In my casual surveys of architecture students from first year to final, I’ve been surprised to discover how few engage professionally with social media. While Facebook is ubiquitous and many have Instagram accounts jammed full of selfies, there is little interest to extend this activity into the professional sphere.
This is the 7th of eight articles exploring the major social media outlets, how I engage with them, and how they might be of interest to students. An archive of the series can be accessed here.
WordPress Panfilocastaldi Direct subscribers: 193
Indirect followers: 961
Created: October 2010
Purpose: WordPress is a blogging and website content management system.
Staggering statistics: Depending on the articles you read, it’s estimated that about 25% of the internet runs on WordPress. More concretely, each month WordPress users produce 54 million new blog posts, and over 400 million people view 21 billion blog pages.
Community: There is probably a WordPress blog on every subject known to humankind, so the problem is less discovering your community and more whittling the millions of options down to the one in which you’re most interested. As it says in the Panfilocastaldi byline, my blog explores the culture, practice and business of architecture. It didn’t start this way, originally covering a much broader range of topics, but over time I have narrowed my focus down to this fairly specific subject.
Almost all of my followers are other architects running or working in studios around Australia. This makes sense, since this is precisely the audience for whom I write. Occasionally I meet someone at an event and discover that she’s been following (and benefitting from) my blog for years. I always act cool when this happens, but just below the surface I’m giving myself massive high-fives and whooping like a little boy who’s just discovered that Spiderman lives next door.
I follow a small number of other architects who maintain active blogs. This circle would be larger if possible, but there just aren’t that many architects committing themselves to generating content.
Posting: Before I had children, I wrote a lot more than I do now. My unwavering commitment however is to ensure I publish at least one article every month. This keeps the blog current, and ensures subscribers are exposed to regular content.
For students: I started this blog as a way of encouraging me to get off the couch. Having the blog inspires me to experience new things so I can write about them. The process of writing then encourages me to see more new things. It is a very positive feedback loop.
At architecture practice lectures I gave recently at both Melbourne University and RMIT, I asked students to raise their hands if they write a design blog. Of the 400 or so students in attendance, I counted only 5 raised hands. There should be more.
That Architecture Student. Masters of Architecture student at Melbourne University, writes about the trials of being an architecture student
This is the 12th of twenty-one lessons for design students, gathered from the combined experience of being a student, and teaching students. I will published one lesson each weekday until they’re done.
12. Learning is a two way street
Masters level design studios involve two 3 hour sessions of contact time per week. Across the 12 weeks of semester, this multiplies out to 72 hours in total. As it happens, I’m both a generous guy and bad at telling the time, so my 6 hours often evolve into 7 or 8. But even at 8, this is still only 96 hours across the semester.
An average design studio at the University of Melbourne contains 15 students. This means that after you’ve factored in my generosity, you have 384 minutes of contact time with me from the start of your project to the end. Not all of those minutes are productive however. You’ll need to bring me up to speed each studio session, which at 3 minutes a pop loses you 72 minutes. You’ll also need to factor in the odd session you miss, which at two across the whole semester loses you another 32 minutes.
This leaves you just 280 minutes with me, to help you achieve the best project you can. This is not a lot of time.
Fortunately, you have at your disposal a version of what Pixar president, Ed Catmull, believes is essential to the astounding success of his film studio: a Braintrust. Pixar’s version involves their best storytellers gathering every couple of months to review and constructively critique films under production. Catmull argues there are two key characteristics that make the Pixar Braintrust work: first, it comprises people who have been through the storytelling process themselves, and second, it has no authority at all. He suggests that this combination means a director under review holds the feedback she receives in highest regard, and is empowered to find her own solutions to the criticism.
So where can you find this magical Braintrust? Among the 14 students around you.
You needn’t conscript every one, a small group will do. It needn’t even be the same students each time. All that matters is that you regularly tap into the feedback of other intelligent, motivated and candid students. They are Pixar’s experienced storytellers: they understand design, know your brief and empathise with the process. What’s more, they’re available. They’re working on their projects as much as you are yours, so have time to give.
