The critics respond

So, what does it all mean? In response to an initiative by Carey Lyon, we invite two critics to reflect on this year’s awards outcomes. Michael Keniger and Sandra Kaji-O’Grady contemplate the crop.

This is an article from the Architecture Australia archives and may use outdated formatting

Michael Keniger

The invitation to comment on the outcomes of the 2007 RAIA Awards was both irresistible and challenging. The peer evaluation of the nominated projects is rigorous and exhaustive, but no matter how thorough the process or how excellent the calibre of the jury, there is always the niggling sense that some gems may have been overlooked, that the results may slant too much towards a particular perspective or perhaps that some injustice has been done. So, what can be said that extends, interrogates, challenges or reinforces the 2007 decisions?

A series of awards across several categories signal the social responsibilities of the profession. The Lachlan Macquarie Award for Heritage draws attention to the value of ordinary and utilitarian buildings by premiating the conservation and reuse of an industrial workshop as the new home for the UTas School of Architecture. The recognition of the Mamaruni School with the Colorbond Award for Steel Architecture underscores the vital role that well-directed design can play in answering the evolving needs of the community at large, however remote. The profession’s capacity to provide leadership in sustainable design has been addressed open-handedly, with awards to all four shortlisted projects – either all four are equally good or each represents a particular version of sustainability to reflect upon. Notably, all four are public or institutional projects.

Many of the other winning schemes can be divided into those characterized by a fascination with surface and form and those governed by spatial experience, tectonics and response to place. These competing themes represent two familiar strands of architectural ideas that interact to provide an astringent tension in the shaping of Australia’s contemporary architecture. This division is lucidly illustrated by the awards for multiple housing – the Frederick Romberg Award to the Cornwall Apartments in an inner suburb of Brisbane and a National Award to the Yve Apartments on St Kilda Road, Melbourne. The amoeba-like plan of the latter underlies what the jury describes as a “voluptuous experiment” in urban form making, which brings “glamour and delight” to multiple dwelling design. In contrast, the Cornwall Apartments offer a strategic model for the making of a medium-density housing type interlacing private, communal and public domains. The two approaches could not be more at variance and yet each is recognized for the contribution it makes to architectural ideas, which will generate and guide new models of inner-urban housing.

The High Court of Australia is sufficiently removed from these axiomatic polarities to be the winner of the 25 Year Award for Enduring Architecture. The High Court asserts a robust strength of purpose, providing a fitting home for the nation’s highest level of judicial deliberation. Its strong profile, the ceremonial formality of its axial approach and its prominent setting ensure its significance as an indispensable part of Canberra’s landscape of symbolic and representative buildings.

This clarity of purpose and strength of expression is mirrored by the Manchester Civil Justice Centre, awarded the Jørn Utzon Award for International Architecture. Despite its larger size and more complex programme, this project echoes the visual strength of the High Court. The composition of plan, section and elevation is driven by Denton Corker Marshall’s signature vocabulary of restrained, elemental form making, which conveys a tectonic while seemingly eschewing style by grasping for abstraction.

As a foil to the muted formality of the two judicial buildings, the winner of the national award for international architecture – Soho, a large-scale commercial complex in Beijing – displays a commercial raffishness that evokes the dramatic pace of change as China prepares for the Olympics. The lively interplay of form and surface signals that Lab is back – with verve and gusto! In comparison, the towers of Eureka in Melbourne and Brisbane’s Riparian Plaza, winners of the commercial awards, seem relatively well mannered and somewhat sedate despite their visual prominence, their scale and their commercial impetus.

Ironically, the Walter Burley Griffin Award for Urban Design goes to the mogul-mounded roof of Southern Cross Station – a building type that Griffin may not have recognized as urban design. As cited by the jury, this project represents a significant design and construction achievement, yet Ruskin’s dismissal (with which Griffin may have sympathized) of the idea that Paxton’s Crystal Palace could be considered as architecture is haunting. The undulating canopy of the roof and the multi-vaulted space that it contains is remarkable, but the ultimate value of the place made will be demonstrated not just by its effectiveness in sheltering a major metropolitan station, but by its success in facilitating activity and impelling movement between the established city core and Docklands.

