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12 November 2006

Be careful of what you wish for

Be careful of what you wish for, or you might turn into Wolf Prix: reflections on the 2006 RAIA national conference
November 10, 2006


In Apil 2006, architects gathered at Darling Harbour in Sydney for “the future is now!”, the annual RAIA conference. The conference gathered together an interesting mix of speakers as stylistically and philosophically diverse as Carme Pinos, Elke-Delugan-Meissl, Kerry Hill, and Andrew Freear from Rural Studio.

Amid the usual networking and preening found at these events, there was a great degree of discussion on topics such as sustainability, the nature of cities, and socially responsible design, and credit must go to the conference director Stephen Varady for creating this discursive environment, which extended beyond the formal sessions. Many topics of interest to practitioners and educators were discussed, and (almost) all of the speakers were remarkable for their honesty and their willingness to raise problems in practice and failed experiments as well as their successes.

However, despite the optimism and atmosphere of good-will permeating the conference, for me there was a disturbing subtext which seemed to underpin the entire event, and which told a story all the more powerful for not being explicitly articulated. This story is architecture eats its young, or turns them into monsters, and is best exemplified by the presentations of three architects: Anupama Kundoo, Timothy Hill, and the keynote speaker Wolf Prix.

Anupama Kundoo is an Indian architect in her thirties who heads Kolam, an architecture, design and construction unit established under the Auroville Foundation in south east India. In addition to research, design and construction of architectural projects, Kolam also undertakes innovative urban management studies; the architectural education of rural students; experimentation with construction and infrastructure technologies for sustainable development; and hands-on workshops and seminars in schools, institutions and universities.

Anupama’s presentation was a joyful and delightful tale of can-do attitude and problem-solving in challenging situations. She contextualised the problems facing a rapidly developing India – urbanisation, globalisation, sustainability, and concrete – and walked us through projects where locally made clay vessels become ceilings, and buildings are “cooked” to perfection. Her willingness to embrace the constraints of the local – community, technology, materials, skills – and turn them into successful and beautiful buildings was inspirational for those of us who may be frustrated with planning regulations or a slow broadband connection.

Timothy Hill, of Donovan Hill, was simultaneously amusing and sobering. His presentation touched on the politics of development in Brisbane, the nature of architectural practice in Australia (mostly about persuading people to do things and managing risks), the importance of design education, the psychology of the tough versus the tender, and some revealing personal anecdotes. Above all, his presentation was a clear exposition of the moral dilemmas facing a successful mid-career architect. As Donovan Hill’s projects and clients have become progressively larger and more complex, Tim explained how he has entered into contractual fear- and power-based relationships, and has found himself turning into a person he does not like, and does not want to be. His presentation felt like a plea – not to us in the audience, we couldn’t help him. Perhaps it was a plea to himself.

The entrance of the “star” of the conference, Wolf Prix of Coop Himmelb(l)au, was almost a satire – except I think it was for real: ageing but well-maintained denim-clad baby boomer success story, walking on stage to the sound of the Rolling Sones’ “get offa my cloud”, whispering to himself “winner! I am a winner! I have lots of money and people love me” (actually, I made that last bit up – but you get the picture). I have to admit, he was entertaining and the conference organisers would have got their money’s worth: multimedia presentations, large photos of Wolf chomping on a Cuban cigar (Montechristo brand), stories of petty rivalries amongst architects in business class, a short video showing life in a day at the Coop Himmelb(l)au office (with the same young employees present for 20 of the 24 hours), generally squeezing out bonhomie and charisma like nothing else.

