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The Australia Council recently revealed that it plans to build a new Australian Pavilion in Venice. Sydney businessman Simon Mordant, Commissioner for the 2013 Art Biennale, will partner with the Australia Council to manage the redevelopment project.
The announcement, however, has been met with mixed reactions. Though many people agree a new pavilion is long overdue, the Australia Council intends to hold an invitation-only competition – with just a small number of hand-picked architects given the opportunity to submit their designs for the project. Is this a missed opportunity to promote the talent and diversity of our architecture profession? Should the Australia Council be endorsing this type of exclusive – even elistist – view of Australian architecture? Australian Design Review asked Andrew Maynard, Philip Cox and Penleigh Boyd to share their thoughts on the issue.
The initiative to rebuild the Venice pavilion is a wonderful move by the Australia Council, and very exciting news for all Australian artists and architects. This begs the question: why not make the design competition open to all Australian artists and architects? It is terribly deflating to see an important cultural place entrusted to only an invited few. Only a handful of architects will be able to celebrate, enthuse, dream, explore and engage. A pity, and a missed opportunity. Why are the rest of us excluded from this celebration? Haven’t we always aspired to be an egalitarian society, especially as a profession? How are the invited architects selected? I assume that we will see some wonderful and exciting names included, brilliant architects such as Godsell and Murcutt. However, we miss the opportunity to establish a new generation of architects on the global stage. An open competition provides the opportunity for a piece of ground-breaking architecture to emerge from the pack, while also opening up an entire forum for consideration and celebration beyond the usual suspects.
A successful competition relies on the quality of the judges, but a limited pool of entrants can only be detrimental to the outcome. A great judging committee has been formed. Why not entrust their learned eyes to debate over a diverse and rich selection of cultural representation? Yes, Godsell and Murcutt’s work is brilliant and far, far better than mine, but surely I should be allowed to give it a go; to celebrate, enthuse, dream, explore and engage. Engagement and participation is how we make a culture rich, strong and lasting. Surely choking the pool of talent will be to the detriment of our small piece of turf in Venice.
Of course the architectural community would believe in and support an open competition. The reasons for this include the potential revelation of young and emerging talent, the variety of responses such a competition would attract, and the possibility of something outstanding emerging.
The downside of an open competition is that many entrants will lack the experience required for handling the complex negotiations with Venetian Authorities, and the actual modus operandi of doing a relatively small job overseas. The Australia Council has a limited budget of between 4 to 6 million dollars (less than the average Sydney house!), and this further complicates the delivery process.
On the practical side, the Australia Council must issue a proper and ambitious brief, since the building must accommodate exhibitions ranging from the visual arts, architecture, film and photography, as well as providing space for meetings and receptions. The conditions for the space are therefore complex and must be flexible.
My experience has shown that the site is extremely limited, with conservation orders on the trees so that the building must be woven around the landscape. The building has to relate to the pedestrian scale of the adjacent canal, providing easy access for pedestrians and servicing from the Giardini itself. To further complicate the brief, it should ask for an ‘Australian icon’ that is also carbon zero – in order to adhere to recent government requirements and ambitions.
One worry with an open competition is that the jury must have appropriate qualifications and experience with the site in order to assess designs based on the complexity of their delivery, rather than judging architecture as if it were a ‘glamour parade’.
The major concern would be whether the project could be delivered on budget, as the money is limited by public subscription. This is of greatest importance in an open competition, because – as experience has shown – open competitions often blow out in costs, and then who is expected to pick up the tab? The cost of the Sydney Opera House, for example, is said to have inflated from $5 million to $500 million (though these figures were never released).
The Australia Council will therefore have to play it safe by going to a limited competition of architects and designers they are confident will answer the complex brief and deliver the project on time and cost.
The Australia Council, as a federal government body presumably representing all Australians, and in line with its charter of ‘supporting Australian artists to create excellent art,’ should open the design competition for a new Australian pavilion in Venice to all Australian designers. The full range of current Australian talent should be canvassed – one would almost think it is the Australia Council’s duty to do so. Why limit the available entries? What could there possibly be to lose from an open competition? If the promoters are worried that the winning author may not have the necessary technical credentials to get the design documented and built, then simply stipulate that those entrants later team up with someone who has. Furthermore, appoint a technically competent juror on the judging panel, if that is the worry. Australia Council: be bold. Take this international opportunity to let Australians see what ideas get thrown up in an open design competition. Are we really trying to tell the world that only the tried and tested get promoted in Australia? Isn’t that the true definition of ‘Conservatism’? How did such a young and vibrant country get to this point and where are we headed from here?