the familiar concerns of Local House and House 3 in context. It highlighted how important place, culture and shared experiences are in shaping our regional language. It also reminded me that there are many other ways to execute a building, and much more to domestic architecture than what we make here.

Coy Yiontis, Architecture, Design, Timber screen, Swimming pool, Melbourne, House
House 3 by Coy Yiontis Architects

There is a second taxonomy that groups Local House and House 3 together on one hand and Mexican Contemporary House on the other. As the title of this article indicates, it is the way in which compromise influences an architectural outcome.

Irrespective of whether a client has a few hundred thousand or a few million to spend on her house, it is a universal truth that she inevitably wants more than she can afford. I’ve discussed the tense relationship between budget and brief before, but what it boils down to is that somewhere during the design process the two need to be reconciled. Sometimes (rarely) this means swelling the budget until it matches the brief, sometimes (just as rarely) it means cutting the brief until it matches the budget. Most commonly, the two meet somewhere in the middle.

Such a compromise does not necessarily infer an undesirable outcome, quite the opposite. Managing this process is one of the things that architects do best. Compromise is just another way of saying balance, a quality to which every project should aspire. How can the design solution maximise the most variables? How far can the budget be stretched? Which goals should be prioritised and which sacrificed?

Visiting another architect’s project is a unique opportunity to analyse how she achieves this balance. I imagine my experience in this regard is much like a director watching someone else’s film. Instead of an action-packed chase sequence, she sees the number of stuntmen involved, the cars that were destroyed, the technical requirements of camera angles. Likewise, because I understand how architecture is conceived and executed, I am able to see some of the machinery that lies beneath the skin.

Make Architecture are particularly savvy in understanding how to spend money well, to strategically sacrifice parts of a building in order to spend up big in others. I don’t mean to say that they employ Boyd’s hated featurism here, rather that a modest building can punch above its weight when focussed parts of it have more going on.

Local House has done this through a very clever juxtaposition of expensive materials (the off-form concrete fireplace and benches, the elaborate timber screen) and humble ones (inexpensive bricks, routed MDF cupboards in the wardrobe, site painted cupboards in the kitchen). It is also much smaller, and its rooms more sparsely furnished, than I had expected. There is commendable economy here: tucked behind the kitchen, where you might normally find a generous butler’s pantry, there is not just a pantry, but a laundry and a study nook also. The payoff is the grandness of the double height space, the intimacy of the fireplace and concrete surrounds, the beauty of the timber screen.

With House 3, Coy Yiontis had a different challenge to address: how to fit a family with four teenage children on a tight Balaclava block. Space is the primary commodity here. Providing generous bedrooms would have inevitably compromised the living areas, so the reverse compromise has been made instead. All five bedrooms are crammed in upstairs, much smaller than is typical, with the entire ground floor left for living.

The planning of this living environment is intriguing, with the front door pushed back into the centre of the block. Sandwiched between new and old is a courtyard and swimming pool that are the house’s welcome mat, a source of light, and the centre of communal living. Ranged around the courtyard are the living rooms, each with its own character: a sunken family room, cool meals area, plush carpeted library (an adult space recently appropriated by the children, as evidenced by the games console poking out from under the television), and my favourite, a corridor that counter-intuitively doubles as day bed and retreat.

I appreciate the decision making here, and the clear order of priorities: 1) courtyard 2) living 3) sleeping. Coy Yiontis would have had to work hard to make sense of these priorities, negotiating the strict planning limitations of suburban building. The house is consequently a triumphant expression of its design process.

Andrés Casillas, Evolva Architects, Architecture, Design, Concrete, Melbourne, House, Luis Barragan
Mexican Contemporary House by Andrés Casillas and Evolva Architects

In stark contrast, Mexican Contemporary House is entirely uncompromised, and the result of an unwaveringly singular vision. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that it possesses such a powerfully monolithic form, austere material palette and reductive detailing. It is an epic manipulation of form, space and light with direct lineage back to Le Corbusier. A 2.1m high entry corridor opens onto a triple height living room; corridors and staircases are barely shoulder-width and loop over and around each other to create continuous circulation routes through the house; every detail is stripped back to its most minimal form.

Digging below the surface, I discovered that everything about this project seems unlikely, or as Walt Disney liked to put it, plausibly impossible.

Its design architect is an 80 year old protégé of one of the great 20th Century architects, perhaps one of the last living connections to that golden era of hope. Its design was undertaken entirely in Mexico, without Casillas ever visiting site or even setting foot in Australia. Its construction techniques and detailing are fastidiously monolithic. Its unapologetic design demanded a nationwide search for an agreeable energy rating consultant. It is located in an unremarkable suburban street on a flat plot whose main quality is a land area large enough to render issues of neighbourhood character moot.

It was a truly mesmerising building to visit, the be-socked crowd of architecture lovers hushed and in utter awe of its majesty. But it is also completely alien to the local demands of Melbourne architecture.

If Local House and House 3 are superb examples of contemporary Australia art, then Mexican Contemporary House is a Caravaggio. The former are rich, engaging, intelligent and accessible. The latter is stark, powerful and unquantifiable. In retrospect, I’m glad I visited it last because the reverse order would have unjustly diminished the others. Life is generally such a negotiated experience that when true freedom comes along, it comes as a surprise. I suppose this is the nature of compromise: its absence exerts a reality distortion field on everything around it.

