Features

Parallax AIA annual conference Melbourne

May 14, 2009

This year’s conference delivered debate, conjecture and amusement, but most of all, big ideas. AR’s Melbourne editor Stuart Harrison brings you our round-up.

Standing in the foyers of the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre seemed to suit this year’s AIA conference, Parallax; in-between halls, sessions, ideas and eras. Two of the big names in Melbourne for the event were Slovenian ‘rock star’ philosopher Slavoj Žižek and super-curator Aaron Betsky, themselves in-between disciplines (psychoanalysis/philosophy and architecture/curation respectively). Betsky critiqued these kind of contemporary well-designed foyer spaces – his own youthful vision of a future with good contemporary architecture has been realised, but for him it’s not enough. Betsky seemed to be getting at a lack of radicalness in architecture; he said we need to be weirder, and ‘to crack things apart’. Žižek spoke of the space in-between walls, the third space of servicing. I remembered the film Brazil, with its densely filled cavities of cables. I asked Žižek about this film, he loved it and recommend the DVD three-edition set. His favourite American film is The Fountainhead, announced in one session much to the alarm of Betsky.

For the first time, and hopefully in a model that will continue, the conference fell under the direction of a practice rather than an individual. This is reflective of both a maturing in the conference outlook as well as an increase in its ambition. At the helm this year were Tasmania- and Sydney-based practice Terroir, its directors Gerard Reinmuth, Scott Balmforth and Richard Blythe sharing in the difficult task of hosting, commentating and successfully promoting the conference in an industry downturn. At the outset, the creative directors stated that they hoped “the event inspires, irritates and challenges.” Like some before it, this conference attempted to foster debate in its sessions, particularly between the speakers. Did this happen? To some extent, yes – politeness and agreeing to disagree did come through, however. There were moments of conjecture, and this made the conference an engaging event; and architects need a complex and challenging dialogue.

It was internationally focused in terms of its speakers, with broad and theoretical concerns.
The conference was structured into six themed sessions of ‘Studio’, ‘Media’, ‘Politics’, ‘Young Guns’, ‘Collaboration’, and ‘The Cosmopolitan’. Each session had two speakers presenting, after which a third guest speaker, acting as agent, would develop a discussion. The crowd was then encouraged to participate, through SMS questions, which were curated and relayed via one of the creative directors who joined the panel on the couch. Of these sessions, Media and Politics, perhaps as a product of being early on in the proceedings, seemed to set a tone for the event, and demonstrated an engagement with the wider world beyond building.

The Politics session featured Alejandro Zaera-Polo, director of London-based Foreign Office Architects (FOA), and Veronika Valk of ZiZi & YoYo , based in Estonia. Slavoj Žižek was the agent for discussion after the presentations. The young Valk has become a facilitator of space and events in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Both an architect and advisor, she showed a series of projects of light, activity, fashion, industrial design and building that have re-engaged her city with itself and its new reclaimed waterfront. Her ‘grounds-up’ work was set up in opposition to the high-end and very authored work of FOA. The interaction between Žižek and Zaera-Polo in the session encapsulated some key concerns around production and global economic systems. Zaera-Polo’s critique of capital saw merit in brands such as EasyJet, Apple and Zara that have brought mobility and design to the mass population. The recent work of FOA was then presented in this light; Zaera-Polo has brought his own ‘high-architecture’ of the Yokohama International Port Terminal to a wider audience in two shopping centre projects that were presented. Meydan shopping square in Istanbul was, by Zaera-Polo’s own admission, badly built, but this ”didn’t matter” – the important thing being that it was built, and it had created a successful public space and a new type of horizontal building. The conversation between Zaera-Polo and Žižek represented two views in relation to capitalism – Žižek is a Lacanian Marxist who questions our acceptance of global capital while Zaera-Polo a post-capitalist who seeks to make the most of this global system.

The Media session saw Aaron Betsky give a powerhouse, showman-like performance of his work as architectural curator, building particularly on his work on the Venice Architecture Biennale last year where he was creative director. His co-speaker, Geoff Manaugh, started and runs BLDG BLOG, which has emerged from amongst the world’s millions of blogs as a key commentary on design, architecture and building. Manaugh positioned the blog and electronic publication as a means of re-energising architectural criticism, a counter to the more established architectural voices and the traditional role of the canon. Manaugh suggested that in some respects the film Ghostbusters might have had more influence on the way architecture is understood and appreciated than Le Corbusier. It is a worldview that recognises the potency of popular culture and that everyone now has both the right and the ability to comment and contribute to architectural discourse. He showed key examples of architectural ideas being proposed outside of the discipline, the most memorable of which being a recent computer game, Fracture, which features ‘terrain deformation grenades’ – weapons that re-configure the ground plane when used. Manaugh brought home how important the internet is now, and how it has change the cultural paradigm we all find ourselves standing in.

