Speculative Architecture

April 7, 2011

Anthony Burke discusses UTS Architecture’s Open Agenda competition, an important new forum broadening the horizons of architectural discourse.

Returning from interstate recently, I picked up the in-flight magazine to read an article about a well-known Australian architect’s project for his happy clients. The project in question was a house retreat just outside Sydney, but what struck me about the story was not the architecture (which was neo-modern, predictable, nice) but the absence of any trace of meaning in the interview-based commentary. Granted, an in-flight magazine is light entertainment and pretends nothing more, the audience, distracted and general. And yet the obsequious familiarity of the architect’s comments struck me as so hollow they could only be understood as a perverse agenda to commit to nothing that might make the reader think anything of the project beyond what was conveyed by the accompanying moody photographs. The prose was of light and shade, capturing views, listening to the client, material selection and lifestyle – words that bothered not because of their relevance to architecture, but because of their active avoidance of any specificity or commitment to an actual idea. The text could not be ‘safer’ in that it was incapable of being understood as anything but the most absolutely generalised notion of architecture, served up for popular consumption like the foodie articles a few pages on, and therefore in the context of this particular architectural commission, with its particularities, personalities and opportunities, absolutely meaningless.

I realised of course that the architect was talking not about his ideas, but the absence of them; or, perhaps more worryingly, his professional and commercial responsibility not to speak of them. On another recent occasion, I was reminded by a very considerate professional colleague that speaking out as a practice against appalling circumstances (such as the recent development proposals for Sydney’s Barangaroo), puts jobs and families at risk and should be professionally avoided. This is a point of view that not only makes me weep for our discipline, but undermines the very premise of professional integrity. Ideas are dangerous, they can be held against you, and the official line in the in-flight article, as with all mass media, must be to keep things simple, inoffensive, neutral. We would all agree neutrality, the absence of an agenda, is the antithesis of design excellence, and as Robyn Boyd recognised in 1950, it takes a certain confidence to treat the audience as intelligent, a recognition that has been forthcoming too rarely in recent Australian architecture and media history.

It made me think again about ideas, positions and agendas in architecture, and why in Australia it seems to be so difficult to speak of such things.

Open Agenda is a response to just this difficulty and was created after many conversations with colleagues and those not jaded enough to have forgotten the value to the profession of the unconventional. It is based on the proposition that there is ample talent and a strong desire for a distinctly Australian discussion of non-commercial architecture, that is in need of a forum and a clear means of financial support not tied to arcane Australian Research Council formats or institutional correctness. A forum where the agenda is literally left open to be written by the participants, where risks are a condition of entry, and where polemic and bias is openly encouraged. To borrow the words of Bernard Rudofsky in 1965, Open Agenda is conceived of as a necessary escape from the “narrow world of official and commercial architecture” and “a point of departure for the exploration of our architectural prejudices”.

Why would this be useful here and now? With the recent Venice Biennale’s speculative futures, with any number of architectural competitions up and running about the future of the built environment, why would another be necessary? Simply put, Open Agenda is not a competition about buildings. It is a forum about architecture in its richest and most expanded definition, from forms of drawing to domains of work, from forms of practice to new sites of contestation. For the other 10 percent of the profession for whom architecture is a discipline requiring intellectual enquiry as part of the development of our own professional domain, and for whom pretty neo-modern buildings are, strangely enough, less than satisfying, Open Agenda is a space created where other forms of architectural work are allowed to exist. It does not represent the profession, rather it seeks to challenge our preconceptions of what architecture is and is not, and more importantly what it is capable of doing.

The relatively recent groundswell of youthful architectural culture marks an impressive moment worth recognising in our Australian discipline. Thanks to new forms of media combined with a generational confidence, and motivated by a general dissatisfaction with guarded establishment positions, a generation of young professionals and recent graduates is flexing its right to protest simply through establishing its own discourse. We might speculate that there are several causes of this groundswell, from a weariness of established and polite positions on sustainability, a lack of vision in mannered third generation modernism, and the relentless campaign of the worst forms of architectural education being mounted against the discipline by bizarre reality TV personalities are a few that come quickly to mind.

What is important is that from blogs to Pecha Kucha, from societies both self-appointed and spontaneous, action and words are forming a conversation in Australian architecture that replaces with enthusiasm and optimism the tired bitterness of conventional wisdom. It feels like a moment where the doors have been cracked open a touch, and another possibility for architecture and its institutional structures is just visible. Just.

In 2010, its inaugural year, Open Agenda saw a raft of ideas emerge through entries from almost all states. The finalists were chosen by the advisory panel for their unique positioning and capacity to animate a debate about architecture, its value, its relevance, its future. The inaugural winners set issues of architectural representation against artificial ecological infrastructures, and the rules of urban morphology were laid bare for public abuse. Issues of context, process and representation, overlap and tussle with each other as they are rebuilt in these specific investigations, from the ground up.

The competition however is constructed as a ruse, a means of putting ideas into a contested space surrounded by an audience on three sides (lecture, publication, exhibition). Open Agenda does not take its audience to be simple, but genuinely motivated to discuss the complexities of ideas that do not make perfect wholes. In this sense the agenda of the competition is not so open at all, the provocation is clear. This is the other tradition of architecture that is yet to have its history properly recorded, taken up in the form of magazines like Pamphlet Architecture, and Junk Jet, in projects from Etienne-Louis Boullées’ Tomb’s of 1785 to Perfect Acts of Architecture, to manifestoes from The Futurists to Architecture Must Burn – minor incursions into other forms of architectural work influential well beyond their modest means.

The competition as much as the entries in it are a risk taken in the interest of developing an architectural discussion outside of conventional wisdom, a value proposition that is difficult to argue in risk averse institutional contexts. As a competition for Australian recent graduates, it offers a possible mirror to the future of the profession. Even so, it will be deemed irrelevant by many, and ignored by most, but the value of ‘planting’ notions that destabilise our own discourse is not only a self-evident investment in developing new and necessary forms of discourse, but a disciplinary survival instinct.

Open Agenda is an annual competition initiated in 2010 by the School of Architecture at the University of Technology, Sydney aimed at encouraging speculative architectural research and design. Open to recent architectural graduates, three proposals are selected from an open national competition and awarded seed funding for further development towards a publication and public exhibition in Sydney.
Entries to Open Agenda 2011 are now open. For more information go to www.utsarchitecture.net/openagenda

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