Robin Williams, Architecture, Cantilever, Water, Swimming pool, Melbourne
Villa Marittima by Robin Williams Architect

Such freedom in architecture is rare, occasionally witnessed in projects like Mexican Contemporary House when a client evolves into a patron, or more commonly when architects design houses for themselves. Villa Marittima by Robin Williams Architect is such a project, a multi-level house entirely without stairs. In their place is a continuous ramp that zigzags back and forth from the front door to the rooftop. The entire floor of the house is sloped, including everything from bedroom and bathroom to kitchen and swimming pool. From what I’ve seen in photos, it’s a truly bizarre building and a forceful experiment in the fuzziness of field architecture.

Happily, the Robin Boyd Foundation winter open day extends to include a visit to Villa Marittima in early November, along with Sawmill House by Archier a few weeks later. The Villa Marittima visit will coincide with an Australian Architecture Association event, At Home with the Architect. Williams will be in attendance late in the afternoon, providing what I’m sure will be engrossing insight into the thought processes that underpin his project.

Stay tuned for further discussion.


Image sources

  1. Local House, Make Architecture. Photography by Peter Bennetts
  2. House 3, Coy and Yiontis. Photography by Peter Clarke
  3. Mexican Contemporary House, Andrés Casillas and Evolva Architects. Photography by John Gollings
  4. Villa Marittima, Robin Williams Architect. Photography by Dean Bradley

Richard Leplastrier

richard leplastrier

In the early 1960s, during construction of the Sydney Opera House, Jørn Utzon and his office designed and documented his own house in Bayview, 30km north of Sydney (1965, unbuilt). Utzon agonised over the extent of windows facing a particularly beautiful view. Should the wall be fully glazed or only partially?

After many weeks of indecision, he summoned his staff into the bush and down onto the beach. Utzon had them sit between two large sand dunes, facing towards the water. Their entire field of view comprised the straight line of the sea and curving lines of the dunes. “Watch and wait,” they were instructed. Presently, a seagull flew into sight from behind one dune, across their view corridor, and disappeared behind the other.

Utzon turned to his staff and said, “Only show a part, never show it all. The imagination can fill out the picture more powerfully than reality ever could.”

palm garden house#1

palm garden house#2

palm garden house#3
Palm Garden House, 1976

Who is he?

One of Australia’s most important architects, and also one of the most private, Leplastrier graduated from Sydney University in 1963 and worked with Jørn Utzon then Kenzo Tange prior to establishing his own practice in 1970. He works from his house and studio in Lovett Bay on small, intensely crafted projects. He draws by hand and builds 1:20 scale models detailed enough to be the blueprints off which his designs are built. He is a national treasure who was awarded the Australian Institute of Architects Gold Medal in 1999 and made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2011.

Leplastrier presented the final lecture of the Zeitgeist series at Walsh Street last week, a collaboration between the Robin Boyd Foundation and Centre for Cultural Materials Preservation. The series sought to understand the consequences of making and conserving works of architecture, and to what extent their physical fabric is a measure of design intent. I discussed the first lecture of the series, given by Brian Donovan in February, here.

To wind down the last of the early evening light, Leplastrier began his talk without slides, reflecting on half a century in architecture. He spoke of his university years and the lasting influence of Lloyd Rees, with whom he and his fellow students drew and painted every Wednesday afternoon for five years. He spoke of his apprenticeship in Utzon’s office, still proud that he worked on the Opera House, if only for three weeks, and still disgusted that Utzon was exiled from the project and the country. He discussed his time in Japan, and life lessons learned under Tomoya Masuda, the subtlety of that culture mingling with the brashness of his own middle-class Australian upbringing.

When afternoon eventually graduated to dusk, Leplastrier segued into his visual presentation, beginning with photos of the people by whom he has been most influenced: Rees, Utzon and Masuda principle among them. Then, a selection of slides from around the world that are to him archetypes of sustainability, beauty and cultural value: the Grundtvig Church in Copenhagen, a masterpiece in brickwork so perfect that no brick was cut in its construction; the Ise Naikū Shrine in Japan, that has been rebuilt every twenty years for almost two millennia; and the Stick Shed on the Wimmera, an enduring legacy of Australian wartime ingenuity.

grundtvig church

ise shrine

stick shed

What do I think?

Leplastrier structured his presentation around four projects: his own house and studio, and three houses for private clients spanning forty years. This was a fascinating way of revealing the development in his philosophy of architecture, from the intricate and expensive detailing of Palm Garden House (Sydney, 1976) through to the humble forms of Cloudy Bay Retreat (Bruny Island, 1996) and a recent cottage for an elderly couple, the name of which I have forgotten. Unlike many architects, whose budgets and design ambition expand as their reputations grow, Leplastrier seems to have achieved the reverse. His projects are simpler now, more modest, more direct in their crafting.

