What was it?
The Australian Institute of Architects‘ annual architecture conference, held two weeks ago in Melbourne. Creatively directed by Donald Bates, Hamish Lyon and Andrew Mackenzie, it explored the changing role of risk in architecture. The directors framed the discussion by observing that “No one wants to be a safe architect. Safety assumes the conventional and the predictable. Who wants that? Unless of course you want to stay in business… This conference will explore the troubled nexus between the architectural necessity of risk-taking and a building environment predicated on the minimisation of risk.”
This was the third conference in three years that I’ve attended, continuity that has allowed me to start detecting both trends and innovations across their formats. Gone were the subthemes that distinguished the speakers for Making 2014, replaced by a more filigreed thematic engagement. Gone also was the regional specificity of Making, the list this year having more in common with the internationalism of Material 2013. And in contrast to both was an invigorating series of panel discussions, with concurrent sessions providing respite between the more serious keynote addresses.
Though Bates, Lyon and Mackenzie eschewed the limelight somewhat, their curatorial hand in both speaker selection and discussion topics was firmly evident. Their combined experience across large practice, education, media and procurement flowed cleanly into a conference that looked pleasingly beyond the usual parochialism of the architecture profession.
Educators, journalists and emerging practitioners shared as much of the stage as established architects. And in a worthwhile first, the Planning and Architecture panel discussion was a collaboration with the Planning Institute of Australia’s Planning Congress 2015. Delivered to a packed house of both architects and planners, in many ways this session epitomised the broad agenda of the conference, positioning the practice of architecture within its larger, more ambitious and multi-disciplinary context.
With the concurrent panel discussions expanding the usual eight sessions to fourteen, the list of speakers this year was necessarily long:
Gregg Pasquarelli, SHoP Architects, United States of America
Carline Bos, UN Studio, the Netherlands
Deborah Saunt, DSDHA, United Kingdom
David Gianotten, OMA, the Netherlands
Amanda Levete, AL_A, United Kingdom
Jeremy Till, Central Saint Martins, United Kingdom
Cynthia Davidson, Anyone Corporation, United States of America
Kasper Jensen, 3XN / GXN, Denmark
Suzannah Waldron, Searle x Waldron, Melbourne
John Choi, CHROFI, Sydney
Camilla Block, Durbach Block Jaggers, Sydney
Paul Morgan, Paul Morgan Architects, Melbourne
Finn Pedersen, Iredale Pedersen Hook, Perth
Kristen Green, Kristin Green Architecture, Melbourne
Ben Hewett, NSW Government Architect, Sydney
Jeremy McLeod, Breathe Architecture, Melbourne
Juliet Moore, Edwards Moore, Melbourne
Charles Wright, Charles Wright Architects, Cairns
Thomas Bailey, Room 11, Hobart
Hanna Tribe, Tribe Studio, Sydney
John Daley, Grattan Institute, Australia
Mitchel Silver, New York City Parks Commissioner, United States of America
Cheong Koon Hean, Housing and Development Board, Singapore
Manfred Grohmann, Bollinger Grohman, Germany
Ian McDougall, Ashton Raggatt McDougall, Australia
Vivian Mitsogianni, RMIT, Australia
Anthony Burke, UTS, Australia
What did I think?
While Material and Making were inspiring and engaging conferences, it must be said that the timelessness of their subjects dulled their urgency. Risk suffered no such problems. Firmly rooted in what is surely the biggest challenge facing contemporary architecture practice, the dangers and rewards of risk-taking are at the very heart of the crisis that beleaguers our profession.
As Till noted in his address, “it used to be that the entire architectural project was a zone of invention and risk, but this has now been narrowed down to the slimmest of opportunities.” We were once a profession of risk-takers, driving the development of new building typologies, technologies and structural systems. In the golden age of the early 20th Century, architects were rewarded with the power to shape entire cities. But recent decades have witnessed the rise of the project manager and the novated contract, of suburban sprawl and foreign wealth. Our influence has been eroded to the point of superfluousness. It could be argued that we have never before been so close to the brink of our own demise.
Thankfully, amidst the debris there are glimmers of hope, embryonic opportunities opening up to new generations of savvy risk-takers. In New York, Pasquarelli is forging joint venture alliances with developers and fabricators, investing sweat equity in return for a stake of the profits. In London, Saunt is “placing herself in the path of luck,” leveraging a string of boutique projects into a startling array of significant commissions. And in Copenhagen, Jensen is pursuing non-traditional commissions for non-financial reward.
