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‘If you want to fuck with the falcons, you’d better learn how to fly’

By: Rory Hyde

This article was first published on Archis' Action! Blog

A brief roundup of ‘extra/ordinary’, the Australian Institute of Architects national conference, Sydney, April 2010

Although delivered simply as an amusing anecdote, when taken out of context, this crude piece of wisdom from the elder statesman Peter Corrigan seemed to capture the essence of ‘extra/ordinary’. This was a conference about engaged practitioners; engaged in the ‘ordinary’ messy reality while still managing to scratch out something ‘extra’. Architects presented innovative (and often idealistic) approaches to complex problems, while not afraid to go beyond the discipline to engage with the pragmatics of financing, policy or public engagement in order to see them executed.

Creative director Mel Dodd’s vision for the conference included the words ‘contingency’, ‘compromise’, ‘complexity’, ‘concession’, ‘collaboration’ and ‘constraint’ – a clear endorsement for tentative conclusions and grappling with the real as opposed to the confident presentations of crisp and complete buildings by architectural stars as we have seen at past conferences. This is at once a reflection of our ‘no frills’ economic times – an end to the age of excess – but also a statement of urgency for the profession. If we continue to hitch our future on offering rarefied aesthetics instead of participation in the complex mechanisms of the city, our days are surely numbered.

However, these words of vision came back to haunt the organisers, who were forced to make compromises, contingencies and concessions as Iceland’s volcano left five of the eight international speakers grounded in European airspace. This served to highlight Australia’s location on the other side of the world, far away from the global centers of discourse. Although most were able to present via satellite with few technical hiccups, as is the cliché of conferences generally – it’s not what is presented that matters, but what is said in the bar afterward – a layer that was unfortunately missed.

One of those who did make it was Alejandro Aravena of the Chilean practice Elemental, who presented a number of community housing projects which challenge established methods of financing and delivery to produce a more equitable and quality end product. For the Quinta Monroy housing in Iquique, Elemental worked within the government subsidy for housing provision of around $10,000 per house, which is only enough to build a tiny 40m2 house. Instead of accepting this limitation and perpetuating sub-standard outcomes, they instead reframed the problem, to build as Aravena describes, ‘half of a good house’. This is done in a way that encourages infill and extension in the future when the family can afford the materials themselves. A genuinely innovative and demonstrably beneficial built project.

Elemental’s Quinta Monroy housing in Iquique, Chile.

This ethically-motivated project contrasted sharply with the other projects Aravena presented which were planned for Switzerland, Germany and the United States. Despite claiming that the practice tries ‘to approach design problems in the same way in developing countries as in the developed world … to achieve the same limit of irreducibility’, with a seat on the Pritzker jury, and a building in construction on the Vitra campus adjacent to the fire station by Zaha Hadid, Aravena makes no secret of his ambition to join the A-list.

This seeming contradiction is highlighted further by the fact that Elemental is supported by the Chilean oil company Copec, who donate to the practice as part of their philanthropic investments. Although many assume this relationship to be sinister, could this instead signal an innovative practice model for the support of research into social projects? Just as Aravena upended the subsidy system in order to provide a full house with only half the budget, so his practice is also supported through an unlikely partnership. Both require vision beyond the ordinary.
Also flying the flag for the socially-engaged, research-driven approach was architect Teddy Cruz, who gave an express version of his excellent ‘Radicalizing the Local’ lecture via satellite. From a shocking analysis of the extreme disparities in wealth and opportunity that span the US–Mexico border, Cruz projected an architecture that could begin to address these social, economic and policy-related issues through built form.

Despite the obvious similarities in terms of territories and concerns, Aravena didn’t take kindly to my comparison of his work with that of Cruz, simply stating ‘I wouldn’t like to compare myself with him, because I haven’t seen any built work.’ I also have to admit, that while being incredibly impressed when I first came across the work of Cruz, by the third viewing I left feeling disappointed that his exceptional analysis and proposals have yet to be tested in reality. Of course, this need not be the responsibility of the urban researcher, but perhaps there are other architects who could adopt this thinking and deploy it as a case study? Without it, this incredible research is unlikely to make a difference where it is needed most.

Teddy Cruz, presenting via satellite.

In contrast to the earnestness of Cruz and Aravena, the inclusion of Sam Jacob (replacing his partner Sean Griffiths) from the UK firm FAT seemed a curious choice for a conference decidedly focused on the ‘ordinary’. But of course, this is precisely the territory FAT revel in, mining the language and peculiarities of ‘common’ taste – a kind of urban vernacular that dispenses with sober sincerity in lieu of humour and irony. We were treated to the chequered brick patterns of the Islington Square social housing development – supposedly derived from a dandy’s socks – and the digital mash up of a Gothic source book for the Sint Lucas school in Boxtel, Netherlands.

FAT’s Sint Lucas School, Boxtel, 2006

Not everyone supported this approach – again, Aravena showed his teeth (when I provoked him), claiming that ‘I don’t buy from that presentation that that is the taste of the people, it was extremely exaggerated, a bit ironic, and I don’t think you can play with these kinds of issues, [social housing] is a serious thing.’ This comment – and other backchat from delegates to the same effect – seemed to capture a major rift in the reception of the ideas presented; namely that social ambitions ought to be expressed with a corresponding language of earnestness. Has our Modernist training led us architects to measure authenticity and honesty by image not impact?
The doubters must have missed Jacob’s excellent potted history of half-timbering, where he traced the source of this so-called ‘authentic’ British style – revered by architectural conservatives such as Prince Charles – as one imported from Saxony, and originally built in England to remind these German invaders of home. Far from being vernacular, half-timbering in England is therefore nostalgic and referential at its very core. FAT pursue this superficial heritage to its extreme conclusion by creating a half-timbered font – pure communication – and use it to write nothing less than ‘Kill the Modernist Within’.

Indeed, hidden behind FAT’s fancy façades are buildings that are making a real difference in improving communities, a point reinforced in the presentation by Tom Bloxham of Urban Splash, the developer of the Islington Square project. FAT’s work brought much needed humour (and critical rigour) to a conference line-up bordering on high-horsery, and a reminder not to confuse the image of ethics or honesty with the actual social impact on the ground.

These speakers – and the many others I’ve overlooked here – represent a renewal of architecture’s instrumentality in dealing with social concerns. Our heritage and training in a spatial and aesthetic discipline is being augmented by a need to engage simultaneously on social, environmental and political levels. Our marriage to the market of past decades is being tempered by a broader responsibility for the city, and an ambition to take into account those needs beyond the commissioning client’s. It’s time we all learned how to fly.

Extra/ordinary conference site
Interviews with Sam Jacob and Alejandro Aravena for The Architects

Note: This article has been re-published with the author's permission--thanks Rory Hyde!


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