An architecture of engagement

The 2009 A. S. Hook Address, by Gold Medallist Ken Maher.

Over the years I have highly valued the role and significance of the Institute. For me it is best characterized by one of its somewhat rebellious founders, John Horbury Hunt, who described its purpose as: “assiduous cultivation of the art, the science, the literature and the honourable practice of architecture.”

I have been genuinely overwhelmed by the honour of being awarded the 2009 Australian Institute of Architects Gold Medal and the opportunity to give the A. S. Hook Address tonight. For me, this recognition is a reflection of the support, permission, tolerance, friendship and creativity of many people who have made my work possible and my life in architecture a stimulating and enjoyable adventure.

I believe architecture and design are potent forces in our culture – and in our daily lives – which can enrich human experience and uplift the spirit yet are hugely underrated. We are now poised at a critical turning point for the way we live and use the finite resources on our planet, so the opportunity for architecture and design to reshape the future is greater than ever before.

The ANZ Centre (2009), Docklands, Melbourne, by Hassell and Lend Lease Design.

The ANZ Centre (2009), Docklands, Melbourne, by Hassell and Lend Lease Design.

Image: Emma Cross

Public responsibility
Writer David Malouf notes that if we are to have a civilized society then we need “the capacity to make a distinction between what belongs, in the way of loyalty, to clan or sect or family, and what we owe to neighbourliness; what belongs to our individual and personal lives and what we owe to res publica or Commonwealth, the life we share with others.”

For me, the Institute represents the public role and responsibility of architects in their considerable potential to contribute to the public good. It is also a place for the profession to collectively express ideas and stimulate debate in the public interest. Architecture is a very public art. This view is shared by a number of friends in the profession in Sydney, and was reinforced just recently by Philip Thalis in his 2009 Paul Reed lecture at UNSW, where he reminded us of Mendes da Rocha’s assertion that architecture can address the needs of the population “in ways that can be public, democratic, free, enlightening and positive”. I propose to broaden this focus beyond architecture to encompass collaborative and multidisciplinary design. In doing so it becomes a focus that I believe will be essential in facing the future.

We live in challenging times: climate change, resources depletion, increased urbanization, inequity and poverty and, of course, the recent global financial crisis. My reflections are founded on optimism in our human capacity for change, a belief in the human spirit, a passion for the value of design thinking and, above all, an enthusiasm for the collective wisdom that we can develop as a society in the face of substantial and seemingly insurmountable challenges.

Collaborative practice

Whatever I have done to be considered for this award has only been possible with incredible support from many wonderful people in my personal life, my work and in my more public activities. Their support, permission, tolerance, friendship and creativity have made my work possible and my journey a stimulating and enjoyable adventure.

I also want to especially acknowledge my partners and colleagues and collaborators from Hassell, who have provided the platform for my professional life over the past fifteen or so years in such a generous and rewarding way.

It is my privilege to represent the third generation of architects from Hassell to receive this award, with Jack McConnell, who was a fine early modernist, receiving the Gold Medal in 1970, and John Morphett, who developed a strong culture of multidisciplinary collaboration within Hassell, being awarded in 2000. For a practice committed to a strong design culture and continuity, this recognition over time is indeed significant.

A life in architecture and design has been a great privilege and a great joy. It is a life with much more to offer in the future. Like many architects, I suspect, I am in it for the long haul – always optimistic regarding the unknown potential of the next project. For me it is more a passion than a career. I have been sustained by a passion for design – in the process of creating, the act of realizing projects and the advocacy of the value of design to others.

Design thinking
As people, and as architects, we are shaped by our life experiences – by the physical world we inhabit, by the people we encounter and, consequently, by the values we adopt. My comments will explore these intertwining influences on my thinking. An interest in the relationship between architecture and nature, and the impact on the human condition, is not new and a number of experiences I had as a student demonstrated this.

Conversations in the Hassell office.

Conversations in the Hassell office.

Image: Matthew Sleeth

In my second year of study, my understanding of architecture was ignited by attending a student convention in Perth where I was exposed to the enlightened thinking of Team 10 members as well as the hypnotic mantra of Buckminster Fuller. I was inspired. Aldo van Eyck’s humanism made a significant and lasting impression on me, as expressed in his observation that “to come face to face with the phenomena of human beings is what the study of architecture should really do … bring you face to face with yourself and your fellow men.”

