Timothy Hill, John Macarthur and Naomi Stead in conversation about the promotion of Queensland architecture.
What happens when a state government body appoints an “ambassador” for architecture who is also a phenomenally popular sporting figure closely associated with that state? Heat Architecture, an initiative of the Queensland Government’s Creative Industries Unit, has recently done just that. The following wide-ranging conversation between academics John Macarthur and Naomi Stead, and architect Timothy Hill, begins by talking about the potential role and reach of a newly appointed advocate for architecture, and goes on to cover the history of Queensland, place identity, the procurement of architecture in Brisbane and the “necessary evil” of conceiving local buildings in a climate-responsive style.
Naomi Stead: As you may know, Darren Lockyer, who is a rugby player, has recently been nominated the ambassador for Heat. We found it, shall I say, flabbergasting that a rugby player without any previous association with architecture other than commercial property speculation would take that role.
Timothy Hill: It’s ideal because the people who are the movers and shakers in the built environment generally don’t have any background in design. It’s a very specific part of our frontier character — until about 1973 I think the town planning department [in Brisbane] had one staff member. I think it’s very powerful to have someone who will speak about the value of the profession from a reassuring viewpoint and in language the public will understand.
NS: One of the things that Lockyer said in a recent interview with Janne Ryan, which was in The Australian on 5 April , is that he’s particularly interested in “the style of architecture we have in Queensland,” and that’s “what art and architecture is all about, finding that point of difference, that’s what appeals to people.” So he obviously thinks first that there’s a Queensland style of architecture, and second that it can be sold.
TH: I think it’s very unfortunate to rely on a style argument and I think it’s a particularly stressed argument in Queensland because the claims for where the style exists or where it came from can really only be demonstrated in certain building types and certain markets. I know as a practitioner for an absolute fact that there’s a huge part of the market that deliberately does not invest in points of stylistic differentiation, because they see that as a risk.
John Macarthur: That’s the problem with style; it’s a normalizing concept. I mean, if you name something a style it’s a way for everyone to avoid risk, because they can say that this is a Balinese-style house or whatever. You can’t avoid talking about style. It’s the language that people use and the fact is that it’s a messy concept and potentially a dangerous concept, because it’s always one that supposes that the normalized forms of building are good. In my mind it’s a sort of necessary evil.
TH: The paradox here is that it’s an identification with a place. It’s not often that someone wants to classify a style by region, is it? What Heat is trying to do is give the region a competitive advantage. I think one of the reasons that very few Queensland architects in history have been engaged by clients in the southern states is based not on the styling that they might use, but on the fact that they come from frontier territory. An idea might be to embrace that a frontier has a kind of readiness to look at trash culture and quick culture and big new things, rather than trying to compete for prestige by saying “we have our own regional style.”
JM: We’re talking about two things, style in the sense that Heat might market this to clients or to the public, and then we’re talking about what style means in architectural culture. And this is further complicated because there’s also two ways that cities market themselves. One as being part of a world economy, and Sydney does that: Sydney is an international city. Whereas cities like Brisbane, which may be on the edge of being a Pacific rim international city or may not be, still need to market themselves with pineapples and sugar cane and beaches and other kinds of things that give them some advantage through particularity.
TH: They adopt a position that suggests the way to become a city is via marketing. A lot of the international research is pointing out, for instance, that tourism spending doesn’t yield very much unless it’s directed at people who spend more than a $1000 a night, otherwise you may as well just spend the money making the place really good, because then people will want to come and visit. I think it is within the history of Brisbane very much to think that marketing would be an approach to city-making, rather than say, “We’re going to have fantastic infrastructure as a way of making the city” or “We’re going to have a particular form of subsidising our housing demand as a way of doing our city” or “We’re going to make the river back into having a swimmable quality.” Things that are to do with citizens rather than marketing opportunities — this is an incredibly different wavelength.