The Australian engagement with risk-taking is less dramatic but equally well articulated. In Melbourne, Waldron is tackling the often criticised competitions pathway to win new projects, “worthwhile wagers” that have nourished her emerging practice. In Hobart, Bailey is shaking off the conservative need for “architecture to be all things for all people,” creating a string of remarkable, almost sculptural projects. And in Sydney, Tribe is designing “house portraits” that test the poorly understood relationship between architecture as luxury and commodity.
So we are at a crossroads, or to reach for a more suitable metaphor, in the depths of a valley. If recent decades have unravelled the visionary agenda of the modernist era, then the opening years of the 21st Century are suggesting they might ravel it back up again. Risk positioned itself right at the nadir of this transition, capitalising on both the precariousness of the profession’s position, as well as our new enthusiasm for risk-taking.
What were the highlights?
Even before the first speakers took to the stage, we were treated with a rare, and I must say, profoundly encouraging opening statement from new Victorian planning minister, Richard Wynne. As he announced the return of the OVGA into the Department of Premier and Cabinet, I couldn’t help but feel a thrill of excitement run through me. For those of you who weren’t there, you’ll just have to imagine it: a politician announcing a new government initiative, not to an audience of farmers or miners or teachers, but to a room full of architects! There couldn’t have been a better or more contextually appropriate beginning to the conference.
Across the two days that followed, it became clear that although risk most commonly conjures images of leaking roofs and insurance claims, there are many (much more interesting) ways to define, engage with and respond to risk in architecture. Particularly prevalent was the attempt to define different loci for risk:
- New business development
- Extending the boundaries of traditional practice
- Experimental projects
By exploring new avenues for where risks can be taken, the speakers foreshadowed Till’s recommendation at the conclusion of his presentation, to “radically engage with risk… and redescribe what practice can be.” They may have each pursued different strategies in their engagement, but they all possessed a shared dissatisfaction with the status quo. It was this restlessness that separated the most riveting speakers from the least, and, I think, underpinned the true value to be taken from the conference.
The panel discussions I attended, Planning and Architecture on the Friday and Pedagogy on the Saturday, were lively debates that looked beyond architecture practice to bigger and essential questions of urban planning and education. But for fear of bloating this already lengthy article, I won’t address either discussion here. I did however have the highly rewarding opportunity to interview John Daley, chair of the Planning and Architecture panel and CEO of the Grattan Institute, after the conference, and will reproduce the interview in weeks to come.
New business development
In his presentation, Gianotten undertook a commendably open dissection of the history of OMA. The majority of his slides weren’t glossy pictures, but charts: charts that analysed the relationship between risk and profit on construction projects; charts that looked at the annual growth in OMA‘s insurance premiums; charts that revealed the startlingly small number of their commissions that result in built projects; and charts that plotted the past and future development of the OMA business model.
One remark struck me in particular. While working through all the material that would combine to become S,M,L,XL, a weighty tomb that should (and probably does) sit on every architect’s shelf, OMA almost went bankrupt. They had committed so many resources to it that anything other than resounding success would have ruined them. It was an enormously risky leap, but one that allowed them to relaunch their office into the global powerhouse it is today.
Waldron presented a similar appetite for taking calculated risks, discussing the procurement process for the Ballarat Art Annexe. She understood that Searle x Waldron lacked the experience of their more established competitors, so went well beyond the requirements of the brief to craft a particular story for the project. She reflected, “what if the client didn’t like our idea? But actually, it allowed the client to buy into our idea right from the start.” It was a gamble that paid off: the idea reflected the client’s own ambitions for the project, they won the commission, and their entire practice was launched into existence.
Extending the boundaries of traditional practice
I have written before about the work of Pasquarelli’s studio, SHoP Architects (here and here among others). Once again I was impressed by the creativity with which they manipulate the architectural process. From embracing 3D documentation technologies long before they were popularised; to extending their involvement beyond architecture to fabrication, construction and finance; to developing new technologies and software that reshape the limits of practice.
Most importantly, Pasquarelli explained how all of SHoP‘s initiatives are grounded by an absolutely fundamental insight, that “design should be seen as a profit centre, not a cost centre.” In other words, design has an extraordinary capacity to deliver more than the low risk, conventionally designed strategies employed by much of the construction industry, and architects are uniquely equipped to both define and deliver this value.
One recent project was captivating, as much for the skills it required of SHoP as the ideas it embodied. Envelope is a web application that distills the contents of New York’s hefty 1,000 page planning code into an interactive plug and play questionnaire: enter the details of your site and the software spits out its maximum building envelope. The data can then be downloaded in a digital model or spreadsheet format, reducing a process “that normally takes many, many hours to one that takes under 60 seconds.”
