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cities 3

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 24-Sep-2002

Edition: Late

Section: Metropolitan


Page: 17

Wordcount: 511

Yet again, an industry starts to believe its own advertising

Elizabeth Farrelly

No sooner does it make art status than architecture wants to be a science, too. This is no surprise to those of us inoculated at a febrile age with the doctrine of architecture-as-mother-discipline, embracing the entire spectrum of human endeavour in a great rainbow covenant of compassion, lyricism, technique and cutting-edge style. Yeah, right.

But students swallow this stuff. At least until they discover that every profession runs the same freshman-seducing fiction. Now, however, it looks set for a rerun. Cities on the Edge, a Melbourne conference planned for next month, runs this as its focal myth: “Architectural responsibility is analogous to a medical operation: just as the surgeon administers various dosages of drugs on a sick and ailing body, so

to [sic] does the responsible architect diagnose and then prescribe planning therapies for cities in the post-war landscape.”

Well, excuse me? Have we learned nothing since Corb and his Congres Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) mates sat on a boat, somewhere between Athens and Marseilles, and wrote that, although the authorities had yet to recognise the fact, “architecture presides over the destiny of the city”. Determining not only house design but also zoning patterns, traffic networks and work environments, architecture, said CIAM, “is responsible for the well-being and beauty of the city”.

Arrant, arrogant and dangerous. Particularly now that modernism is back in fashion and we’ve forgotten how bad it was first time around.

It was bad, although not wholly so, especially for the health of cities, and especially because architects got away with the “trust me I’m an expert” line. I thought we knew all that. I thought it was absorbed, digested, part of the mental furniture. Apparently not.

That’s the trouble with a discipline having so many alternative identities. In the absence of cumulative collective knowledge, mistakes just skip a generation, then recycle.

Not that Melbourne, with its abhorrence of the straight, flat or perpendicular, would normally spring to mind as a reservoir of closet modernism. Now, however, some of its leading stylists have miraculously rebirthed as arch-evangelists.

RMIT professor Leon van Schaik (having dusted off his early ’80s Soweto experience for the occasion), The Age’s Norman Day and urbanist Esther Charlesworth, currently teaching at the American University in Beirut, are leading figures in the cities conference, which aims to examine the role of architects in war-divided cities.

You might expect Bosnia and Kabul to have other priorities than architecture just now. But Day and Charlesworth, along with high-profile board members such as Gareth Evans, are directors of a new, non-profit organisation, heavily endowed with research grants, called Architects Without Frontiers (Australia).

What, exactly, can Australian architects contribute to war-torn Mostar, Dili or New York, for that matter?

For Charlesworth it’s less about donating architectural skills than “capacity-building and empowerment”, using individuals (such as I.M. Pei) heavily networked to “important politicians and policy makers” to cut through a less-than-wholly-simpatico international development community.

Well, good luck, guys. And please, when the war’s over, come back and fix Sydney.


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