2011 Architecture Conference: Natural Artifice

Apr 21, 2011
  • Article by Online Editor
  • Designer

“All buildings, beautiful or ugly, begin in the human mind.”
– Juhani Pallasmaa

An adjective & a noun

‘Natural artifice’ is an adjective followed by a noun. It was also the theme of last weekend’s 2011 National Architecture Conference. At first reading, the title defines two ends of a continuum along which a conference director could conveniently place a range of architectural practitioners: bush modernists and digital technologists alike. Fortunately, taken together, the terms are not as neat as this. Natural artifice is not a neat dichotomy.

Natural artifice bears the uncomfortable suggestion that there exist ‘unnatural artifices’. However, when we consider that everything we do is in our nature, and that everything we create is artifice, we realise that everything about humanity is equally natural and artificial. In this light, the idea of a ‘natural artifice’ begins to flicker between oxymoronic and tautological.

Indeed, it was the collective aim of the conference’s creative directors Angelo Candalepas, Andrew Scott & David Neustein to explore the often conflicting roles of the natural and the artifice – but more specifically the ‘natural artifice’ – in contemporary life. To all appearances, these three directors aptly embodied the tensions and opportunities in the theme. Hints of their divergent allegiances, be they to the natural or artifice camps, could be discerned from snippets of backchat throughout the weekend’s proceedings. Fittingly, as the literature stated, they were seeking to ‘construct a picture of an unfocused whole’. All the better for the conference attendees, who were treated to a truly broad church of local and international speakers.

Narrative is artifice

“Metaphor is primarily a form of cognition rather than a trope or figure of speech.”
– Juhani Pallasmaa

Narrative is one of humanity’s oldest artifices. We use it to re-imagine the world as it is and to explore our deeper aspirations. In his closing lecture, Pallasmaa suggested that the city is a place where personal and collective narratives nourish one another, or in his words, ‘the city and my body supplement and define each other. I dwell in the city and the city dwells in me.’ At this year’s conference, it was demonstrated how architecture engages the narratives of both our land and cityscapes.

French architects Francois Roche and Stephanie Lavaux of R&Sie (pronounced ‘heresy’), embodied this spirit by pretending to be their own stand-ins, as if avatars of themselves. Their work was a visual cacophony of biomorphic manipulation and fictional apparatus designed, as Roche put it, ‘to reveal our true nature’. Perhaps most disturbing was their fleeting image of a praying mantis, evolved with miniature circular saws on its raptorial legs, destroying the very trees it inhabits – a cutting commentary on our relationship with the ecosystems that sustain us.

On the other hand, Chilean landscape architect Teresa Moller was interested in the narratives found latent in nature – ‘to uncover what is there already… what is the treasure of each place’. At Punte Pita in Chile, a stone path is seamlessly stitched into the natural fabric of the rocky coastline, quietly suggesting, rather than directing, the path of the traveller. A true storyteller, Moller says of the work, ‘sometimes it is clear where you have to walk, sometimes you have to look for clues.’ Her work imbues the landscape with an other-worldly quality, as if continuing the narrative tradition of South America’s Magical Realists.

Open systems are natural

“When you see children playing with dogs, they merge into one species”
– Fumihiko Maki

The natural world is often romantically characterised as a complete and harmonious whole. The implication is that anything that unsettles the so-called equilibrium does not belong. But, while astonishingly complex and evolved, the natural world is not a closed system. In fact, it is nature’s pervasive imperfections that lend it resilience and an incredible capacity for contingency. If it weren’t an open system it would have become redundant long ago.

Several of the speakers at this year’s conference championed open-systems thinking. Luis Mansilla presented the Musac Museum of Art in which, as he stated ‘the architecture has a relationship not with the form of nature, but with the procedures of nature’. In some ways, his approach resembled Eisenman’s early houses when Mansilla says: ‘you establish a system and the system defines the form according to requirement.’

Similarly, Lisa Iwamoto of IwamotoScott presented the practice’s experiments in computational origami. These comprised flexible, modular components where the slightest change to any given module would result in a pronounced transformation of the overall.

Japanese grand master Fumihiko Maki is the architect in another kind of open system. Since the late 1960s Maki’s Hillside Terrace project in Tokyo has been a significant part of his everyday, informing his understanding of urban life. Developed over seven phases to date, Maki has had the rare opportunity to participate in a live feedback loop between the local social networks and his urban interventions, observing and responding to the city as it evolves. In his own words, ‘time is a mediator between evolving city life and the maturity of architecture’.

Natural by nature

“We need to give up the hubris of regarding ourselves as the centre of the world”
– Pallasmaa

On the whole, Angelo Candalepas, Andrew Scott and David Neustein ought to be congratulated on a great conference. It is testament to the calibre of the speakers that every one of them explored the theme’s tensions rather than perpetuating the simplistic opposition of nature versus artifice. Nevertheless, despite the broad church and its willing congregation, it was at times frustrating that the divergent positions presented weren’t synthesised into a broader interrogation of the theme. Here was an opportunity for heated debate. Notions of nature and artifice go to the core of our existence. This, as Anthony Burke boldly stated, was ‘a conference where we can face our fears’.

