Reflecting on Praxis 2017

Sirius; Save our Sirius; Katherine Lu; Brutalism; Sydney

The Australian Institute of Architects‘ annual national conference, Praxis, was held last month in Sydney. Breaking with the twelve year old tradition of appointing creative directors via open competition, it was curated by AIA National President Ken Maher and UNSW Built Environment Dean Helen Lochhead. The conference sought to “explore processes of thought, engagement and action,” and “examine projects through the lens of design thinking, design process, and design actions.”[1]

The Praxis keynote speakers offered much that deserves reflection, but first I feel compelled to examine the framework of the conference and the broader spectrum of attributes that shaped my experience of it.

The word praxis is a good place to start.

One way to understand praxis is as a fancy synonym of practice, that rather ubiquitous thing all architects all over the world do everyday. An architecture conference about practice would be like a parenting conference about exhaustion. Fortunately there’s another, more engaging, interpretation of the word. Praxis also refers to the practical application of a theory, that moment in time when a thoughtfully established theoretical position bursts into the world. This infers a specific methodology tied to research, reflection and innovation, one that is far less common within the profession and certainly worthy of exploration.

In the lead up to the conference, I wondered: to which interpretation would Maher and Lochhead aspire? The Praxis website disappointingly gave few clues. The conference abstract, quoted in part above, really just clarified the obvious: that the conference would involve architects talking about their work. There was little evidence in either it or the speaker selections of a strong curatorial hand in the conference design.

Sadly, this initial impression proved to be well-founded. Praxis suffered from a number of shortcomings that diminished it, principal among these being the abandonment of the immensely successful creative director model. Higher ticket prices, fewer international speakers and a programme almost entirely recycled from past conferences were further issues. Some of the speakers did respond impressively to the more theoretical ambitions of the praxis theme, but gone were the individuality, thematic cohesion and academic rigour that characterised past years. These were replaced by a loose and directionless gathering of individual architects talking about, well, practice.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my time in Sydney. Like sex or pizza, even a bad conference is still pretty good. But Praxis felt more like ten unrelated lectures than ten sessions set within a curated conference experience.

Chanel; MVRDV; Architecture; Shopping; Crystal; Glass

Fortunately, there’s more to a conference than the guiding hand of its creative directors. In each of the four iterations I have attended previously there were highlights and lowlights, speakers who inspired debate and others who induced sleep, big names who disappointed and unknowns who excited. Though Praxis sorely missed the common ground established in past years, in this at least it was no exception.

Keynote speakers
Winy Maas, The Netherlands
Eva Castro, China
Vo Trong Nghia, Vietnam
Rahul Mehrotra, India
Anupama Kundoo, India
Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey, Ireland

In conversation
Glenn Murcutt, Sydney

Group sessions
Megan Baynes, Hobart
Rachel Nolan and Patrick Kennedy, Melbourne
Rodney Eggleston, Melbourne
Penny Collins and Huw Turner, Sydney
Emma Williamson, Perth
John Wardle, Melbourne
Neil Durbach, Sydney

Planning supersession
Rahul Mehrotra
Prathima Manohar, India
Julian Bolleter, Australia
Sylvia Karres, Netherland
Tina Perinotto, Australia (facilitator)

Winy Maas jumpstarted the first morning of the conference with boundless, breathless energy. He ricocheted from topic to topic, architecture’s very own Energiser Bunny. Traversing the gamut of MVRDV’s interventions from the mega to the tiny, he kept asking, “What next? What next?” He bounced from planetary ecologies and Seoul’s version of the High Line, to a frightening bank building in Oslo and the wonderful stairway to heaven installation in Rotterdam.

Though MVRDV have never been much interested in place or the craft of making, I have always been in awe of the sheer scale of their thinking. Like Kasper Jensen and Amanda Levete at Risk 2015, Maas runs a practice that goes way beyond the typical portfolios of even the most prominent studios here in Australia. Buildings are only a portion of MVRDV’s output. They write books, pursue advocacy, develop advanced materials, test new technologies. Who pays for this work? How are the skills developed? How can such a dizzying career ever even come to be?

Maas was a smart kick up the pants early on a Friday morning, his provocations urgent reminders that architects need to engage with the world not hide from it. “The US could support a population of 1.4 billion,” he declared. “Skyscrapers are autistic. I advise against the Anglo-Saxon legal code. Be more emphatic, be more outspoken!”

O'Donnell and Tuomey; Architecture; Bricks; University

Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey presented the final lecture of the conference, and in elegant symmetry were a distinct counterpoint to Maas. They were gently spoken for starters, taking the audience through their work at a digestible rate. The trajectory of the portfolio they presented was also more familiar, following the European tradition of early, small commissions that eventually led to bigger ones, and international prominence later in their lives. They have built a few houses, but their contemporary works are typically large, public buildings with a slowness about them. They are anchored to their place and considerate of their context. Each is carefully pushed and pulled in the design studio until it’s just so.

