Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Into the feuding faculty
Architecture & Design
Tom Kvan faces a longstanding technology v design stoush at the University of Sydney, but the new dean of architecture is armed, writes ELIZABETH FARRELLY.
Ever wondered why Italy has such a style edge over the rest of us? Is it their extra millennia of culture, or are they just classier than the rest? Neither, if you believe one of architecture’s central myths. It’s because Italy educates huge numbers of architects, way more than could ever find work, establishing a sort of architectural diaspora throughout the culture. Teachers, animators, film directors, shoe designers, painters, sculptors, playwrights, industrial and boat designers – all are architecturally trained.
That’s the myth and it’s one sustained by Tom Kvan, newly appointed dean of Sydney’s most famously troubled – and most widely loved – architecture faculty. “I believe architecture should be everyone’s undergraduate degree,” Kvan says, only half-joking.
Kvan was born to Danish socialist Lutheran parents studying at a Norwegian-designed Buddhist monastery in Hong Kong. He attended boarding school in Dover (“dreadful place”); spent a year as a carpenter; read architecture at Trinity College, Cambridge, during the seminal Leslie Martin years; designed bush hospitals for two years in Botswana; and, by his late twenties, was vice-president of research and development for a design-software company in California. In January, after 13 years teaching at Hong Kong University, he starts a five-year contract in Sydney. It’s one that’s likely to demand every millimetre of his extraordinary ecumenical breadth.
The troubles at Sydney University’s architecture faculty have been so durable and so famous that some argue the feud-legend is now more real than the feud itself. Tom Heneghan, Sydney University’s charismatic architecture prof since 2002, says: “The feud as an historical thing isn’t as clear to me as maybe it was before.” Heneghan, by his own reckoning, “gets on like a house on fire” with both sides and, such is his combination of intelligence and charm, the feeling seems to be mutual. But it’s not just a charm thing. There are structural issues, too.
The feud, real or imagined, is about design versus technology – or architects, perhaps, against the rest – and to this extent represents something of the split within the profession itself. It goes back years, through a series of appointments, failures to appoint and failures to resolve, and is widely perceived as being exacerbated by a funding regime that favours a scientific model of knowledge and, before that, by a tenure situation that has entrenched staff attitudes well past their use-by dates. Even Heneghan the optimist concedes: “My colleagues and I haven’t been known for building or writing or spreading knowledge within the community. And we need to.”
Heneghan is too modest, since he writes and practises energetically and internationally. Kvan, Heneghan’s boss-to-be, is in the same mould. His specialty is computer-supported design, though he admits hankering after the “raft thing” in architecture. His wife, Associate Professor Justyna Karakiewicz (who will remain in Hong Kong), specialises in the humane intensification of cities, though she also wields a mean 0.1mm drawing pen. Together, with Barrie Shelton, Sydney University’s urban design chief, they are immersed in a year-long research project into new urban morphologies, or building patterns, for high-density city living. Something Sydney could do with, for sure.
Testing such ideas, Kvan and Karakiewicz jointly prepared an entry (No. 432) in the East Darling Harbour competition. Like so many others, No. 432 wasn’t short-listed, or even exhibited, but languished instead in the A3 folders adorning the window ledges of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s exhibition hall. Their scheme, designed to fit the brief under a height of five storeys and be entirely traversable, used Frank Gehry’s favourite software system, Catia, to explore credible alternatives. The model was robot-cut and 3D printed to present an undulating landscape of slope-sided buildings angled to the sun. And the accompanying set of exquisite hand-drawn ink sketches depicted people rock-climbing to work and harvesting Chinese herbs from raking walls along the way.
Kvan won’t be teaching design in Sydney. His job, rather, will be to defend it from the ruthless measurers who hold university purse strings. This doesn’t faze him. “I’ve taught studio the last 13 years and I love it. But I’ll happily sit and explain the virtues of studio-based design education to the bean-counters.” He’ll be good at it, Heneghan says. “Tom [Kvan] is a committee player, but not a committee drone.”
What are the peculiar virtues of architecture’s design education? In a word, studio. At once a concept, an activity, a place and a pedagogical method, studio is the heart of architectural culture as we know it.
What is it, exactly? Most architecture programs these days are based loosely on the art world of 19th-century Paris – an amalgam of formal Ecole des Beaux Arts teaching with the more casual private ateliers, where pupils studied at the feet of an acknowledged master, as well as the competitive salon, or show, and the lively cafe society around which it all revolved. Together, these have produced the contemporary idea of “studio”.
When I was an architecture student, before buildings were “intelligent” enough for serious security and before students were bowed low by fees, studio was a way of life. Students worked, slept, partied and, as far as necessary, lived in studio. They lived studio. Students these days are way too focused for that sort of sloppy over-dedication to duty; studio masters can’t lean over your drawing board because there are no drawing boards. But studio, still taught at large in the communal space, is even now the heart of the matter, the moment of synthesis – call it design – into which all other knowledge feeds. “‘Studio culture … should be defended and expanded.’ TOM KVAN”
As a teaching method, it’s not like any other. In contrast with most disciplines, the best and most revered studio masters are usually those who engage interestingly in practice, or volubly in debate, or both. Such people are almost never full-time academics and do not, therefore, collect PhDs, so the habitual doctoro-philia of universities automatically excludes them from all but the most trivial of teaching posts.
It’s a cultural battle; one for which Kvan is armed. “Studio culture,” he says, “is deeply valuable. It is impossible to define high-level intellectual engagement in a freewheeling environment without studio. Studio should be defended and expanded.”
Meanwhile, the ground is being tilled for change at Sydney University, with consultation under way that could formalise the recognition of design as research. The virtue of design education in particular, for Kvan, is its synthetic rather than atomistic approach. “The atomism of the ’60s and ’70s has failed us,” he says, arguing that the only place Christopher Alexander’s famous Pattern Language text – the bible of architectural atomism – is still used for teaching is in the computer sciences.
How will he cope with the feuding? Kvan seems comfortable. Perhaps a Hong Kong childhood during the Cultural Revolution will prove useful. For years the family lived with a suitcase under the bed and with instructions, should the call come: head to Repulse Bay, take the launch, then the cargo ship for a safe return to Denmark. Kvan starts here on January 2, a public holiday. That should give him a good feel for the place. But who gets to draft the under-bed instructions and what do they say?
TWO PHOTO:Rock climbing to work … a sketch from Tom Kvan and Justyna Karakiewicz’s entry in the East Darling Harbour competition; and (left) Kvan.