For the last twenty-five years, the Colorbond Student Biennale has been an important venue for showcasing the best work by students enrolled in Australian architecture degrees. Competitions are often snapshots of architectural thought at a particular time – it is easy to assume that entries are a reflection of architectural culture in Australia, following or prefiguring trends that have been writ large across the collective output of the profession during that period. The biennale provides multiple snapshots over time and, in doing so, challenges that reflective assumption.
The Colorbond Student Biennale competition began in 1985, to recognize “excellence in architectural design”. Brought about by the efforts of Professor Neville Quarry, it proved immediately popular and quickly gained national standing as various schools of architecture vied for vicarious victory through the work of their students. Institutes of architects have long run student competitions to encourage new generations of budding architects and, over the history of the profession in Australia, various student medals and prizes have come and gone. The biennale’s emphasis on showcasing students’ design achievement echoed the earlier RAIA Silver Medal, which was awarded from 1960 to 1977.
Besides determining the best student design work in the country, the biennale had a parallel aim in communicating such quality widely, particularly to other students. To this end, the biennale toured exhibitions of each competition and produced accompanying catalogues, which have provided an enduring legacy of the competition. The arrival of the biennale work within a school of architecture often generated a buzz of excitement, with nascent critics eager to dissect the merits of the finalists’ work. It is perhaps for this reason that the experiment of eschewing the travelling exhibition in favour a website for the 2001–02 competition was not a success – the format was too far ahead of its time. The 2010 biennale has again adopted the format of an online gallery rather than a travelling exhibition, but it is likely to find a more receptive audience among the new generation of tech-savvy students.
If there is one theme that resonates through the collected works of the biennale, it is the impact of technology on architecture or, more particularly, architectural design, as the competition spans the emergence of digital rendering and composition. Jury comments from the early 90s that praise the wonderful computer graphics refer to images that would be regarded as crude and underdeveloped today, with the standard and proliferation of digital rendering rapidly advancing from that point onwards. The impact of technology clearly caused some discomfort with the juries, as the lament for the clarity of drawings and physical models was an oft-repeated refrain against the onslaught of the digital. This old school / new school tension is perhaps unsurprising – for aren’t the young supposed to push against the boundaries of acceptability – but has also signalled a wholesale shift in the way architecture is being thought about.
This fundamental shift has been toward complexity of spatial experience, of program, of site and of intellectual positioning, much enabled by new technology. Physical models and plans – and the degree of completeness they demanded – were left behind in favour of digitally generated perspectives. Digital models allowed an evocation of interior space that could be rendered in some detail: light, shadow, space and colour rather than structure, form and section. Corresponding with this has been a rise in formal tectonic aesthetics and a drop in the level of resolution of structural, functional and servicing requirements. The written exegeses that accompany the submissions have grown in length, sophistication and complexity over time, as the rise of the theoretical as generative idea has also gained greater prominence.
Gritty urban sites upon which large, complex programs are imposed, or buildings imagined for exotic other places, far away but often equally gritty and harsh, such as war-scarred landscapes, have become the norm.
If different regions in Australia can claim different architectural cultures that result in sometimes startlingly different architectures (such as Melbourne versus Sydney), then the apparent lack of such difference in culture within the space of the biennale competition is all the more surprising. Of course, one could presuppose that the jury’s predilections shape those qualities that eventually decide the winners, but the biennale jury composition regularly changes over time. Instead, it is as though the biennale reflects a distinct student culture in architectural design, one driven by available technology and general trends in architectural thought, produced of and under the conditions of its day – the rise of digital prototyping and fabrication will surely soon dominate the competition entries. This, in a sense, is good news: students are not necessarily slavishly following the established architectural cultures of their place and are experimenting freely with new methods and new conditions. But it is rare to see anything dramatically different, despite the variety of schools from which the students have come. Whether it is the product of program, site, position or presentation, the submitted entries operate within a reasonably limited aesthetic bandwidth that shifts only slowly over time.
In comparison to contemporary built architecture, the student work is both of and not-of its time.
The Colorbond Student Biennale’s celebration of its twenty-fifth year is certainly a milestone worth celebrating. Liberally littered throughout the biennale alumni are those who have gone on to make significant contributions to the profession in various ways, such as Richard Francis-Jones and Graham Burrows. As such, the biennale is a barometer of emerging talent and new ideas, true to its aims of fostering excellence in student design work and a prescient reminder that architectural thought and its modes of composition are constantly reformed by new generations.
Julie Willis is associate professor and associate dean (research) at the University of Melbourne.