AS Hook Address

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Richard Johnson, 2008 Gold Medallist, reflects on architecture as a “public art” and on the constraints on the profession in Australia, and calls for a federal architectural voice.

I was speechless when informed of the Gold Medal by the Australian Institute of Architects’ President, Alec Tzannes. I remain somewhat speechless and deeply moved to think that the joy and struggle of each project has, after forty years, culminated in a body of work and a way of working that attracts the attention of my peers.

This year has provided me with an opportunity for much reflection. I have constantly asked myself, what is the architecture I struggle to achieve? What is its nature and how do I define it? I see architecture as a public art – an art that has the capacity to enrich our lives, to inspire us, to give tangible evidence of the values of our time and to respond to the important challenges facing us. I see it as a noble endeavour and we are all part of an old and noble profession. We have a responsibility not only to those who commission us, but, importantly, to the society in which we practise. This is, after all, one of the defining characteristics of a profession.

Architecture for me has four fundamental characteristics, which define its nature and distinguish it from mere construction: architecture as expressive of a culture, architecture as an experiential art, architecture as both art and craft, architecture as a discipline.

Architecture as expressive of a culture

Some buildings offer a profound insight into the cultures that built them. They can be small, humble structures or grand ones, but they are distinguished by their integrity and authenticity. This architecture belongs to the people who build it and to the place in which it is built. It is technically of its time. It responds to the ecology, the landscape, the climate and the particular light, and it often builds upon existing settlement and urban patterns. It expresses itself as part of an historic, social and political continuum.

The Imperial Palace of Beijing, for example, demonstrates that a building can be generated from an ordering idea linked to culture that manifests itself in every element of settlement – the walls and courts of the traditional house, the elaborate walls and network of courtyard spaces in the palaces, the walls of the city with entry gates and observatories, and finally the whole country enclosed by a great wall.

The inner and outer Shinto shrines of Ise provide another example that bears witness to an expression of culture and heritage that has survived 2000 years. Every twenty years – that is, every generation – they are rebuilt from timber grown on site and over 1000 ceremonial artefacts are remade to preserve the traditional arts and crafts. The old structures are carefully dismantled to provide the resources for the maintenance and renewal of other Shinto shrines in Japan. This idea of sustainability remains relevant because it is not only concerned with the physical, the ecological, the landscape and resources, but also, importantly, with art, craft traditions and culture.

Closer to home, I constantly marvel at, am inspired by and struggle to understand the power of Jørn Utzon’s masterpiece, the Sydney Opera House. Few would doubt that this has become a symbol of place, culture and country.

Cultures leave few such buildings. They embody the highest values and aspirations of their age and people, and demonstrate the profound power and importance of the art of architecture.

Architecture as an experiential art

Architecture, as we know, is not simply a static experience. Nor is it experienced predominantly by a single sense. Most buildings have been built for practical reasons – Vitruvius’s firmness and commodity. To be architecture, buildings must also delight and raise our spirits – the third Vitruvian principle. Good architecture does this by stimulating all the senses to unfold its proposition and vision. In so doing it has a greater impact on us.

The detached imperial garden and villa of Katsura, built around 1620 for viewing the moon, is a marvellous example. It preconditions guests with a carefully designed entry sequence through the garden. Seasonal differences and natural elements are highly controlled to unfold a rich sequence of experiences appealing to all the senses.

The Alhambra in southern Spain, palace of the Nasrid kingdom, is another inspirational example of sequential experience. The exterior functional red fort gives no hint of the magnificence within, nor do the outer public audience rooms. The power of the Alhambra is not in any singular image or form or building, but in the enfolding of a rich experience of space and the stimulation of all the senses as you penetrate the inner courts and private rooms of the palace. This experience is impossible to capture in images.

Our Sydney Opera House is unquestionably the twentieth-century exemplar of this idea. It is the experience that is impressive: leaving the city to reach Bennelong Point, crossing that magnificent harbour-side piazza, listening to the soundscape of city and harbour, mounting the grand stairs with the sea breeze in your face, and entering the compressed box office foyer before expanding into the main foyers and entering the auditoria. Who could possibly doubt the power of architecture as an experiential art?

