No More Icons

September 1, 2009

‘Architects have failed recently to take on some of the serious issues.’ What is the responsibility of the architect when it comes to public buildings?

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With the opening of the Melbourne Exhibition and Convention Centre, and the launch of a book on its construction, Andrew Mackenzie convened a panel to discuss how the procurement of public building is changing, and what effects this might have on the conditions of practice. The panel included Timothy Hill, Gerard Reinmuth, Nik Karalis and Hamish Lyon.

AM I was interested in a remark you made in your presentation Timothy, that the profession, when engaged in public architecture, is rather fixated with the idea of making ‘big moves’. We tend to cast technocrats, politicians and financiers as the ones who are to blame for the quality of our public spaces, but are architects in fact also somewhat culpable here?

TH I think we’re complicit. I think there is a distinction between authored buildings and conservative buildings – meaning the stuff that just goes on and gets built, about which you just observe convention and do it. This hasn’t taken hold in Australia the way it has in non English-speaking countries. I think that if we could just get all the ordinary stuff of a very high quality, we wouldn’t need a bold move.

NK I agree. We have probably all had that brief on our table – to make ‘the iconic project’. Yet in this ambition to make a big move in every project, we have lost the layering that is intrinsic to the city. Let’s hope that the post-GFC era will bring an end to the branding of bits of our cities as iconic, as a bogus marketing attempt to be different. This is certainly an attitude we brought to the Melbourne Exhibition and Convention Centre, which was a really interesting infrastructure project; we tried to fix up some of the site’s problems, at both the fine-grain and a macro urban-scale.

AM Clearly the iconic impulse came out of a particular moment of prosperity. We are now in a downturn, but do we really think that when the economy recovers, those same forces will not become dominant again? Has the profession learned anything?

GR There’s something interesting happening on the student blogs at the moment, because they’re very quick to change, they’re very fast. Blogs seem to have moved away from the usual Rem Koolhaas or Zaha Hadid chatter. There is something that’s happening, at least at that grass roots level, which is actually about changing the reasons things exist.

AM We commonly talk about this age of the networked individual as being post-government and post-market. At an IT level I can see how the blogosphere could lead to this polemic, but at the level of the built environment, do we really think that a building that might cost $100 million to build and take six years in construction will be driven by anything other than government or private commercial development?

TH I think the issue of social forms will be very different in the different languages. In Scandinavia for example, they already make cities that have mixed use embedded in their very fabric. In Australia, it’s still only an experiment; we have such a wealthy culture that is so newly developed, we’re so eccentric. So conduct with respect to the environment is played out differently, depending on where you are in the world. In English language culture all the effort goes into advocacy and adversarial crap ahead of the project. By contrast, in Taipei for instance, there’s so much city that you don’t really need planning approval to make more Taipei, you just do it. They keep very close tabs on what works and what are good additions to Taipei. If what you build is good, it stays. If it’s bad, they ask you to remove it. It’s completely the opposite of our town planning system.

AM In your presentation Gerard, you mentioned with some derision the idea of the architect as service supplier. What do you see as the difference between a professional architect and a service provider?

GR I would answer that with a parallel reference, to the brain surgeon. If you go to your brain surgeon and you’ve got a tumour and you’re about to die, it’s the surgeon’s job to tell it as it is, and to be clear about the consequences of this treatment or that. I don’t mean that the architect is on an altar, but simply that we have a certain level of knowledge, or a gathering of knowledge about what we do, and with it comes a responsibility, particularly in relation to the public realm. This is different from a position in which the architect might simply say, ‘Okay, that’s what you want, so I’ll just do it’.

AM Hamish, in the process of designing the Melbourne Exhibition and Convention Centre, were there any points at which you felt like a service provider?

HL I can only talk about our practical experience on these public projects. I have realised that there may be an entire network of communications that occur; for this building about 85,000 pieces of correspondence got transferred from one party to another. When you’re dealing with public architecture and the public realm, invariably behind those 85,000 pieces of correspondence were about 10 personal conversations with the people. There’s a kind of black market economy, and that is where the architect is still an incredibly skilful practitioner.
Most of the other participants in this process aren’t dumb, as they are often portrayed in our profession. If anything I think the problem is they’ve become like the next generation of brain surgeon, to use Gerard’s analogy; in that they have become a brain surgeon who only works on the left hand side in some complex part of the cerebral cortex, or you have the surgeon who only operates on toes; medicine seems to have lost its holistic nature. Architecture is facing the same problem, and it’s not through people’s dumbness, but through their hyper-sophistication, or their hyper-cellurisation. Now architects are amongst the few left who are ‘dumb’ enough, at one level, to wander across parts of the process. So I think to some extent, Nick and I found ourselves in the process of building a major public building not really because we’re particularly clever; it was partly because we were able to ask questions to bankers and financiers and economic people that we just didn’t know the answer to. Everybody else in the room would think, ‘Thank God the architect asked that question because we didn’t know the answer either’, but they were too embarrassed to say.
So I think behind this whole idea of creating, the idea of communication, the idea of technology, the one incredible strength that the architect still possesses in the public realm is to operate as a sort of flat line across things. And yes, if that means saying no to your client, or ‘I don’t think you should build that’, or ‘I think you should build less of it’, or ‘maybe we should remove a building from that site’, that’s a skill the architect needs to have. Unfortunately, with the prosperity and the boom of the last 20 years, we have to some extent lost that from our repertoire.