In a year of rare triumph, Queensland projects dominate the public building category, with the extension to and reworking of the State Library and the Gallery of Modern Art on Brisbane’s South Bank both recognized. These two schemes comprise related but contrasting elements of the Millennium Arts project, which extends the Cultural Centre Precinct initiated by Robin Gibson’s Queensland Art Gallery, Museum and Performing Arts Centre. Above all, the quality of these buildings is a testimony to the resilience of the respective teams of architects as they responded to the pragmatics of project delivery. As the winner of the Sir Zelman Cowen Award for Public Architecture and the Emil Sodersten Award for Interior Architecture, the State Library receives resounding acclaim. It is an extraordinary essay of excision, incision, overlay and inlay that orchestrates movement and engages experience within, around and through the revitalized and expanded library. Spatially, the boundaries between internal and external space are deliberately ambiguous so as to enhance access, ingress and engagement.

From the day of its opening, the Gallery of Modern Art captured the interest and affection of the public. It stands as a detached pavilion terminating the precinct, its cantilevered roof dramatically framing and drawing in the vista of the hills beyond. Within, the principal galleries are interleaved with generous circulation and gathering spaces that connect with views to the river, the parkland and the city core.

The John Curtin School of Medical Research also received a National Award for Public Architecture and exemplifies the use of articulated form and surface to express function and purpose – and aspiration. The cascading, serrated form enlivens the ANU campus and expresses the dynamics of the scientific pursuit and creation of knowledge. More prosaically, it makes a generous contribution to the adjacent public spaces through its scale, placement and extensive forecourt.

The three awarded residential schemes are characterized by modesty of form and response to site, and by being tailored to support and express the activity of dwelling. The winner of the Robin Boyd Award, the Cape Schanck House, tucks itself into its immediate landscape and turns its back to wind and weather to both provide and signal shelter. The Zulaikha Laurence House is praised by the jury for the poetic qualities that enable it to be stitched back into the “ragtag” collage of form and material offered by its context. The H House embodies the careful analysis and thoughtful response to site, climate, use and material that distinguish the work of Donovan Hill. The same project also attracted a National Award for Interior Architecture. In contrast to these measured and subtle schemes, the commended scheme for Interior Architecture, the Great Aussie Smith Home, is bursting with drama and vitality. Colour, surface, geometry and symbol interact to create a dynamic and challenging interior world driven by an almost baroque interplay of form, space and implied movement.

The new Small Project category has been wrung out of the difficulty of judging competing projects of radically different sizes in previous years. Each of the winning schemes is sensitively handled and reflects the efficacy of perceptive judgment in responding to restricted sites and limited circumstances. The Park Street house extracts the most from its tightly constrained site and recalls other finely tuned, small and exquisitely wrought houses. The delicate outstretched fingers of its projecting beams suggest an ambition to embrace a larger domain. The other Small Project winner, the QUT Human Movement Pavilion, is similarly large in ambition – the adroit wrapping of a standard Titan shed with a draped and folded plane creates a scale appropriate to its setting at the edge of an open sports field.

And so, the excellence of architecture in Australia is represented in the 2007 awards by works ranging from the expressive strength of the High Courts of Australia to the artful drape of a folded plane of steel and polycarbonate that elevates a workaday shed into a composition of significant place and form. The jury is to be commended for bringing attention to the key competing strands of ideas in Australian architecture through the works that they have drawn forward. Their decisions advocate for the value of developing and deploying architectural insight and intelligence to help shape the physical fabric of our rapidly growing towns and cities. At a time of unparalleled buoyancy within the construction industry, the 2007 crop of awards represents a harvest year in terms of design quality and architectural achievement across all scales of project and all categories of function and type.

Professor Michael Keniger is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) at the University of Queensland.

Sandra Kaji-O’Grady

Two things are immediately striking about the field of candidates for the 2007 National Awards. The first is that public architecture is the richest and most competitive field, and that buildings in this category are situated within the global culture and practice of architecture. The second observation is that, with a few exceptions, projects in the residential categories appear refined but conservative, suggesting that this type is declining as a site for experiments in living, form-making or technology.

The wealth of good public buildings in the National Awards stands in contrast to the apocalyptic proclamations of the decline of public life that followed the state awards in New South Wales. There it was perceived that state and public institutions had failed once again to invest in good buildings – or at least in the locally preferred architects. The depth and range of the sixteen candidates from the other states indicate that major investment in architecture is recognized by public institutions as a necessary and ongoing force in civic and community life. Donovan Hill Peddle Thorp’s State Library of Queensland is a worthy recipient of the Sir Zelman Cowen Award for Public Architecture, delivering lofty and convivial interior spaces that expand the library’s remit and make it a place of reception, gathering and exchange for the city. Architectus’s Gallery of Modern Art and Grimshaw Jackson’s Southern Cross Station are likewise accomplished buildings tackling complex and challenging public programmes. The gallery received a National Award for Public Architecture and the station the Walter Burley Griffin Award for Urban Design.