I can only speculate, but I imagine this trajectory is reflected in his fees and the cost of his buildings also: they are made from fine materials, but they are small and assembled with a deeply efficient understanding of structure and construction. Leplastrier is not interested in architecture for the money (though as previously discussed, who amongst us are?). Instead, he works for remarkable clients with remarkable briefs on remarkable sites. They all have their own stories, cultural capital from which Leplastrier draws his inspiration. The relationships with the people around him and the land his designs touch, these are the things he cherishes.

Leplastrier is not the sort of architect to whom one goes for a quick bathroom renovation or back verandah extension. To him, architecture is “symphonic, every part crucial to the completeness of the whole. It is more than building, realised through a thorough understanding of place, space, light and structure. Launched into life, such works do not need owners but custodians.” Leplastrier’s clients are his patrons, passionate about the natural environments they inhabit and his vision for their dwellings. He spoke of his first visit to the Palm Garden House site, a piece of land covered end to end by a tropical profusion of palm trees. His future client asked what he had in mind for  the house, to which he answered, “You already have the house, it’s here under the canopy of these trees.” His client said, “I think we can work together.”

He built many of his early projects himself, Palm Garden House and Lovett Bay amongst them, though readily defers to the abilities of master craftsmen. It was clear from his slides that some of his oldest and closest friends are the builders with whom he has worked. Growing up around boats, and the “great boat builders of southern Tasmania,” Leplastrier developed a lasting passion for timber. Synthetic materials, he explained, are remarkable in their own way, but no other material can match the versatility and beauty of timber. He still marvels at the diversity of this naturally-grown material, each species with its own qualities and purposes.

cloudy bay retreat#2

cloudy bay retreat#3Cloudy Bay Retreat, 1996

What did I learn?

Much in keeping with Leplastrier’s approach to architecture, he does not have a website. Printed publications of Leplastrier’s work are also scarce: there is only one that I have come across, in honour of the 2004 Spirit of Nature Wood Architecture Award, and it has been out of print for years. A small selection of his work can be viewed on the Architecture Foundation Australia website: hopefully this will lead the way in the near future to a much-needed monograph.

The AFA is an organisation that, among other activities, runs annual Student Summer Schools on the Pittwater north of Sydney, a masterclass I was fortunate to attend in early 2008. Leplastrier, together with fellow architects, Peter Stutchbury, Lindsay Johnston and Glenn Murcutt, acted as guide, mentor and critic during an indelible week of collaborative design, drawing, thinking and making.

Even in that setting, surrounded by architects of extraordinary integrity, Leplastrier stood out. His approach to architecture is legendary: he camps for days or weeks on a site prior to commencing design work; his understanding of timber and its characteristics is unparalleled; he eschews fixed price contracts and the detailed documentation they require, working instead within cost plus frameworks and resolving most of his detailing on site; he does not work with ordinary builders, but master craftsmen; he is, and has been for forty-three years, a sole practitioner. Leplastrier is as close to the architectural version of the Bush Tucker Man we have.

Despite not having seen him for five years, Leplastrier recognised me when I greeted him prior to the Zeitgeist lecture, commenting that the audience (whose tickets were all purchased within a day of going on sale) comprised many of his past students. It came as no surprise that the devotion Leplastrier pays to his craft was returned with such enthusiasm. He is a wonderful man and a powerful reminder that architecture can offer something beyond building contracts, marketing and office systems: he is the embodiment of that oft-cited but rarely equalled claim of Frank Lloyd Wright, that architecture is the mother art, without which our civilisation has no soul.

lovett bay#1

lovett bay#2

lovett bay#3

lovett bay#4Lovett Bay House, 1994


Image sources:

  1. Richard Leplastrier, author’s own image with permission of subject
  2. Palm Garden House living roomArchitecture Foundation Australia. Photography for this and subsequent Palm Garden House photos by Michael Wee, source: Karen McCartney; 70 | 80 | 90 Iconic Australian Houses; Murdoch Books; Sydney; 2011
  3. Palm Garden House contextArchitecture Foundation Australia
  4. Palm Garden House drawingsArchitecture Foundation Australia
  5. Grundtvig ChurchJust Talk About Art. Photography by Soy José Antonio Agramunt
  6. Ise Naikū Shrine, John W. Bennett. Photography by John W. Bennett
  7. Murtoa Stick Shed, Culture Victoria. Photography by Heritage Victoria
  8. Cloudy Bay Retreat context, Architecture Foundation Australia. Photography for this and subsequent Cloudy Bay Retreat and Lovett Bay House images by Leigh Wooley and others
  9. Cloudy Bay Retreat drawingArchitecture Foundation Australia
  10. Lovett Bay House living deck, Architecture Foundation Australia
  11. Lovett Bay House contextArchitecture Foundation Australia
  12. Lovett Bay House canopyArchitecture Foundation Australia
  13. Lovett Bay House interiorArchitecture Foundation Australia

The legacy of Robin Boyd

robin boyd

Who was he?

The name, Robin Boyd, should be known to every Australian architect. He was a Melbourne architect prominent in the postwar era, but many decades ahead of his time. He was a proponent of an environmentally sensitive and locally specific adaptation of modernism, a teacher, a writer, an ambassador for the profession, and a political agent committed to the advocacy of good design.

Boyd was awarded the Australian Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal in 1969 in recognition of “the many distinguished works of architecture and architectural writing for which he has been responsible.”

