The 2012 NZIA conference, South and East: Our Place in a New World, could be said to have been a political event. With speakers from South Africa, China, Singapore, Japan, Mexico, India, Australia and New Zealand, it was designed to address the widely held perception that, architecturally, anything beyond the northern hemisphere and traditional western spheres of influence is irrelevant or marginal. As the conference emphasised, global power structures have changed: China is now the world’s second-largest economy and rapidly closing in on the US, while India and Africa are incubators of the planet’s most rapid urbanisation models.
In his essay on Singapore-based WOHA, whose co-founder Richard Hassell was a keynote speaker here, Patrick Bingham-Hall argues that this shift in ‘gravity’ means that the rest of the world must look to Asia for solutions to the problems of increasing urbanisation and for leadership on how to design for extreme climatic conditions (both becoming increasingly global problems). Indeed, when Hassell was introduced by convenor John Walsh, it was with the words, “Richard, you’re living the theme of this conference…”
Richard Hassell of WOHA
Another keynote, the J.G. Ballard-influenced, Chinese architect Yung Ho Chang (Atelier Feichang Jianzhu), pointed out that in the last decade or so “there has been a decline in American architecture. In China we make no reference to it anymore – for me North America is a story of the past.” But as South African Peter Rich (Peter Rich Architects) argued in his talk, it’s not just a matter of global power structures changing and forcing by necessity the best work to emerge from the south and east. For Rich, the southern hemisphere has always had an advantage, turning the common lament of geographical remoteness on its head: “The advantage in being isolated is that there’s too much ‘music’ in the centre and you can’t subsequently focus. When you’re isolated geographically, you’re free of all that.”
It was remarkable how so many speakers addressed concerns that seem light years away from their North American and European counterparts. Without putting too fine a point on it, the overall mood was one of humility – a combination of both an unselfconscious joy and a responsibility to bring architecture back to basics, back to ordinary people. This was evident in Paloma Vera’s presentation of the work of her practice Cano | Vera Arquitectura, which is heavily involved in driving sustainable models of community housing in Mexico. For Vera, Mexico has proved to be the ideal base for her education in architecture, because it’s a poor country and in poor countries, she argues, one cannot afford to play God. “Architects must learn how to construct in and around a place,” she said, “not design buildings like UFOs here and there.”
Paloma Vera, Ben Vielle and Yung Ho Chang
Cano | Vera Arquitectura has been designing for Mauritanian communities in a program that involves groups of architects enrolled in social services, working as advisors for housing projects in close collaboration with neighbourhood inhabitants. Vera revealed how she was initially chastened when the Mauritanian clients asked for changes according to their traditional culture and customs, but eventually she relented: “It’s their house and sometimes we don’t want to change anything, because we think we’re some kind of artist. We’re not. To understand this, architects should design for other cultures!” It was hard not to be moved philosophically, emotionally and intuitively by her thesis, especially the assertion that “architecture is in essence a shelter. The future should be better architecture but also better cities: more egalitarian with a deep sense of humanity.”
The theme of community housing and the concomitant need for “egoless” architecture was strong throughout the conference, unsurprisingly given the number of poor regions in the southern and southeast portions of the globe compared to the north and west. Chilean keynote Sebastian Irarrazaval (Sebastian Irarrazaval Arquitectos) has worked with earthquake-damaged communities in his home country, rebuilding housing and schools (in one instance, replacing eight damaged classrooms in 10 weeks) through clever use of containers and by deploying his mantra of “the three key architectural questions: circulation patterns; the relationship with the ground; and building method”.
Sebastian Irarrazaval and conference attendees
As with Vera, for Irarrazaval there is also an important distinction between art and architecture, despite many architects’ assertions to the contrary: “In art the podium separates. In architecture the podium integrates.” Ultimately, he said, “I share Paloma’s approach but without losing the potential for architecture to be sublime.” For Peter Rich, who has been working on subsidised housing in Soweto, the equation is even simpler: “If the people don’t like it, they’ll just tear it down.”
Grassroots architecture was also evident in Yung Ho Chang’s talk, saying of Atelier Feichang Jianzhu: “We see ourselves as builders; we can’t do anything by only doing drawings.” Their work is also powered by the equation “materialism = space: for example, courtyards are not residual space, they are part of the architecture – rooms without roofs”.
Chang’s philosophy is all about cultural context, as is the work of Australian representatives M3, the clever Brisbane practice, with their motto “specificity that surprises” emphasising their commitment to direct, forceful architecture grounded in meaning and purpose. M3’s Yeerongpilly Footbridge was a highlight of their presentation and a prime example of how architects can contribute significantly to infrastructure (AR 126 will have more on this relationship). The footbridge, providing access over a busy road to the Queensland Tennis Centre, is patterned after a cross-section of the tread on the sole of Australia’s iconic tennis shoe: the Dunlop Volley. Importantly, this conceit does not impose itself on the structure, which from afar seems to be a regular truss-span bridge. Up closer, though, and indeed when walking across the bridge, the shoe’s ‘imprint’ is unmistakable, providing a delightful moment of recognition for tennis fans arriving at the centre.