Architecture as both art and craft

Architecture is a practical endeavour. It deals with defining and enclosing space with elements such as floors, walls, columns, windows and roofs. These can be used to simply perform practical and functional requirements. Their selection, engineering, detailing and finishing can also be carefully considered and crafted in a manner true to their own nature, true to the technologies of our age and true to principles of sustainability – all in a way that reinforces the very ideas of the design vision.

The most immediately accessible aspect of a building is often its crafting. For many this is the entry to a richer understanding of the conceptual proposition.

“Where the spirit does not work with the hand there is no art.” Leonardo da Vinci.

To use a material as an artist uses it, we must sometimes spend a lifetime understanding it, its essential qualities, how it is made and how easily it is crafted, and considering its compatibility with other materials.

Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth eloquently illustrates this idea. The materials that enclose the space and support the roof are visible and crafted true to their nature and are integral to the idea of the building – to admit, filter and reflect light and to manage it in the service of illuminating the art.

At Castelvecchio in Verona Carlo Scarpa understands and manipulates the texture, gloss, scale, jointing and juxtaposition of each element to create an architecture that unfolds as a rich visual and sensual experience. In the Sydney Opera House, the crafting of the concrete rib elements of the great shells, the nature of their detailing true to their structure and fabrication, gives them a noble power.

Architecture as a discipline

Architecture requires a discipline within which to develop and maintain skill and relevance. The necessary systematic instruction is a lifetime pursuit and builds on the knowledge and skill of our predecessors. Our body of knowledge stretches back into history. One example is the Greek idea of perfect order evident in architecture and art, the power of proportion and order and the significance and application of the golden section and the Fibonacci series. The extension of that order beyond the individual building into the site and groups of buildings in a more organic way was researched by Constantinos Doxiadis in his seminal work Architectural Space in Ancient Greece, originally published in German in 1937. These principles all still have relevance to our discipline.

As professionals, we are responsible for developing, adding to and passing on that knowledge. We are also responsible for enlightening those who govern and the broader public about the power and potential of our art and the right processes for encouraging excellence.

There is no easy path to good architecture. It must be constantly refined through practice. It requires sustained effort and focus to approach the architecture I have discussed. I am always reassured to hear great musicians at the height of their talent discuss the amount of time they practise each day to develop and maintain their skill and increase their understanding of their art.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle.

In my mind, architecture incorporates all other design disciplines. It incorporates planning, urban design, landscape and interiors. The architect, if wishing to harness all elements in the service of the solution, must be knowledgeable about and interested in these other disciplines. We need to embrace the advice of other specialist team members to create a holistic concept – a clear and unified proposition.

Utzon’s Fredensborg Housing is a remarkable example of this integrated and multidisciplinary approach. Ideas of planning, landscape, urban design, architecture and interiors are combined in a simple, harmonious way. The result is a living environment that was innovative when it was built over thirty years ago and still has many lessons for us today.

The architectural commission, the team structure and the procurement process must respond to these opportunities.

“Nothing is as dangerous in architecture as dealing with separated problems. If we split life into separated problems we split the possibilities to make good building art.” Alvar Aalto.

These four concepts – culture, experience, craft and discipline – encapsulate the spirit of the architecture of which I speak and which I seek. They are not new and I realize they appear simple and obvious. However, in our age of easy access to information and little time for reflection, I believe we all have a tendency to miss the obvious and dismiss the simple. For an architect, like an artist, to think we know something is not enough. We need to know it at a deeper and subtler level in order to understand its nature and be able to appropriate its ideas and meaning into our work.

Reflections on the state of architecture

As I have travelled around the country this year delivering the Gold Medal talk in each state, talking to colleagues and seeing some great work, I have had the opportunity to reflect more broadly on architecture as I have defined it – that is, architecture as opposed to mere construction. I have been optimistically searching for a collective response that defines a fundamental spirit or characteristic of our people and place. There are many very promising indicators.

In our best work, we continue to develop a greater understanding of and response to our unique landscape and climate. Our architecture is generally more open and transparent, embracing the landscape and context. We better understand sunlight, shade, the qualities of dappled light, ventilation and prevailing winds, and how to harness them to enrich our architecture and human experience, as well as build more sensitively in our environment.

