Open Conversation: MCA was the first major public event for Make-Space 4 Architecture (MS4A) and as such was hotly anticipated by the Sydney architecture community. MS4A is a brilliant and generous initiative from Sydney architects Adam Russell, Imogene Tudor and Nick Sargent who hope to increase the exposure of architects and their value to the broader public via a model loosely based on the New York Storefront Gallery.
As a major launch event, Open Conversation: MCA was an excellent choice. The Museum of Contemporary Art project and its procurement (two abandoned competitions and the subsequent appointment of Sydney architect Sam Marshall) has long been the topic of debate and criticism within the Sydney architecture scene and since the completion of the project the volume of critique has only increased. By successfully enticing Marshall and two of the prominent voices to have critiqued the project in the media – writer Elizabeth Farrelly and architect Philip Cox – to debate in the same room, MS4A pulled off a coup. The generous agreement by all three to participate in the open conversation created the potential for a direct, mature discussion between intelligent adversaries with different points of view; a rarity within the Sydney architecture crowd, where debates are too often carried out in private and are mostly fuelled by personal jealousies rather than differing intellectual positions.
The final stroke of brilliance by MS4A was to frame the discussion not as an examination of the MCA directly, but rather to use the debate generated by the project as the basis for a broader discussion about the nature of critique. This improbably perfect storm of people, contexts and concepts meant that the event attracted a large and incredibly diverse crowd to the UTS architecture studios last Thursday evening.
However, as any ‘branding 101’ will tell you, the success of any brand is the size of the gap between its promise or expectations and the experience of the end product. And in this case, the product was so disappointing that I was not alone in holding my head in my hands for much of the event, unable to watch the spectacle unfolding in front of me. So what happened?
In my view, most of the problems were borne from the gap between the excellent framing of the event at a conceptual level and the lack of any supporting framework to structure the event itself. The Chair and MS4A Director who opened proceedings failed to say anything precise or consequential about the nature of critique and then, having failed to clearly outline a path for the ensuing discussion, lost control of the next 90 minutes in a way that was simply unacceptable given the opportunities presented.
The first problem was that the organisers failed to articulate exactly what they expected to get out of the event and, in particular, which realms of enquiry they were interested in. In the absence of a tightly outlined agenda, the guest speakers were asked for their general views on critique, resulting in Sam Marshall’s exclamation that he does not write and furthermore, “what most architects write is drivel”. This was followed up by Farrelly, who took pleasure in suggesting that most industry publications aren’t worth the paper they are printed on. Someone (I can’t remember who) also proposed that unless you have practised, you can’t critique – an unacceptable suggestion and one that completely misunderstands the role of the architect as someone who delivers a project that is owned not by them, but by society at large. Once completed, anyone can comment on it, and the status afforded to the commentary is the function of the professional standing of the individual making the observations.
These statements had the combined effect of neutralising the talk before it started. Some pertinent questions might have been: Where do we want critique? Why do we want it? Who do we want to reach with it? These questions might be simple, but they are important: without some parameters or rules, we can only be left with a cage fight. This might provide some moments of bloodied spectacle, but it is unlikely to generate any progress in a wider discussion about architectural criticism.
Further, some simple things could have been discussed about the alternative platforms available for architectural discourse and the comparative value of each. The profession has very little exposure in the mainstream press, with Farrelly almost alone in her efforts, which, located on the opinion pages, serve as opinion rather than critique. That her opinion writing often takes a sarcastic view of architects and their efforts does little to help the profession, and thus I was not among the audience members to raise my hand when asked whether we would rather have Farrelly than no comment at all. That’s something of a devil’s contract and requires thought. I still don’t know the answer. If we look at the debate of any aspect of Australian life in the mainstream media – be it politics or society – we will find very little educated and extended debate, so we should not be so naïve as to expect architecture to somehow buck this trend.