By establishing your Braintrust, you will inevitably by required to return the favour. You will need to provide criticism to your peers as they provide it to you. This shouldn’t be seen as a burden however, quite the opposite: teaching is one of the best ways to learn. Forcing yourself to constructively critique other projects will reveal the flaws in your own. It will also hone your ideas and your methods of communication.
As I’ve said before, sharing is better hoarding. Of the four design studios I’ve run, my first was the most successful. This is not to say that there weren’t brilliant projects in the subsequent studios, rather that the unusual camaraderie that existed among my first batch of students lifted everyone’s work. Indeed, while there were a number of students whose projects deserved the highest honours, the one who received them not only produced a great project, but was the most dedicated to the two-way street of learning.
Ed Catmull; Creativity Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration; Random House; New York; 2014. I strongly recommend you purchase this book, or at the very least read the linked excerpt.
This is the 9th of twenty-one lessons for design students, gathered from the combined experience of being a student, and teaching students. I will published one lesson each weekday until they’re done.
9. The teacup principle
Today is not the first time I’ve written about this principle here. I first discussed it four years ago, within an article inspired by Texan artist and writer, Austin Kleon. That article was the 10th in a series of lessons to my younger self, a series that now numbers 38, this article included. I discussed it again two years ago, within another article exploring the nature of experimentation and its role in the work of my practice.
Clearly, it’s a principle close to my heart.
The teacup principle was taught to me in my third year of architecture studies by Melbourne University academic, Alex Selenitsch:
Architectural ideas require a reference frame to be understood. If your idea is to take a shape and transform it into something new, using an unidentifiable blob is no help at all. Instead, use an instantly recognisable form, like a teacup, so that the changes you make can be perceived as having originated somewhere.
This principle concerns itself with the intersection of your design process and your form making. To be precise, it’s about imprinting your process into your form so it can be perceived and understood.
This is a critical step in your design project this semester. It’s the moment when you start giving shape to your ideas, and emerge from the realm of thought out into the realm of objects. Committing to just one of the infinite formal possibilities that could express your ideas is a huge effort. Getting it right is the true mark of a great architect. It proves that you are in control of the tectonics of architectural form, that you understand space and structure and material, and can bend them to your will.
The key to the teacup principle is to ensure that your ideas aren’t lost in their metamorphosis into built form.
Take an object of fragmented geometry, twist it and explode it. Now it’s just another object of fragmented geometry, and your design intervention is drowned. Take a china teacup instead, turn it upside down and paint it red. Now it’s an upside down, red teacup. The actions of your design intervention are powerfully evident because they’ve begun with such a banal object.
Let me share with you an important piece of hard truth: most of you will not produce a great design project this semester.
While I hope that you will all begin with aspirations of greatness, I know that many of you will stumble somewhere along the way. In the past four years of teaching a masters level design studio at the University of Melbourne, I have witnessed this with my own eyes: students who never quite get it from day one; and students whose work shows early promise only to unravel down the track.
A great project is a marathon not a sprint. It relies on getting a very long list of things very right.
I say this with the understanding that I did not always get this list right. Looking back on my student years, I am surprised I managed to get good marks at all. I swam blind through the design process, only fractionally more self-aware than a tree, and committed most of the sins I now know to be essential ingredients in the recipe for failure.
With the combined experience of being a student, and teaching students, I have gathered a few insights about what it takes to produce a great project. For ease of navigation, I’ve split these 21 lessons (okay more than a few) across the stages of the semester:
The finish line
Some of the ideas address big picture issues, others the minutiae. My focus will be on architecture, but most of what you will read is equally relevant for all creative disciplines. Starting tomorrow, I will publish one lesson each weekday. The series will also be archived under the tag, lessons for design students.
Three years ago, I reviewed an exhibition of John Wardle Architects and NADAAA‘s new Melbourne School of Design. Even at that early stage in its development, I was captivated by their proposal. It felt like it would respond well to Melbourne University’s urban campus, would engage meaningfully in its architects’ aspirations for a built pedagogy, and was sure to be finished with all of JWA’s usual flair for detail.
Then last year, I watched with keen interest as the building rose rapidly out of the ground, and in November was able to experience it finished and firsthand during presentations for my 2014 Design Thesis studio.
