Warwick Mihaly reflects on the 2014 National Architecture Conference – Making – held 8–10 at the Perth Exhibition Centre.
Creatively directed by Sam Crawford, Adam Haddow and Helen Norrie, the 2014 National Architecture Conference in Perth explored the “act of making; in the dirtiness, directness and honesty of architecture… both the machinations of the process, and the beauty, delight and surprise of excellence,” as described on the Making website.
This was the tenth conference since the Australian Institute of Architects first appointed a conference creative director (Kerstin Thompson) in 2005, and addressed a decade of recent history that saw international speakers drawn predominantly from Europe, North America and Japan. In their opening address, Crawford, Haddow and Norrie showed map overlays of this tendency, revealing a sizable hole in our own backyard. Thus they explained the strong regional focus of Making, with most speakers selected from Asia.
The directors noted that the conference location in Perth – another first in a decade – was unanticipated when they were appointed, but serendipitously tied well with their chosen theme. The city’s position on the west coast of Australia is closer to some of our regional neighbours than it is Melbourne and Sydney. With the world’s epicentre shifting to China and India, this is a timely and welcome acknowledgement of the architectural value to be found in Asia, one for which the directors should be applauded.
The conference was divided into four subthemes that sought to extend an intuitive definition of making: an exploration of not just the physical act of building, but its more ephemeral effects. They were each anchored by an Australian architect, who presented their own work, introduced the international speakers, and chaired thematically driven discussion panels:
Making culture: Andrew Burns (anchor), Richard Hassell (Singapore), David Adjaye (UK)
Making life: Elizabeth Watson-Brown (anchor), Wen Hsia and BC Ang (Malaysia), Cazú Zegers (Chile), Vo Trong Nghia (Vietnam), Marina Tabassum (Bangladesh)
Making connections: Emma Williamson (anchor), Sek San Ng (Malaysia), Gurjit Singh Matharoo (India), Andra Matin (Indonesia), Lyndon Neri (China)
Making impact: Timothy Horton (anchor), Justine Clark and Naomi Stead (Australia), Beth Miller (USA), Alejandro Echeverri (Colombia), Jo Noero (South Africa).
This division of duties had the curious side effect of reducing the prominence of the Australian voice within the broader discussion. We were interviewers, not interviewees.
What did I think? While website descriptions of the way each subtheme would be explored were clear enough, overlap between all but the making impact theme had the unfortunate side effect of rendering them essentially indistinguishable from one another. This would have been less confusing if all the speakers reflected on their work with reference to the conference themes, but a few resorted to lectures that failed to address them in a meaningful way. For instance, Andra Matin was invited to speak because of his role in establishing a network of young architects in Indonesia, but neglected to discuss this entirely, offering little more than walkthrough descriptions of his projects. This was a disappointing distraction that had me questioning the wisdom of including the subthemes at all.
In a thoughtful and detailed email response sent to me after the conference, Norrie explained that the subthemes were however never meant to establish a rigid thesis or architectural taxonomy. The intent was to develop a “curatorial framework” that would broaden the scope of making and provide direction for discussion and audience reflection. Programming the conference was a fluid task, with speakers constantly moved between themes: the directors went through twenty-one iterations before settling on the final programme. Even then there was crossover, with some speakers presenting under one subtheme and participating in the discussion of another.
Retrospectively assessing the conference, it is clear how this approach encouraged debate amongst the delegates and interrogation of making. One colleague commented that architecture cannot make life or culture: life and culture make architecture. I suspect Crawford, Haddow and Norrie were interested however in exploring the role architecture plays within these fields, both as a recipient of and agent for change. Marina Tabassum’s sublime Independence Monument and Liberation War Museum was a good example of this duality. A tribute to the tens of millions of people killed or forcibly displaced during the Bangladesh Liberation War, it is a project both shaped by political events of the past and able to influence a country’s sense of identity in the future.
What were the highlights? The best speakers were those able to provide meaningful self-reflection and an analysis of their work within the broader contexts of not only the conference themes, but architectural production and national identity also. Richard Hassell was fascinating, the prodigal Perth son whose casual demeanour is a mask for extraordinary success across Asia. Wen Hsia and BC Ang presented a portfolio populated by small projects in concrete and timber, each executed with delightful creativity. And Sek San Ng’s irreverent humour aligned perfectly with his resourceful and honest design work.
Above all, the making impact subtheme stood out, differing from the other three in the clarity of its purpose and focus of its speakers. Populated by individuals operating outside the traditional territory of architecture practice, it was interested in outcomes beyond the built form, like gender equity and community wellbeing. Even Jo Noero, the only practitioner within the making impact subtheme, is arguably a political activist first and architect second.
Timothy Horton’s wide-ranging experience as a political operator made him an excellent choice for anchor. In his introduction he made reference to Rory Hyde’s impressive book, Future Practice: Conversations from the Edge of Architecture, a pioneering series of short interviews exploring similar questions of architectural territory. He recalled some of Hyde’s descriptive titles for contemporary practitioners operating on the edge, titles like the Urban Activist and the Community Enabler, suggesting an exciting world of new opportunities for a profession in crisis.
