Features

Interview: ‘Experience’ creative directors

May 9, 2012

This year’s National Architecture Conference, Experience, shifts north to Brisbane for the first time in 24 years. Creative Directors Michael Rayner, Shane Thompson and Peter Skinner talk about adding a new voice to the national debate, and why we should be cautious of sensationalism in architecture.

This year, the National Architecture Conference is heading to Brisbane for the first time. How will this year’s event differ from past conferences in Sydney and Melbourne, and why do you think it’s taken this long for the conference to head north to Queensland?

Michael Rayner: The National Conference was held in Brisbane 24 years ago. I think it’s taken such a long time to return because the architectural community has generally felt that Sydney and Melbourne are centres of more rigorous critique than Brisbane, and have much large numbers of architects and students on their doorstep – Brisbane requiring a greater degree of travel. This year’s conference has proven both attitudes to be wrong, as it will have a record attendance and has, in fact, needed to be capped to avoid over-booking.

Shane Thompson: The gravity of architectural debate has generally hovered around Sydney and Melbourne in past years. However in more recent times, there has been an accelerated maturation of the profession in Queensland. Not only by sheer weight of numbers, but also the increasingly important built work, research, teaching and writing emanating from this region, its influence on other parts of the country and the international interest in the work from here. I think there was also an increasing sameness about the experience of the conferences in Sydney and Melbourne. The time was right to assert a different character and new voices into the national debate. Brisbane represents the best way to do that.

Why did you choose ‘experience’ as a theme and how will this year’s event build on the discussions of the 2011 conference, Natural Artifice?

Peter Skinner: Frankly, the 2011 conference organisers gazumped us. Juhani Pallasmaa and Fumihiko Maki were both on our wish list of architects to speak at Experience before Angelo Candalepas announced his program – and we all found Teresa Moller’s presentation quintessentially, experientially, beautiful. To that extent, there will be a strong continuation from the ‘natural’ stream of the 2011 conference but, possibly, with less ‘artifice’.

MR: Natural Artifice involved several speakers whose architecture engaged natural and urban environments in ways that were richly yet humbly evocative of place. The speakers we have arranged this year are as evocative of place – Kjetil Thorsen’s Reindeer Pavilion in Norway and Wang Shu’s Ningbo History Museum in China both come to mind. So Experience is in a way a ‘natural’ follow on. But we also feel that Experience opens up more diverse pathways for discussion as it can relate to the senses of sight, touch, smell, or to the journey of designing and community involvement in design, or to the focus of design on the experiential over the visual.

PS: We were keen to focus on the complete experience of architecture – as a concrete entity that is perceived through all of our senses, as a supportive framework for human occupation and endeavour and as the local articulation of a particular place in the physical world. We chose to focus on the immediacy of the built work in order to redress an apparent current preoccupation with the visual, the virtual and vicarious consumption of architectural imagery.

In your introduction to this year’s theme, you say: “Experience takes the long view of architecture. We need reminding to be wary of beauty that is merely skin-deep. Beyond the first blush of encounter, the twittering hubbub of excitement, the web’s ‘like’ at first sight, we ask an old question – will we still respect this building tomorrow?” Do you think we are becoming fickle in the way we consume and react to contemporary architecture?

ST: Perhaps not so much fickle as sometimes overwhelmed by the sheer weight of the architectural menu available today and with hardly capable frameworks or positions within which to analyse, critique and interrogate. There’s a new kid on the block every Monday morning, whether it be a building, a material, an image, an individual or their position, and many of the traditional teachings are being questioned or their relevance becoming obscure and ephemeral. Architecture has generally be seen as a long game, whether in the form of theory, teaching, process, practice or built form. The objectification of architecture through the two-dimensional illuminated screen in particular, without the wider sensory experience, can serve to alienate what the ultimate objective should perhaps really be. Our digital tools and their influence are here to stay and they will continue to evolve – and we need to harness them better to serve the effecting of better work. We question whether the thinking about and making of built work is being served best by the ways in which the digital currently influences and affects how we communicate, represent and think about architecture. What is architecture of experience, and how are the skills, knowledge and experience gained going to contribute further to the cannon?

MR: We’re posing a question, rather than necessarily a point of view. But we guess there is little hiding that we do have a concern that much international architecture is about ‘product’ and consumerism rather than any deeply conceived, lasting intent. We’ve seen this problem occurring in both the west and the east, and in the east it’s becoming particularly alarming. As Wang Shu has pointed out: “They do this and then build some new things; they copy from all over the world… It is the professional urban planner and architect who did this disaster.”

PS: We live in a very fast-moving culture, and our media world is full of overnight sensations that have disappeared within the week. We are all evolutionarily hard-wired to be alert to any change in our environment, to be aroused and intrigued by the unusual. In the context of this rapid search for the new, it is perhaps unfortunate that we take so long to build and realise our designs, and that they hang around for so long after that first creative instinct has passed. Unhappily for some, this means that we need to design buildings that are capable of operating and enduring long after their nascent grooviness has faded. Sadly, perhaps, they might put this down to experience.

Wang Shu, founder of Chinese practice Amateur Architecture Studio and recipient of this year’s Pritzker Prize, is speaking at Experience. What was your reaction when you heard he had been chosen as the 2012 laureate?

MR: I guess our first reaction was that the prize demonstrated that our choice of him is especially pertinent. We really did do our homework before choosing speakers, listening to and interviewing them at the World Architecture Festival in Barcelona. It is wonderful and clearly deserved that Wang Shu is to receive the 2012 Pritzker Prize, but we believe those fortunate to come to our conference will be enthralled by the intensity, depth and diversity of the entire coterie of speakers.

PS: I was not at all surprised. For me, the small Ningbo Tengtou pavilion was the standout building at the 2010 Shanghai Expo. Wang Shu’s advocacy for China as a cradle of contemporary architectural culture rather than a net importer is extremely timely, and ushers in a major global shift. We are so pleased that he will speak in Brisbane, just days before the official presentation of the Pritzker Prize in Beijing.

What else can we look forward to at this year’s conference?

PS: I’m looking forward to all of the international speakers of course, but I am also very pleased that we have Australians Rachel Neeson and Richard Kirk on the bill. In my view, Neeson Murcutt’s work hits right at the core of experience, as work that responds exactly to its specific site and users and has a fresh, clear materiality. It was also very hard for us to choose just one Queensland architect to showcase in this line-up, but I think that the opportunity to see Richard Kirk’s work in context may be an unexpected treat for many conference goers.

ST: We’re hoping you’ll get great Brisbane autumn weather with fresh sunny days and cool nights, and that on your journey to and from the conference and fringe events you might pause and reflect on how powerful that more visceral experience is compared to the interior of a darker space looking at a screen all day. As with all conferences, more often than not “the real learning happens in the corridors”, to paraphrase Ivan Illich. We hope that the speakers will bring their best game, that the audience will be provoked to think in ways not done before, and that their insights will be enhanced further by the dialogue with their colleagues, old and new, outside the formal sessions. I think that the Fringe events, which we have ramped up considerably this year with the EmAGN and SONA groups, will assist in generating an ongoing dialogue. We also hope that people will be surprised by how memorable the event will be, especially students, and that there will be moments that will resonate with them for a long time to come.

The Australian Institute of Architects’ 2012 National Architecture Conference, Experience, takes place in Brisbane from 10-12 May 2012. For more, visit www.architecture.com.au/experience

Main image: Michael Rayner, Shane Thompson and Peter Skinner. Photo by Christopher Frederick Jones

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