August 25, 2009

The recent RE:HAB Student Architecture Congress boasted an impressive line-up of some of Australia’s most prominent architects and thinkers.

250 students representing every school of architecture in Australia and New Zealand converged on Canberra during the recent university winter break to check in to RE:HAB – the Australia/New Zealand Student Architecture Congress. More than 90 speakers presented at the congress; predominantly architects from Australia and abroad, but also graphic designers, landscape architects, photographers, planners, jewellers and scientists.

Events were entirely organised and run by students of the University of Canberra, with the support of SONA and the university, which facilitated a candid and informal atmosphere for debate, discussion and inspiration. Most prominent during the congress were the imperatives of sustainability and the moral and social responsibilities of the architect in society. How best to uphold these imperatives unravelled juxtaposition between traditional methods of inquiry and design and the creative and structural possibilities of experimentation in digital media.

The first half of the week presented the older generation of successful Australian architects; those more sceptical of the position the computer plays in design, but also very concerned by the loss of common sense sustainable design techniques. Among them were no less than five gold medal recipients. Students were prompted to re-view, re-flect, re-act and re-politicise the role and responsibilities of the architect in the world that exists beyond the academic construct of the university architecture studio.
As the week progressed so too did the themes, as the extensive roll call of high calibre speakers tackled ways to re-define, re-work and re-craft the design process. The congress were introduced to contemporary architects who heavily use computers and digital media to re-vision and re-think the design process and potentials, but are still very driven to create sustainable built environments. Chris Bosse and Anthony Burke combined digital modelling with physical modelling in a series of highly experimental workshops.

Discussion of sustainable future development tended to be very Canberra-centric. A contextually appropriate focus on the host city should be expected in part, but it was interesting to observe some students from other universities critically engage with this discussion. Many tours and speaker sessions focused on the very low density of Canberra’s inner suburbs and its growing urban footprint, and the major environmental and social issues this sort of urban planning is creating. While the issues were specific to Canberra, urban sprawl is a major concern throughout Australia, as the nation tries to head towards a more sustainable built environment. These discussions contributed to possible solutions, which the students of today will play a crucial part in implementing.

The ways in which these sustainable principles and long-term visions might transpose out of Canberra and into other urban contexts was largely left up to the delegate to ponder, with the notable exception of Thursday evening’s keynote speaker Mahmoud Saikal. An architecture graduate of both the University of Canberra and Sydney University, Saikal soon gravitated towards diplomacy, eventually returning to Afghanistan. There, he now focuses on rebuilding communities, a role which requires both his architectural and diplomatic skills. Saikal presented the built environment and the society of Afghanistan that exists beyond what we see on the news, and raised intriguing propositions on the complex interrelationship between development and security.

RE:HAB served up a healthy dose of inspiration, imagination and reality, and nightly social events kept delegates warm and cheery in the Canberra winter. The intense experience of 90 speakers, alongside tours and workshops, in just five days certainly stimulated much discussion and critical thinking, but by the end of the week many of the delegates, not to mention the student organisers, looked like they needed to check into rehab of another kind.

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