Melbourne Architecture Annual

What is it?

Previously known as Melbourne Architecture Week, Melbourne Architecture Annual (MAA) is a festival that has taken place the past two years in the last week of October. Its aim is to engage the broader community with both architects and architecture. Festival activities therefore tend towards content with wide-ranging appeal, including ask an architect sessions, LEGO for children, open houses, films, debates and lectures.

We attended three events this year: Moshe Safdie’s oration, Megascale: Order and Complexity; the festival keynote address, Community and Architecture; and OpenHaus’ conversation, What is… Public Architecture?

What did we think?

Megascale: Order and Complexity

In conjunction with publicity of his soon-to-be-built Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music at Monash University, Moshe Safdie delivered not just a lecture, but an impressive oration at the suitably grand Hamer Hall. Proceeded and followed by musical performances from Monash students, and introduced by an entourage of starry-eyed professors and chancellors, Safdie proved himself to be a gifted speaker, more than capable of rising to the gravitas demanded of such an occasion.

His interest in place-making and his commitment to an architecture that respectfully utilises its context and the natural materials that shape it struck a deep chord within us. He spoke powerfully of values-driven architecture, one far removed from fashion and imagery. He somehow managed to transcend his international portfolio, revealing a design philosophy that is the antithesis of the starchitecture often associated with other architects of his lofty pedigree.

That said, we find Safdie’s work varies greatly in quality. Some projects – the seminal Habitat 67 and more recent Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum for instance – are at once visionary and poetic. Others feel chunky, institutional and immediately dated. We suspect the School of Music will fall into the latter category, awkwardly bookending Monash’s Clayton campus and, strangely revealing a disregard for local context, appearing to be a facsimile of Safdie’s recently completed Kauffman Centre for the Performing Arts.

Community and Architecture

The keynote address, hosted at the wonderfully open BMW Edge, was presented by four individuals with strong backgrounds in community driven architecture: Esther Charlesworth of Architects Without Frontiers, Jefa Greenaway of Indigenous Architecture Victoria, Kate Ferguson of CoDesign Studio and Paul Pholeros of Healthabitat.

Presentations focussed on the inspiring projects undertaken by each organisation, too often cheerfully dismissed as the “bottom end of architecture”. Though on the surface they appeared worlds apart, from toilets in Nepal (Healthabitat) to a youth centre in Frankston (CoDesign Studio), the projects all shared a recognisable DNA. All engaged communities in active, meaningful and lasting ways, all responded to significant yet often overlooked issues, and all arose thanks to skilled and passionate people setting out to right injustices in the world.

Paul Pholeros was not alone in gently condemning the architectural profession for wilfully removing itself from the needs and responsibilities of the world, but he was most poignant. Observing that during his lifetime, our profession has surrendered structural engineering, landscape architecture and sustainable design (to which we add finances and project management) to other professions, soon there won’t be much left that we can do. His suggestion, echoed by the other three, was that architects need to re-engage with meaningful projects, take on responsibility rather than shedding it. We need to reeducate ourselves in the craft of making and seek to use that craft to improve the places we inhabit.

What is… Public Architecture?

Held on the last day of MAA, also at BMW Edge, this was the fourth in a series of presentations coordinated by the energetic OpenHAUS, with presenters Donald Bates of LAB Architecture Studio, Melanie Dodd of Mufaus, Jill Garner of the Office of the Victorian Government Architect and Simon Knott of BKK Architects. Unfortunately, it dropped the debate format of the previous three iterations, a great pity we believe as it lost much of their humour and spontaneity.

We ultimately found much of the material to be dry, covering territory well travelled in various other lectures over recent months. Simon Knott’s presentation of his studio’s work on public toilets for VicRoads was an exception. Undoubtedly polished by his work on RRR’s The Architects, his engaging discussion revealed the complex dualities of the toilet block – at once the most utilitarian and expensive of public spaces. This duality was mirrored in BKK’s design strategy: a successful synergy between serious research and deft architectural lightness.

What did we learn?

Given the lasting impact it has on the daily lives of each and every one of us, architecture does not receive the public attention we believe it deserves. Generally overlooked by the front section of the paper in favour of development and real estate, and by the supplements in favour of fashion and design, we have grown accustomed to reports on the built environment gathering comment from every profession, industry and authority but our own.

The architecture profession does not, we confess, do much to help the situation. We prefer the company of other architects, typically only discussing the product of our hard work with other architects, be it in published, exhibition or lecture format. This closed-door paradigm is most acutely revealed in the statistic that 90% of the readership of Architectural Review Australia are architects. Our self-imposed isolation is inevitably interpreted as snobbery by the general public, serving only to intensify our marginalisation.

MAA is an opportunity for us to break this cycle. Its diverse range of activities and strong ties to culturally important Melbourne locations will, we hope, lower the communication barrier between architects and the public. This can only be a win-win situation – a better appreciation of architecture for the public and a better understanding of the public’s needs for architects.

Though we strongly recommend a change back to the old name (Melbourne Architecture Annual is both confusing and ungrammatical) and a move to any week other than the one where all architecture students statewide are frantically finishing off design projects, we hope that with time and continued energy it will grow into an important event on Melbourne’s already jam-packed festival calendar.

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