Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
A prize example of double standards
The Premier’s Award should reward excellence, not patronise outer suburbs, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
That time of year again. Architecture awards. They may not sort the sheep from the architectural goats – roughly half of the Sulmans since 1932 you wouldn’t feed in a slow winter but they do at least give a snap insight into architecture’s bent of the moment.
This year, it’s all about control. Like that’s some kind of change.
At such times you look around for parallels. I’ve even asked hairdressers, on occasion, whether it hurts to give clients what they want. (No, course not. Why would it?) But don’t you just itch to do something radical, spectacular, avant-garde? Creative even? (Uh, no. It’s their hair.) Well, they would say that. I shrug and slink away; half frizz, half mohawk.
But architecture, regardless of the truth about hairdressing, is eternally conflicted over the control thing. Of course, architects typically exhibit a range of quasi-consultative behaviours. Some, often the better ones, curiously actually mean it. Actually believe their work benefits by a muscular relationship with client or community. Sometimes it may even be true. Other times, the architect is right. Piano’s Aurora Place, for example, would have been a more gorgeous creature with another dozen stories, letting the flower open.
Either way, design turns on control. Squabble all you like. What matters in the end is who runs the pencil. As Ian Moore and Tina Engelen confessed memorably on ABC-TV’s In the Mind of the Architect, “[We don’t mind people having antique furniture], we just want to pick the antique furniture; we’re learning to let go, and it’s hard. We’d like to work as a personal stylist for each and every one of them, because we care that much. It’s our religion almost . . .” They were laughing, but they weren’t kidding. And they’re not alone.
Nowhere is this dilemma more obvious than in the institute’s annual gongfest. As ever, the entries were numerous and the jury august. Abandoning the traditional slide-squinting in darkened rooms, this year’s jury – chaired by Sydney Uni’s widely admired Professor Tom Heneghan – locked all entrants into five-minute time trials, with site-visits for the short list.
The results included some top-drawer architecture: the Sulman, for example, going to Bligh Voller Nield ‘s rethink (with Woods Bagot interiors) of UTS’s old Fairfax building in Ultimo. The jury glowed, quite rightly, over the building’s capacity to “reinvent the institution . . . [and] create a new spatial order for UTS . . . comparable to Leslie Wilkinson’s influence [in the 1920s] at Sydney University”. Grand claims, certainly, but justified and evidence of what a strong and confident piece of architecture can hope to achieve.
The Fairfax dowager was unpromising and uncompromising. Its rejuvenation, pushed up hill by a purposeful architect and equally determined client, is similarly assured but vastly more refined, reformatting not only the campus plan but the entire university image. A Sulman richly deserved.
Lesser awards in the same, public-buildings category went to the Birabahn Indigenous Centre, by Richard Leplastrier, Peter Stutchbury and Sue Harper; Ed Lippmann’s splendid Andrew Boy Charlton Pool; Richard Francis-Jones’s Sydney University auditorium and Alexander Tzannes’s sports centre for St Catherine’s School, Waverley.
Notice any common factors so far?
No? Plough on. The main commercial award went to Bates Smart’s eye-catching but graceless rust-screened army HQ in Paddo. There were multiple-unit housing awards in Waterloo (Stanisic), Redfern (Johannsen) and Darlinghurst (Engelen Moore), while the Lloyd Rees civic design award went to Victoria Park (Government Architect, Hassell, Turpin and Crawford).
It’s this. Apart from the single houses, which are suburban more-or-less by definition, about 80 per cent of the awards sit within a few kilometres of the city centre – architecture’s comfort zone. And most of the rest are by architects based inside the same radius. They socialise, teach, work together. And not surprisingly the buildings, however excellent, show a distinct stylistic commonality. Minimalist-to-outright-modern, rectilinear-to-outright-gridded, quirky-to-outright-heroic, in chicly mixed media with lots of textural contrast, lots of white, glass, smart timber detailing.
So, you say, a profession is a glorified club, is it not? Same with the style thing. Juries have predilections. Shrug. Ditto.
But that’s not it. It’s not about blame, or even taste. The real import of cap-A Archi-culture becomes apparent only in comparing the mob with the standout exception. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time, giving the Premier his own special badge to hand out. Get the Main Man on side, raise professional profile, blah blah. But this year might see the end of that particular protocol.
There was a tiny, sheepish (lambent?) smile on the face of the NSW Government Architect, Chris Johnson, and an audible gasp across the hall-full of art-school black, as he announced the winner of the 2003 Premier’s Award Landcom/St Hilliers Hunterford estate at Oatlands.
Gone was the white and the glass, the fine timber and the rusty steel. Not a grid in coo-ee, much less any proportioning system. Builder-designed within architect’s controls, Hunterford is deepest brick ‘n’ tile-land. The usual plethora of bedrooms, games rooms, ensuites and double garages comes complete with columns, pediments and porticos, wrapped in white-pointed red-brick, concrete tiles, cheapo aluminium joinery and beige-on-beige render, set upon rows of double-beige rollerdoors, adrift in a sea of redbrick pavers and shrunken six-inch shrubbery. Makes our project home habit look sophisticated.
Of course, the Premier, Bob Carr, knows this isn’t Arti-tetcher. You don’t do the iterative Ed Capon Euro-tour without knowing that. As Carr wrote in the blurblet, Hunterford is not radical or, one could argue, outstanding architecture. Agreed. So, uh, why give it an architecture award?
Clearly, the shiny-suit boys had a hand here. A big hand for the westies, with politics, not architecture, driving the westward ho. Carr argues it is raising the bar for the west-burbs. Question is, why is the bar set at one height in here, and another out there?
Already an east-west style gradient is clearly perceptible in Sydney. Some developers, Mirvac for example, which was singled out for a special jury award, build smart-and-white in Sydney, dumbed-down polychrome out west. You can call this market forces. Supply, demand. You can argue, with Johnson, that it’s about affordability. (But why does affordable equal gross?) You can call it pluralism, a recognition that their culture differs from ours.
Personally, I’d call it a double standard of the most blatant and self-serving kind. Lob Hunterford out of Oatlands and into Maroubra and the Premier would be citing it as blinding barbarism, something to be pattern-booked out of existence. Out west, though? Out west it’s an exemplar.
Tolerating this would be tacky enough. But for such dualism to be rewarded, by the Government and the Royal Institute together, can only reinforce a profound and reasoned despair in any thinking person past Glebe.
Next year, apparently, is Year of the Built Environment. The institute says this will foster awareness of the role the community can play in determining the nature of the built environment.
An end to condescension would be a good first step. Not good enough, boys.
Three Illus: Beg to differ .
Hunterford at Oaklands, above left, lacks the style flourishes of Redfern townhouses by Johannsen and Associates, above right, and Engelen Moore’s Barcom Avenue development in Darlinghurst.