Though his design career encompassed a number of larger works, including churches, colleges, some of Australia’s first motels and the Australian Pavilion for the 1967 World Expo, Boyd’s enduring focus was in the residential sphere. Working predominantly with lower income families, his houses were the results of an egalitarian commitment to accessible architecture. In a country staunchly and inexplicably devoted to housing designs poorly suited to its culture, climate and construction technology, Boyd utilised effective design, simple materials and new prefabrication methods to provide cost effective, high quality buildings.

Throughout his two hundred or so completed houses, Boyd’s work was characterised by restrained materiality, a sympathetic engagement with the natural landscape and a warm humanity. They were also polite buildings, as mindful of their neighbours and streetscapes as they were their internal amenity. A half century before the Victorian ResCode planning scheme enshrined in regulation the need to consider a building’s impact on its surrounds, Boyd’s work sought sensitive solutions for both his clients and the built environment.

As indicated in the Gold Medal citation, this approach was reflective of a broader dedication to good architecture and the propagation of its values to all Australians irrespective of wealth or background. In addition to his residential work, Boyd is remembered for The Australian Ugliness (1960), a timeless attack on the fickleness of Australian cities and one of nine books published in his lifetime; the National Trust of Victoria, which he helped establish in 1956; and the Small Homes Service, whose first director he was from 1947 until 1953.

the australian uglinessFirst edition dust jacket of The Australian Ugliness, 1960

What is his legacy?

More than any of his contemporaries, possibly more than any Australian architect since, Boyd’s engagement with architecture and the built environment extended far beyond the confines of his individual projects. The Small Homes Service and associated lifestyle articles in The Age influenced a large part of an otherwise design illiterate public; his lecturing posts at universities here and abroad influenced the next generation of architects; and his publications have continued to influence every generation since. If we were to distil all of these activities, and the values behind them, into a single phrase, it would be to expose the general public to the benefits of good architecture.

robin boyd foundation

Since 2005, this philosophy has taken formal shape in the Robin Boyd Foundation, a not for profit organisation originally established by the AIA and National Trust, and committed to the continuation of Boyd’s legacy. Beginning with the purchase of Boyd’s own house in Walsh Street, South Yarra, the Foundation now runs half a dozen open days a year providing access into modernist and contemporary houses; seminars from contemporary architects and their clients at Walsh Street; annual publications returning Boyd’s writings to print; and, beginning at the start of this year, an intensive workshop session for architecture students not unlike the Ozetecture Summer School in Sydney.

These programmes all share a common DNA intimately tied to the Foundation’s mission statement. The open days are most representative: according to Tony Lee, executive director of the Foundation, typically 50% of the five hundred or so attendees at each open day are not associated with the design industry. Then there are the open houses themselves: otherwise inaccessible to the public, they are either modernist projects by Boyd and his contemporaries or new houses by some of Australia’s best architects. Here is an ongoing opportunity for architects and architecture to engage closely with the general public, and in so doing for the public to learn about the value of both.

There is another initiative the Foundation hopes to undertake, one that perhaps will even better respond to Boyd’s legacy. The reincarnation of the Small Homes Service as the New Homes Service will revive what we suggest was Boyd’s greatest achievement. Originally a canny collaboration between the AIA and The Age, the Service published weekly designs from 1947 into the 1960s for small houses of 100 – 120sqm in the Tuesday Age, available for members of the public to purchase for £5. Boyd accompanied each submission with articles offering comment on design and lifestyle ideas resonating with his modernist values.

The Small Homes Service was born from a simple idea, but achieved a sophisticated array of positive outcomes. Such a coup is almost impossible to imagine these days, addressing many of the aims that Boyd, and indeed the entire profession, holds dear:

  • Boyd’s weekly lifestyle articles were eagerly anticipated, an injection of design culture both desired and valued by the general public.
  • The complete design and documentation packages were available for purchase for what in today’s money would equate to $2,500, a fraction of an architect’s usual fee.
  • The limited run of each design, capped at 50 editions, returned 40% of proceeds to the design architect promising an income similar to one-off projects while also providing a measure of exclusivity for purchasers. Much like a limited edition print of an original artwork, this was an immensely appealing way for homebuilders to achieve high quality design solutions with great cost effectiveness.
  • The houses were built by sections of the public otherwise unable to afford boutique architectural design, thereby expanding the influence of architects rather than competing with their usual client base.
  • And most importantly, the general housing stock was improved through the broader involvement of architects, developing real alternatives to the environmentally insensitive, cookie-cutter offerings of volume builders.

Lee believes the key to the success of the Small Homes Service was its ability to offer houses radically departed from the typical housing stock of the day. Skillion roofs, open plan living, planned extendibility, large expanses of glazing and northern orientation were at the time highly challenging concepts. Neil Clerehan, director of the Service from 1954 to 1961, adds that this success was also in very large part thanks to Boyd’s unique combination of qualities: a talented designer and writer, he was also a respected commentator and enthusiastic ambassador for the profession. The truth is revealed in the numbers: according to Clerehan, as many as 10% of all new homes constructed in Victoria during the Service’s peak were built according to its designs alone.