Construction was in fact only due for completion by the start of this year, but thanks to the efficiency of its builder, Brookfield Multiplex, it wound up a miraculous five months ahead of schedule. Unfortunately, the faculty wasn’t quite ready to return to its new home, so the building spent most of that time sitting idle, patiently waiting for students to fill its walls. The faculty is at last ready however, and the new Melbourne School of Design is now fully operational.
A couple of weeks ago I had the distinct pleasure of touring the building with John Wardle himself, at his softly-spoken yet enigmatic best, as part of an Australian Architecture AssociationShort Black tour. Prior to the tour, Wardle gave an incredibly insightful glimpse into the design thinking that shaped the MSD. No doubt well polished by many outings, his slideshow flew along at a cracking pace, bursting at the seams with the richness of the design.
I was particularly interested in Wardle’s characterisation of his studio’s relationship with its American counterparts, NADAAA. Unlike many global / local ventures, where the local studio plays lapdog to the other’s design genius, this was a truly equal partnership. Throughout the design process, input from the two studios was 50:50, with conscientious effort going into preserving this balance. Even during documentation and construction, NADAAA maintained an active role in the project, contributing to the documentation package and flying staff in to visit site.
No doubt this arrangement played a substantial role in helping the partnership win the commission in the first place. As Wardle noted, at the very least it gave them a distinct strategic advantage during the limited timeframe of the project’s initial open design competition phase, allowing them to work around the clock.
Also fascinating was the contractual relationship between university, architect and builder. For such a finely crafted building, I was surprised to discover that it was built under a novated contract. Typically used within the cut-throat world of speculative developments, novated contracts aim to deliver projects on budget but are infamous for expedient design results. But then Wardle added the punchline: the novation occurred only once the documentation was 100% complete. I didn’t get the chance to question him further, but I do wonder whether there was much to gain from such an arrangement.
So what do I think of the building?
As construction was nearing completion, I remember being struck by the seriousness of it. Even with hoarding still up, I could not help but be impressed by its ambition. It is a large, powerful and expensive institutional building, and weighing in at $125m is poles apart from its predecessor, which was built on a shoestring budget stretched to breaking point.
I have encountered criticism of the MSD budget, and the political role the building plays within the university’s never-ending bid to attract foreign investment. But to lament the role new infrastructure plays in a university’s marketing campaigns is to disregard the realities of the increasing financial pressures placed on tertiary education in this country. RMIT has the Swanston Academic Building and Design Hub, Melbourne University now has the Melbourne School of Design.
More concentrated criticism comes from staff whom appear to have been swapped from generous office space in the temporary faculty building on Swanston Street to more cramped quarters. One tenured professor also made the insightful observation that the new building is larger than its predecessor, yet its gross floor area is smaller. In other words, $125m for a bigger building with less in it.
As a sessional tutor without a dedicated office space, I suppose I have less skin in the game on these issues. I can stand at arms length from the faculty and assess the building with less bias. And really, I think the MSD is a very good building.
Despite its size, the complexity of its programme and its diverse structural, construction, environmental and finishing systems, the MSD is a holistic work of architecture. In both JWA and NADAAA’s transition from boutique houses to much larger institutional buildings, the studios have demonstrated their capacity to retain this quality in their work. The MSD is all the better for this focus, a whole entity greater than the sum of its parts.
Its monumental exterior is finely attuned to the environmental demands of the cartesian grid. The southern facade is the bluntest, polished precast concrete panels punctuated by an abstract composition of windows. Wardle showed an early design section looking at this facade from inside the building, revealing how fenestration was designed from the inside out to vary the feel of identically sized teaching spaces ranged along its length.
The northern, eastern and western facades are more filigreed, each draped in perforated zinc veils to block unwanted summer sun. Early iterations of these veils were motorised and automated, each piece puffing in and out in response to seasonal changes, but budget cuts meant true movement gave way to parametricism. This is an approach to design in which I confess to have little interest, but the result is a fine thing. Intricately stamped and seamed zinc sheets protrude from an irregular steel frame, both their density and opacity controlled by the computer to achieve desired solar outcomes. It’s worth noting also that zinc was chosen as the material for the veils after research into embodied energy found it to perform better than both steel and aluminium.