As young students at that time we were extremely engaged by Bucky Fuller’s mesmerizing and poetic ramblings, which placed architecture as invention, introduced the notion of “doing more with less” and celebrated the potential of the human mind. Fuller’s focus on the universal and the “regenerative” aspect of architecture was influential.

Reinforcing this awakening was the teaching of Bill Lucas, my most influential design studio tutor and mentor during my undergraduate studies, and also an admirer of Fuller. Lucas was a radical thinker, an idealist always on the brink of discovering the truth about life and the universe, a designer as inventor with incredible economy of means and the ability to question everything and to work at the “edge of the possible”. His significance to the profession is greatly underrated.

Another turning point for me came from a second convention. In 1971, the RAIA staged a prescient event focused on the challenges to our built world and the emerging environmental crisis. Architects, scientists, ecologists, economists and sociologists came together to discuss “The Consequences of Man”. This convention was my first direct exposure to Ian McHarg, with his evangelical zeal and profound message regarding man’s relationship with nature. He suggested there was no environmental crisis – just a crisis of man: “The remedy lies not with nature but with man … he must understand the way the world works … he must become a husbandman and a steward.” His message is, more than ever, one for us now. At that time it led me to study landscape architecture and later environmental studies in a search to better understand the broader context of architecture.

I am influenced by great traditions and continuity of thought in architecture. Vitruvius’s simple yet profound principles of “firmness, commodity and delight” from Roman times still hold true to me although our contemporary culture, social conditions, materials and means all call for new interpretations in architecture we make. With each project differing aspects of these dimensions of architecture are explored.

The twenty-first century has been characterized as the century of cities. Only last year, for the first time in history, more than half the world’s population lived in cities. In the next fifty years, ten million more people will live in Australian cities. In the next twenty years, 350 million more people will live in cities in China.

Globally, cities are undergoing a paradigm shift as they become the focus of cultures and economies. In this transformation there may just be a chance to remedy some of the failures of the past – the retreat from public values, the commoditization of architecture and the privatization of public space. As works of design, cities represent a fusion of art and science, of nature and artifice – as do individual works of architecture, which contribute to the collective experience. Achieving a balance in these elements is critical and is only possible through the process of design.

Cities fail if they are not civilizing and sustaining in a spiritual sense – if they don’t stimulate the senses and provide the platform for enriching emotional experiences. If they are to be worthy they demand more than mere functional expediency. Cities demand the investment of creativity and passion in their making, and a greater level of engagement in this process by our community and political leaders. If we don’t get the design and reality of our cities right, then not only will our communities and our societies fail, but so might the life on our planet.

At our present rate of consumption and emissions, cities will fail regardless. So the issue of architecture and design is critical and this starts at the building blocks of our cities – architecture and public spaces. Works of architecture can no longer be considered in isolation from the natural or built context they occupy.

Climate change
In recent years we have learnt much about the consequences of human inhabitation of our planet. While these issues have been of interest in the scientific community for a long time, they have only relatively recently been the focus of public, and consequently political, interest. The impact of climate change is generally accepted as a reality, even by the sceptics – earlier this year the conclusions from the G20 Copenhagen summit accentuated the accelerating pace of change (and Australia’s poor record of response) while we await the outcome of December’s summit with concern. When we also take into account the depletion of natural resources, the immi nence of peak oil and the increase in population and rapid urbanization, we realize just what a challenge we have in designing and managing our built world, and in particular our cities, to ensure their relevance into the future.

NIDA Parade Theatre, Sydney, 1999–2002, by Hassell in association with Peter Armstrong Architecture.

NIDA Parade Theatre, Sydney, 1999–2002, by Hassell in association with Peter Armstrong Architecture.

Image: Patrick Bingham-Hall

Changing values
Now we also have the global financial crisis to deal with and with it the possibility of putting at risk strategies addressing our emerging environmental and cultural crises.New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman recently wrote, “Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: what if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last fifty years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall – when mother nature and the market both said ‘no more.’” This crisis is indeed an opportunity to challenge many orthodoxies in how we live and work, a well as the way we design our cities.

