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Architectus: Between Order and Opportunity
Haig Beck and Jackie Cooper
Oro Editions 2009, 240 pages, HB
On more than one occasion, I have heard young Italian students comment on the hyperbolical free spirit of Australias contemporary architecture. In Italy, they believe, architects seem suffocated by the burden of history, as well as much of the socio-cultural decorum that the society holds dear. This handsome monograph of a complex Australian-New Zealand architectural practice, Architectus, by Haig Beck and Jackie Cooper, seems to confirm the impression young Italians have of architecture in the Antipodes. But unlike many glossy coffee table publications that Photoshop buildings as fashion models, Beck and Cooper have done a remarkable job of revealing that it is the drive and persistence, uniquely rooted in the psyche of the Anglo-Saxon descendants here, that have enabled some architects to achieve what would be unthinkable in the Old World. In fact, the architects frustration at bureaucracy and an ignorance of architecture in local city councils here, for example, is nothing less than what Adolf Loos experienced when he designed Villa Muller in Prague in the early part of the twentieth century. More often, the situation here is worse.
Beck and Cooper are the most qualified to shed light on this practice since they have known Lindsay and Kerry Clare since the early days of their career, and have followed the merge of the practices with John Hockings and the Kiwis Malcolm Bowes, Patrick Clifford and Michael Thomson. Their introductory essay is not only an engagingly constructed chronology of the three major forces of Architectus (the Clares, the New Zealand trio and John Hockings), but also an educational piece, for it provides much global and historical background within which a good understanding of the architects work may be gained. The book has benefited too from the perceptive essays contributed by Lawrence Nield, Lindsay Johnson, Tom Heneghan and Bill McKay.
An unexpected aspect of the practice is revealed in the apparent differences, or even contradictions, in the education of the architects (albeit much of that was self-given) and the approaches adopted among the three forces in Architectus. At the outset, Beck and Cooper say that they are indebted to Kenneth Frampton in using his doctrine of topos, typos and tectonics to read the practice. When the differences among the three players are gradually revealed, the reader hopes that the overarching three lamps of architecture from Frampton may provide some supportive tools to understand the merge and the work of the three forces.
Here is the story as I read it: the Clares did night school while undertaking their apprenticeship with the Sunshine Coasts bush master Gabriel Poole. The Anglo-Saxon can-do mentality was paramount in their upbringing, but the Clares happen to be idealists too. They went on a pilgrimage to see Alvar Aaltos buildings in the flesh. Their pragmatism is evident in their flexible plans a conglomeration, as termed by Beck and Cooper. But we are also reminded that such flexibility is not one-size-fits-all. They won the Gallery of Modern Art competition in Brisbane because their plan had clarity of program (or parti, which will be returned to later). Although they are interested in materials and construction, they feel no obligation to be true to a structural expression. Their trick of using loose planes and exposed gaps serves to hide the sins of construction (here I am paraphrasing the great New Zealand master Ian Athfield, who used this expression when I once asked him why he white-plastered his buildings from roof to wall, and from inside out).
The Kiwi trio in the practice had a 1970s laissez-faire education in Auckland. Although it was academic, they did not receive an education with any clearly convicted promulgation. A real academic doctrine, however, came by chance when Clifford went to work for Ilhan Zeybekoglu, who was a student of Louis Kahns and had only one book in his office that is, Kahns oeuvre. Beck and Cooper trace back the lineage of Kahns education: the French École des Beaux-Arts teaching of parti as preached by the French professor Paul Philippe Cret at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1920s. Hence, the conviction of the program, as the parti, must be established as an unbent guide throughout the design development. I am particularly elated to learn that Paul Crets teaching has had this unexpected dissemination, for I myself belong to this lineage: when I was in my first year in Nanjing in 1982, Professor Yang Tingbao was still the spiritual leader in the School. Yang was a star pupil of Crets, and was in the same studio with Kahn in the early 1920s at Penn. While parti (or Form in Kahns words) must be held, the Kiwis are more pedantic about a true expression of structure and construction. Where is the complementary part of the Beaux-Arts teaching poché, which hides structure, construction and residual space? Do they consider Loos cladding, for example, as a betrayal of tectonics?
John Hockings, the final director in the equation, has followed an intellectual journey: armed with the structural anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss, he took off his shoes and went into the field. This fieldwork experience has provided the assurance of a structuralist worldview; that is, a belief that architecture ought to be an active element in the cultural process. It is honourable that Hockings faith in the universality of human societies has not been shaken by the popularity of postmodernism in the later part of the twentieth century. In the end, the rich and penetrating writings of Beck and Cooper have made me wonder whether or not Framptons critical regionalism, expressed as topos, typos and tectonics, really does help the reader to understand Architectus. Perhaps the way in which they have deciphered the underlying common ground of this complex practice is more in line with what Lawrence Nield calls creative pessimism: what will go wrong. This unassuming mentality, which is a rarity among todays hero architects, perhaps is the true hidden ingredient that binds the three different forces together. Beck and Cooper have mentioned the 40-year-old mark in the career of an architect. William Morris architect Philip Webb once said no architect should design a house before 40. It is to our collective fortune that Kahn did not have any significant commissions before he turned 50. I think Beck and Cooper have done Architectus a service to present a case that their best work is on the horizon. This is architectural critique at its best: a productive participation in the production of architecture.