Affirmative yes – but definitive?

The 2013 Affirmative Architecture Symposium in Sydney brought together architects working on transformative projects for positive social change. While it was certainly affirmative, Sam Spurr asks if it was definitive enough.

Australia is home to some excellent architecture. Excellent not only in the sense of aesthetic production but also in the thoughtful engagement of site, cultural and social context, and inhabitation. Presenters at the Affirmative Architecture Symposium showed how many such projects could be discussed without the pseudo intellectualization or self aggrandizement that so often accompanies architecture. With an emphasis on smaller firms, the mix of established players from Durbach Bloch Jaggers to emerging practices such as Searle x Waldron and contemporary young stars like Andrew Burns, created an earnestly optimistic atmosphere.

While I am usually highly critical of architects simply presenting their own work, there was a conscious endeavour to discuss projects through a more expanded lens than simply what a building looks like.

But where does this all lead? By the end of the two days, I was left with a sense of being duped. The title of the symposium cannot but reference the potent political social movements that have swept across the globe over the past five years. Built on agendas that demand nothing less than social transformation, the assumption was that this symposium would pose arguments either internally to the discipline or further outward, as to its relevance in society. This posture was amplified by the chosen graphics that hark back to the creative call to arms of the Bauhaus and the Russian Constructivists, a demand for change.

The final panel however closed with the sincere yet breath-takingly unambitious statement of using the occasion to ‘celebrate what we do in practice’. The question that arises is ‘do we really need another extended Pecha Kucha for architecture?’

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This is a somewhat facetious statement as I don’t believe that’s what the creator of the Affirmative Architecture series, Martyn Hook, aims for with these events. This is the third in the Affirmative Architecture series that started in Melbourne (2010), moved to Perth (2011) and in 2013, Sydney, allowing for different audiences and the curatorial participation of new local practitioners.

For the Sydney version, Rachel Neeson (Neeson Murcutt) and David Neustein (Other Architects) provided this regional intelligence, although the invited speakers came from across Australia. The symposium began strongly with Hook laying the foundations for thinking of architecture beyond the simply formal, knocking Howard Roark from his pedestal as purveyor of all knowledge and putting forward the customary but still cogent lineup of alternative role models such as Cedric Price and Bucky Fuller.

The central question was how architecture can contribute and respond to the community, with the emphasis on ‘doing’ rather than talking about doing. It’s a central issue for architectural practice, not just in Australia, but globally, and repercussions of this examination have potentially radical implications on architectural education.

Diego Ramirez-Lovering took up this argument with the work being done at Monash Architecture Studio (MAS). This kind of practice-based research stands as a powerful example of Hook’s provocation to practice, a studio dedicated to identifying the key or emerging issues facing Australian living and developing arguments around those issues through architectural propositions. From MAS’s location within an academic institution Ramirez-Lovering was the best placed to critically articulate the repercussions of their practice, however the clear social agenda, whether implicit or explicit, was from then on in difficult to pinpoint.

Camilla Bloch (Durbach Block Jaggers) and Rachel Neeson stood out for their astute and thoughtful reappraisals of each firm’s strong and diverse body of work, while Aaron Peters (Owen and Volkes and Peters) took time to present the humanist and civic objectives of their Queensland houses. Although I had assumed there would be more projects that were overtly socially oriented, there is something interesting in examining different scales of political architectural action. While there is no arguing the committed social agenda for the student projects in Thailand by keynote Andreas Gjertsen of Norway firm TYIN tegnestue Architects, or in the complex spatial programming in the West Kimberley Regional Prison by Iredale Pedersen Hook, attention to and engagement with more quotidian issues such as the car (Trent Woods) or indigenous dwellings (Neeson Murcutt) show how diverse architectural forms can operate as productive, political agents. The diagram of the domestic dwelling is a highly contested political space and while initially I was dispirited to see few medium- to high-density housing projects on offer, there is still the chance to explore this contemporary question in the freestanding house. But while elegantly refined projects, it is hard to see in Tribe Studio’s white Sydney houses or Room 11’s stark Tasmanian residences any serious typological transformations or innovations.

Neustein suggested that rather than continually trying to affirm our position to the public, that perhaps we should just affirm ourselves. The idea that the discipline needs to abstain any further from engaging with a public that ‘just doesn’t value what we do’ is naive and ultimately suicidal. Architecture has been making this complaint for decades, but rather than fortifying the profession, a retreat from the public simply leads to a dwindling role in the creation of daily life. The discussion of how better to engage with public perceptions, government and institutions is a far more useful one to insure that good projects actually get built.

There is often a tough expectation on successful architects that as well as making good architecture, they should be able to astutely analyse and reflect on that work in a larger context. However I believe it’s up to the organisers and moderators to make time for conversation, identify germane issues and cultivate relevant debate. And for me this was the real failure of Affirmative Architecture. It’s here that symposiums as events can have real effective force, when they shift from the singular voice of individual speakers, into a fully rounded discourse with all its multiplicity, complexity and generative potential. This is what architecture needs. Pick up any magazine and you can see that the work is there, what it lacks is critical direction.

Affirmative Architecture Symposium was held at the Powerhouse Museum Sydney, 15–16 November 2013.

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