Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
Class and success incompatible in the puritan mind
E. M. Farrelly E. M. Farrelly is the Herald’s architecture and urban design critic.
MORE awards, this time with a Marxist bent. Inverting Groucho’s famous reluctance to join any club that would have him, the Royal Australian Institute of Architects awards jury thumbed its nose last week at pretty well everyone who had entered. It gave no big awards, ladling unsought praise instead upon an architect who has thumbed his nose at the awards system and also the institute for most of recorded history.
“It is our great honour to celebrate Richard, to say thank you to someone who has been inspirational to so many for so long, through his works, his houses, his very demeanour,” it gushed, hand on heaving bosom. “Richard lives his words and his work. He is a teacher in the most holistic sense. His practice involves love, experience, involvement and knowledge.”
Richard Leplastrier didn’t deserve this. He is a very nice man and a fine architect, who has had the luck, as well as the nous, to carve for himself a luxurious mode of practice based on handcrafting small works at an exquisitely slow pace. This not only makes him a rare architect, for whom the smell of an oily rag is sumptuous fare, but pushes his clients up the endangered end of the spectrum as well. Still, it’s a free world. Caveat emptor.
For the architects’ professional body, though, to snub the likes of Woolley, Nield and Cox and laud instead one man’s eccentric and privileged lifestyle, as much as his work, signifies a deep embolism in what the jury was pleased to call the “culture
of architecture”. Few other professions are forced to chase success so hard, torn all the while by the crippling subcutaneous fear that the “good” is in fact diametrically opposed to the successful.
Interestingly, the token Victorian on the jury was John Denton, of DCM architects. DCM, which won the 1994 Sulman for Governor Phillip tower, as well as this year’s RAIA gold, has made a career out of denying this contradiction, proving repeatedly that you can be avant-garde – stylish accoutrements, the art-school black buttoned to
the chin – and still be successful.
For the most part, though, the old puritanism holds. The profession’s successful few are as frowned upon as they are envied. And even now, students emerge from schools of architecture stiffened by the belief that there is an architectural truth higher than all others, more important, more desirable, even, than a burgeoning practice, a satisfied client or a brace of matching CitroÈens.
Even so, the hair-shirt seldom becomes quite so palpable as during last week’s non-awards. But the principle is always there, and was no doubt lurking in the mind of the Institute’s president, Mark Jones, when he blamed the Government for the failure of architecture’s 1996 spring collection to foot the pace.
“Design has been devalued through the adoption of economic rationalist principles …,” he said. The man has a point. To choose architects for their capacity to undercut each other’s fee bid is not guaranteed to enhance the design product. The obvious solution, which the Premier, Bob Carr, has now solemnly promised to seek, is to offer fixed fees, just like the olden days – a system which the institute itself has been busily dismantling for years.
The Sulman, awarded more or less rhythmically since 1932, is the RAIA’s oldest. The polite refusal of the jury to anoint any particular work, both this year and last year, can point, said Mr Jones, only “to a reduction in the quality of our built environment”. Things were better before, he implied, when the Sulman could be relied upon to alight annually, signifying the maintenance of a “standard of excellence … in our built environment”.
On this the institute is unequivocal. There is no question of the Sulman being given, like an Oscar, for the best of the crop. The Sulman is reserved for buildings which attain the “highest standards” – standards that “span the years”.
There you go. For those who resort in despair to personal taste and subjectivity, there is a standard, absolute and unwavering, untarnished by age or fashion. Invisible to the rest of us, perhaps, but blindingly apparent to the jurors, as appointed, who are thus able confidently to pronounce Seidler’s Grosvenor Place (1991), for example, altogether equal in excellence to Spencer, Spencer and Bloomfield’s Top Dog Menswear Production Centre, Dee Why (1950).
Tell this to 1956 Sulmanwinner Arthur Baldwinson. The Hauslaib House, Bellevue Hill (1958), was Baldwinson’s biggest work, some say his best. Certainly it is one of the few remaining intact works of one of Australia’s pioneer modernists. But it is about to be remodelled, from the ground up – with the Heritage Council’s inexplicable blessing.
Or John Andrews, in despair at the imminent fate of his own Sulman-winner, the American Express tower on George. Revered in its time for the eyeshade cool and the schizophrenic footprint, the Amex tower is about to be relieved of precisely those attributes in order to be lettable again. Just where are those absolute standards when you need them? Of course, some architects carry such concerns more lightly than others. Rice Daubney – who, as luck would have it, are the architects for the Amex cosmetic job – have just picked up the other award of the week, the 1996 Rider Hunt BOMA award for their John Maddison tower in Goulburn Street. The award jury included an RAIA representative but took quite a different tack, putting efficient use of capital as its top criterion and lumping “quality of design” with “value for money expended”. The brief was for high-rise law courts. It’s an innovative idea but far from trying anything interesting, the building is 100 per cent formula. The jury praised its readiness to revert to office use. Who pays the piper calls the tune. Can’t argue with that. It’s just a shame that the tunes they like are so darn ornery.
Illus: Lawrence Nield’s Australian Graduate School of Management building at the University of New South Wales: commended by the Sulman jury but passed over, along with all other entrants, for the big prize.
Photograph by SAHLAN HAYES