Where Maas is a thinker and provocateur, O’Donnell and Tuomey are artists and makers. Of all the speakers, they most closely embodied my more hopeful interpretation of praxis. They chew on a project, interpreting it through O’Donnells beautiful watercolours, before finally settling on a design direction. Their designs emerge gradually, often during one of many trips to a house they own on the Greek coast. O’Donnell discussed the meandering pathway of a swim she once took, or a handful of pebbles she encountered on a walk along the beach, both experiences leading to the eventual resolution of built forms. They are a well-travelled partnership, in both business and in life, clearly dedicated to their work and to each other.

Bamboo Wing; Architecture; Vietnam; Bamboo

In between these two strong bookends were some hits and some misses.

I found Vo Trong Nghia to be the least rewarding speaker. Having heard from him three years ago at Making 2014, I was already familiar with much of his portfolio. He spoke laboriously about his work as though we were first year students being told where the front door was, and how to arrive at the kitchen. It’s a pity we didn’t get a glimpse behind the scenes. In an interview last year with Dezeen, Nghia discussed how his staff of sixty are all required to meditate twice a day.[2] Now there is some fascinating praxis! And what of his methods of production, or the challenges of building complex, carefully crafted buildings in Vietnam?

Castro’s lecture was similarly bland. She focussed on design outcomes at the expense of process, and was unable to convey a sense of how her relatively young studio has achieved such international prominence. I would have liked to learn how her design approach changes from country to country, or how the mechanics of her studio function as she spreads her attentions between Turkey, China and Italy.

 

For me, the unrivalled highlight was Rahul Mehrotra. During his keynote, and as part of the planning super session similar to that of Risk 2015, he spoke with eloquence, intelligence and passion. His insights about the vast challenges facing Indian urbanism were extraordinary. He discussed the nearly 400 minor cities in India that are each approaching 1,000,000 inhabitants – a combined population 17 times that of Australia yet without strategic urban plans. He talked about toilets, and analysed the government’s strategy for decreasing their staggering scarcity of 1 in 1,500 people to a still unthinkable 1 in 50. And he shared his projects, from painstakingly restoring the Taj Mahal, to housing for elephants, and an office building that subverts the social castes still present in India. Mehrotra put the architectural and urban design challenges we face here in Australia in poignant perspective.

Glenn Murcutt also deserves a special mention. Though there was some awkwardness in his wide ranging interview with Lochhead, there was also generosity. He has rightly earned the role of everyone’s favourite uncle, doling out both encouragement and criticism without inhibition. He shared the story of his life, and though I’ve heard it before was once again enthralled. He dismissed the Sydney Convention Centre in which we were sitting as a building with too many lights, and condemned the computer as a tool without a soul. He discussed with zeal his resistance to taking on staff or ever hurrying his career, and touched on the origins of his famous waiting list. I remain totally dumbfounded both by the preparedness of his clients to wait many years to work with him, and by his ability to carve a career from solitude.

Architecture; Derwent River; Tasmania; Hobart; Room 11

Along with Murcutt, the remainder of the Australian contingent gave a strong showing. Their time slots were stingy and their sessions would have benefited greatly from panel discussions afterwards, but with only eight minutes to speak, each architect was forced to discuss only the essential.

This exposed some universal values amongst the speakers, and was perhaps the closest Praxis got to establishing some common ground. Whether by chance or design, Maher and Lochhead were successful here in teasing out some very worthwhile insights about Australian architecture. There was a pragmatism distanced from the European intellectualism of Maas, O’Donnell and Tuomey, and a textured approach to design far removed from the green mantra of Nghia or parametricism of Castro.

Emma Williamson reflected deeply on the evolution of her business over its twenty year history, its growing staff numbers, increasingly complex commissions, and frustratingly poor financial rewards. Images of her portfolio slid past on the big screen, but Williamson’s narrative focussed on the socioeconomic structures that support her architecture. This was, I suppose, another form of praxis. Not the slow design exploration of O’Donnoell and Tuomey, but the pragmatic design evolution that comes from making buildings. Williamson was unexpectedly reassuring, confirming that architecture, despite being the slowest game in town, is not completely immobile. Practices grow, commissions change, portfolios get better over time.

Penny Collins and Huw Turner added to this dialogue, charting the design development of their R1 building currently under construction in Barangaroo. Like many Australian public projects, this is a building stretched between the opposing objectives of good design and value management.[3] R1 is elegant and engaging, but has undergone many design revisions in service of the client’s bottom line. It is the quintessential commercial project, striving for good design but required to perform financially as well as spatially.

