TAKING ARCHITECTURE TO THE MALL, <i>ALTS + ADDS</i> AIMED TO DEMONSTRATE TO HOME OWNERS THE ADVANTAGES OF USING ARCHITECTS. HARRY MARGALIT REFLECTS ON THE DIFFICULTIES OF POPULISM AND ARCHITECTURE.
WHAT IS GAINED and what is lost when architecture is presented as a non-threatening commodity? Such questions are raised by Alts + Adds, a recent exhibition which toured a number of Sydney shopping centres recently and which sought to “highlight the advantages of high quality residential renovations to the general public”.
I saw this exhibition at Westfield Chatswood, where it had been placed at a decided tilt on a ramped floor in an area too vast for it to make an impact. The first issue I had to confront was the design of the displays themselves. These comprised a cruciform main section about six by four metres, with double-sided exhibits, and a small L-shaped display with credits and an insurance-company-sponsored interactive screen devoted to pinpointing and countering sources of domestic misfortune in the average house.
The exhibition is designed to be compact and transportable, with internal light sources and a cohesive system that gives the impression of arranged cubes. However, the resulting panel size and display is ubiquitous: in a shopping mall it is of the same order as any number of similar displays and attracted little attention. A smaller venue would have worked better.
This seems to be more than an error of judgment. I suspect that the exhibition designers responded to the intent: a travelling show to convey the good sense of architectural design in the Year of the Built Environment. As such, it perhaps works. The tenor of the text and the themes of the exhibition – Affordability, Antiquity, Liveability and Sustainability – attempt to convey to home owners the benefits of employing an architect. It needed to be non-threatening, to counter any sense of architects as profligate or egotistical.
The quality of the architectural work displayed seems beside the point – to a lay observer it would all appear as the work of architects – although the projects range from the distinguished to one or two that seem to just fall over the line. To its credit, the exhibition presents a range of work and gives exposure to some younger architects. The larger question, though, is whether these attempts at populism are good for architecture.
The exhibition seems the natural complement to publications such as the weekly Domain supplement in the Sydney Morning Herald. Bringing round public taste has long been an Australian architectural pursuit, and it has always flirted with the Featurism that so dismayed Robin Boyd. This tendency inheres not so much in the architecture itself as in the lengths one has to go to in order to convince the public of its value.
Categories such as Affordability, Antiquity, Liveability and Sustainability only compound the problem. Anchoring the architectural effort to the pragmatic allows the central concern – architecture – to recede or, at best, to become a fellow traveller to an issue such as sustainability. The real categories – light and space, for example – are implied in the images but cannot be addressed in the prosaic accompanying text.
If exhibitions such as these increase work for architects, well and good (although I would need to be convinced of their real effectiveness on this score). But as long as we hide what we do behind sensibility, then the education of the public remains limited to an appreciation of how architects can solve clients’ accommodation problems. It would be far better, I imagine, to cultivate desire for what we really do than to portray it as essentially non-threatening.
Architecture always involves a measure of risk: the trick is to portray it as worthwhile, rather than to deny it.
HARRY MARGALIT IS LECTURER IN ARCHITECTURE AT THE UNIVERSITY OF SYDNEY.