The whole Brisbane thing has to be understood, if you’re talking either style or marketing, from the point of view that it is just not like the other capitals, in a value neutral way — it’s not a good thing, it’s not a bad thing. It’s just that it doesn’t have the concentration of population that every other capital does. I believe that around 75 percent of people in Australia who have a job live in a capital city, but I think only 35 or 40 percent of Queenslanders who have a job live in Brisbane. Queensland is the only Australian regionalized state, and the electorate and the population live out of town.
JM: Although the explicit rhetoric of Heat is to market architects like yourselves into Asia to build housing and hospitals in China or whatever, we’re of the opinion that a large part of the effect of it is actually in building public consciousness in Queensland, that it’s as much inward directed as it is outward directed, and that a fair bit of it is about a kind of training in design citizenship, trying to persuade the public that design issues are important and that the idea of growing an economy — a service economy — in architecture is an occasion for really a much more basic kind of civics.
TH: I don’t know if it’s the role of Heat, but I certainly think one of the effects of Heat has been that it has led to reflection. The state is encouraging itself to think about architecture. I think where that ends up being registered is interesting, because in Queensland, architecture is not tracked in the media and it’s not tracked politically. But real people are vastly more interested. It’s just that there’s a management class in Queensland, and a particular client class in Queensland who don’t need to be motivated by architecture because it’s not yet a prerequisite. Another effect of Heat is the marketing of Queensland back into Australia. Exporting Queensland into Australia is a very interesting thing to contemplate. It hasn’t led directly to any commissions for Donovan Hill, but it has been very instructive to be given the opportunity to be in touch with market operations and the conventions of marketing, because the market has difficulty understanding our practice, because our practice is not specialized. In some cultures the fact that you haven’t done a building type before (but are acknowledged as a good designer) is itself a reason for being commissioned. In a marketing-based way of thinking, there needs to be the idea of building specialization. We have not been able to clarify the alternative which is, I think, a drawback.
JM: Now that you’ve completed very high-tech lab buildings and work at that institutional scale, but still see yourself marketing this work in terms of buildings like the C House, do you feel a tension in the practice?
TH: I think there can be misunderstandings about the other elements that really do make differences to how buildings turn out. For instance, the history of Queensland budgets is simply that they are smaller, and the buildings are smaller and the commissions are smaller. The reason there’s not a whole lot of toying with styling in large buildings is that there were not many, until very recently. Now that there are more large buildings, it’s not that they’re done by practices of particular styles. We’re in a phase of the economy where people who are anxious within that economy, and who have a corporate amount of money to spend, want to spend it with another corporation. In these situations, the issue is not style, it’s not inclinations, it’s not even our practice history. Practices who have ninety staff or more are the people who service international jobs, and this is very consistently to do with their operational structure that capitalizes on long periods of investigation, and which international clients find encouraging enough to deal with because people who have got a corporate amount of money and staff are very anxious about dealing with a small group of people. Therefore, the big buildings are done by big firms and they need not be based in any one particular place, or style.
JM: A lot of the formal discussions in Queensland architecture are about the power of climate and how much you can understand buildings in terms of being expressive of a particular climatic condition. For instance, it’s possible to have the main room of the State Library of Queensland open to the air. Is there a power in such ideas and what is the limit of that kind of expression of place and climatic particularity?
TH: It plays a very different role depending on building type, because the making of any public space has to resonate with the person who’s spending the money. If making a public place is one of the goals whatever the climate of the place, then it’s easier to produce public space. The way that it’s valued just differs from society to society. There are plenty of outdoor rooms in Scandinavia, for instance, which they can only use for three months of the year, but they’re very, very valued. So I think on some occasions we’ve been able to make the outdoor spaces because they haven’t been too expensive and they’re not too risky, they have a potential for a lot of utilization. At the library, the proposition was that the mantel of the space was built extremely economically and it was a private citizen that paid for it to come into existence, and that private citizen was the one who grasped the idea that having a place that was public and that was also of some delicacy was really legitimate. So in a sense it wasn’t a broadly held view about whether the public space was worth the effort, it was a particular individual.