The New Homes Service will be established on the same principles as the original, but is likely to neither aim for nor achieve its predecessor’s impressive market saturation. Lee acknowledges that competing with today’s volume builders would be undesirable. Instead of trying in vain to match their prices, he instead sees the revitalised Service as a vehicle to once again test radical housing proposals. Arguing that Australia’s housing stock has remained largely unchanged since the significant leaps of Boyd’s era, perhaps design can once again transform the industry. Lee says he would be satisfied to achieve fewer built projects with the compensatory hope that, much like the car industry whose new technologies trickle down from the most expensive models to their utilitarian counterparts, new ideas achieved in those projects might have a positive impact on the rest of the housing market.

What should we learn?

To be successful, the New Homes Service will have to overcome significant hurdles not yet in existence in the 1950s. A wider array of lot sizes, established building stock in both inner city and middle suburban areas, stringent town planning regulations and more expensive construction costs will all take their toll. However, careful targeting might ameliorate at least some of these complexities. The larger lot sizes, greenfield sites and looser planning controls of the outer suburban growth areas are all conducive to the Service’s offerings, as is a population demographic usually more interested in volume built housing than architectural design. This is the one area of Melbourne where architects have the least involvement and where the New Homes Service stands to have the greatest positive impact.

A further challenge is the Service’s current lack of a media partner, a critical ingredient to the original’s success. Lee’s preference would be to have The Herald Sun on board, though how a newspaper, in today’s media-saturated environment, will help generate community interest and design sales is yet to be determined. Similarly, the absence of an environment in which an individual with Boyd’s complimentary talents in design, writing and construction finance, together with his willingness to act as ambassador for other architects, will further test the benefits of a newspaper mouthpiece for the Service. One thing is for certain; no single media outlet will be able to match the brand prominence Boyd was able to achieve with The Age. Maybe its natural successor is not a newspaper at all, but a television show like Grand Designs or another organisation entirely, unrelated by industry but connected through shared values and worldview.

Perhaps in pre-emptive response to this issue, Lee is taking a different strategy to Boyd’s original practice of anonymity within the Service. Due to what Clerehan explains was the common social practice of frowning upon advertising within the professions, Boyd architecturally edited submitted projects to suit the Service’s needs and then released them for consumption without attribution to their original authors. In poignant reflection of our contemporary attitudes towards advertising, the New Homes Service will conversely utilise established architects with their own cultural capital to attract early interest. For now, Lee is remaining tight lipped about whom he has approached, though we wager that the architects whose work features in various Foundation initiatives will be first on the call sheet.

This strategy indirectly highlights a challenge that is made all too clearly when reading The Australian Ugliness today, 53 years after its publication. The social, regulatory and communications conditions in Australia may have changed significantly since the 1950s, however our built environment is as ever riddled with poor quality housing. Looking back at Boyd’s ideals and considering the legacy he has left behind, it is unsettling to realise how many of the changes experienced by housing in the intervening decades have been negative. We may have planning regulations requiring consideration of neighbourhood character and amenity issues, but that has not stopped the bulk of housing becoming larger, more neglectful of the natural environment, less considerate of climate and less well designed.

This is not to suggest that architects are designing poorer houses, far from it. It is the absence of architectural involvement in what has anecdotally been described as 95% or so of all new houses in Australia that is to blame. If the architecture profession ever wants to shift this percentage in its favour, it needs to undertake a significant paradigm shift. If Boyd has taught us anything, it is that the conscientious architect is not just a designer of expensive beach houses. There is a social dimension to our profession, an important responsibility we have for the built environment. While there are any number of very good organisations engaging with the communities most in need around the world, there are few prepared to deal with the less glamorous, everyday kind of isolation experienced by the significant part of Melbourne’s population living in its outer suburbs.

Should it come into being, the New Homes Service may well respond to this challenge, however house design is only one part of a large, complex problem, nor does it eliminate the responsibility shared by the rest of the profession. What we are suggesting is not necessarily that architects design more houses. Indeed, Boyd himself recognised the paradox of this position, noting that “there are not enough artists to cover the world’s architecture; but if there were it might be too many”. Instead, we need to step beyond our design roles, take on advocacy positions, invest ourselves in political and regulatory change, and most importantly, expose the general public to the benefits of good architecture.

walsh street houseWalsh Street House, home of the Robin Boyd Foundation

This is the full and unedited text of an article by the same name that appeared in the March issue of Architecture Australia. A subsequent release on ArchitecureAU can be viewed here.

Bad architecture drives out good

sir thomas greshamSir Thomas Gresham by Anthonis Mor van Dashorst (1565)

What is it?

A paraphrasing of Gresham’s Law, an economic principle proposed in the 16th Century by adviser to Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Thomas Gresham. The law, bad money drives out good, described the devaluation of the precious metal content in circulating coins. When new, low precious metal content coins were issued by the Queen, Gresham observed that older, higher precious metal content coins quickly disappeared: either hoarded by the public as a primitive form of savings, or retained by the government to melt down and create more of the new.