The base of the building is clad predominantly in glass, and is discrete from the upper reaches of each facade. It is transparent but not overwhelmingly porous. I suspect this is largely a university requirement for campus security, but I hope some of the more dynamic edge conditions will enrich the open spaces immediately surrounding them: an open amphitheatre to the northeast; galleries to the west; and a paved area to the north that is to be used by the adjacent timber workshop. This is a critical piece of the contextual puzzle and, until faculty programmes get fully up to speed, is for me still missing.
The urban transition between the Swanston Street tram depot and Union House, the most heavily trafficked entry route into the campus, is smooth. The angular protrusions of the east elevation are a welcoming embrace to passers-through. Wardle noted the importance of capturing this desire line, reflecting on the “largely unremarkable buildings at Melbourne University” that are contrasted by the “outstanding open spaces between them”. The internal street at ground level, designed to manage this flow of students, therefore establishes a new open space within the building. Its sloping concrete floor and joinery were conceived as a dry river bed, its edges activated by timber workshops and digital fabrication labs, the library and gallery spaces. Here is a more successful attempt at street-level public activation, and an opportunity to present to the many non-architecture students on campus the best that the faculty has to offer. Wardle even noted a secret agenda here, not to convert stray students into budding architects, but to instil in them an interest in its delights, and who knows, create future patrons of our art.
While the outside of the building enjoys an austere material palette, the list of internal materials is long: concrete, steel, aluminium, timber, plywood, glass, mesh, plasterboard, pinboard, vinyl, foam, melamine. But even here the monumentality of the building is preserved, with very little applied pigment anywhere in the building. If the riotous colour of the aforementioned Swanston Academic Building represents the epitome of RMIT, then the honesty of materiality within the MSD does the same for Melbourne.
The teaching spaces running along the south edge of the building open onto the atrium via cleverly rotating walls that engage in 21st Century thinking on tertiary learning. Gone are the old buildings’ acreage of drafting tables, which from my experience were alienating and rarely used. In their place are rooms that respond to what Wardle referred to as “nomads and settlers”, or the wide spectrum of spatial inhabitation particular to students. The teaching spaces therefore form eddies in the currents of circulation that wrap the atrium, encouraging engagement and, I would hope, the cross-polination of ideas.
The upper level corridors are activated by a morphing series of individual desks, benches and study tables. In some instances, these are little more than flat surfaces on which to rest a laptop, and in others are communal tables for spreading out and settling in. Further informal spaces litter the building, each picked out with its own personality, and all of them well-patronised during our tour. At once conspicuous and invisible, the stainless steel mesh that gift-wraps the atrium provides fall safety while doing away with more opaque balustrades.
Of all the communal rooms within the building, I am most fond of the grand scissor stair that connects the four floor levels from the atrium up. With its collegiate 1:3 gradient and criss crossing pattern, it is a natural social incubator. It is so gentle that it almost enforces a meandering pace and scholarly dialogue. It also addresses one of the major gripes I have with many institutional buildings, whose stairs are timidly tucked inside musty, unwelcoming fire shafts. The MSD has these as well, but the grand stair is so good to use I can’t see why anyone would bother with the lifts.
All elements of the MSD, both inside and out, have been designed to maximise the opportunities for a built pedagogy. In other words, JWA and NADAAA designed the building to play a role in the education of its students. The layers of construction, from primary structure all the way through to finished linings, are pulled back and revealed, their relationships explained. The steel trusses that run along the base of the grand stair for example are left fully exposed, machine markings and all. Each corner of the building expresses a unique way to execute junctions between materials. Timber panels in the coffered ceiling and hanging studio are, as Wardle puts it, in turns “raw and cooked”: structural members are left in their unfinished state while room linings are sealed and polished. Even the structural piles running around the perimeter of the building are visible thanks to carefully placed windows in the basement.
History plays a role too, with the Bank of New South Wales facade now incorporated into the west edge of the building. What used to be several floors of administration offices behind the facade are now a void, a curious strategic move that both relinquishes valuable gross floor area and accentuates the heritage engagement of the new building. Nostalgia over pragmatism? Heroism over sustainability? Perhaps this too is an opportunity for teaching through experiencing.