The fact that we are a small city and we’ve been very thrifty is interesting, not something to be ashamed of. We have a small Government House, it’s very house-y, and it was too small to hold ceremonial occasions in, so they built a trellis and planted it with a venusta vine and most of the big occasions were outside in this trellis. It’s invariably cheaper to make a room outside than inside.
JM: Arguing climatic determination or expressiveness is a very limited argument and it’s certainly the case that in the 1940s and 1950s architects like Langer were arguing for slab-on-ground construction and courtyard plan forms, because it particularly suited the Queensland climate. They were the complete inverse of the elevated house and shaded verandah and so on. I’ve walked into your library with architects who have been to see Schinkel’s Romische Bader and they still walk into the library and say, “Oh this could only happen in Queensland,” because of the beneficial climate.
TH: I was a student when Stirling’s Stuttgart [Neue Staatsgalerie] was opened, the gallery with the drum in the middle, and I’ve been trying to pay tribute ever since.
JM: There is a hunger for the romance that such a space would derive naturally from the circumstances in place, rather than from an architectural culture.
TH: Yes, I see the thing with the romancing and your Langer example. I also become confused with the quest for style because the bandwidth of things that Queensland architects are interested in is very narrow compared to, for instance, what we saw in Los Angeles or in other places with comfortable climates where they were less interested in trying to stylize themselves in the climate and much more into what they could do with different building types. Just focusing on style is a narrow approach that I’ve never quite understood.
JM: For all that we’ve agreed about cliches of style and the problems of that, it is a phenomenon in Brisbane now that there’s an awful lot of relatively poor architecture going up, which is to do with some sun-shading details, or some battening details, and some of that looks to me as if it’s a fairly ignorant take on some of the work of Donovan Hill. Do you think there is a problem with architectural culture, such that people within Brisbane are looking at the work of the profession inwardly in a way they probably didn’t do thirty years ago, and that there is a degree of unreflected culture in the way that people take up the work of firms in the city? Not just Donovan Hill, obviously, but a number of firms that I’d respect. I can see motifs of their work being done by lesser architects and I think that that’s one of the deleterious things about thinking that there’s a state- or city-based style that architects ought to conform to.
TH: I don’t know if it’s a problem. I can recognize that it exists. The originating author is sometimes not able to see other work that is attached to it. But I think that the things that we are seeing, that we then reflect on as being of a poor quality, are often simply not an issue of the design. Many buildings coming into existence simply were not designed or are not the building that was originally designed. A quite definitive characteristic is the contracting procedure that we typically use in this state. In these scenarios, the authority lies very absolutely with the builder as the designer, very consistently, and I don’t think the public understands this. I always wrangle with my colleagues when we enter the style argument or the regional argument, because the things I find that make a difference between places are the manners of the clients and builders. The conduct of how you go from start to finish and the presumptions of what roles people will play, and the respect that is paid to people as they play those roles, varies extremely within Australia. In Melbourne, for instance, the colonists arrived with a planning bureaucracy on the boat.
JM: Let’s just maybe think about the first things you were saying about frontiersmen. So apart from the problem that basically Queensland went bust in 1890 and didn’t have any money again until 1970, and is only catching up now, am I to understand that there’s some sort of cultural value or something to reflect on with regard to the idea that it is a poor, rough, expedient kind of place?
TH: Yes. I wish we would own this as a value, instead of competing and marketing. It makes real cultural differences if you own it. Then you can become really nifty and savvy about it. If we just were more upfront about it, then it would actually trigger a lot of very authentic things to happen, really good things.
NS: But peculiarly, I mean just coming back to where we started, it’s a fascinating moment, really, to have a rugby star campaigning for architecture.
TH: As a practitioner I honestly don’t see it as peculiar. It makes perfect sense to me. It’s insightful, it’s positive. I deal with clients, and clients commission the buildings, and this guy is someone that clients will want to talk to.