We first came across the principle in 2004 while studying The Political Economy of Design under Professor Paolo Tombesi at the University of Melbourne, a subject and a teacher we recently discussed here. Now only offered sporadically within the Master of Architecture program, the subject “seeks to position and discuss architecture in relation to the world of production, economic interests and community benefits, at a local and global scale”. As evidenced by this article, written nine years after we took the subject, it has imparted lasting influence over our interests and values.

If you are a student at the University of Melbourne and The Political Economy of Design is offered in coming semesters, it would be a crime for you not to enrol in it.

Gresham’s Law may be a simple observation, but it has sophisticated ramifications that describe the devolution of production in almost any corner of industry, architecture included. The analysis that follows owes much to Michael Benedikt‘s excellent article on the subject, Gresham’s Law and the Logic of Efficacy.

Bad architecture drives out good, an illustrated story

A house comprises 1,000 qualities, set N, which collectively enable it to function. These qualities include things like bedrooms, insulation, robustness, waterproofing, solar orientation and timber benchtops. Each quality costs its builder $1,000 to produce, equalling a total construction cost of $1,000,000.

total qualities

As is true with any product the world over, the purchasers of the house are cognisant of fewer qualities than it contains, set n. The qualities of which they are not aware are hidden from their layperson’s sight, like the thermal mass of its concrete slab, the anti-rust properties of its stainless steel hinges or the acoustic insulation in its internal walls. The precise size of set n varies between purchasers, however in all cases n < N. If there are say 600 qualities the purchasers appreciate, each worth $1,000, they are prepared to pay only $600,000 for the house.

appreciated qualities

Thus the builder of the house faces a dilemma: the gap between its total and appreciated qualities, N – n, represents a financial shortfall. While the house costs him $1,000,000 to construct, its purchasers are only prepared to pay $600,000.

quality gap

So how does the builder address the financial shortfall? According to Benedikt, there are two basic solutions.

Builder #1 pursues the first and simplest: the strategy of contraction. This strategy reduces the number of qualities built into the house so as to reduce its construction cost. By eliminating the 400 qualities unappreciated by the purchasers, he need only spend $600,000 in production and will thus recoup all costs upon sale.

quality contraction

Builder #2 pursues the second and more complex: the strategy of education. This strategy maintains the full number of qualities built into the house, but seeks to inform the purchasers of their importance. Once the purchasers appreciate all 1,000 qualities, they are prepared to pay the $1,000,000 production cost and, once again, he will recoup all costs upon sale.

quality expansion

The two strategies do not promise equal success. Contraction enables builder #1 to reduce the cost of production up front, diminishing his financial risk. It also permits his house to be sold more cheaply than the house of builder #2, an easy and effective marketing advantage. In contrast, builder #2 must bear the risk of a more expensive production cost, together with the additional cost of educating potential purchasers. Further, there is no guarantee that once suitably educated, they will indeed purchase his house.

This imbalance is magnified when extrapolated over time. The strategy of education is a long-term approach, with better educated purchasers interested in houses containing all 1,000 qualities at best a distant benefit. The strategy of contraction promises much faster returns: the cheaper house of builder #1 attracts more purchasers more often. Soon enough, the market is saturated by his houses and the better quality houses of builder #2, unable to compete, disappear from circulation.

It doesn’t matter that the purchasers benefit from the 400 discarded qualities, nor are disadvantaged by their absence, only that they don’t appreciate them. Presented with two houses side by side, with nothing discernible to distinguish them, the cheaper house inevitably wins. Ultimately, Gresham’s Law prevails: education is expensive, risky and time-consuming; contraction is cheap, virtually risk-free and fast. Bad architecture drives out good.

What do we think?

Our contemporary built environment has been shaped over recent decades by no force more influential than Gresham’s Law. We see it everywhere. It is the reason volume housing, which represents around 95% of all new housing construction, is of poor quality. It is the reason for down-skilling in young tradespeople. It is the reason that the majority of new building systems and materials substitute quality for efficiency. It is the reason that McMansions exist; that housing estates are filled with poor-performing, flimsy buildings.

A commercial timber window fabricator told us recently that his company abandoned solid timber jambs in favour of finger jointed pieces around 3 years ago when his competitors made the change first. It doesn’t matter that solid timber offers a more uniform finish and superior durability to finger jointing, only that the purchasers not know this. Since the downgrade, not a single customer has complained.

Gresham’s Law is also the reason that architects and boutique builders are incapable of competing with volume housing construction rates. We regularly encounter potential clients who weigh up our bespoke design services with the contracted services of draftspeople or products of volume builders. Despite our strident efforts to explain the unevenness of this comparison (in which we make ample reference to the analogy of the suit), we find ourselves on the losing side of an ongoing and long-lasting battle. One recent potential client was outraged that our proposed fee could possibly be 6 times more expensive than that of a draftsperson. No amount of frank discussion explaining the services we provide could sway them: we missed out on the commission.

Our experience is evidence of the depressing but not surprising truth that the Australian public does not appreciate the value of good architecture. Gresham’s Law has been at work for far too long here, the lure of cheap houses having displaced for decades the benefits of true quality. One need look no further than any of the new housing estates springing up on the fringes of Melbourne to see the truth of this.

merndaMernda, a Metricon community 30km north-east of Melbourne

Dear reader, can you imagine one of these houses, or any of the thousands like them, serving generations of inhabitants in the way that the worker’s cottages of the early 1900s have? Can you imagine them being renovated and updated for changing tastes through the decades, but being essentially retained? No? How about the idea of them being demolished in 10 years, dumped unceremoniously in landfill and replaced?

