[CREATING ARCHITECTURAL KNOWLEDGE IN CONTEMPORARY PRACTICE
CREATING ARCHITECTURAL KNOWLEDGE IN CONTEMPORARY PRACTICE
Edited by Louise Wallis, Paula Whitman and Susan Savage. RAIA, 2005. $33. I like the intent of this book. Collaboration in the design process is a very worthwhile area of discussion in architectural practice, and examining collaboration through a series of case study essays by different authors seems a good way to do this. It is interesting too (and worth encouraging) that it is published by the RAIA and is the outcome of the longstanding Sisalation Prize. It is a fairly uncommon instance of our industry and our profession helping to create research which is closely aligned with practice, but not directly it.
The first essay (Baz Bill and Spud: Knowledge from Connection With Making) describes Gabriel Poole’s relationship with builders in making his architecture. This immediately gets into arguments which I find a little irritating. Firstly, the idea that it is novel to liaise with, and at times defer to, people carrying out the crafting of building.
Surely this is common enough, and it need not be accompanied by a sensibility which sets doing against thinking. This tired separation is always slightly antiintellectual – it seems to go with that frontier suspicion of the academy. My concern is that the collaboration is pitched as a one-way effort; the architect becoming more like a builder and suppressing what they undoubtedly bring to the collaborative table. If they are not bringing anything else to the table, then we might wonder what they’re doing there.
Generally the texts focus on the crafting collaboration – architect and steelworker, architect and engineer, architect as builder.
Lots of refined timber structures and butter paper. The best exception to this is Tokyo Speed: Recreating the Academy in Practice, a description of collaboration with related design firms sharing work and exhibition space. Here I was curious about the suggestion of spatial and personal proximity as key ingredients. There is almost no mention in this book of long-distance collaboration facilitated by digital tools, which is an area of rapidly growing interest.
A marvellous image of collaboration at a more fundamental level is provided in Phillip Crowther’s essay, which contrasts the three-legged race with the relay; the three-legged race being less efficient but more fun, and perhaps more like design collaboration. By extension, collaborative efforts slow each runner down but they produce something neither could have come up with alone. It reminds me a little of George Orwell’s assertion that democracy is messy and slow while Fascism is clean and efficient.
The main concluding point of these essays is that we do not know enough about architectural knowledge, and that describing collaborative methods might help expose that knowledge and make it more accessible. The difficulty of understanding what architectural knowledge is has real professional consequences. The authors cite the Productivity Commission’s inability to accept that a clear body of knowledge defines the profession, and should therefore be protected in the public interest. (And universities have their own difficulties in identifying our discipline’s research.)
The other point made in this book is that despite such pressures, it is pointless to suggest a clearly defined or fixed body of knowledge for our discipline. The case studies in Take 4 do not produce one and nor should they. This does not mean that we should not attempt to grapple with what it is that architecture is trying to do.
For this reason the individual stories of these essays, despite our various biases, are well worth reading. GRAHAM CRIST
THE MESH BOOK