The first session on the second day was a pre-recorded video by the absent Levete. At first skeptical (isn’t the whole joy of conferences to actually have the speakers in the room?), I was swiftly won over by the effort she had put into its production. What followed was a densely packed tour of the Future Systems cum AL_A opus, each project its own thesis on materials, construction and structure. Thankfully, Levete managed to avoid the pitfalls of a portfolio presentation, constantly weaving the conference issues into her discussion.
Each project seemed more outrageous than the last: from the Spencer Dock Bridge, whose fluid concrete form was achieved using CNC routed polystyrene formwork, to the Lord’s Media Centre, built by yacht builders and the first semi-monocoque building in the world, to the Victoria and Albert Museum renovation, which pushed the technical capacity of ceramics to their limits. The languid Levete was the embodiment of the starchitect: no country was too remote, no brief too challenging, no law of physics too immutable.
Choi’s commentary on CHROFI‘s Lune de Sang offered an interesting counterpart to Levete’s superhuman projects. He observed that, “architecture is the opposite of mass production, where you design it, break it, and design it again. Architecture needs to be perfect first time, built by people who have never built it before, and meet everyone’s expectations.” It was an important reminder that all architecture, no matter the scale of its ambition, is at its heart experimental. Lune de Sang is a stunning project, but it wasn’t built by yacht builders, nor did it retrofit an entire ceramics factory for its production. It nevertheless demonstrated the same, and indeed more accessible, commitment to experimentation.
What did I learn?
Returning to work on the Monday following Risk was an inevitable anticlimax. The very reasons I love attending the conference each year – to take a break, remind myself of the big picture, be inspired – made it hard to return to the daily grind of practice. This got me thinking. I’m regularly inspired by the conferences, lectures and seminars I attend, but what am I to do with this inspiration? How do I translate new knowledge into productive outcomes?
More so than either of the previous conferences I’ve attended, Risk left me with a number of valuable and, most importantly, actionable lessons:
- To stay healthy, the architecture profession needs to take the occasional irretrievable leap, an all or nothing risk where both dangers and rewards are high. As a finance friend advised me recently, businesses need to constantly reinvent themselves to remain competitive. If the deaths of MySpace, Kodak, Nokia, Lonely Planet and countless other seemingly unshakeable juggernauts can teach us anything, it’s that businesses (and make no mistake, architects, the AIA and the profession at large are all businesses) are like sharks: we must keep moving or we drown.
- Architects need to become more courageous in testing the boundaries of our daily existence. There are any number of ways we can do this: we can offer a broader service to our clients; we can become builders, or fabricators or suppliers; we can get involved with politics. The good news is that it isn’t as hard as it sounds: SHoP have already shown us the way. You see, the best thing about their various initiatives are their scaleability: not how easily they scale up, but how easily they scale down. My small practice is hardly in a position to enter into sweat equity arrangements on multi-residential towers, but we can embrace new technologies, digital fabrication and smart materials thinking on even the most humble of residential projects.
- And finally, true reform in the architecture profession needs to start with our educational institutions. It was once the tradition for practicing architects to remain heavily involved with teaching throughout their lives. This is sadly on the decline, yet the relationship between education and practice is as important as ever. Practitioners bring great wealth to our schools, which in turn have the freedom to experiment and assume much needed positions of leadership.
The conference successfully captured the current zeitgeist of the profession, both the shortcomings that have lead to our diminished state and the opportunities that a greater appetite for risk can bring. Bates, Lyon and Mackenzie are to be applauded for tackling this herculean subject, a task that also happened to include a substantial evolution of the traditional AIA conference model.
The bigger Australian picture is changing, with an array of important regulatory reforms shifting the landscape of architecture practice. Among others, a recently implemented Competitive Design Policy in Sydney exchanges greater floor area for a quantifiable investment in design excellence, while in Melbourne, successful lobbying has resulted in a new State government promising positive changes to apartment design.
We need to take the lessons of Risk 2015 to heart, and collectively seize this moment of opportunity by the scruff of its neck.
- Donald Bates, Hamish Lyon and Andrew Mackenzie, creative directors; Overview; Risk 2015 National Architecture Conference; accessed 17th May 2015
- A full list of reviews and interviews from past conferences can be accessed here.
- The exception being the making impact subtheme last year, which critically analysed the opportunities of architecture beyond traditional practice.