The thing is, the guy’s not a phoney – he does not pretend to be anything more than a greedy, talented, petty, vain, successful, wealthy architect, take it or leave it. But there is something gross in his delight at the “100 metre cantilever” which is the key concept of his latest project, the world headquarters for BMW. The video fly-through presentation alone cost over $3million. It was almost embarrassing to watch. I remember the idealistic Coop Himmelb(l)au I studied in my student days, the firm which started in the late sixties challenging the status quo and trying to find an architecture as buoyant as clouds. The 100 metre cantilever is, in a way, an extension of this, and this consistency in idea is what scared me the most about his presentation. There’s a Latin expression to the effect of “that which nourishes me also destroys me”. Following an architectural dream is a seductive adventure which should be tempered with vigilance. I was very glad to see Wolf Prix’ presentation, because now I know what I don’t want to be when I grow up.

For a young (in architecture terms) architect with an idiosyncratic (some would say idiotic) career path to date, these three presentations raised a lot of questions about the definition of success, the role of architecture, and the nature of architectural practice. Above all, what do you do if you catch yourself “turning into a person you don’t like”? Stop? Give it up? Become a gardener?

As a teacher, I often see the seeds of the strange mixture of inflated ego and self doubt that seems to be part of the emotional make-up of architects. These three speakers for me represented a slow progression through the practice of an architect. From idealism, to frustration bordering on bitterness, to fat-cat blind cynicism. At the close of the conference, I wished that it had played in reverse order – that it had started with the self-congratulatory, passed through self-analysis, and ended in practicality and generosity. As it was, and in the context of the “the future is now!” theme of the conference, it seemed as an almost inevitable journey of the decay of both morals and morale that is the lot of an architect trying to get on.

I guess it is a timely warning: to be mindful of not just the architect but also the person we want to be. And to be mindful of the briefs we accept; the manner in which we approach them; our relationships with our employers and employees, with our clients, builders and other consultants, and with our colleagues; our engagement with issues beyond our daily tasks; and above all our consciousness and – I’m not sure of the word – toughness? kindness? unwillingness to be seduced by the surface? insistence on joy?

Eva Rodriguez Riestra
Architects for PeaceNovember 2006



2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wow! I didn't realize how much a video fly-through presentation could cost that much, I saw it too, it was embarrassing to watch for me as well. As for the 'grossness' of the concept, it is binded in the concept as you said, and the presentation really lacked direction and focus thus ending up a really bad overpriced production which really didn't get to the core issues and skirted or zig-zagged around the keypoints. As for your quote:

There’s a Latin expression to the effect of “that which nourishes me also destroys me”.

It is this duality within the concept that is scary and disappointing and indicated clearly the lack of definition or the fear to look at the constructs in place.

As for the issues he needed to express, I wonder how he could have done it better - perhaps more time, more understanding of the issue, or perhaps most crucially, an effort to strip the building and analyze its context and look at the landscaping and the buildings relationship to the ground and neighbouring elements. It is clear to me that it was too sketchy and not a strong presentation because of that. More groundwork and research is necessary to paint the necessary picture that will convey the beauty and harmony, and hopefully, his next presentation, whereever that is, I hope will be better prepared and better informed, having absorbed the context. That is the key.

su said...

Thankyou Eva, your thoughts are much appreciated, being provocative and insightful about a predicament that is central to the human condition.
Self-aggrandisement versus selflessness. Probably we all stand accused of slipping into self-aggrandisement or variations of it whenever we’re not being too mindful. While I don’t reckon anyone would argue against selflessness as the best antidote against such a corrupting influence as self-aggrandisement (along with the power-mongering and cynicism you have noted in your editorial), for many reasons selflessness is a pretty hard act to sustain. However, that this is the stuff of philosophising (religious and non-religious alike), across all cultures and down the ages makes it pretty obvious just how fundamental this imperative to establish our self-worth through selflessness (as opposed to self-aggrandisement) is, and how we ignore it at our peril.
I suggest that most philosophies that deal with the predicament argue in one way or another that getting on with our daily affairs is a “sticky” sort of business and that we need to avoid getting too caught up in its “stickiness”. This requires a degree of equanimity (neither too attached nor too unattached to daily concerns needing our attention) so as to protect ourselves from corruption, and this can best be achieved through selflessness. In other words self-development is best nurtured through selflessness, which in itself transcends the “stickiness” of everyday life.

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