What are they?
As part of the annual Australian Institute of Architects awards, architects gather in each state and territory for a weekend to present their projects to category juries. Categories include residential new, residential renovation and residential multiple, public, heritage, small project, public new and public renovation, interior, commercial and urban design. Entrants have 7 minutes to introduce their project, followed by questions from jurors.
While presentations are open to the public, audiences are generally dominated by architects. The state events thus assume a social dimension, the break periods providing opportunities to tune into industry gossip, discuss notable projects and develop a keen sense of the crowd favourites.
The Victorian Presentations to Juries were held two weekends ago at Monash University‘s Caulfield Campus. We previously criticised this venue for its eccentric location and lack of a significant room for the usually crowded residential new category, however we felt more at home there this year. The twin level layout provided easy meeting places and a spot of careful planning easily enabled us to move between rooms before doors were shut at the beginnings of presentations. Our only complaint was lighting: the Institute would do well to make sure there is not so much in each room that the slide presentations are blown out and not so little that attendees can’t take notes.
The full field of Victorian entrants may be viewed here.
What did we think?
We were only able to spend part of Saturday at the presentations, meaning we missed a number of significant projects strategically scheduled for the Sunday: Sean Godsell and John Wardle presented the Edward Street House and Fairhaven Beach House respectively, both beautiful executions in metal and timber; McBride Charles Ryan presented their PEGS Senior School, a sequel to their well-received Junior School from last year; and in the afternoon, Lyons presented the Swanston Academic Building and Godsell the Design Hub, both controversial projects for RMIT.
It is worthwhile weighing in with our opinion on the Swanston Academic Building and Design Hub, one of which will surely win their Public New category. We have visited the latter on three separate occasions (most recently just four days before the tragic collapse of an adjacent brick wall) and, despite its sublime detailing, found it to be a flawed masterpiece: disengaged from both the city and its users, it prioritises form too strongly over function. In contrast, we have visited Lyons’ Swanston Academic Building only once, and on a quiet Sunday to boot, but can easily see how well it slots into and enhances RMIT’s city-as-campus. We don’t like its busy form-making gymnastics, it will surely date as quickly as Corrigan’s Building 8, and it has none of the enigmatic power of the Design Hub, but it is far better connected to its context. We think this urban quality will win it the Public New category and probably the Victorian Architecture Medal as well.
As for the presentations we did attend, we were as always underwhelmed by some and delighted by others.
Leeton Pointon presented the expensive (either $6,000/sqm or $6,000,000 total, we’re not sure which) but unconvincing Park House in the Residential New category. It boasted a self-conscious richness of materials at the expense of clarity in ideas and form-making. Also in Residential New, Michael Ellis presented the confused Yellingbo Artist’s Residence, citing the Farnsworth House and Richard Serra as his inspirations but evoking neither. The composition of its stacked-stone front facade failed to convincingly combine a wide arch with slot windows, a canopied gash and a jutting gutter. The result was clumsy and uninspiring. In the Residential Multiple category, Bird de la Coeur Architects presented the large and, thanks to its novated construction contract, under-executed Roi Apartments. They were not well built, another casualty of the profits-driven environment of large scale multi-residential projects.
Tim O’Sullivan and Sioux Clark, the effervescent couple from Multiplicity, evoked Laurel and Hardy in the Residential Renovation category. Constantly interrupting one another, they still managed to present Shelter Shed, a low-cost renovation to a double-fronted weatherboard house in East Brunswick. The canny combination of a small footprint and cheap, steel-framed shed-as-shell left room in the budget to lavish love and care on interior detailing. As Clark explained, the honest steel structure is carried through into robust steel framing for stairs, joinery and fixtures. Their influence from Ray and Charles Eames is evident but not sycophantic, and they have once again demonstrated their unerring intuition for composition. It was also a pleasure to see hand sketches used for detail design presented alongside finished photos.
Unfortunately, Shelter Shed has no online presence at all, being absent from both Multiplicity’s website and the Institute’s field of entrants page, so we are unable to share an image of the project.
Simon Knott from BKK Architects presented Two Townhouses in the Residential Multiple category and Australian Garden Shelters in the Small Project category. Being familiar with their work and Knott’s presentation style, it was good to once again see that both projects have benefited from BKK’s research-driven approach to design. They engage meaningfully with local landscape and the history of Australian architecture, the Australian Garden Shelters emerging naturally from their indigenous garden contexts, and Two Townhouses recalling both the pragmatism of 1970s merchant builder housing and the playfulness of Gregory Burgess’ works. Massing for the townhouses also made good use of parametric modelling: thankfully avoiding the worst determinism of the technique while successfully resolving a series of complex constraints typical of inner city developments. Finally, both projects exhibit BKK’s signature formal exuberance: we look forward to a long-overdue visit to the Australian Garden so we can see for ourselves whether the shelters’ detailing is as good as their form making.
Stuart Harrison from Harrison and White presented St. Bernard’s Parish Fence, the first built outcome of a masterplanning project for St. Bernard’s Primary School. Undertaken in collaboration with Paul Coffey Architects, this brick and mesh fence took the Small Project category to a new extreme. A tiny sliver of built form, no deeper than the length of a single recycled brick, Harrison’s presentation squeezed as much as he could from his 7 minutes. From a succession of innocuous slides featuring locals and their dogs walking in front of the fence, to abrupt responses to some of the jury’s more tentative questions, to a serious discussion about the “world’s smallest plaza” located in the space left over from the fence’s curved corner, Harrison was hilarious. We’re not sure whether this humble fence has was it takes to take out the Small Project category, but we’re nevertheless very glad we saw it presented.
Finally, one more Small Project entry, and our favourite to win, is the Stawell Steps. Presented by Nigel Bertram from NMBW, this project is the result of a 4th year design studio at Monash University and a collaboration with visiting Japanese architect, Hiroshi Nakao, and two semi-retired bricklayers. Council funds for a spillway at the edge of a flood-prone lake were boosted by funding from almost a dozen other government organisations to total around $200,000. This, together with generous donations from local brick supplier, Krause Bricks, rendered what was intended to be a simple piece of engineering works into a stunningly crafted urban sculpture. In addition to its engineering function, it is a stage for local performances, a resting place, a viewing platform and a playground. This latter function is most demonstrative: there is not a fibreglass slide nor soft fall rubber tile in sight, but children have instantly and intuitively flocked to it, creating their own play environments amongst the brick steps. Bertram showed a number of photos during planning and construction phases of the projects, the fifteen or so Monash students spending a semester designing and building the project with their own hands. The Stawell Steps is a masterstroke in political serendipity and punches well above its weight, aiding in learning, enhancing the public environment and exploring the techniques of craft and engineering.
What did we learn?
We have said this before: the Presentations to Juries is the single most unmissable event in the architectural calendar. It provides insight into contemporary Australian design themes, reveals the vibrant diversity of our architectural practice, and offers the opportunity to reflect on the past 12 months of built works around the country. It shows clearly and succinctly how year after year, great architecture is being built right here at home.
We eagerly await the juries’ decisions.