A renewed future
Design is about imagining and inventing a future. Design is about inspiration and desire and, if we are to engage our communities in desiring a better, more sustainable future rather than the guilt of a more constrained future, then design thinking is essential. The challenge for the design professions is to turn attitudes around by advocacy and demonstration so the real value of design is better understood by our communities and our politicians.

With the dual challenges of climate change and the global financial crisis we clearly need to invent a renewed future. This will call for a change in political priorities. We need to act quickly but as the frenetic pace of development has recently slowed down, we have an important opportunity. It is time to reflect and, following reflection, to act.

The modern movement in twentieth-century architecture was full of hope. Its dream, to liberate humanity through technology, has failed. Despite its genesis in socialism and aspirations to provide a better society, it has not resulted in architecture that resonates for, or is accepted by, our communities. This could, in part, be due to the retreat from collaboration on the part of many architects. For designing better cities is definitely not going to be achieved by architects alone. As a profession, arrogance will not serve us well.

Sustaining cities
In order to reinvigorate our architectural culture I think we need a new paradigm for design, and perhaps we are on the edge of its discovery. The time is right, especially given the renewed interest in urban policy being expressed by the Rudd government. The issues of cities must sit in our broad political framework and cannot be addressed by local and state governments alone – it is a collective responsibility.

It was heartening to note a recent speech by Minister Anthony Albanese, which supported the development of a national urban policy and was titled “Building Twenty-First-Century Cities”. Albanese said, “The need to pay attention to the state of our cities is more urgent than ever … the cost of living, our egalitarian culture, our economic productivity as communities, our sanity, our very way of life, in fact all of these are at stake.” He went on to acknowledge that we have the knowledge and technology to address these issues – all we lack is the right leadership from government and business.

Much work is emerging in the field of sustainable urbanism, including Resilient Cities, a recent book by Peter Newman and colleagues, which sets out an agenda for what they term “Cities of Hope”, as opposed to “Cities of Fear”. Newman, in drawing on the observations of Hargroves and Smith, suggests that just as successive waves of industrialization and innovation have shaped our cities, from the invention of iron through to more recent biotechnology, with the end of cheap oil we are entering the sixth wave, where new resource production, biomimicry and new sustainable technologies will inform the future – with this, Newman advocates a vision for more resilient cities.

Deep design
In creating more sustainable cities I believe we need to move beyond the conspicuous consumption and evident greed that leads to great imbalances in our societies. We need to replace the present reality where we seem to live to produce, to consume and to waste. This will require a new view of architecture and urbanism and a new way of designing – what I would term “deep design” – with a focus on the ecology of design and an unselfish creative expression. We need to adopt a more intelligent and informed way of thinking and designing with the public interest or the true commonwealth in mind.

Some reforms will only be achieved by political processes – energy policy, transportation strategies, housing strategies, carbon tax and trading, and the like. However, some are significantly about design – how we arrange spaces and buildings in a more responsive and inventive way – without which real change will not occur. Through making more effective urban spaces, more integrated urban environments, better arrangements of activities and, importantly, new architectural and urban space typologies, we can make a real difference to people’s lives and our cities.

Design ecology
I believe designing in the future will need to be an organic process, an ecological process, where landscape and nature are integrated and interpreted. We need a new design ecology that reaches beyond economics and physics to embrace human senses and emotions, and to define an architecture that reflects life at a deeper level or, in Siegfried Gideon’s words, “the interpretation of a way of life valid for our period”.

Architecture is a social art, and its legacy stands without excuse. So perhaps we can optimistically look forward to a new urban responsibility, with architecture serving a collective interest rather than an egocentric one. Here we will need to return to the inspiration of nature. I believe that architects and designers have a significant role to play in recapturing the spirit recently lost from our cities – not only through the quality of our own work but also through raising public awareness of the possibilities for a better, more ecological city that also sustains the human spirit.

We need to, and we can, inspire change. This is an exciting prospect for architects and designers, and for an equitable, humane and engaging future.

This is an edited version of the 2009 A. S. Hook Address given by Ken Maher on 27 October at Tusculum, Sydney.



Published online: 1 Jan 2010
Images: Brett Boardman, Emma Cross, Matthew Sleeth, Patrick Bingham-Hall


Architecture Australia, January 2010

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