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Betsky was also the facilitator for the first session, Studio, in which Peter Wilson spoke, as did Winka Dubbeldam who replaced Hani Rashid (the only international figure to cancel). Peter Wilson has been a high-end European architect for many years, to some an El Croquis figure of the 1990s. His engagement with the conference and his former home of Melbourne was energised and generous. His work has matured with detailed finesse, but at the core of it is a strong interest in the pavilion as type, which he partially attributes to the detached Australian house of his youth, but perhaps comes from an adjusted and scaled modernism. He is now working on very large cultural projects in Europe. Amongst these is a new library and media centre in Milan, to be the biggest in Europe, which can be read as one large pavilion with a smaller one bridging into the plaza in front.
Another session that perhaps exposed two ends of contemporary practice was the one entitled Collaboration. Here, Edwin Chan of Gehry Partners presented recent work from the practice, leading back to the defining symbol of digitally-assisted design and iconic architecture – the Guggenheim, Bilbao. Since then the office has expanded massively and developed an architecture of glass – as the practice has moved from black-box public buildings (such as galleries and concert halls), the material palette has become glass based, partly as the firm has taken on more commercial projects. This architecture, expensive and highly designed, may seem less appropriate to these more restricted times. Chan himself alluded to a return to an early Gehry manner in future work, but with the knowledge gained from years of innovation. The co-speaker in this session was Bijoy Jain of Studio Mumbai – a community-based group that design and builds projects in a variety of Indian locations.

In one of the separate workshop sessions, Studio Mumbai also presented with Australian firm Iredale Pedersen Hook (IPH), who have worked extensively with Aboriginal communities in remote Western Australia. The projects were presented alongside each other, and similarities and differences addressed – discussions on the nature of outdoor spaces and the relationship to landscape were typical of this conversation. This rewarding session, part of a series of afternoon workshops, was regarded by many as a highlight. All of these were an opportunity for a local architect to talk alongside one of the international guests, and this format could have been applied on a bigger scale – these conferences can be an opportunity to expose international architects to Australian work, particular from younger players. While this worked in some cases in the workshops, it turned into a wholly interesting affair with the ‘Parallaxed’ event that occurred on Friday night at Zinc in Federation Square. Borrowing from the Dark Club at last year’s Venice Biennale, this was an opportunity for three young Australian architects to present work to an esteemed panel of key figures such as Wilson, Žižek and Betsky. Brisbane’s M3 Architecture, Marcus Trimble from Super Colossal and Callum Fraser from Elenberg Fraser (Melbourne) presented well into the night, and the panels got more vocal as it got later. There was a bit of ‘not getting it’ in relation to Marcus Trimble’s practice blog Super Colossal, which publishes his own work as well as others’ – “Why would you promote others?” one panel member asked. The question revealed more than the answer. Callum Fraser presented two earlier projects, two apartment towers in Melbourne, showing black and white stylised photographs with no drawings. In his attempt to limit the scope of the architect to contemporary developer conditions, he undersold his innovative buildings as facades. He took a barrage of critique from the panel, with the interesting exception of Slavoj Žižek.

Žižek is a heavyweight in philosophy, and just having him at the conference was good – he was the heart and mind of the event, its title being taken from his book The Parallax View. A brooding, amusing, agitated and positively post-Soviet figure, Žižek added to the proceedings a series of insights on contemporary life and the role of capital in our world. This is the stuff that surrounds all architectural discussion, and occasionally (assumedly, as obliged…) he directly discussed architecture. His most insightful and amusing moments came in the delivery of short anecdotes that he used to make his point clear. In broad terms Žižek rejects post-modern relativism – the suggestion that all things are relative and we can appreciate each other’s relative truths. His position also rejects the notion of post-ideology, and he pointed out that we now live in a more ideological time, finding ideology present in everything from Alan Greenspan’s GFC admission to the way a toilet pan displays or disposes of its load.

The conference was held at the Melbourne Exhibition and Convention Centre – the new Convention Centre has just been built (refer AR109), but frustratingly was not completely finished in time to host much of the conference. As a result, the foyer of the new facility was used only for breaks, while the talking was done in a temporary lecture space created within a bay of the Exhibition Centre. The conference was hence based at the western end of the Exhibition Centre, and so long is DCM’s great building that a separation from the city was felt. It was a conference that was based in these foyers.

The AIA conference has come of age, but also must operate within a more difficult environment for practice. The AIA did not announce a creative director for next year, as is customary, raising the possibility of it missing a year, for which there is precedent. Hopefully, this is not the case – now more than ever there is the need and the opportunity to improve the exposure of practicing architects to new ideas both in Australia and overseas. Like this one, the best conferences attempt to facilitate engagement and foster a conversation. The Exchange conference of 2005 directed by Kerstin Thompson attempted, and to a large extent succeeded, in developing this model and Parallax draws from this, clearly stating its attempt to foster discussion. The dialogue model is different to the auteur type, a series of ‘lectures’ in which fine projects are disseminated. This conference leaves us with a legacy of ideas rather than buildings.

What mixture of things makes a successful conference? This one had debate, conjecture, amusement and ideas. Parallax was an energetic snapshot of the direct and indirect concerns architecture faces today – democratisation of publication, the relationship to the system of collapsing capital, how we might work with marginalised communities and the role of the architect as an agent for change. This parallax event did indeed give us a new line of sight, a shift in where we stand – some mental triangulation.

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