I HAVE ALWAYS been cranky about those architects who see publishing in Architecture Australia only in terms of PR, architects who treat me as their PR agent and who understand publishing a project as simply another way of increasing their personal profile and promoting their “genius”. (And the number of architects with an uncomplicated belief in the idea of genius continues to amaze me.)
Having a project published is certainly good for the ego, and that is no bad thing, but it also involves putting one’s work on the line. This means that proceeding with publication is a generous thing, and it is not without risk. Being reviewed in Architecture Australia means making a project available for discussion and scrutiny. This might well bring admiration and further work, but it might also result in less expected outcomes, positive or otherwise. No-one can control the way a project will be received. To publish is to make a contribution to architectural debate and this is more significant, more risky and more meaningful than the cynical self-aggrandizement that the publishing-as-PR trope suggests.
But my crankiness also reflects a rather clichéd understanding of PR. PR is of course public relations, and it is vital that architects, collectively and individually, communicate what it is they do and why it matters. Architecture needs the best possible relationship with the public, in its many manifestations, and this needs to be continually developed. Public relations, then, is not simply a matter of promotion, but one of building understanding, of affecting the community. Architects also need to talk to each other, to the architectural public. A fuller conception of public relations would include my understanding of publishing as a generous uncertain act, which provides an opportunity to participate in a discussion about architecture.
The value of discussion amongst the architectural community was emphasized by the recent RAIA conference, with its theme of “exchange”. Conference director Kerstin Thompson clearly and carefully structured the event to enable exchange on a number of levels, between international and local speakers, between speakers and “guests” or respondents, between those on the stage and those in the audience. The topics for discussion were framed as questions; they ranged widely, but all were concerned with how the profession might effect or respond to change. Sometimes the ensuing discussions took fire in exciting ways, sometimes they fizzed a little, but in almost every case participants were concerned to tease out the topic at hand, either obliquely or directly. There was only one case of blatant self-promotion at the expense of the event and the ideas at hand. The discussions spilled beyond the bounds of the conference room, into the conversations among the milling delegates, into dinners and the late-night conference club, and ideas continue to reverberate in the minds of the participants. The next issue of Architecture Australia will include reviews of the event and edited transcripts of some of the debates. The exchange will continue.
At the conference opening party the Victorian Government announced that the state will soon appoint a government architect. This is the outcome of a lot of hard work by a number of groups and individuals within the architectural community, including the RAIA. It demonstrates the effectiveness of working collectively and holds great promise for the profession’s future relationships with the public.
“Exchange” reminds us that communication is a two-way thing. When we put work or ideas into the world they come back to us in new ways, with new interpretations and ideas. Architecture should seek to communicate with and educate “the public”, but in the process that public will change architecture. This is a good thing.