AM Another point often raised with Public Private Partnerships is to do with the potential clash between public good and shareholder return. Again, talking specifically of the MCEC building, was this a problem that emerged for you?

HL The thing that I find most frustrating in the conversation about public infrastructure PPPs is the [supposed] track record of the developer dumbing it down. The conversation never really goes anywhere because it’s a single-minded conversation, where somehow the government always has long-term vision and the developer is looking for the quick buck. Again I can only speak from our experience. The government wrote a brief for the Convention Centre, requesting a four star Green Star building. But in this case the consortium, that has to own the building for a 25-year period, thought 25 years out. Governments traditionally now don’t think more than three months out, but in thinking 25 years out, they could see the net benefit of producing a Six Star building and a water treatment plant and investing a whole lot into infrastructure. The government, being honest, won’t invest that money. Long term projecting won’t get them a vote and it won’t get them to the next bi-election.

TH Where we find intelligence is always shifting around in Australia. In that instance, you found it in the developer. In another instance, you might find it in a government department. But because the built environment in Australia is on the whole under-worked, then it’s very hard to predict where the intelligence is going to pop up.
I do think that the old American attitude to finance, which prides itself on belligerence to everything but the bottom line, is on the way out. The idea that you’re a prince because you can write a contract that has got a one dimensional clause in it, that means that there’s a punishment if someone tries to do the right thing. That’s just a crappy old idea.
For instance, what if the person writing that contract had done two years in general public space theory about cities, and was a smart lawyer, and knew how bean counters worked? What’s wrong with having that kind of person? Why don’t we train them?
As it is, most planners are just loser engineers who have become project managers because they’re so hopeless at being an engineer. You get town planners for whom that job was never their first preference. So engineers get assigned to town planning, which then becomes a management discipline, not a spatial discipline.

AM Do we have any questions from the audience?

[Ivan Rijavec]: It was interesting to see how much focus there was on public architecture rather than public space, and I was thinking as you were all talking how recently in Melbourne, Rob Adams and various others have come up with a scheme for increasing density in Melbourne. It includes plans to increase the scale of development, to let’s say five, six storeys, on tram and transit routes. So if you think of the macro scale of public space for the city, what do the four panellists think of that?

TH It’s a very conservative idea. It’s been tried out at least in 100 other cities. It would be great if it went well. But who are you going to give responsibility for it to, so it works? Because its success as an idea is not an issue of authorship of the idea. It’s about how an idea might be actually introduced to a different society.

AM Obviously this relates to the consultancy of Jan Gehl, who has popped up in Melbourne and Sydney over recent years. And in all his proposals for those cities, he seems to be only marginally interested in who owns the land, who is responsible for it, for managing it. There remains in his advocacy a failure to adequately account for what it means to take urban ideas from, say, a social democratic, historically mature society like Copenhagen, and graft them onto an entirely different economic urban environment.

[Ivan Rijavec] The reason I ask the question about Melbourne’s CBD leads to my other question, which is why isn’t someone researching what we’ve got here in Australia, which is very different from Madrid or Barcelona or Paris, its fundamental structure and the way it’s grown, and the advantages and disadvantages?

TH I think we’ve got the CBD well covered regarding collecting data etc. The question might better be, which of your universities are collecting the data about the suburbs?

HL I’d extend that to the profession. To be honest, with the amount of urban expansion that’s occurring, I think we’re back at basics. In Melbourne we’ve got our new suburbs at the fringe lacking infrastructure, community facilities, schools and so forth. There’s a stimulus package now, but for the last 10 years, absolutely nothing. So in the end, you go out to the Whittlesea corridor, out to Plenty Valley, you go out to the western Tundra, and you find little shopping centres that have been done by cheap developers, that have become the default community centres. So you go right out to the edge, and it’s so lacking in infrastructure that the developer, who might be as dumb as a brick, has inherited the social responsibility that he doesn’t even want, of building a community centre.
Now, we do that sort of work, and the profession laugh at us. They say, ‘You’re working on crappy suburban shopping centres on the fringe,’ and I go to the Awards and I see wineries and beach houses and beautiful retreats for the guy who’s made a million dollars out of Macquarie. Meanwhile we’re out doing some little retail centre out on the edge of the Whittlesea corridor that people will genuinely go to, and the profession laugh at us. So if there are architects sitting in the room, there’s a moral that hopefully firstly the financial crisis will redress at some level. And with the bushfires here, where whole towns in central Victoria have disappeared, we’re actually having to replan those things from first principles. So I think I’m personally back at kindergarten. I think architects have failed in their duty recently to take on some of the serious issues.
I went to university at the end of the seventies and the eighties – Peter Corrigan, Greg Burgess, early Ashton Raggatt McDougall, Kevin Borland. People like that taught me to have pride in the small public community building. We don’t build it now, we build shopping centres, but no one wants to talk about it.

The book The Private Life of Public Architecture is published by URO: www.uromedia.com.au

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