This is the legacy of almost 500 years of Gresham’s Law, and it all started when the Queen discovered that a coin with negligible precious metal contact can be worth its face value simply because she said it was. Translating this concept into the realm of architecture reveals that marketing and spin are more important than the truth, that the Australian public desire quantity over quality and precious few can tell good architecture from bad.

What can we do about it?

Opposing the relentless forces of contraction is a time-consuming, expensive and risky undertaking. Asking individual architects to do this within their practices is an almost impossible task. The sheer numbers are against us here: 140,000 new houses are built each year in Australia, but architects are involved with only 7,000, or a mere 5%. One cannot fight cancer one damaged cell at a time.

Gregg Pasquarelli observed in his recent Dean’s Lecture at the University of Melbourne that the most environmentally sustainable action available to an architect is to “create buildings that people love, that don’t get torn down every 10 – 20 years.” This is certainly a significant part of the equation, but it is a philosophy most architects are already practicing. Perhaps in areas of dense architectural involvement, specifically the city and inner suburbs, this has already translated into an appreciation of good design. Such is not the case the further out one travels however. How can we pursue the difficult strategy of education amongst the vast majority of people – from Mernda to Caroline Springs – who are ignorant of architecture and disinterested in its value?

We have three suggestions:

Media advocacy. In public forums and across all forms of media, advocacy provides the opportunity to talk to people about architecture. The Architects radio show on Triple R is a shining example of this approach, as are Houses magazine, Melbourne Open House and the Robin Boyd Foundation. The most striking shared quality of these enterprises is their appeal to laypeople. 70% of attendees at the Robin Boyd open days are non-architects, while the MOH weekend last year recorded 135,000 visits.

As such, a key quality of successful advocacy is accessibility: it is not avant-garde theory or collective back-patting; it is a concerted effort to engage the public with their built environment. Despite its mandate that asserts otherwise, the Australian Institute of Architects is not good at advocacy. It expends great effort in lobbying government but neglects popular media. Every time Jon Faine discusses an issue concerning the built environment, an AIA representative should offer an opinion; daily newspapers should provide more visibility to the AIA and seek quotes as a matter of course; and television shows about design should involve architects more heavily and celebrate them in the way reality-TV cooking shows do chefs.

Beyond design. We came across a blog article recently noting that in the past 50 years only one United States federal politician was an architect.[1] The article associated the marginalisation of the architecture profession with our conspicuous absence from roles of public office and common interest. Having government architects at state and federal levels is a good start, but we need to step up into positions of wider responsibility: in politics, universities, major institutions and company boards. In our practices, we seek creative solutions that are long-term, wide-ranging and socially responsible. If this rare paradigm can work for buildings, why can’t it work for government portfolios?

Perhaps our undoing in this regard is, ironically, our love of architecture. Being an architect is so rewarding that we are not prepared to leave it for elections, committees and policies. Certainly, there is ample evidence to suggest we love the practice of architecture sufficiently to put up with being paid terribly to do it. Nevertheless, public office is a serious responsibility in which we are obliged to take part: more of us need to accept its burden.

School education. Finally, the education of young minds. Every individual in his or her life will engage with architecture more frequently and meaningfully than he or she ever will with calculus, sound waves or organic chemistry. Why then is architecture not taught at school level? Why does every student not graduate from high school with a basic knowledge of sustainability principles, the history of Australian architecture and the innovations of the Sydney Opera House?

A number of years ago, we successfully introduced a term of architectural design into Year 11 Visual Communications and Design at Caulfield Grammar School. Though we are no longer involved, we believe the subject is still running. Looking back on the experience, we realise that an arts subject is not necessarily the best place to learn about architecture: after all, our agenda is not to create more architects but to inspire more interest in architecture. If we are to reignite our teaching involvement at school level, we will aim to do so not just through the arts, but science and history also.

With an entire socio-economic framework founded on the principles of Gresham’s Law, it will be no small task to reverse the status-quo of architectural ignorance. Working as individuals, we cannot afford the time to educate every potential client that walks through the door, nor accept the risk that once educated he or she won’t go elsewhere. If we are to have any success at all, we must work together as a profession. We must also realise that our design work is not in itself sufficient to affect fundamental change. To do that, we’ll have to step well beyond our comfort zones and accept positions of responsibility in the wider community.


Footnotes:

[1] We were able to discover two, Richard Swett, a Democratic congressman from 1991 – 1995 and Eric Johnson, a Republican senator from 1994 – 2009. Not since Thomas Jefferson has a President of the United States been an architect.

Community

This is the 9th instalment in a series of 10 articles where we attempt to categorise chronologically and thematically the list of things you will need to start your architecture practice, and furnish it with the glimpses of insight we’ve accrued during the first three years of our architecture practice, Mihaly Slocombe.

