Garden Variety – Talk in Brisbane

It is on occasions such as this, when I am offered an opportunity to consider my place in the context of an architectural discourse, that I develop a sense of despair and despondency. I look at the lack of merit in many endeavours in our field and wonder where we could imagine the future’s strengths to lie.

The ill-informed have hitherto relied upon technology in advance of the creative human force to lead our endeavours and this approach, for my purposes, quickly shows its vulnerabilities. It is an error of judgement to consider technical advancements as ones that will enable forces of design to progress and this has been proven since the dawn of civilisation.

On the one hand, the work of the formalist architects has inspired a re-reading of how we can connect to the advancements of technology; on the other hand, these works have quickly become boring, unable to sustain interest in their own hype; and the novelty of using the computer programmes of NASA has only brought to us one memorable building.

The sense that considering architecture as something that might be less interested in itself and more interested in an engagement with ‘people’ (most importantly, the spiritual dimension of people) has eluded many contemporary architects; including otherwise talented and good architects.

There is also very little critical discourse of architecture in this country; if there is any at all. ‘The fear of offending’ and the commercial outcomes of a severe critique, have disabled any genuine discourse. This is understandable in some respects. Without the discourse that could emanate from a grounded critique, however, there is no advancement in our field.

In this context, a show such as this, hopefully, might endeavour to represent a rarefied concern that can cause intelligent discussion to develop; perhaps even discussion that can last longer than the evening might permit. This lapse of cultural offering results in no surprise when we see the dilution of one of Australia’s most important practices in Brisbane (which practice has had no choice, through the exasperation of commercial forces) to be consumed by larger architectural firms; however good those larger firms might be; but few are able to attest to the difficulties that exist in the creation of even flawed works of architecture in a context not interested in our art. Few are able to coalesce the disparate pieces of knowledge that would enable a fuller and more informed picture of why so few works of great architecture can exist in this place.

My proposition here, tonight, is that the concept of a culture of architecture comes from within the profession, not from outside; and the prestige of the profession doesn’t come from advocacy of all of its members; rather, it must come from the elevation of interest onto those members who are truly gifted; those members who have made, and still make, the necessary sacrifice for the benefit of all. The rest of the colleagues, in my opinion, cannot offer anything cultural to the profession without the efforts of the few. This might be a controversial concept but it is one that has represented the ‘proof of culture’ in all generations that have passed.

The general principle of merit has become elusive in our profession; in NSW, the Australian Institute of Architects offers some 80 awards every year and it is clear that there are not 80 great new works of architecture produced every year. This would mean that the last decade should have seen over 500 great buildings and it is my opinion that this could not be true when one is to walk the streets of Sydney. Perhaps a more plausible truth is that the consumer-corporatisation of our culture has in its turn consumed our profession; soon making those endeavours we seek into only merchandising ones or ones for marketing appeal. In Brisbane, the tiered approach to giving awards is also lacking clarity in defining a path toward merit; in Melbourne, I can say, the sense of ‘bullying’ in the profession seems to eclipse any discussion on merit. Commercial mandates have enveloped and consumed the profession into an exponent of only a type of architecture; claiming pluralism but feigning quality. In politics, our period is distinguishing itself as one which is extremely ‘closed-minded’ about being open minded and the sense that ‘anything goes’ is transferred in this fashion to architecture as well. But time will be the only end-judge of our time.

We no longer form part of a profession that engages with the world and making good buildings appears to no longer be a priority in general.

I therefore, increasingly feel the rareness of my approach which, I would think, embraces obvious pursuits that are required for good architecture; based upon a tradition. By “a tradition’ I mean to think about our work in the context that TS Eliot puts it when he says that “we will be judged by the standards of the past”. This does not mean that we should not also pursue the novel and seek an expression for our time; rather that we should develop the skill of looking both ways and understand that we sit within a position in time that will also lapse and this position might follow us when we can no longer follow it.

When I speak of ‘a tradition’ in architecture, I imagined that it is always our role to seek an awareness of the past; an awareness which the past had been unable to show itself. It is incumbent on us to develop a present and relevant consciousness of the past; and that consciousness should be as present in our work as any presence of new expressions might allow.

The rules I use, therefore emanate, simply from one concept and this would relate to the human condition, the environment in which we live and connectivity to all things in that environment. The sense of beauty that I bestow on our buildings in the efforts off my desk, relate, therefore, to a sense about transforming people’s emotions and understandings about the spiritual nature of inanimate objects; that the dying tree that represents every piece of timber employed in a work is allowed to die with dignity within our buildings; for instance, and the observation about that expiration of life as it leaves the material; that movement away from the matter; is an observation about our own expiration that sits quietly within the shadows of our buildings. My weathering, is not, therefore, the weathering of Leatherbarrow; my weathering is one to do with observing a spirituality in objects; like Paul Auster would do in his attempt to seek-out the weight of smoke in a consumed cigarette. Through the ugliness of expiration there is seen a beauty in life.

