In review: Flux 2011

July 14, 2011

Andrew Maynard and Barnaby Bennett report on this year’s Student Architecture Congress, which focused on architecture in the face of environmental change and economic crisis.

Like virgin blood to a vampire, student-led congresses provide addictive intellectual nutrition and a dangerously nostalgic aftertaste. Returning is, however, never quite as exciting as the first heady rush derived from late-night rants with your heroes, early-morning inspirational lectures and friendships made with fellow students from around Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. Flux 2011, perhaps the 50th iteration since the event’s inception (depending upon which records are consulted), was no exception and remained strong and focused, deliberately keeping the number of speakers down to give the well-planned events more space. The theme was ‘Crisis’, namely ‘the position of the architect in the face of societal and environmental change and economic crisis’. Speakers included several leading practitioners in the field of community-led design, among them Nathaniel Corum of Architecture for Humanity, Paul Pholeros, founder of Healthhabitat, Richard Briggs, an architect at SJB who recently volunteered in the Solomon Islands with Emergency Architects Australia, and Ester Charlesworth, founding director of Architects without Frontiers (Australia).

Pholeros gave a superb presentation about how to work effectively and carefully with design in indigenous communities, and John Wardle and Peter Malatt also gave strong design-focused talks, while Gerard Reinmuth offered an important discourse on the future of the profession (which Pholeros described as ‘Socratic’). Charles Holland was deliberately grounded and accessible in his investigation of Jencksian postmodernism, and Melonie Bayl-Smith’s lecture was fruitful in generating a much-needed discussion about the future of architectural education. Stuart Harrison spoke about his increasingly interchangeable role within media, practice and education, and there were worthy contributions from Benjamin Hewett, Lara Calder and Michael Rayner. The congress also coincided with the first meeting of the International Network of Indigenous Architects (INIA) and was blessed with the presence of several of the world’s leading indigenous architects including Brian Porter, Patrick Stewart and Rewi Thompson. Dillon Kombumerri, who has established a ten-year target to have an indigenous Adjunct Professor in every Australian architecture school, led an insightful afternoon session.

The Australia and New Zealand Architecture Congress has a history of radicalism, and this one experimented by partnering up with the mother ship: the AIA. Doubtless implemented with good intentions from both sides, this proceeded with a clever separation of creative direction and bureaucratic function. However, as architects, we all know that creativity cannot be neatly divorced from function, and in effecting this split, the atmosphere of the event suffered. The congress was largely administered by AIA staff, who did all the functional work but were necessarily anonymous, while it was led by enthusiastic students who seemed to have little control over proceedings once the event began. Tidy project management and institutional structure may make things comfortable, but they do not establish fertile grounds for collaboration, innovation and creativity. In his recent book, Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson concludes with the best conditions for generating good ideas – which sounds like a manifesto for past versions of the event: ‘Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent’.

Historically, the congress has proved much more dynamic, as voids of inexperience have been filled with novelty and youthful enthusiasm, fulfilling Johnson’s preconditions. This ‘messy cleverness’ has been recognised by the run of amazing speakers throughout the years, with past luminaries including Buckminster Fuller, Paulo Solari and Daniel Libeskind. In 2011, however, the ‘messy clever’ dynamic was replaced by nice dinners and business-class flights. The AIA partnership was an interesting experiment, but hopefully not a permanent one.

To conclude, it’s worth recording that the congress soccer trophy was reclaimed by New Zealand with a 3-2 victory (in traditionally farcical circumstances, we might add). Meanwhile, Newcastle won the right to host the next Student Congress in 2013, beating bids from Melbourne and Alice Springs. This continues a remarkable run of avoiding the big cities: Sydney hasn’t hosted the event since 1999, and Melbourne since 1964!

Flux 2011: Australia and New Zealand Student Architecture Congress took place in Adelaide from 6-9 July 2011.

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