Our concept of flexibility has expanded from the purely functional to the experiential to enable a building to respond to climate, time of day and the needs and moods of its occupants. There is a strong regional or contextual expression in the best of our work that responds not only to climate, but also to place and culture.

These sensitivities have always been strong in domestic work across the country, but they are now emerging more confidently in larger projects. This is particularly the case in projects with enlightened clients who take care to establish inspiring briefs, appropriate budgets and well-considered processes. We are also increasingly embracing public art in our projects – art that integrates with the architecture and landscape and often interprets aspects of place or history.

We are much more aware of issues of the environment and sustainability. We are developing an inventiveness in incorporating these principles into our buildings, whether large or small, public or private. We still place greater importance on the private than the civic or communal. However, as the imperative of denser development is accepted, there is some blurring of the boundaries between them and a growing concern for the importance and quality of the public realm, particularly in our major cities.

We continue to improve our understanding of the nature of materials and technologies and we have a practical inventiveness in using them. Often the minimum amount of material is used to clad, shade, support and cantilever. We often celebrate the thinness of things, feathering out to the edge, the sharp edge. Nowhere is this more evident than in the roofs that shade and shelter us.

We are developing an impressive ability to grasp the potential of the digital age and harness its possibilities in our work – a power to understand and craft three-dimensional space and more organic geometric form, and to more thoroughly explore design propositions and direct links from drawing to fabrication.

Thankfully, we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Increasingly, there are buildings incorporating wit and humour and a more relaxed and honest expression that seems characteristic of who we are as a people.

These are encouraging trends but for me one of the most optimistic realizations is that architecture in Australia today is not dominated by just a few names or practices. There are an impressive number of practices and an ever-increasing number of young practitioners producing vital, daring work. Architecture, we are happy to say, reflects the high aspirations of place, people and time.

All this leaves one in no doubt that it is an exciting time to be practising architecture in Australia. We should be collectively proud of what our profession has achieved and can offer in the future.

Current constraints

Of course, on the other hand, when we look at the vast majority of buildings that have not been elevated to a level that deserves the title architecture, there is much room for concern and desperate need for improvement. There is no doubt in my mind that I have lived through an era where there has been an increased recognition of the importance of architecture. Strangely, at the same time, there has been a grave marginalizing of our profession in its primary and traditional roles. This is placing increasing – and at times seemingly impossible and certainly unnecessary – constraints on our art.

To produce architecture, as opposed to mere construction, we as architects must have a more significant say in the process than we currently do. We have been too willing to hand over to others the difficult parts of what we do, and to accept partial commissions or roles and contractual arrangements that preclude us from acting in a completely professional way. This inevitably results in a compromise to our art, or, in extreme cases, no art at all. We are left with mere construction and, ultimately, no profession at all – just mere service providers. The consequence is that we would have no inspirational legacy of place and culture.

It would be inconceivable to have the manager of the orchestra rather than the maestro conducting it and to make interpretations of the music that suited agendas other than the music. The same applies to true architecture, which expresses our culture. Our federal, state and local governments have the responsibility to create a climate that will encourage the best architecture our country can produce, particularly for our important public buildings and for our embassies abroad. Just as we want only the best athletes to represent us, and we take care to support them and create the right conditions for the development of their skills to the highest level, so too should we create a climate that will encourage the best of our profession to represent our culture.

To be more effective we need a direct voice to governments in formulating policy and setting new meaningful benchmarks for excellence in government buildings. It is encouraging to see most state governments valuing the critical role of a government architect. There is certainly a long and impressive history in New South Wales of the importance and critical nature of this historic role.

At a federal level, it is particularly interesting to note that currently advising the Commonwealth are: an attorney-general, a chief justice, a solicitor-general, a chief military judge, a chief medical officer, a chief nursing and midwifery officer, a chief of defence forces, a chief scientist, a chief information officer, a chief plant protection officer, a chief veterinary officer … I could go on, but the point is that there is no chief or government architect. Up until a few decades ago there was one, and there was also a whole Commonwealth department of architects. This is where I received my initial training and appreciation of the public role of the architect. I was very lucky to have a number of excellent mentors with a deep traditional sense of public service. Now there is no federal government architect and no practising architects in federal government at all.