The work you have seen, therefore, is work in desperation; compromised on the one hand, yet one which seeks to relate to the human condition on the other. Efforts to create the work are seen; marks of surface are maintained, the deceit of glister is sought in that momentary reprieve for the sake of joy. The trouble of the present world is seen in its context; not as a tragedy but as what people have willingly made of the world. That ‘making’ of the world is what I see as its nature and the city – an organic artefact.

In the most part, I have observed that architects today are not ‘interesting’ to most people because they are not engaged in the pursuits that engage with the priorities understood by most. On the one hand, the architect-poet is so insular that any connection to commerciality might evade; on the other hand, the commercial hand seeks only that which it is asked and, for the most part the result is that the client is the architect. I like to think that our office has stricken a balance, tenuous as it may seem, of looking both ways here as well. On the one hand we look towards enabling commercial outcomes, on the other hand we hope to understand the mandates of a true reading of our profession. I think this is where our practice is even rarer; a strange moderateness has developed.

I started by stating that we have relied too much on technology at the expense of our own architectural expression and this might appear to be a paradoxical statement given the context of my discourse here. After all, technology is at the crux of all historical advancements in our field. This is a time, however, when we are able to consider the prospects of a room and are able to legitimately never consider the relationship of that room to a person. There is nothing in the learning or procedure of design that requires, through fashion or otherwise, to have us consider how a person might be in a space; how enjoyment might be gained on an individual basis and what offerings we have to the collective consciousness of our cities. That which was assumed by all our forefathers seems rare today. The street is the first form of infrastructure and we seldom imagine the street as a room; but the street is a room. And in contrast, the interiors of apartment buildings are the great offering to the public realm if the psychology of their occupants is conducive to a civil life. Interior of homes represent society as they have done in all time.

Dimensions of space offer something toward a clearer understanding of what is necessary to occupy uses but our eyes are seldom closed when designing a building; yet when our eyes are closed, we can ‘imagine’ all of these things; the street, the psychology of an interior, how a soft-light can be encouraged to touch the head of a bed on a Saturday morning; the smell of a bake in the kitchen, how we can feel the steam in a bathroom, how the corridors are able to encourage discussions amongst people and how the centre of our existence is not the walls but the space described by those walls; that space having to deal with all of our senses. My feeling is that such a space should be designed with eyes shut and experienced the same way; imagining the work; imagining the space. No number of models or ‘sketch-up’ images assist me. When I draw, I draw a plan and a section or vice versa; through these mediums of sparse lines, I imagine the architecture I create.

And when I enter a space – I close my eyes and imagine it again. Our mind is clearer than what our eyes can see.

The theme I had wished to develop tonight, relates to another type of uncertainty again, and this is the uncertainty at the beginning of any design process. I do not agree with the idea that design can emanate from the drawings. The drawings are, in my opinion, the medium by which we communicate what is in our mind our “NOUS” back to ourselves. The better the communicator the better the architect, in my opinion. But the task is a long one and it must start with uncertainty. All possibilities are latent in the work and in our mind; and a project must be drawn over many years; changing and refining as it moves forward. The design is not, simply the thing that lands at the desk of the client after the development approval process. I tell my clients that this is merely the stage when the design can start.

The concept of having designed a building at the outset, in my opinion is a nonsense; we can only imagine what aspirations we seek at the very beginning; after all the design of a building is not embedded in the drawings. The Design of a building is embedded in the work itself.

I argued with a Professor of Architecture once that a work of architecture is built not drawn and the drawing can only describe a work of architecture. He argued that drawings lasted longer than the buildings and so this fact, of itself made the drawings works of architecture; I disagree. A building must die and that state makes the building one that may have life; the fact that a building does not continue in life forever is not proof that it is less or more significant than something that purports to last forever; in my opinion there is no nexus. A building is a building and a drawing is a drawing. There is nothing that can replace the fulfilment of a design more than one’s experience of it.

I hope that the presentation tonight has given to you a welcome insight of how I practice architecture from the aspect of my thoughts.

I would like to conclude with Eliot again; from an essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (from The Sacred Wood 1921).

“Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not an expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.

And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done. And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of that is dead, but of what is already living.”

– Angelo Candalepas, Brisbane, 19.08.15