Such a sustained focus on built pedagogy will provide systemic benefits to the way curricula are devised and classes are taught. Construction tutorials will tour the building in search for structural members in tension and compression; environmental sustainability classes will study the solar paths that shape the zinc veils; and dreary lectures on services will now be enlivened by visiting actual services in use around the building.
The Melbourne School of Design is a highly accomplished building. Its holistic, singular vision is its greatest strength and will certainly lead to a host of deserved accolades. It does what most buildings do not, closing the gap between the process and outcome of making, telling the story of its genesis through the layering of its skin. Its spaces are for the most part generous and collegiate, (almost) making me wish I could go back and learn how to be an architect again. At the very least, I am pleased to be on the other side of the learning fence, and look forward to teaching within its walls next semester.
Curiously, the MSD’s singular vision may also be its greatest weakness. As one colleague remarked to me after the tour, I wonder if Melbourne University will now start churning out battalions of mini John Wardles? Even if they want to, can the students resist the design influence this building will have on them? In a roundabout way, this question leads straight back to RMIT, whose simultaneous investment in the minimalism of Godsell and exuberance of Lyons offers a more inclusive conversation about design. Clearly, Melbourne University has built (and is building) a host of other substantial works around campus, but as far as the architecture faculty goes, the MSD is more or less it.
For now, I can only say that I very much like this building. It is a worthy addition to Melbourne University’s beautiful campus, and I’m sure will become a valued environment for learning. It’s clear the students already feel this way: even at 8pm at night, the atrium space was abuzz with them. As we disbanded after the AAA tour, I discovered with some humour though that most weren’t studying architecture at all. They were medical students, who have apparently taken to the warmth of the building with zeal. Perhaps among them were Wardle’s future patrons, already alive with the spirit of fine architecture.
My thanks go to Steve Rose, the AAA’s hard working Melbourne representative, for organising the event.
Keen to prove their design partnership could be more than a one hit wonder, JWA and NADAAA have subsequently entered and won a competition for a new bridge within Melbourne’s sporting precinct.
Melbourne School of Design, open arms. This and all subsequent images courtesy of Nils Koenning.
Melbourne School of Design, north facade.
Melbourne School of Design, amphitheatre.
Melbourne School of Design, cantilever.
Melbourne School of Design, south facade.
Melbourne School of Design, zinc veil.
Melbourne School of Design, hanging studio.
Melbourne School of Design, coffered ceiling.
Melbourne School of Design, behind the heritage facade.
An italian architect and “urban change agent” who divides his time between Carlo Ratti Associati, the innovation and design studio he runs from Torino, and SENSEable City Lab, the research laboratory he leads out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston. Ratti’s design and research work overlap significantly, both focussing on the transformative effect of new technologies on our built environment and daily lives. The scope of his projects is incredibly wide, ranging from drone-based wayfinding to experimental furniture to citywide data mining.
Ratti began his seminar by quoting controversial American activist, George Gilder, who in 1995 claimed that “cities are leftover baggage of the industrial era… We are headed for the death of cities.” More moderately, fellow MIT scholar, Nicholas Negroponte, wrote in 1996 that “the post-information age will remove the limitations of geography. Digital living will include less and less dependence on being in a specific place at a specific time.” Far from the death of cities however, Ratti observed that the past twenty years have instead witnessed their unparalleled prosperity. Global urbanisation is more widespread now than at any other time in history, with just over half of the world’s 7.1 billion population living in urban areas.
Cities are thriving, but so is the penetration of digital technology into their fabric. “The digital revolution did not end up killing our cities, but neither did it leave them unaffected. A layer of networked digital elements has blanketed our environment, blending bits and atoms together in a seamless way.” Evidence of this physical and digital conversion – the cyberphysical – is everywhere: from the 4 billion smartphones in circulation globally and the infiltration of social media into daily work habits, to the proliferation of remotely controlled security systems and transport infrastructure.