All three projects were commissioned through international architectural competitions, a fitting process for public buildings of this significance. Regardless of the provenance of the architects, each is very much an “international” building engaged in current global approaches to form-making and spatial organization. The combination of waves of roof supported on central “trees” at Southern Cross Station, for example, is found in Richard Rogers’ Madrid Barajas Airport. Denton Corker Marshall’s Manchester Civil Justice Centre has, in MVRDV’s WoZoCo, a likely precedent for its cantilevered rooms. This is not to suggest that Australian buildings or architects should forge an independent direction – arguments for regionalism have run their course. Climate, site and context figure in the treatment of building envelope and orientation across all categories, but not as overt design drivers. The State Library of Queensland and Donovan Hill’s Cornwall Apartments, for example, address the informality of public and community life in Queensland and intelligently respond to local climate, but are less formally engaged with vernacular systems and elements than earlier work by this practice. Differences between contemporary public buildings in the international arena are drawn along ideological and stylistic lines rather than national or regional ones. Distinct approaches emerge from the regard each practice has for modernity as a cultural phenomenon defined by technological and social change, and for modernism as a style. The various global languages of late modernism are largely optimistic and light-handed in their mastery of technology – no megastructures or brutalist techno-dystopias here.

In contrast to the richness of public work, the category of Commercial Architecture has fewer compelling entries, possibly because the budget per square metre is around half that of public buildings. This is worrying because the scale of commercial buildings is often such that they have great urban and environmental impact, and in programme are quasi-public. Seidler and Associates’ Riparian Plaza is at such an urban scale, and it is disappointing to find the building an awkward collage of details from the office archives – unfortunately, those details are taken from the towers of the 90s rather than from the urban plaza of Seidler’s 1967 Australia Square. Fender Katsalidis’s Eureka Tower also looks to be from the previous decade, given the radical shifts in high-rise design over the past five years. The entry of digital technologies in design, documentation and fabrication has driven some of these moves, but, more crucially, the high-rise tower has become the building type of the greatest innovation and application of sustainable technologies. (Even the Guangdong Tobacco Company has commissioned SOM to design a zero-energy tower for its headquarters.) Eureka Tower makes comparatively minor gestures towards sustainability, although it is more ambitious in the combination of residential and commercial programme.

But it would be wrong to single out Eureka Tower for its half-hearted uptake of sustainable technologies. As the jury points out, the persistence of the Sustainable category is an anomaly. Are the other categories for unsustainable buildings? Winners in the Sustainable category – with the exception of the delightful UTas School of Architecture, which also won the Lachlan Macquarie Award for Heritage – did not win in other categories. Is the field less competitive, less architectural?

The most disappointing category is Residential, for here we find the narrowest range of architectural approaches – ubiquitous clean white planes, matt timber floor and joinery (no handles), the occasional accent in almost-black brown, et cetera. Throughout the twentieth century, the private house has been the site of experimentation, with dramatic twists and turns in architectural history triggered by relatively small commissions away from the public eye. The clients for these groundbreaking buildings were either motivated (Truus Schröder-Schräder, Edith Farnsworth) or related (Vanna Venturi). Today’s clients, even when the client and the architect are one and the same person, may be too concerned with property and resale values to step outside the dictates of “lifestyle” and “market taste” that leave us all hankering for excessive bathrooms. Alternatively, it could be argued that architects play a key role in establishing and maintaining taste cultures and are instrumental in the benign suppression of client individuality and lapses in good taste. Between these two possibilities is something closer to the truth – today’s houses conform to fashion. The irony is that much of this architecture, with its abstraction, neutrality and elegance, aims to be above fashion, yet in twenty years will look just as 2007 as this season’s Giorgio Armani outfit. Among all this tasteful and well-executed architecture, Cassandra Complex’s The Smith Great Aussie Home stands out like a Vivienne Westwood fantasy. It is excessively decorative, theatrical, immersive, brooding, disorienting and utterly specific. It draws from suburban mythology, yet is not so much interested in the everyday as in the underlying eroticism and dramatic tension of the domestic realm. It’s a bright and noisy spark, ugly but brave.

Dr Sandra Kaji-O’Grady is associate professor and head of architecture at the University of Technology, Sydney.



Published online: 1 Nov 2007
Words: Sandra Kaji-O'Grady, Michael Keniger


Architecture Australia, November 2007

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