The presentations of both Alejandro Echeverri and Jo Noero demonstrated the positive influence of high quality public buildings on the informal settlements of Medellin in Columbia and Port Elizabeth in South Africa. Their carefully considered architectural interventions inspired urban and social change in cities with deeply segregated populations. They slow the progress of downwards-economic spirals and act as foundation stones from which disadvantaged communities might begin to rebuild themselves.
The Community Design Collaborative in Philadelphia, of which Beth Miller is executive director, matchmakes deserving community projects with architects who work pro-bono to prepare sketch design proposals and seek financial backing. The CDC believes that good design is not a luxury but a public right, and since 1991 “have coordinated the donation of 100,000 hours of volunteer design work to a portfolio of 600 not-for-profit organisations”.
The making impact theme was exceptional for two important reasons. First, more than any of the others, it demonstrated that architecture is not only influenced by its various contexts but can in fact exert influence over them. And second, it was most expressive of the conference’s aspirations, expanding the realm of architectural activity beyond buildings. For Australia, where the services offered by the architecture profession are continuously marginalized, we need to be proactive about uncovering new ones. Making impact offered substantial proof that our profession can be more than mere beautifiers of facades, more than a luxury service affordable only to the wealthy.
Finally, Justine Clark and Naomi Stead’s research through Parlour into gender equity has established a far-reaching and invaluable tool for understanding the current state of Australian architecture practice. Broadening the scope of their findings from women specifically to an entire profession, they argued that, “women architects are like the canary in the coalmine,” their equity issues indicative of much more widespread problems. Positive change to this status quo is to be sought from “pragmatic, collective and sustained advocacy.” The conference coincided with the release of their Guides to Equitable Practice, an important milestone towards a fairer Australian architecture profession.
The work of Parlour strikes me as most radical in this respect. It is unprecedented for the architecture profession, not just for Australia but possibly the world. Could the Parlour research team generate sufficient expertise to start exporting its services? Could it transcend its scope as auditor of an industry to an industry in its own right? In the battle for new territory, this is as good evidence as I have ever seen of the architecture profession creating new value from our unique and often underappreciated worldview.
What did I learn? During the making impact discussion session, the outspoken Jo Noero (Noero Architects) memorably broadsided Dutch studio OMA for designing a media headquarters for “one of the world’s most oppressive regimes.” He added that, “arguing China will develop a more moderate approach to freedom of speech in 25 years isn’t good enough. As architects, we need to do it now.” Noero has a reputation for unwavering and polemic morality, inspiring more than one of his fellow presenters to confess their feelings of guilt over the wealth of their clients.
Noero’s comment raised a provocative and enduring question in my mind, one that was accentuated by the choice of speakers for the conference and the region they represent. According to the World Bank’s index of per capita gross national income, Australia is the eleventh wealthiest country in the world. China is ranked 83rd, Indonesia 109th and India 118th, their combined gross national income measuring just over half of our own (according to the World Bank Databank). By focussing on Asia, South America and Africa, the conference inevitably targeted speakers from some of the poorest countries on the planet.
This disparity was not explicitly addressed by the conference themes, but it was implied everywhere: from the costly burden of air-conditioning in tropical climates, and consequent necessity of natural ventilation; to the opportunities provided by materials-light but labour-intensive construction techniques; to the repeated celebration of resourceful architecture. This commentary established a fifth and not-so-subtle subtheme running through every presentation and discussion: making money. The genius of the creative directors, intended or otherwise, was to ensure that the entire socio-economic spectrum be represented, from Sek San’s orphanage built entirely from donated funds and village labour, to Wen Hsia and BC Ang’s work on both private housing and social projects for indigenous Malaysian tribes, to the extraordinary lavishness of Matharoo’s pivoting marble-clad walls.
Noero was provocative, declaring his refusal to design any private house larger than 150 square metres, but he was only pointing out the obvious elephant in the room. What role do architects have to play in addressing inequality? When Matharoo or Matin or Neri accept a commission for another expensive mansion, what responsibility do they have to the welfare of the millions of their countrymen and women irrevocably unable to afford their services? What responsibility does an Australian architect have to the same (though less extreme) divide here?
For me, this was the most striking subject to be drawn from the conference. It was not the first time such issues have been raised in a public forum, nor will it be the last. I can’t say with any certainty what responsibility architects have in challenging poverty or deep economic segregation, but I hope that future conferences continue to focus their attention on our region and on the great inequality that continues to exist here. Such a focus is an essential extension of the questions explored by the making theme and one I would like to think is given significant attention by our profession in coming decades.
Overall, Making 2014 was an engaging, contextually relevant and at times inspiring conference. The creative directors brought together speakers producing meaningful work far outside the starchitecture with which we are otherwise bombarded on a daily basis. Above all, it was a rewarding opportunity to recharge my batteries, to step back from the daily activities of being an architect and remind myself of the bigger picture.
I look forward to next year’s conference, Risk 2015, to be held in Melbourne and explore the troubled nexus “between the professional necessity to take calculated and creative risks and a world incapacitated by risk minimisation.” It will look backwards at humanity’s historical architectural achievements and will, I hope, show how we can rediscover our preparedness to take risks for the sake of great rewards. Can’t wait.
Making 2014 was presented by the Australian Institute of Architects.