For Ratti, the exciting extrapolation of this process is our ability to use digital technology to learn from cities in order to improve them. Many of his projects involve crowdsourcing tiny fragments of data that are in themselves meaningless but when gathered together form very large sets of useful intelligence. He seeks to convert the city into a realtime control system, with inbuilt feedback loops that improve its economic, social and environmental sustainability. A difficult undertaking with a simple justification: while the physical layers of the city – roads, buildings, services – are expensive to build and respond slowly to change, the digital layers are cheap to implement and able to evolve very quickly to changing circumstances. In essence, Ratti wants the digital to allow us to better use what we already have of the physical.
Ratti structured his presentation around a series of diverse themes of urban engagement, including Smart phone smart city, i-Mobility, New universities, and Living together. The projects employed a compelling cocktail of skill sets, involving among others architectural design, graphic design, algorithmic computing, electrical engineering and web app development. Intervening in the emerging overlap between the physical and digital space of the city, they convincingly capture Ratti’s inexhaustible inventiveness and hunger for urban change.
Though Ratti covered a lot of ground during his hour-long seminar, we will focus here on three projects only, the ones that struck us as most clearly demonstrating his multi-disciplinary approach to urban problem solving.
HubCab is an interactive visualisation that allows users to explore every taxi trip taken within the City of New York in a year: a network of journeys that leave no lasting trace but nevertheless stitch the whole city together. Like many of SENSEable City Lab’s projects, the seduction of the visualisation masks an extraordinary backend algorithm processing vast quantities of information. According to the HubCab website, the basis of the project is “a data set of over 170 million taxi trips of all 13,500 medallion taxis in New York City in 2011. The data set contains GPS coordinates of all pick up and drop off points and corresponding times.”
Employing an efficiency concept developed by Ratti’s team, shareability networks, the data set is analysed for potential redundancies i.e. whether a taxi trip travelling from point A to point B can be combined with a second trip travelling from point C to point D, thereby eliminating one trip entirely. When we click on a nominal trip, say from West 15th to East 54th Street (see above image), we can see that it forms part of a route with annual savings of $3.1m, 1.6m kilometres and 445,000kg of CO2. Ratti explained that employing shareability networks within a large, dense city like New York has the capacity to reduce the number of taxi trips in a year by a staggering 40%.
Map of Singapore where the scale is not measured in kilometres but travel time
Maps of central Singapore comparing mobile phone usage on typical days (left) and during the Singapore Grand Prix (right)
LIVE Singapore! is an exercise in citywide mapping, establishing “a feedback loop between people, their actions, and the city.” It gathers useful information like temperature, mobile phone usage, rainfall, taxi availability and traffic, and maps them with localised detail in realtime. The project team curated the mapping process, for instance juxtaposing taxi availability against rainfall, or mobile phone usage against a popular sporting event.
The selection of information types and process of juxtaposition reflect the true agenda of this project: “giving people visual and tangible access to realtime information about their city enables them to make their decisions in sync with their environment, with what is actually happening around them.” If traffic congestion mapping can accurately tell us how long it will take to get somewhere, we can leave early enough to arrive on time. If we know that taxis are likely to get snapped up whenever it rains, we can take the train (or authorities can ensure greater supply).
This project asks the question, “why do we know so much about the supply chain and so little about the removal chain?” It suggests that our interest in the supply of local produce does not extend to waste processes in large part due to our lack of awareness of them. TrashTrack seeks to highlight the movement of our waste products from household bins to final destinations.
Using a simplified version of technology found within mobile phones, Ratti’s team developed a tracking and broadcasting device that could be attached to pieces of waste. The team then invited 500 volunteers to tag regular pieces of household rubbish, 3,000 items in total ranging from old sneakers, to empty cans, banana peels and dead batteries. Once the volunteers went home and threw out their tagged waste items, the tags started reporting their locations and establishing tracking vectors of their movement.
The tags, or smart dust as Ratti referred to them, established a network of tiny locatable electromechanical systems. The video of the mapping process is astounding: items of waste found their way from Seattle to every corner of the United States, in the case of some alkaline batteries not coming to a rest for two months.
What did we learn?
To understand Ratti’s work, we must consider the way he views the major forces affecting contemporary urban environments. The rapid growth in global urbanisation is his first and perhaps most important influence: Ratti does not deny the decentralising tendencies of digital technology, but attributes the city’s survival despite these tendencies to our deep need for social contact: people want to live together. His works are inherently social, interested in enhancing the connections between people and their environments. Rather than permitting digital technologies to alienate the inhabitants of a city, he wants to empower them with new and unprecedented control.
