Helen Norrie reviews the 2013 National Architecture Conference — Material — and hints at what to expect from its 2014 successor — Making.
The pilgrimage to the annual National Architecture Conference represents a chance to switch off from the responsibilities of practice and tune in to the ideas of others. It’s always a big reunion, and in the era of Twitter and Instagram this takes on a new dimension as real and virtual networks intertwine. Each year the conference is a moveable feast, with a specific theme used as a kind of collecting device to corral speakers and establish a discourse of ideas. In 2013, creative directors Sandra Kaji-O’Grady and John de Manincor used the theme of “Material” to “expand the discourse on materiality beyond phenomena and affect to explore political, environmental and technological concerns.” This suggested that the focus would be on emergent technologies, rather than a Kahnian exploration of “brickness.”
The relationship between technology and material was a recurring theme, and in particular many presentations focused on materials that rely on digital technology. I suspect poor old Louis Kahn would be turning in his grave if he could hear what Matthias Kohler and his research team have been up to with the humble brick. Questioning the fundamental premise that bricks are compressive, they have explored gluing bricks together so that they take on tensile properties. Kohler and his team are exploring other material ideas where robots and people work together to engage with the building process in strange and wonderful ways, designing the behaviour of the robot rather than being beholden to technology.
Yosuke Hayano from MAD Architects in China highlighted the challenges (or MAD-ness) of transforming computer-generated, form-driven architecture into buildings that are handmade by a large and frequently unskilled workforce. In contrast, Kathrin Aste of LAAC Architects demonstrated how the computer can be put into the service of the logic of materials, generating shuttering for concrete forms for the Landhausplatz in Salzburg. While the relationship between digital and material was central to the project, it served a specific spatial and civic agenda, addressing the historical context of the city.
Occupying the margins of the discussion of heritage and materiality, Jorge Otero-Pailos explored pollution as a material, notably his amusing project to develop the fictional “scent” of Philip Johnson’s Glass House, based on the activities and occupation of this windowless building over three decades. The idea of illuminating the non-visual aspects of materiality struck a chord, reminding me of the pungent, musty aroma of rising damp that characterized the Aalto buildings I visited ten years ago. No-one wears perfume, no-one drinks champagne in these grand houses anymore. It highlighted the fact that smell is so visceral, and so impossible to communicate in the print medium that dominates our vicarious architectural experiences, that it is overlooked in our visually oriented world.
The stand-out of the conference was Virginia San Fratello’s engaging and witty presentation. She asked a series of straightforward questions that led to a sequence of paradigm shifts for understanding materials. Every project was as delightful as it was inventive, from the prototype-testing idea of “hacking” the 3-D printer to use salt, reclaimed or recycled wood and cellulose to the beautiful “prickly pavilion,” which reused thousands of solar tubes discarded by the defunct Solyndra Corporation. All of these projects far eclipsed the reuse/recycle projects of both Phooey Architects and Superuse Studios presented in other sessions.
The final session was equal parts surreal and silly, with all the speakers on stage, some balancing on brightly coloured inflatable balls. Nader Tehrani tried to engage the speakers in serious conversation while simultaneously plying them with whisky, as a litany of questions posted by the audience via SMS and Twitter scrolled up on the screen above their heads. While Tehrani posed some interesting philosophical questions, the format was a little too chaotic to yield productive results and the speakers resisted his request to voice their objections to each other’s work.
This raises the question of how to facilitate discussion sessions within the conference, which is increasingly difficult as the audience size expands. Allowing discussion sessions within the program may have led to more explicit connections being drawn between speakers, highlighting the key ideas that were very eloquently outlined in the excellent May/June 2013 issue of Architecture Australia (AA), guest edited by the 2013 Material creative directors. This issue of AA provides an enduring legacy for the conference, packed with interesting ideas and projects that highlight a gamut of material concerns, from technological and digital to spatial and phenomenological.
Directly before the events on the main bill of the conference began, the fantastic Parlour symposium was hosted in Harry Seidler’s fabulous little theatre tucked into the base of No 1 Spring Street. Under the banner of Transform, Parlour framed the day around a single question: “If architecture was more inclusive would it also be in a stronger position?” This question is at the core of the Parlour project, which is motivated by a desire to explore a range of issues of gender and equity in the profession, particularly the curious statistic that women represent 44 percent of graduates but only 20 percent of registered architects.
Six sessions were curated to expand this question, each with a particular theme and a different format. Each session involved a panel discussion, and there were only two sessions with formal presentations. Lori Brown, author of Feminist Practices: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Women in Architecture, started the day with a presentation of project work spanning the fields of architecture, art, geography and women’s studies, which questioned the bounds of traditional architectural practice. Her critique of the traditional relationship between architecture and patronage, and the observation that “privilege is invisible for people who have it,” provided a key provocation for the discussion that followed.