For example, throughout the weekend it was often suggested that there exists an essential nature external to humanity – a ‘natural’ equilibrium to which we should all aspire. Surely a dangerous idea. After all, we are just another of nature’s imperfections, artifices and all. If the last two centuries of rampant human development have taught us anything, it is that we must stop romanticising nature as intrinsically different to us. Perhaps then we will begin to accept responsibility for the nature we create, the nature we destroy and the inevitable fall-out of nature’s imperfect equilibrium.

Michael Roper is a director of Architecture Architecture. He is also a regular contributor to radio show Triple R’s ‘The Architects’, was the founding Program Manager of Berlin’s ANCB architecture school and has taught extensively both locally and abroad.

Conversation • 9 comments

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21 Apr 11 at 7:00 AM • the Realist

The conference was a load of philosophical and irrelevant rubbish. Only Fumihiko Maki was a refreshing breath of wonderful attachment to actual design and architecture that was equally inspiring and educational. The rest of the speakers gave nothing for a practising architect to take away and apply to their projects or client interractions. Why can’t our national institute prepare a conference for practising architects which is relevant? I for one have had enough of the obtuse and needlessly adjective-engorged language of architectural monologue that just seeks to impress colleagues rather than educate them. Let’s get real.

21 Apr 11 at 8:38 AM • Michael Neustein

Michael Roper’s poor pun must not go unpunished:

“Perhaps most disturbing was their fleeting image of a praying mantis, evolved with miniature circular saws on its raptorial legs, destroying the very trees it inhabits – a cutting commentary…”

23 Apr 11 at 12:06 AM • the Realist raises a good point

Congratulations to the organisers for putting together – what I understand from my colleagues was – a brilliant conference with engaging speakers and theme!

However, ‘the Realist’ raises a critical issue. Its tough out there in practice – and there are some very real issues threatening the profession at a very fundamental level. When practitioners such as ‘the Realist’ find themselves leaving the conference disillusioned, I think we have a problem.

Unfortunately, with so many speakers having not actually been involved in a great deal of built work, some of the more ‘boring’ and everyday relevant issues facing our profession are not finding a forum for informed debate. Philosophy is the fun stuff, the nice stuff. If we are to ‘face our fears’ (to misquote Anthony Burke) as a profession – we would be facing the issue of the Architect’s diminishing control, and increasing marginalisation in construction procurement process. That is the central issue for our profession today.

23 Apr 11 at 1:19 PM • theory & practice

Godsell poignantly remarked after Pallasmaa’s presentation that we tend to ‘over theorize’ what we do & to just go bush to remind ourselves of true meaning. I would suggest that it is important to have our comfort zones unsettled (isn’t that part of what we do?). The more abstract and exploratory presentations had an expansive quality to them which is why I attend the conference annually. Maki was the grounding element, particularly his display of raw emotion when discussing the challenge of providing kindergartens for orphaned Japanese children – surely one of the most powerful public moments one could witness from such a great practitioner. That in itself was a reminder of the most important facet of being an architect; that is, to be human.
However, it is fair to ask, how do we address the core issues of ‘diminishing control and increasing marginalization’ facing our profession? Probably not by burying our heads in theory. These issues are threatening to the very culture that is design. It is a topic worth tackling, particularly in the national forum.

24 Apr 11 at 11:12 AM • Michael Roper

Razor sharp Mr. Neustein!

24 Apr 11 at 1:09 PM • the Making of Ideas are as valid as the Ideas of Making

Overall, i very much enjoyed the conference – but like all of these things, you cannot make everyone happy. Having been to a number of conferences, it’s very easy to fall on one’s backside trying to do just that!
A few things to consider:
For some attendees, perhaps it would be worth going back to running the “streamed” sessions so that practice and project related issues could be discussed in a smaller venue, with panel discussions and the ability to take questions from the floor that are focused and purposeful. The simple fact is that these pragmatic issues ARE better discussed in smaller, more intimate settings – not in a 1000 seat auditorium. Architecture – as a practice, an activity, a profession – involves intellectual engagement (hopefully) and therefore it is worthwhile for us to gather together to reflect on ideas and theory – there is enough reality out there to grind us down every day of the week. I agree it should be balanced though.
Australia is also a LONG WAY AWAY from everywhere (duh)- most of the time, the only hope we have of attracting this quality of speaker is the National Conference. In Europe and the US, it’s completely different – so it is important for us as a national “collective” to engage with the international scene with the conference as the attractor. Not just because they are international but because people need to find out about us too.
The VERY large elephant in the room needs addressing at the next conference – the pathetic number of female speakers at all points (including the mediators and those presenting at the Young Architects Forum) simply shows a lack of research and awareness – it is NOT indicative of the excellent and provocative work being undertaken across the profession (and beyond) by women of varying age and experience. This was the conference’s Achilles Heel IMHO

27 Apr 11 at 3:59 AM • Fruitful

Why can’t architects write so people can clearly undertand? Ego in the architect directory sits before Aardvark.

28 Apr 11 at 11:38 PM • David Neustein

There are some robust and valid comments here which should be addressed in considering future conferences. In particular, I think it’s time to reassess the format of the conference and think about how we can provide a forum for addressing the realities of practicing architecture, not just the ideals.

The issue of gender balance was one of my primary concerns in formulating this year’s conference. I would just like to point out, as quietly as possible, that a number of prominent female Australian architects and thinkers, and three or four accomplished international architects, declined to participate in the conference. We would love to have had equal representation onstage but this did not work out logistically.

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