In spite of Australia’s ongoing resources boom, the rate of architectural commissions seems to be spiralling down towards a level of scarcity unseen since the early nineties. Emerging into this bleak setting like the comatose Jim in 28 Days Later, recent graduates may well wonder where all the work has gone (and why there seem to be zombies wandering the streets). Compounding this dismal scene is the reality that hard work and determination will not ensure survival. None of Jim’s lecturers or tutors have awakened him to one of the home truths of Australian architecture: our industry is not a meritocracy. Many of our high-flying practitioners made their names by completing prime commissions for wealthy family members. These esteemed few continue to utilise their close acquaintance with Dame Nellie Melba and Sir John Monash to attract projects from other wealthy folk. While Jim flees the zombies, they hover in blimps.
As the first of what promises to be a series of exhibitions and events, RE:PRESENT was recently staged over three days at the Kensington Street gallery space leased by the University of Technology, Sydney. Featuring early projects by established Sydney practitioners, the exhibition was devised by Tomek Archer, Toby Breakspear and Albert Quizon – three young Sydney architects – as a “dialogue between generations”. Alongside pictures of their younger selves, Richard Goodwin, Brian Zulaikha, Angelo Candalepas and Neil Durbach were tasked with presenting projects “that in some way set the trajectories of their now well admired careers.”
Looking for all the world like a fifth member of Led Zeppelin (today he’s more Keith Richards), the young Goodwin shrugged off his disappointment at not being able to afford the tuition fees of London’s Architecture Association and instead delved into performance art and installations. Occupying the centre of the gallery, his original Exoskeleton (1981), a mobile steel apparatus, was at full scale simultaneously the smallest and largest of the exhibited works. Now the director of a leading Sydney practice (Tonkin Zulaikha Greer) and the AIA National President, Zulaikha’s rise to eminence was slightly more conventional than Goodwin’s. So technically proficient was his final university project – a courthouse office tower – that it spurred an invitation to collaborate on a real courthouse complex. Candalepas also attributed his success to collaboration, drawing a great team of young talents and steady hands around him on a shortlisted competition entry for Sydney’s College of Fine Arts.
It is Durbach who has made the most significant contribution to this exhibition, and perhaps to the planned continuation of the RE:PRESENT concept. Pictured as a handsome young fellow with a Cruella de Vil quiff, Durbach has seized on the opportunity for self-reflection, creating an autobiographical poster to accompany three small, finely crafted models. Two of the models are of theatres, the third a curvilinear swimming pool tethered to a sculptural wall. Imaginary projects, they are residue from Durbach’s tendency to “devote hours and hours to competitions and other speculative explorations.” Full of wit, whimsy and verve – qualities which make Durbach Block Jaggers’ work compelling – these little objects serve as a reminder to young architects that opportunity need not knock to keep the creative gears whirring. “Back then I had an excess of time and it felt so extravagant,” writes the architect. “There was of course very little real work – it being a recession of some sort.”
Unlike so many other prominent Australian architects, Durbach, Candalepas, Zulaikha and Goodwin are all self-made men. While their experience as young architects was diverse, they shared common influences (James Stirling, Louis Kahn, Le Corbusier) and mentors (Col Madigan). Set up as a temporary exhibition within the Kensington Street Warehouse – itself a temporary site designated for imminent redevelopment – RE:PRESENT simultaneously showcased alternate stepping stones to success, while reminding young architects of the pleasures and productivity to be found in time, space, and freedom of thought, even amidst the uncertainty and hunger of a recession.