Also in Canberra, there was a strong and powerfully effective National Capital Development Commission (NCDC). Its successor is the National Capital Authority (NCA). This body is responsible for much that is of enduring value in our capital. The influence of the NCA has also regrettably been seriously marginalized. The simple fact is that others speak within government on behalf of our profession and the built environment, and on behalf of planning and heritage.

Are we confident that they even attempt to understand the discipline of architecture and its related professions, and its power and potential to interpret culture and address critical issues of the future, such as increased urbanization and environmental sustainability? Are we confident that they have the ability to develop considered briefs, appropriate budgets and correct procurement processes that will inspire the best outcomes? I am not and the evidence of the bulk of public buildings, Australian embassies and Australian pavilions at world expositions built recently to represent us speaks for itself.

The results of the types of contracts currently used by the Department of Finance and Deregulation and the Department of Defence to procure government buildings also speak for themselves. It would appear that the Department of Finance has become the client for many important public buildings. I had a detailed look at their website, which describes their role. There is not a single use of the word architecture as it applies to building or our profession. Are we happy that bureaucrats are in control of our culture? Their focus and training encourages them to put a cost on everything and, as the saying goes, a value on nothing. If they do not understand our art, how can they put a realistic value on it? Inevitably, in any evaluation of competing demands, quality and culture will always lose.

After the production of the first images of a building, those who now control procurement often believe the primary task of the architect is finished. Thus they can get others to more efficiently and cheaply develop the details and drawings necessary to construct it. They believe that in matters of budget, cost and construction the architect has little to contribute. We as architects need the time and authority to develop the full details of a scheme, its materiality, its texture, its tectonics and its play with light beyond these first images if we are to create an enduring architecture.

How have we arrived at this somewhat ridiculous situation? One reason perhaps is that my generation has not been united enough to challenge effectively the erosion of our traditional role. Many of these damaging trends for public architecture strongly emerged at a federal level in the last decade. They were devised by people with little knowledge or experience of our profession. We desperately need an informed voice in government.

It is time to adopt the recommendations of the July 2008 Lundy committee inquiry into the role of the NCA, which recommends that the Commonwealth Government establish the position of Commonwealth Architect within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The future

I would like to end on a more optimistic note. One of the most rewarding aspects of the Gold Medal tour was the opportunity for discussions with the Institute’s emerging architects in each state. Without exception, they gave me considerable confidence that the future of our great profession is in good hands. They displayed commitment, enthusiasm, insight and intelligence in discussing the issues they see facing them in practice and facing our environment. Most impressive of all was their supportive, collective and collegiate spirit, both in their state and across the country. This is a strength that my generation did not possess. Perhaps its lack contributed to how easily aspects of our roles and authority have been taken from us.

For the health of our profession we need strong new practitioners and practices to challenge established thinking. We need to do all we can to provide the right climate for the expression of our art. We need to do all we can to ensure that the sharp edge of youth is not blunted by unnecessary constraints before they have the chance to express the important cultural values of their age through their art.

At the end of this talk, just as at the beginning, I am speechless. In the end, after we have done our best, the buildings must speak for themselves. Hopefully some of the buildings approach my idea of what architecture can be. If not, we can only do our best, learn and try hard on our next project.

The daily practice would not have been possible but for the many marvellously talented and committed architects I have been fortunate to collaborate with. This honour is in my mind as much to recognize their contribution as my own. I am particularly indebted to Jeff Walker and Adrian Pilton, who have practised alongside me as partners now for twenty-five years. I also recognize my more recent partners, Kiong Lee, Graeme Dix and Paul van Ratingen; they are the new talent and energy in the JPW practice. I am truly fortunate in having a life partner in my dear Maureen, who has supported my passion for and at times unreasonable commitment to my profession.

I sincerely thank you all for this honour.

Richard Johnson is the 2008 Australian Institute of Architects’ Gold Medallist. He presented the 2008 AS Hook Address on 28 October in Sydney.


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