For New Zealand architects presenting at the conference, the question of earthquake-ravaged Christchurch was naturally paramount, with some expressing the fear that developers and shop owners are becoming twitchy, forcing rebuilding to happen far too soon before the much vaunted “better city than before”, promulgated by the Christchurch City Council, can be properly planned and implemented. This was strongly voiced during a panel featuring Christopher Wilson (Wilson and Hill Architects, Christchurch), Bronwen Kerr (Kerr Ritchie Architects, Queenstown) and Jeremy Smith (Irving Smith Jack Architects, Nelson).
The panel also pointed out that there is no masterplan for Christchurch, and that no one seems to be in charge of redesigning the city practically, while also acknowledging that it is hard to implement that when the CBD is virtually an empty shell. For the moment, there is only a set of rules that look at individual sites not the bigger picture. The principle lament was that architects can play a part in providing that picture for Christchurch because they often have a holistic overview (cultural, material, social, technical) of a site, a city, a project – yet they have been shut out of the process. However, as Rich Naish (RTA Studio, Auckland) said, there will always be “Kiwi ingenuity, and the idea that we can make something out of anything.” In that sense, there was overriding optimism for Christchurch, tempered by Peter Rich’s outsider perspective: “Don’t let Christchurch become a lost opportunity. As architects, you need to address that – it’s a national imperative.”
For Stuart Gardyne (Architecture +; Wellington), the Vera/Irarrazaval-style approach is important: “We shouldn’t be too precious about buildings. They’re a venue for activity.” Similarly, for Lance Herbst (Herbst Architects, Auckland), “culture has to change. People have to have ownership of the city.” For Herbst, raising awareness of what architects can do can happen via education: “There’s a huge disconnect between university and practice. In New Zealand architecture needs to be more theorised.” That’s a somewhat surprising statement for those of us who believe architecture has been over-theorised in recent times.
As far as public awareness is concerned, he was backed by Sam Kebbell (KebbellDaish, Wellington): “In New Zealand, even people who hate rugby know how offside works. Imagine if everyone spoke of architecture like that.” To me, though, that seems utopian and a distraction from (excuse the pun) the main game, for architecture affects more people on a day-to-day basis than rugby. To take another quotidian example, one doesn’t necessarily need to know how combustion works in a car engine; one just needs to know that it will work and that it won’t blow up while in use, that it will transport its occupant safely and provide an enjoyable, comfortable experience. Here, I defer to keynote speaker Gurjit Singh Matharoo (Matharoo Associates, India), and his unselfconscious approach to architecture, which he summarised as “design first, think later”.
As stimulating as all of this was (I’ve condensed this review down from 28 pages of notes), perhaps the highlight was the presentation by Junya Ishigami (Junya Ishigami and Associates, Japan), which at first seemed diametrically opposed to the architecture of Vera and Irarrazaval. With a constant smile playing about the corner of his mouth, as if he was amusing himself as much as the audience, he eschewed the laser pointers, fancy multimedia and PowerPoint slides of the other speakers, instead using a simple paintbox tool to draw his concepts on the screen as he went along.
Mixing irreverence with insight, he talked us through his strange and wonderful projects, like his proposed 26-floor house with its “ambiguous boundaries between spaces – a new kind of architecture”, his work in parkland infrastructure, where “architecture becomes landscape, and landscape becomes architecture”, and his design for Yohji Yamamoto’s New York fashion store, in which he took an existing corner building and “cut it in two, like a cake”, thereby creating a “private” street between the two sections, drawing people in from the public street. He also explained his Kaito Workshop in Kanagawa, which features hundreds of slender steel columns supporting the workshop’s 30 x 30cm roof. What at first seems designed to infuriate people – to walk across the space, you must divert around the columns; it’s impossible to go in a straight line – revealed itself to be a brilliant example of Ishigami’s “new architecture” and a demonstration of his maxim that “architectural space is fundamentally transparent”.
He showed CCTV footage of workshop users, who began to organise their office furniture around certain clusters of the columns, thereby forming pockets of private, yet “open” personal space (you can still see between the columns, but certain clusters create a permeable boundary). It also showed groups of people walking around the columns in different formations, different directions, smiling and laughing so that the usability of the space became a talking point and a form of everyday delight. Ishigami ended with a photo of Japan taken from space: “I want to make an architecture from that perspective, an architecture both old and new, an architecture as seen from space, with a ceiling like the sky and a floor like the Earth.” This is architecture as art, yet art that enriches, informs and educates as much as it delights.
As I walked through Auckland’s Viaduct Harbour after Ishigami’s presentation, I sat on a bench and watched the footbridge raise to let a yacht through. Many people were about to walk across, but as the disparate group stopped, I heard kids scream in delight at the multi-sensory spectacle of the structure raising, with alarm bells tolling and the movement of the large yacht passing through. Adult strangers struck up conversations with one another while waiting, and a convivial air was palpable. It reminded me of Ishigami’s workshop columns and how sometimes you need an element of the unexpected, and the temporal, to be admitted into architectural design, as opposed to the tedious, top-down tendency to plan for every single interaction.
Above all, and this is the lesson learned from all the conference speakers mentioned, the public should be admitted as an equal partner into the design process simply by admitting that spontaneous human interaction at the end-user level completes the design transaction, in whatever form it may take, and that architecture is nothing without it.
This article is featured in the forthcoming issue of Architectural Review Asia Pacific, AR125.