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Winning by Design

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Detail of a surfboard by Peter Walker, on display at Design InTents.

Detail of a surfboard by Peter Walker, on display at Design InTents.

Kids playing at the biennial.

Kids playing at the biennial.

Olympic Cities: Designing for Winning, an exhibition at Old Parliament House.

Olympic Cities: Designing for Winning, an exhibition at Old Parliament House.

Marcus Trimble reports on the 2007 Canberra Biennial, devoted to the relationship between sport and design.

The theme of this year’s Canberra Biennial was “Winning by Design: Designing for Sport in 21C”. As I wandered around the Parliamentary Triangle, across the Great Grassland Sea in front of Old Parliament House, a group of bureaucrats played frisbee in the distance, while some of their companions engaged in some miscellaneous stretching under a tree. If this was a part of the biennial, it was not indicated in the programme, but it was the only athleticism on display on the opening day of the two-week event.

This second biennial, following 2005’s effort on Temporary Housing, was focused on sport. It consisted of an exhibition at Old Parliament House on Olympic city design, the display of the results of a student design competition, two lectures and two tours. In addition, an interactive element took place at Commonwealth Place on the edge of Lake Burly Griffin called Design InTents.

It was, in a way, a quintessentially Canberran event. All the car parks may have been full on the opening day, but in the High Court, tour guides matched visitors one-for-one; in the National Art Gallery of Australia I was quietly annoyed when another patron entered the gallery, shattering the quiet calm; at the National Portrait Gallery, I had the whole place to myself. And so it seemed perfectly suitable to have the biennial to myself also.

The centrepiece of the event, the exhibition Olympic Cities: Designing for Winning, put together by the University of Canberra, was hugely disappointing. Essentially a series of large-format photographs of Olympic stadiums and venues in a basement space of Old Parliament House, there were no drawings and little analysis of Olympic cities beyond visual spectacle. This is an area of study in which Australia has had recent hands-on experience, and has several world experts – surely the curation could have dug deeper than a series of recent photographs by John Gollings. Accompanying the exhibition were lectures by Lawrence Nield and Bernardo de Sola. I imagine these would add a layer of understanding regarding the process of planning for Olympic Games; however, for those just visiting the exhibition, it is a missed opportunity. One suspects that the thin content may have had to do with budget constraints, but with two years in which to plan the event, a more comprehensive study could have been undertaken.

Accompanying this exhibition was a student design competition in which the brief asked for a strategic response to battling obesity. These submissions had much promise. However, the few that entered were relegated to one LCD TV at the end of the exhibition, their projects on loop, at low resolution and cycling through at a pace that made comprehension impossible. This was a shame, as the entries did, at the very least, tackle the problem with a degree of urban analysis, invention and good humour.

The Design InTents interactive component at Commonwealth Place, organized by the Canberra Institute of Technology and the NCA, consisted of a series of marquee tents housing various exhibitions relating to sport and design. The most successful of these was a display of clothing designed by the CIT students with the theme of extreme sports, made from salvaged second-hand clothing – primarily as they represented a degree of thought carried through to an act of making. Unfortunately, rain stopped the evening Xtreme Fashion Parade, which promised the student’s creations worn by skateboarders and mountain bikers riding around the lawns of Commonwealth Place.

On the Saturday, a cruise around the three basins of Lake Burley Griffin, organized by the RAIA and hosted by Peter Freeman and Enrico Taglietti, sought to uncover part of the “invisible city” of Canberra. It is perhaps the kind of thing that the RAIA should be running every weekend in the capital – passionate architects leading tours of their city.

It is unfortunate that the biennial so poorly fulfilled its promise. Canberra has such wonderful resources available; there is a thriving arts scene, it is packed with students, there is even something called The Australian Institute of Sport. One would have thought, given the theme, that perhaps the AIS could have been involved in some manner. Further, Canberra is not a place where things need to be spread out any more than they already are, so the decision to run the biennial over eleven days and venues across Canberra was crippling. A short, intense one-day event would have delivered the same content with greater impact and with more possibility of generating discourse around the thematic concerns of the event.

Marcus Trimble maintains Sydney-based architecture office SuperColossal.

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Published online: 1 Jan 2008

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Architecture Australia, January 2008

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