ILLUSION, AMBIGUITY, INTERACTION AND PLAY – HANNAH LEWI EXPERIENCES NINE PROPOSITIONAL PAVILIONS.
MONASH UNIVERSITY MUSEUM of Art recently curated an exhibition of propositional pavilions by nine architectural practices, or collaborations: BKK, Cassandra Complex, Elenberg Fraser, Harrison & Crist, Iredale Pedersen Hook, Jackson Clements Burrows, Minifie Nixon, Neil & Idle and Staughton Architects. The participants were asked to design and make an architectural pavilion at 1:3 scale to be displayed in the galleries of the Caulfield and Clayton campuses. This continues both Monash and Melbourne’s engagement with the innovative exhibition of architecture, as inaugurated with Seven in the Seventies in 1981.
Accompanying the exhibition is a substantial catalogue, Pavilions For New Architecture, with three critical essays, photographs of the pavilions and work by all the architectural practices involved. Karen Burns’ essay “Curious Cabinets” locates the pavilion within the tradition of other small-scale spaces such as the cabinet of curiosities, the viewing booth, the mystery cupboard, the toilet and the car interior. Conrad Hamann’s text “The Loaded Word” provides context to the meanings of the word pavilion, and its evolving forms and functions in architecture past and present. Hamann sees the free-standing pavilion as particularly formative in the development of Australian modernism. Geraldine Barlow’s essay “The Ever Ambiguous Here and Now” offers further critical readings of all the works, making reference to cultural preoccupations spanning from Caravaggio to Bon Jovi. If there is any quibble to be made of the catalogue, it is that the three essays, combined with explanatory notes from the architects, almost overshadows these one-third sized objects with interpretative description. An evening symposium added yet further discussion from the architects, curators and viewers.
These various opportunities for interpretation will certainly extend the longevity of the works beyond the exhibition, however they do not replace actually seeing and experiencing the pavilions. Hopefully some may remain around the campus after the show. Indeed it would have been interesting to see how different the responses would have been had the pavilions been let loose from the confines and connotations of the white gallery space.
In the last issue of Architecture Australia, the editor deviated from the usual rules of criticism by revealing some personal insights into her everyday life. Following her lead, I am here shamelessly exploiting the impressions of my three-year old son to the exhibition as a way of perhaps testing one of the curatorial aims of the show to create and scale objects for play and interaction. Not always keen to be dragged around art galleries, he was fascinated by a numbers of the pavilions. Many of them did, after all, resemble high-tec cubby-houses open for exploration. Elenberg Fraser’s taut black plastic and chrome pavilion – reminiscent of an over-sized camera equipment case from a 1970s Bond film – was, for example, all engaging. The creators succeeded in their aim to create a deformed mirror world of projected images, and the experience of crawling on the transparent gang-plank over-looking a black hole created from perspectival tricks and images, was totally deceptive: my son resolutely crawled around it to avoid falling over the “visual cliff”.
And if the Elenberg Fraser pavilion created an illusory planet inhabited by Lord Nymon (yes we have been watching the re-runs of Dr Who), then the pavilion by Harrison & Crist was most definitely the Tardis. Enclosing a space of red glowing neon light the dimensions of a disabled toilet, and at a comfortable height for a child to stand in, this pavilion was a mystery cupboard in which one could lose oneself. As the authors suggested, many allusions to contemporary cultural objects were made from the miniscule to the grandiose.
Displayed next to Harrison & Crist’s Tardis was an intricate and dazzling lantern by Cassandra Complex, constructed from thirty-six pieces of laser cut acrylic assembled around a central pole. With no occupiable interior, this pavilion was intriguingly ambiguous to visually apprehend; its “frayed edges” seeming to constantly dissolve as one circled it. The two other pavilions at Clayton included Iredale Pedersen Hook’s exploration in minimalism and utility in the tradition of Mies or Eames. However, even this simple composition of nine plywood sheets did not escape imaginative projection: “this is where the monsters live”. Staughton Architects were the only practice that modified the space of the gallery with their construction that, in their words, attempted to describe “the mythical possibility of a fourth spatial dimension.” With its craggy, crystalline-like arrow forms of perspex and mirrors, this one was “more like ›› mountains and rocks – a walk over a river of water.” ›› Back at the Caulfield Gallery, Jackson Clements Burrows’ nicely named Studpavilion used the ubiquitous construction technique of the pine stud wall to build a corridor that funnelled viewers through the gallery space, while surrounding silver balloons were symbolic of an absent context. BKK’s suspended pavilion also took everyday materials, in this case white cardboard, to create a hive-like interior reminiscent of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic explorations, or perhaps the Eames’ short films depicting the infinite repetition of natural scale. BKK’s pavilion read most like an oversized architectural model or 1:1 prototype that was created from a shuttling between digital modelling and hand-crafted testing and assembly. This was in contrast to Minifie Nixon’s total immersion in the digital as a technique for generating possible form.
Some of the pavilions served, more than others, as demonstration pieces of the architects’ distinctive formal interests in their practice work. The continuous pink metal piece by Neil & Idle certainly fell into this category, acting as a kind of sculptural signature.
It is testament to the thoughtful conception of the exhibition that all the pavilions have, in various ways, been approached by the participants as speculative condensers or talisman of longstanding preoccupations. As Hamann suggests, the pavilion can “compress the demonstration of architectural ideas” as it is a type relatively free of the demands of program and function, yet holds enough programmatic possibilities to differentiate from pure sculpture. While it may be true that we can attribute functions – from change-rooms and toilets to shade structures or cubbies – to many of the works, many were also profoundly sculptural.
What does this say for architects? Do they indeed, despite anxious denial, covertly long for the purity of the monument or the tomb as Loos predicted? And what does this say for contemporary architecture? Despite the ubiquity of digital technologies, a number of the pavilions reflected a return (some might say retrogressive) to an interest in geometries and mathematics to generate form, as opposed to the more self-reflexive interest in architectural precedents, as seen in the preceding generation of Melbourne architecture. There were, for example, no reconfigured Barcelona Pavilions in this show.
The inclusion of PowerPoint displays of participant’s previous work in the galley spaces served to return these objects to the realm of architectural practice, although the purpose of these displays was slightly ambiguous. Some worked as proxy interpretive signage explaining the process of making, others the relation of the pavilions to broader practice. At other times they seemed more like magazine advertising.
The exhibition, catalogue and associated events of Pavilions For New Architecture have promoted a thoroughly engaging discussion around the role of contemporary propositional architecture. The pavilions hint at many possible directions for Australian architecture that are perhaps futuristic and immaterial, sculptural and formal, or nostalgic of modernism and the everyday.
DR HANNAH LEWI IS A SENIOR LECTURER IN THE FACULTY OF ARCHITECTURE, BUILDING AND PLANNING AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MELBOURNE.