Beyond mainstream media we have the industry press, with its titles like Architecture Australia, Monument and Architectural Review Asia Pacific. These magazines bring the latest architectural projects to a combined audience of architects and the public, with varying emphasis on either audience depending on the title. Commercial and institutional constraints exist with each title, and the writing in these journals is often by other architects or academics, who rarely write well in these contexts. Further, writing articles is a time-consuming and underpaid task, meaning many writers use the opportunity to get exposure to architects and buildings in which they are interested and respond with generally positive articles, an observation Naomi Stead has previously made. However, this positivity does not equate to lack of value. Someone like Leon van Schaik has been exemplary at identifying, in the most positive and encouraging manner, practices and projects that we might want to consider further.
A major new player in the media landscape is, of course, the digital media and all it entails, from websites and blogs to twitter feeds. Like journals or newspapers, the quality and insight of online material varies enormously but, as with any field, those who are of particular interest and good quality quickly become prominent and attract loyal audiences, among them Geoff Manaugh of BLDGLBLOG or Dan Hill of CityofSound.
A discussion of these media channels may seem obvious, but it is critical to understand what they are and how they operate – and in which of them you wish to innovate – before embarking on a journey such as the MS4A roundtable. Unfortunately, without a clear direction we then experienced further confusion about the nature and structure of the event. With a panel of six key guests and only an hour available, would it have been better for the audience to sit and listen – with fewer opportunities for questions? The open conversation for me recalled the format of the ABC’s Q&A, where a sometimes excellent debate between eminent Australians is constantly interrupted by senseless and pathetic barracking in the form of twitter messages from the masses displayed on the lower part of the screen.
However, in this age of audience participation, Open Conversation: MCA was a disorderly round table event that quickly descended into an unruly set of audience questions. Farrelly persisted in using her sharp wit and well drilled one-liners to fracture and fragment any potential for a logical and possibly pedagogic discourse in the first five minutes by critiquing architects generally, what they produce, what they write and the journals they write in. If one followed Farrelly’s logic, none of us would do anything, nor have any ambition to, as none of us are good enough. She was also allowed to get away with too much, constantly defending mistakes or omissions in her writing on the basis of a limited word count just as a bad architect blames a bad building on the budget or the brief.
Into this fragmented field fell a number of people one would normally rely on for intelligent and constructive comment. Firstly we had John de Manincor as Chair, who did not seem to understand that his role was to chair the discussion, rather than answer the questions directed at the panel members himself before giving them a chance to answer. His insistence on answering his own and everyone else’s questions was compounded by a couple of moments of self-promotion to illustrate a point which then drew us so far from the point that the whole flow of the debate was lost. David Neustein – valued colleague and always reliable for considered critique – managed a long and complementary introduction about Marshall’s work in a question that circled around Mordant’s role before ending with “some parts of the building I just don’t like.” Marshall’s wife, Liane Rossler, ran interference with a twitter barrage intended to neutralise all negative comments, and retaliated with the priceless: “So nice of @dneus to share his opinions. What else does he like and dislike? He must care very deeply & have thought very hard.” At least she has superb control over the medium.
Tone Wheeler then started booming from the back row with a commentary on the difficulty of dealing with clients and briefs, opining that the omission of clients from our architectural education was partly why Marshall’s building is hard to love. This was a bizarre statement to me, as someone who regularly questions a client’s brief in the interest of serving them in a professional manner, had just that afternoon been lecturing third year students at UTS on brief analysis, and who runs an entire subject of Finance and Project Management, of which client management is a major issue.
Laura Harding, another sometimes thoughtful member of the next generation, was similarly disappointing – or perhaps simply lacks Rossler’s proficiency with the medium of twitter . Her constant updates offered de-contextualised quotes that, like a 1930s cricket radio broadcast played out in telegrams, left followers feeling as though they really were there when in fact it represented a conversation that never actually happened. All this was lost on Melbourne-based @AusArchMag, however, who joyfully tweeted “great live tweeting via @LHSyd” – as if live tweeting was somehow difficult.