9. Community

membership

When: Later
Importance: Moderate
Cost: Varies
Difficulty: Varies

Almost every aspect of your architecture practice, from the quality of your designs, to your marketing strategies, to your financial management, can benefit from your involvement in the right communities. By this we do not only mean the people who live next door, but your cultural and professional communities too. In other words, other architects, designers and the institutions that support them: collectively these people are a ready-made source of advice, assistance and feedback.

The types of communities in which you might take part can be roughly divided into five categories: design, business, marketing, culture and tribal. To make the most use of these, be prepared to juggle the full breadth of media the world has to offer, from online forums and social media, to international awards programmes and local lecture series. You will need to spend plenty of time in front of your computer screen, but just as much time getting out to actually meet people.

You will know you have chosen the right communities when you find they keep overlapping. The truth in this was neatly displayed when we attended the Presentations to Juries a month or so ago: shuffling from room to room with us were people whom we follow on Twitter, with whom we share blog discussions, attend lectures and seminars, present at design talks, studied and worked.

Design communities are those that allow you to present your design work and review the work of others. If all that happens once a project is presented is a round of applause, you are not participating in a design community. Reciprocity is essential to the success of these communities, as is the willingness of their participants to be critical about one another’s ideas. Given architects’ reluctance to subject themselves to negative criticism, even constructively offered, they are very hard to come by. We suggest you start one yourself, perhaps with friends from university whose journeys into architecture practice parallel your own. Every couple of weeks we catch up with one or two friends over lunch to discuss design and practice in a loose but longstanding arrangement affectionately referred to as the Round Table. We entered the Flinders Street Station Design Competition together and, we must confess, could do better in heeding our own advice by presenting our work to one another more often. Design communities cost whatever you’re having for lunch.

Business communities are those that help you get better at any of the myriad skills and processes you need to keep your architecture practice afloat, from big picture things like time management and fee negotiation, to detail things like filing systems and contact lists. We take part in the Australian Institute of Architects‘ Small Practice Forum, a group of 30 or so architects that meets every two months to discuss subjects like marketing, fees, office manuals and, most recently, cloud computing. The Institute also runs plenty of continuing professional development events that are well worth attending: the oddly named but business-savvy Blue Turtle Management and Consulting (BTMC) have presented a few such events, one of which we discussed here. The cost of Institute membership varies and is generally hefty (we pay around $1,000 a year), however we feel its value is priceless.

Marketing communities are immensely abundant, require a huge amount of time to maintain and rarely pave the way for new projects. We say rarely, because every now and then they do, which will render every hour spent previously worthwhile. Houzz is an interesting tool that allows designers to upload photos of their work (1,000,000 so far an counting) to an indexed and searchable database that other people selectively add to ideas albums. It is also a useful way to have clients give you a summary of their tastes and design interests. New Architects is a series of casual design presentations run every couple of months with a strong emphasis on young designers. A website is on its way, however invitation is currently by email list or word of mouth only. Various agencies around the world, including Houses Magazine, Design Institute of Australia and Australian Timber Design Awards here, and World Architecture News and Architectural Review overseas, all hold annual awards programmes for both speculative and built work. There are many, many others. Finally, 70% of Australians own the houses they live in: the more you connect with your neighbours and local community, the more likely you are that you will get work from them. Houzz and New Architects are both free to join, though most awards programmes will cost $200 – $400 per entry.

Cultural communities will not necessarily win you new projects nor allow you the opportunity to present your work to the world at large, but they will increase your appreciation of good design and generally nurture your soul. Melbourne is blessed with a large number of organisations that foster such communities, including the Robin Boyd Foundation (RBF), ParlourMelbourne Open House (MOH) and C + A. Each has its own dedicated focus: modernist architecture for RBF; women in architecture for Parlour; public open days for MOH; and concrete for C + A. All run lecture and seminar programmes, publish journals and offer access to some of Melbourne’s best architecture both past and present. The cost of events varies, from nothing in the case of MOH’s annual open day to $65 for Parlour’s upcoming Transform workshop.

Finally, tribal communities are those you start yourself. They are generally online, often emanate from a blog or Twitter feed, and focus on one issue or interest area. They are not necessarily central to the architecture work you do, but revolve around it or are related to it. There are two important qualities of the tribal community: first, you are its chief; and second, you are its chief because you have been talking about its interest area before anyone else was. To paraphrase Texan artist, Austin Kleon, to whom we have paid tribute here, if everyone is talking about apples while you’re interested in oranges, you should start talking about oranges anyway. Eventually, when the rest of the world catches on to how great oranges are, you will be an established orange guru and natural chief.

Participating in any or all of these communities will grow what we have come to call your cultural capital i.e. the value you have to the culture around you. As your presence in awards programmes, forums, lecture series, blogs and design organisations grows, so too will your cultural capital. This capital will not necessarily win you projects and will certainly not turn you into a starchitect overnight. However, if you enjoy your communities without thought to future stardom, you will find your capital grows of its own accord, a development that we believe can only have a positive impact on your future design career.

To build is good

What is it?

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

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

c houseC House, Coorparoo Brisbane (1998)

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

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

santos placeSantos Place, Brisbane (2009)

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

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

What did we think?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We just don’t get it… Or do we?

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

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

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

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

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

c house sectionLongitudinal section, C House


Image sources:

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