Opinion: Lou Weis on MADA

Nov 22, 2012
  • Article by Online Editor
  • Designer

This article was originally published in Inside #74: The Winners’ Issue

Universities provide that rare opportunity for like-minded client and design studio to come together and realise buildings. Denton Corker Marshall (DCM) was given that opportunity in 1999 when it was enlisted to design Monash University’s Faculty of Art and Design at the Caulfield campus. The result was a large sculptural element that faces Dandenong Road, and acts as a sound barrier for the faculty’s staff and students, while also providing a roadside spectacle for drivers.

When architect Shane Murray joined the faculty in 2008 he spearheaded the introduction of architecture into Monash. Today, he is Dean of the renamed Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture: a faculty quickly making a name for itself as providing one of the most interesting and relevant design courses in Melbourne.

There are a number of reasons for this, including the calibre of its staff, many of whom continue to maintain a practice outside of academia, and the value placed on trans-disciplinary practice. Another reason is the proximity of art to design. Having the Monash Museum of Modern Art (MUMA) accessible off the main entrance to the faculty building means that the advantages of propinquity – between studios, classrooms, staff offices and exhibition spaces – are amplified for all students.

What makes the Caulfield campus experience so tangibly creative as a set of interior spaces is that it is small in size. This enables repeated interactions between students, researchers and staff – and makes the sense of belonging to a community more tangible.

The desire for a porous set of spaces, enabling the highest possible level of interaction between students and teachers, is taken literally by newly appointed Professor John Warwicker, who aspires to have a studio without doors. The only hindrance potentially being the impossibility of insuring equipment that can’t be stolen! Warwicker’s desire is to have students unavoidably stumble across his practice – to not have to knock to gain access.

The appointment of London-born Warwicker is the latest in a wave of recruitment that also includes visual artists Callum Morton and Daniel von Sturmer. Morton will also be running a studio practice from the faculty.

Murray identifies the need for design and visual art practitioners as no different to the labs used by scientists or the libraries used by humanities academics. “In the design practice your centre of excellence is your studio”, he explains. “So the research practitioners have their ‘labs’ on campus, and that is the designer or artist studio.”

The value placed on trans-disciplinary practice by Murray’s faculty is exemplified via John Warwicker’s career. Co-founder of electronic music band Underworld and of legendary design studio Tomato, Warwicker is one of the founding exponents of the trans-disciplinary practices that digital tools enabled. Video artist, graphic designer, painter and author, Warwicker explains his shift between the commercial arts and exploratory practice with this simple quip: ‘‘Exploration of craft, and craft of exploration.” The exploration of craft delivers a narrow and deep erudition and highly refined practice of typography, of magazine and book design. The craft of exploration results in his action drawings and the works that are not delivered to a client.

Murray sees the contemporary practice of design as always ostensibly trans-disciplinary as architects have to engage with engineers, clients, brand managers and the list goes on, in order to complete a large-scale building or the small interior of a retail space. Therefore the engagement of Warwicker, from Murray and the faculty’s points of view, provides a material relationship to the most current way the market- place works and the most up-to-date expectations of designers.

As Murray explains, he saw Warwicker as “someone who was prepared to look across any conventional sense of what a disciplinary boundary might be. And his constant questioning is not just a dinner party affect but it is supported by a long body of work that proves John’s willingness to work across boundaries.”

Murray realises that “transgression can just be an easy habit. What we are talking about at Monash is a process that teaches students to be rigorously erudite in a particular set of disciplines and then to learn how to break from it. And those strategies for making a break from those disciplines is an equally rigorous process – it isn’t easy.”

Monash University’s Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture sits within an affluent middle suburb of Melbourne. It is fundamentally detached from the urban hub experience offered by The University of Melbourne and RMIT. Yet, the surrounding suburban condition at Monash Caulfield is the dominant reality of Melbourne.

It will be interesting to watch how this privileged group of students, surrounded by such amazing mentors, will implement their experiences of interdisciplinary practice through the rethinking of those suburban spaces in which their studies are undertaken.

MADA’s 2012 Graduand Show is now exhibiting, click here for details.


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