This obsession with twitter in the presence of Farrelly, representing the mainstream media, exposed another of the traumas of the MS4A Directors that clearly needs some therapy. On numerous occasions Tudor bemoaned the lack of critique and presence we have as a profession in “the mainstream media”, while having all the tools of the digital tsunami at her disposal. This hankering for mainstream recognition was disturbing to say the least, proving that Gen Y, for all the bluster, still crave to be part of the aristocracy after all.
Those who impressed most were a combination of old warriors and youngsters, who all surprised for different reasons. Philip Cox managed a statesman-like analysis of the need for a mature culture of critique and right of reply – the beginnings of a conversation that might go somewhere, questioning how we might build such a culture. Andrew Donaldson – Sam Marshall’s Project Architect on the MCA extension – deftly asked Farrelly why she became a critic, given her training in architecture. Farrelly responded that she found practice dreary, a remark that undermined her many and consequential reasons for being a critic, and she is, at times, an excellent one. This underestimating of the difficulties of working in a large team on a range of (often dreary) tasks in the service of a consequential idea serves neither her nor the profession well, which is why we must continually assess whether we really want people like Farrelly as architectural commentators in the press.
Samane Moafi, a UTS graduate, screamed a question in exasperation toward the end of the evening, asking Sam Marshall: “What is your idea?” In four words, Moafi had managed to cut to the core of the problem surrounding the MCA and its critique, in the terms Farrelly had used to frame the concept of critique earlier in the evening: that the structure of a critique involves the consideration of the architect’s idea, measuring the project against their idea and then measuring it again against your own conceptions of the project. The dilemma revealed by Moafi is that the quietly spoken and unpretentious Marshall simply isn’t one for big ideas. Trained in the legendary interior design office of Marsh Freedman in the 1980s, Marshall has always been known for small moves that are expertly detailed, such as his excellent Darlinghurst warehouse renovation of a decade ago. That this approach might not be enough to sustain a large public building is a conversation worth having, but, it seems, no one is having it.
In response to Moafi’s question, Marshall reeled off a series of pragmatically motivated reasons for various pieces of the building that at once revealed why it is, on these terms, quite good, but why it does not touch us in the profound way that we wish it would. Laura Harding, still lost in the brevity of the twittersphere, exploded with: “inane question about what the big idea in MCA is – kill me now!” proving that, in fact, it may be difficult to think and tweet at the same time. Harding also seemed surprised that opinion and critique, as clearly outlined by Farrelly, are actually different and that what Farrelly does is commissioned opinion, fair and square.
The last word must be given to Marshall himself, who, despite being a man of few words, bravely and generously said he would be interested in any level of critique of the project, provided the criticisms were founded on substantial consideration and research of the project. Brave, because he knows that this is the critique that would really hurt. Yet a properly researched and considered article is not too much to ask given the years of painstaking work on an incredibly complex problem that has to-date been rewarded with little more than 140-character twitter commentaries or sarcastic comments from news agency reporters with limited word counts.
It is on this point that we can return to the reasons for the failure of this event. Critique is difficult for many reasons, among them professional and social relationships, and the need to take time and space to fully explore ideas and offer well-founded resistance to them. Add to this, the vexed questions around the audience and media for various forms of criticism. On Thursday night, in a room full of half ideas, short tweets, and an absence of structure or clear indication of why the conversation might be needed, we learned just how difficult critique is.
If this is the best effort the next generation can muster to understand, explore and promote critique, it will be many years yet before Sydney can be home to a lively and intelligent critical architecture culture. But there is hope. The event has generated enormous commentary and this – if nothing else – may provide an engine for further discussion around the topic. I am sure that the good people at MS4A will learn from this event and I look forward to their future round or rectangular tables on issues affecting architecture. My only concern for MS4A is that their constituency of self-appointed experts – a status, it seems, achieved solely via tweet volume per hour – will again so pathetically let them down.
Read David Neustein’s piece, ‘MCA: open conversation or guarded debate?’, published last week, here.