Second, and essentially the core area of Ratti’s interventions, is the aforementioned and ever-expanding blanket of networked digital elements. He is impatient with the slowness of hard infrastructure, far more interested in the opportunities presented by new digital technologies: data, networks, connections and apps that have the power to reach and affect millions of people at a time. He reasons that a city is not such a big place nor such a mysterious creature to understand, not when millions of people are already walking around in it, already absorbing and transmitting data about their environments.
For us, we are most impressed with the clear DNA of Ratti’s projects. They tackle issues of environmental sustainability, quality of life, resource use, cultural engagement and social spaces. If these questions seem familiar it’s because they are: they’re the same questions architects face. What the architecture profession traditionally addresses via urban and building design, Ratti addresses with digital, scaleable technologies. His is an exciting new world, one where the practice of architecture retains its worldview, but expands to encompass whatever tools and skills are necessary to get the job done.
This thinking has been recently manifested in a project not discussed by Ratti in his presentation but already receiving a lot of attention online and now available for pre-ordering, the Copenhagen Wheel. An electric motor that attaches to the rear wheel of a bicycle, it “transforms the bicycle into a hybrid e-bike that also provides feedback on pollution, traffic congestion and road conditions in realtime.” This project is an exciting development within Ratti’s work, one that shifts his practice beyond demonstration into application. We look forward to seeing more of it.
A national lecture tour presented by the Australian Institute of Architects‘ 2013 Gold Medal recipient, Peter Wilson. In eloquent symmetry, Wilson returned last month to his alma mater the University of Melbourne to present the final lecture of his 10 day tour. The Carillo Gantner theatre was filled with a respectable though not overwhelming audience, the front row of past medallists and dignitaries most notable for its abundance of middle aged men.
Wilson delivered his lecture in an accent more non-specific European than Australian, a symptom no doubt of his late 1960s gap year to Europe that has never ended. He finished his studies at the Architectural Association in London in 1974, then went on to teach there for 16 years. He was Rem Koolhaas’ first teaching assistant, an intense experience it appears, as Wilson still recalls Koolhaas’ indomitable personality, “When you are with Rem, there is no room big enough for a second ego.”
In 1989, Wilson and his wife, Julia Bolles, won a design competition for their celebrated Münster City Library and moved to Germany to establish their practice, Bolles + Wilson. Though we see from their website that they entered this year’s Lodge on the Lake competition in Canberra and have completed a multi-residential project in inner Sydney (Victoria Park, 2006), we wonder how often Wilson returns to Melbourne and whether he still identifies with the much-altered built fabric of his home city.
The early competition win for the Münster Library has evolved to underpin much of Bolles + Wilson’s work, with libraries featuring heavily amongst their finished projects and competition entries still representing 80% of their portfolio. The Gold Medal jury acknowledged “that it’s not easy to gain commissions in Europe, however Wilson’s firm’s ongoing success with international competitions has intensified his reputation and further supplements his powerful collection of architectural works.”
Prime Minister’s Lodge, Canberra 2013
What do we think?
Bolles + Wilson’s projects share a DNA of formal invention, or as Sir Peter Cook has described it, recognisable armatures and “ship shapes”. In his introduction to the AS Hook Address, AIA Victorian Chapter president, Jon Clements, remarked on this quality as particularly Australian. At first we couldn’t see it, the projects, like Wilson’s accent, striking us as non-specific European in their urbanism and detailing. But further consideration has made us rethink this early impression: their often exuberant forms would happily snuggle up against the cerebral works of ARM or Lyons, and their bold materials and palette of primary colours have more than a little of artist Jeffrey Smart about them.
If anything, the Australian-ness of Bolles + Wilson’s projects lies in their playfulness, the gentle good humour they share with Wilson himself. Most illustrative is Suzuki House (Tokyo, 1993), an asymmetrical composition in concrete punctuated by unusual protuberances and described by Wilson as “a house glanced by a passing ninja.” In this instance the protuberances comprise a series of uneven windows and a small gantry crane to permit the delivery of furniture, however these design gestures reoccur at all scales of their work, fine details supersized to match the size and context of even their largest projects.