The second session, “Do architectural workplace cultures need to change?” drew together a group of people from different practices to discuss policies and practices for employment, office structure, mentoring and succession planning. This revealed that some practices are leading the way with these issues and offer models that other firms could look towards in the structuring of their own workplaces. The session provided the perfect segue into a workshop discussing the Guidelines for Equitable Practice being developed by Parlour in association with the Institute, and this discussion was framed around the question “Can policy drive professional and disciplinary change?”
The afternoon sessions highlighted the diversity of activities that sit under the umbrella of “architectural practice,” with a series of panellists who were not necessarily registered architects working on traditional commissions, but who were engaged in interesting projects that are definitely central to the cultural traditions of architecture. Short but incredibly pithy presentations by Esther Charlesworth, Rory Hyde, Paula McCarthy and Sibling served as an introduction to their own work, highlighting the question “What are the possible futures of architecture?” This discussion flowed into the final session, “What is an architectural career?” where keynote speakers from the National Conference, Kathrin Aste and Virginia San Fratello, joined an inspiring group of local practitioners.
The whole day was brilliantly orchestrated, with sessions intelligently facilitated by Naomi Stead, Justine Clark, Karen Burns and Sandra Kaji-O’Grady, joined by the inimitable Shelley Penn. The international guest, Lori Brown, praised the Parlour project for its inventive model of bridging academia and practice, which is central to the speculation of paradigm shifts that might be required to instigate cultural change.
Parlour’s Transform symposium was easily one of the best conferences I’ve ever attended, for organization and content but also for the general tenor of the conversation, which was constantly peppered with laughter and good humour. It reminded us of what is perhaps the key shift that the profession needs – take your work seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously. It would have been ideal if this symposium was part of the main program of the conference, rather than merely a “fringe event,” and its promotion not buried within the conference website. However, the room was full to bursting and the intimate scale of the space was perfect for the discussion. Yes, the crowd was 80 percent women and yes, it would have been good to have greater gender representation, but no doubt this is one of the first of many events which will increasingly become part of the mainstream of disciplinary discussion.
Read Tania Davidge’s Lori Brown interview.
So what’s in store for the 2014 conference? Sam Crawford, Adam Haddow and I are the creative directors of this event, which will be held in Perth on 8–10 May. Under the banner of “Making,” we will be examining the expanding role of the architect in contemporary practice, looking beyond the customary definition of “architect as maker” of singular buildings to consider the architect as the “maker” of environments and connections that extend the bounds of traditional practice. We will investigate how, in an increasingly complex cultural and professional environment, there are opportunities for architects to expand their role from the designer of objects and spaces to that of a “navigator,” with the capacity to steer processes and deliver alternate outcomes.
Making will be explored through four sub-themes: Making Culture, Making Life, Making Connections and Making Impact. We have invited four local architects to act as the anchors for each session, developing each theme and facilitating the dialogue between speakers and audience.
Andrew Burns from Sydney will draw on his own practice interests, particularly his recent experience designing Australia House in Japan, to develop the stream Making Culture, which examines the interface between design excellence and social transformation, exploring the process of making architecture as an act of cultural production.
Making Life will be hosted by Elizabeth Watson-Brown, who, after twenty-one years directing her own practice, which was highly regarded for exemplary place-responsive and socially responsible design, has become a design director for Architectus in Brisbane. Making Life considers how architecture forms the framework and infrastructure of the life we share, from the intimate to the urban, and draws together projects and practices in diverse communities that offer new modes and ways of living, in the broadest sense.
Collaboration and communication is at the heart of Making Connections, and Emma Williamson from CODA in Perth will examine practices or projects that involve teams of designers from a range of disciplines within the architecture and allied design field. This will provide an opportunity to showcase Western Australian design as well as other collaborative practices and projects across the region, highlighting the importance of understanding the relationships the architectural profession constructs beyond the discipline itself.
Tim Horton, a key thinker on design, innovation and governance practice, and the former Integrated Design Commissioner for South Australia, will host the discussions about Making Impact, investigating the politics of architecture and examining the potential for architecture to “perform” or lead policy rather than simply react to it.
We are interested in revealing architectural excellence grown in different economic, cultural and political environments, looking to practices in Australasia, Asia, Latin America and Africa rather than Europe and North America to interrogate ways of “making” that can shed light on our own condition. The anchors for each session will be charged with the role of seeding the discussion of these ideas, through a presentation of their own work and a critical engagement with the visiting international guests.