Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Talking our language, but is he serious?
An irritating change in Japan’s design culture has proved felicitous for us, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
The second-luckiest thing in the life of Tom Heneghan, recently appointed professor at Sydney University’s famously troubled school of architecture, was the job he landed in 1975 as a new architectural graduate, producing client brochures for Ove Arup engineers, London.
Ron Herron, Heneghan’s unit master at London’s renowned Architectural Association (AA), had passed the inquiry to a colleague; she was on holidays and flicked it to Heneghan.
For reasons of its own Arup dropped Heneghan into what he calls “the genius department”, with super-creative engineering types such as Peter Rice, Ted Happold, Ian Liddell and Mike Dickson. There he learned how inventive engineering can be, and was actively encouraged “I was winning some competitions at the time” to develop his own ideas.
Heneghan’s first big win was the 1975 Japan Architect housing competition, with a house for Raquel Welch. What was a superstar, he reasoned, if not a media fiction? The house, therefore, existed only as a magazine article; the entry (non-conforming, of course) gave the fictional house from the compositor’s point of view. Image signifies image. It was so postmodern it was positively prescient.
In 1987, after a decade’s teaching at the AA and two more JA wins, Heneghan wrote to Japan’s Toyo Ito, asking for a job. Ito refused, saying that Heneghan was already too famous, offering instead to give him work and a corner of the office.
In the end, Heneghan’s move to Japan came two years later, as one of five foreigners invited by Arata Isozaki into the Kumamoto “Art Polis”. Heneghan was allocated an agricultural research institute to design, having nominated some prefab dog kennels he’d done for Ted Happold as his best built work. The building won Japan’s highest design award, the Gakkai Shoh.
Now, at 51, having taught globally, written widely and won 27 architectural awards in Europe and Japan (at least one for every building built), Heneghan has abandoned a flourishing Tokyo practice and a professorial position to come here. When someone this successful selects Australia as habitat, indefinitely and on a meagre Australian academic salary, the obvious question is, why? Why Sydney? It must be more than the weather.
Heneghan admits his leaving Tokyo for Sydney is as much about “the irritation of architecture in Japan” despite an abiding commitment to the place itself as the positives of Australia. But what kind of professional irritation, exactly, would cause so drastic a move? He offers an anecdote.
The story recounts Heneghan’s visit to a house designed by a rising Japanese star for a couple with two small children. The house, much admired in architectural circles for its spatial drama and clarity of purpose, was designed around a four-storey void which, with the fearless photogenic clarity publishers adore, remained unmarred by such practical niceties as handrails or balustrades.
But the elegance was strictly illusory since the clients, it transpired, had perforce installed a makeshift mesh balustrade. Their architect, however, defended his decision to put purity of form before mere practicality, continuing unrepentantly to publish the building in its pure state.
The parable points to Heneghan’s delight in the best Australian architecture, as well as disillusionment with the rest. An earlier answer to the why question, upon Heneghan’s appointment to Sydney University in February, went right up old-world noses, earning the headline: “Expat architect slams Northern Hemisphere architecture” in the British magazine AJ Plus.
What Heneghan actually said was: “When I arrived in Japan in 1990, it was at its peak of architectural creativity. There was breathtaking originality. Now Japanese architecture has become formulaic, predictable. The baton of originality has passed to Australia, which is now producing the most original, fresh and intelligent architecture anywhere. But the Northern Hemisphere, being terminally self-centred, knows little about it, which is the north’s loss.”
Now that’s talking our language. But can he be serious? Is it true? Us? Moving here, Heneghan had done a lecture tour of the main cities and an eight-week stint at Queensland University. His familiarity was mainly with a handful of Queensland architects Russell Hall, Donovan Hill and John Mainwaring and the “legendary” work of Brit Andresen but, increasingly, he found himself using their work in teaching his Tokyo students.
Far from the artificial stuff you get in most developed countries, says Heneghan, such architecture offers layers of intelligence, experiment and wit, so that the more you know of it, the more interesting it becomes. That is unlike current Japanese architecture, where the opposite is true.
Recently, Heneghan says, he was one of 10 international critics invited to select and critique 10 architects for the book 10X10. Having chosen five Japanese and five world architects, he was scratching to produce the necessary 200 words on the Japanese, whereas on the Andresen/Peter O’Gorman house, for example, “it took me weeks to get it down to length.”
This may be partly a cultural thing. For all his disappointment in its architecture, Heneghan regards Tokyo as “the most humane city in the world, under the brash exterior” as home. “It’s the place I understand most,” he says. With that understanding comes acculturation, and where the culture is one in which, as Heneghan glumly notes, “criticism is disallowed”, familiarity might indeed seed a kind of contempt.
But is it architecture’s primary role to make an interesting story? Or is the real test experiential, the “being there” thing? Well, both, says Heneghan, who sees design as a game of chess against yourself.
“You have to be angry with yourself,” he says, “and not accept your first answer.” At the same time, though, “all we’re meant to do [as architects] is to attempt to make people’s short existence on the planet more pleasurable. If this is just a side issue, we have no validity.”
So how to transfer this bountiful view of architecture to the Sydney University school, professor-less for the past six years and riven for twice that period by the “legendary feud” between its design and technology factions?
Heneghan is characteristically optimistic on this front, citing his early experience with Arup as a useful bridge builder. Already, he says, there is less suspicion, less sniping, less manipulation of students. Less dissent, more joy in diversity.
Such generosity in the face of snippiness, combined with a body of work that exhibits the same visual sensitivity and spatial intelligence he so admires in others (take for example the unpolished chic of his 1995 cabins at Hiroshima, or the 1998 Forest Park resort at Fukushima), gives Heneghan the student appeal of a born teacher.
His main gripe is not the feuding, but a university imposed stipulation, in pursuit of research brownie points, that full-time staff come PhD-equipped. It excludes the world’s top architectural educators to whom international students flock as well as virtually all current practitioners, professors, Heneghan himself and the “important architect/educators from all over the world” who inquire weekly after teaching positions with him in Sydney.
This alone, says Heneghan, prevents the Sydney school from establishing itself as an international centre of design.
But why, if it has the best schools of architecture and the best educators, has the Northern Hemisphere, for Heneghan, lost the architectural plot? His answer could generate a PhD in itself, but centres on the idea that there is a body of Australian work including the Queenslanders and also Murcutt, Leplastrier, Stutchbury, Engelen-Moore that rethinks the ordinary with “intellect, a good eye,
sensitivity to place and the art of making” and renders first-world fashions vapid by comparison.
So, the luckiest event in the blessed life of Heneghan? It’s this. Working in Soho, 1971. Idly picking up the boss’s invitation to the AA end-of-year show; standing in for said boss; meeting a drunk confrere who, having transferred from Leicester the year before, made Heneghan promise to do likewise; applying next day, without enthusiasm (still hung over); being accepted into “the best school of architecture in the world”, despite applications having officially closed. Renown, Japan, career, love and Sydney all ran from there.
To date, Heneghan admits, he has seen little of Sydney. What will happen when he discovers that our architecture is, generally, at least as self-serving, superficial, and criticism-averse as Tokyo’s? Maybe, rather than stalk back to Queensland, he’ll set about changing it. Or, maybe, we can start to change it ourselves.
FOUR ILLUS: Inspirations …
Tom Heneghan, above; Brit Andresen’s Roseberry house in Brisbane, top; and John Mainwaring’s Dragon house.
; A Tom Heneghan cabin at Mirasaka, Hiroshima.