But this is what we do in Australia, we build. We build young and we build regularly. We don’t have time for the mindfulness of O’Donnell and Tuomey, nor even the intellectualism of Maas and Mehrotra. We’re too busy getting on with the pragmatics of construction, of growing our practices, chasing new work, and flirting with bankruptcy. I’m okay with this, excited by the frenetic pace even, and glad to see it discussed with such candour.

And then there was the texture, the glorious texture.

Megan Baynes examined the austerity of Room 11’s materiality, stone used for bluntness and timber for needle-like precision. In their work, materials are pared back to their essential expression and specific function. Their work is striking, instantly timeless and intimately connected to the Tasmanian landscape.

John Wardle and Neil Durbach unveiled their unique collaboration on Phoenix Gallery, a follow-up to the extraordinary Indigo Slam. Though each studio is designing half a building, a shared brick skin unifies the two studios’ different design approaches and somehow creates more from the collaboration than if they had tackled it individually. The humble brick has long been favoured by both practices, and in being called once again into service signifies the strength of the collaborative effort. Keep an eye out for this project, like Indigo Slam it will win every award there is.

Finally, Rachel Nolan and Patrick Kennedy gave a poetic presentation that spoke of memory, abstract form, and the craft of making. Their work is always finely textured, forms with perfect composition and materials treated with graceful care. There is no formal praxis in the way Kennedy Nolan conceive and develop their work, but like Williamson they have felt out their design philosophy one project at a time. This intuitive version of praxis has led to a sublime portfolio and has positioned them as thought leaders in Australian residential architecture.

In a recent article in Houses, Katelin Butler observed that the “textural, layered approach often seen in contemporary Australian residential architecture suggests a desire for clarity of form without the perceived modernist sterility.”[4] I couldn’t help but feel that the common qualities of the Australian speakers – of pragmatism and texture – underpin a collective national identity shared by all Australian practices.

Kennedy Nolan; Architecture; House design; Melbourne

So what is the lasting legacy of Praxis 2017?

As I noted in the opening paragraphs of this article, I enjoyed my time in Sydney. I got a great deal out of some of the speakers, and was pleased to discover the commonalities amongst the Australian presenters. Time off from the daily routines of running a small business was both rewarding and necessary. And as always, I enjoyed the social component of the conference, strengthening old friendships and making new ones.

But nevertheless there was something missing.

Praxis was the first conference since 2012 held in Sydney, and a valuable opportunity to explore a few significant buildings completed there in recent years. In addition to Gehry’s paper bag, Nouvel’s vertical forest and Smart Design Studio’s concrete wonderland, I went on a fringe tour of a much older but very recently endangered work of architecture, Tao Gofers’ fantastic Sirius Building. Reflecting on this tour helped me understand what was missing: in short, context. The conference was educational, sure, but it wasn’t urgent and it wasn’t that inspiring.

Much as Risk 2015 seized the zeitgeist with its examination of a profession in crisis, an ideal conference for 2017 would have been called Architecture and Politics. Urbanism and its rapidly emerging role in global politics is about as current and urgent as it gets. The fights in Sydney to protect the Sirius building, and to prevent the Packers from destroying Barangaroo, are local examples. Further afield there is the decision to fence Parliament House, the failure to implement the most important of the OVGA’s proposals for the Victorian apartment design standards, and the federal government’s lacklustre efforts in managing housing affordability. Further afield again there is the epic challenge of climate change, the sickening rise of populism, and the geographic segregation seen in Pauline Hanson’s re-emergence, the Brexit vote and the United States presidential election. If cities vote left, and small towns vote right, what does that mean for architecture?

Maas and Mehrotra touched on politics in their presentations, and the planning supersession explored it thoroughly. But these were exceptions not the rule. Praxis did not really engage, it took the safe road our once mighty profession has always taken. Instead of examining the world, the conference looked only at practice, and only at familiar versions of it. A wasted opportunity in my book.


Footnotes:

  1. Ken Maher and Helen Lochhead, creative directors; Praxis 2017 overview; accessed May 2017.
  2. Amy Frearson; Meditating twice a day keeps staff at Vo Trong Nghia Architects focussed, claims founderDezeen; May 2016.
  3. Value management is a term I despise by the way, a cowardly form of double speak of which Orwell would have been proud. It means, cost cutting, plain and simple. In my humble opinion, architects should never stoop to using it.
  4. Katelin Butler; Artisinal values: Fish Creek House; ArchitectureAU; June 2017.

Image sources:

  1. Sirius Building by Tao Gofers; photo by Katherine Lu.
  2. Crystal Houses by MVRDV; photo by Daria Scagliola and Stijn Brakkee; sourced from ArchDaily.
  3. London School of Economics Student Centre by O’Donnell and Tuomey Architects; photo by Alex Bland.
  4. Bamboo Wing by Vo Trong Nghia; photo by Hiroyuki Oki.
  5. GASP! by Room 11; photo by Ben Hosking.
  6. Park Lane House by Kennedy Nolan; photo by Derek Swalwell.

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