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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 09-Aug-2006

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Comment

Page: 17

Wordcount: 952

A smart clubhouse today, world peace tomorrow Elizabeth Farrelly

Elizabeth Farrelly. Elizabeth Farrelly writes on architecture, planning and aesthetic issues for the Herald.

WHAT does it mean to be a good architect? Nothing virtuous anyway. Being a good architect carries as little moral significance as being a good lawyer, bookie or executioner, the G-word denoting simply a level of operational prowess, real or perceived. Goodness itself is irrelevant.

This semantic ambiguity we inherit from the Middle English virtu and the Greek arete, both of which collect virtue and competence into one idea. Beneath the semantics, though, is a deeper question, which has long sent architecture into a tizz. Can architects be good, morally, as architects? Or only as humans who happen to design buildings? Is architecture, that is, capable of moral weight?

This question becomes especially pressing as the architect’s role slides further into servitude. Architects never were exactly leading the charge but there was a time when they could feel, at least, like something more than the hired help. There was even a time, circa 1960s, when architects felt they could lead us back – or forwards – to Eden. Now most architects must choose between staying small and self-possessed, making rich people’s cubbies, and working more abstractly for developers whose values and tastes they despise and whose decisions they scarcely see, much less influence. Nice choice.

Still, opportunities for architecture to break this unappealing mould exist. Not, on the whole, profitable, they can offer a surprising aesthetic twist.

Example. Sam Crawford is a young architect, ex-Stutchbury school, whose small Sydney practice was fully engaged with option one, above. In 2003 Crawford’s father-in-law, photographer Claude Ho, set up a small Medecins sans Frontieres-inspired non-government organisation in Thyolo, Malawi. It’s called Friends of Claude Ho in Thyolo and it focuses on educating AIDS orphans in a country where the rate of HIV infection is 11 per cent and, of 13 million people, 840,000 are orphans. Crawford, with landscape architect Sacha Coles of Aspect, volunteered services.

What, you might wonder, can architecture contribute in such a crisis? As Stanford academic and self-confessed house-porn addict Terry Castle wrote post-September 11, 2001, it can be hard to focus on window treatments when bodies are floating by outside.

Crawford defends his desire to provide poetry for the poor. But actually, it’s better than that. The tiny four-building compound defines a central, shaded courtyard. Made of mortarless, sun-dried, lime-stabilised block with a thatch-clad tin roof, it recalls a native tradition that is both humanly and environmentally kinder than the tin-and-red-brick jobs customary in Thyolo today. (Thyolo bricks typically are fired for several weeks, depleting already scarce fuel supplies).

Up on Sydney’s northern beaches, meanwhile, Peter Stutchbury has been drawn into a home- (or perhaps hydroponically) grown battle of the traditions. Long Reef is a remarkable meet of nature and culture; a full-size golf course bounded on three sides by some of the most biodiverse intertidal rock platforms in the country. The golf club, with its two-year waiting list function centre, is not alone. Protruding above the sand dunes is the periscopic tower of Long Reef’s surf life saving club.

The club was absolute waterfront until 30 years ago, when a storm dumped a six-metre dune in front of it. Now the club wants to expand, up and out; doubling height and floor space, adding offices, dorms and function rooms. Enter storm two, political this time. Finally, in June, Warringah’s one-person council, Dick (“I do hold meetings, and I vote”) Persson, rejected the proposal as too large for such a sensitive site.

But it’s not over. The club’s glassy, Furio Valich-designed centre might have been rejected, but many argue the club has a right to expand. Persson, however sceptical about size, still thinks the club deserves an ocean view. Does it, though? Rent-free, giving house room to Shore private school on eco-sensitive Crown land?

With well-known surf star Bronwyn Bishop as patron and Shore as roommate, the thing might easily have slipped through the nod-and-wink lane had not normally shy local Wendy Harmer got wind. Harmer, seeing the potential for surf clubs from Byron to Bega to bloat into the pokie-filled RSLs of the future, began trying to ignite imaginations up and down the peninsula. She called for an architect. As you do. Richard Leplastrier and Stutchbury, both known mer-men, met Persson; all wax enthusiastic over the possibilities.

Of course, even this is special treatment. Anyone else proposing a new-improved erection on Crown land would be told politely where to shove it. This is the halo effect. Bronzed Aussie lifeguard, larrikin digger; the aura of holiness hovers above surf clubs and RSLs alike. Even appointed politicians quake.

Alex McTaggart, recently sacked as Avalon surf club patron for opposing Baywatch seven years back but now the constituency-conscious member for Pittwater, has drafted a private member’s bill to enshrine the clubbies’ right to be on the beach and to party there several times a week. You can feel the pokies lined up, ready to roll. Exterminate, exterminate.

So this is the moment for the architecture miracle; for Harmer’s dream of a you-beaut little architectural gem to win hearts and minds over the three-storey pit box-style function centre. Stutchbury, himself a clubbie at Newport, has yet to give the Longie club a full examination. He suggests, though, an entirely new way of looking at surf clubs, ending their exclusivity, turning them into centres of eco-educational excellence. Sounds unlikely, but enchanting. And that’s what architecture does, syncretise conflict.

That’s the magic, and the moral role. Longie today, Israel versus Palestine tomorrow. Shout it, Mr President. Is there an architect in the house?


PHOTO: Ocean views … the observation tower at Long Reef Surf Club.Photo: Peter Morris


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