Wilson related an encounter he had with the daughter of his clients for Suzuki House some years after its construction. He was interested to discover if she had “suffered any psychological trauma as the result of growing up in the house,” but was bemused to discover that to her adolescent mind, the black ninja blob was the eye patch of a giant panda. To us, the eye patch, window protuberances and leg columns recall the fantastical creatures of Perth children’s book illustrator, Shaun Tan. We imagine Wilson would welcome this reading, his good humour masking a deep interest in layered narratives and unexpected interpretations.
Beyond questions of form and identity, Wilson spoke extensively of architecture’s relationship to urbanism. He described the Japanese city whose entire DNA is contained within every fragment; the impact of digital technologies on the centralised, European city; and of sequential planning, buildings that reference their context in turn becoming the context for yet other buildings. Here Wilson spoke with great authority, a result no doubt of his built experience across a dozen or so European countries.
New Luxor Theatre, Rotterdam 2001
Of the projects presented, the New Luxor Theatre remains for us one of Bolles + Wilson’s most engaging urban interventions. Located close to their earlier Bridgewatchers House (Rotterdam, 1996), it began life as part of a masterplan for the waterfront district of Rotterdam, its amorphous shape earning it the affectionate title, The Blob (or in Dutch, The Bloob). Formally, the red motif that defines the project begins with the flytower, in many ways the functional heart of any theatre, and wraps around all facades. Wilson remarked that the New Luxor is unique for having no back end, it is all front. Its organisation is in fact ordered around truck access, which for acoustic reasons is separated from the auditorium by a deep atrium. A ceremonial stair follows the truck ramp and atrium, a strategy that relates to Wilson’s “bottom up pragmatism, the design originating from the pragmatics of its context.”
Less urban but more fanciful are the executive offices for German furniture chain, RS+Yellow (Münster, 2009), a project Wilson revealed with canny showmanship and careful choreography. First he showed images of an elegant pavilion nestled within a large lake, an idyllic rural setting for an office building. Soon though came the big reveal: the lake is only a few hundred millimetres deep, spanning the 60 x 66m rooftop of a conventional warehouse building, “the Mekong Delta brought to the German suburbs.” A great deal of attention was paid to infinity edge detailing and compartmentalisation of the water, together intended to prevent wind-driven water from creating artificial tsunamis across the roofscape.
Finally, Wilson presented ideas of material, space and light, all tied together by what he termed operative beauty. In the Münster City Library, light is channeled down from the roof via long skylights, bounced off internal white walls and along the angled outer wall, clad in acoustic timber panels. The further one moves away from the timber wall and towards the depths of the library, the darker and more intimate the reading spaces become. Wilson explained that Bolles + Wilson developed from 3 to 12 people during the design and construction of this project. In addition to shaping their future expertise in competitions and libraries, its 3 year documentation period also defined their “entire language of details”, all the way down to custom cast-aluminium bookshelf legs that they continue to use today.
What did we learn?
During his address, Wilson presented a large number of projects, touching all too briefly on the significant elements of each. Covering so much territory, we found it difficult to draw out the essential themes of his architecture: Wilson’s ideas of bottom-up pragmatism and operative beauty could and perhaps should have filled the entire lecture. On the one hand, we suppose the very mandate of the AS Hook Address is to display a life’s work, but on the other, we feel it should also be an opportunity for self-reflection: to not just summarise, but analyse.
Assessing Wilson’s small drawing of Water House, Sir Cook notes that he has “yet to see a more evocative depiction of water and stream in any human-produced drawing.” We would have liked to learn more of Wilson’s attitude towards the drawings for which he is rightly famous, or the influence his expatriate identity has on his work, or Bolles + Wilson’s approach to winning competition entries and their general mode of practice.
This criticism aside, the extensive oeuvre of Bolles + Wilson is impressive, in both its typological and geographical diversity. We are keen to visit some of their projects as we imagine them to be even better in the flesh than they are on celluloid. Peter Wilson is a worthy recipient of the Gold Medal, another in the long line of Australian artists flourishing overseas and rightly recognised for his long career of important architectural contributions.