Issue 5, May 2007 | Geoff Warn

Architecture on the Edge

The OGA (Office of the Government Architect) must be pleased with the first of its series of presentations at the Bakery in Northbridge, Perth, and the team are to be congratulated for the successful and well-attended event that took place in March.

Guest architects and educators Gary Marinko and Simon Anderson gave a presentation of their inspired residential designs, each launching an exegesis of their approach to residential architecture from a house selected from each of their catalogues for inclusion in the Australian pavilion at the 2006 Venice Biennale of Architecture.

With characteristically wry humour, Simon Anderson recalled the intentions embedded in his Wherehouse in North Perth. The fact that this work was completed some 15 years ago and its impression remains strong in the minds of the curators of the national representation at the Biennale, who practise out of RMIT in Melbourne, is testament to the power of this small project with big implications. Subsequent projects show that Anderson’s architecture has moved on since the Wherehouse, but not too far. He spoke convincingly of his recurring formal themes, his attitudes to enclosure and his take on domesticity that respects the rituals and activities of everyday life and a connection with place that inform his impressive collection of works. He is also a long-serving and committed educator.

Gary Marinko’s presentation centred on the more recently completed and now world famous Pol House, Perth’s celebrity residence of Megan Gale-like proportions. From here he showed several notable designs that clearly stake his interest in courtyard houses - realised with our local industrial-commercial construction using ‘ordinary’ products and materials and put together in straightforward detailing - to convey his passion for richly articulated spaces washed in light and expressing an idiosyncratic beauty. His claims for visual porosity are well founded through his use of vented skylights, framed views and carefully arranged sightlines that pass through or past architectural elements. The hollowed-out physical container of the Pol House seems to be woven to the site by view corridors and light streams.

Both architects demonstrate an authentic and sustained commitment to architecture that is manifest in thoughtful and well-resolved projects, continuing the line of some fine modern houses buried in the suburbs of Perth, most of which unfortunately are not living healthy lives.  It was refreshing to hear Anderson’s enthusiastic citation of local precedents in Julius Elischer, Peter Overman and the now under-appreciated Brian Klopper; architects who did seem to have an effect on the commercial housing market; and Marinko’s piquant yet unsettling account of a particular (although implicitly typical) comfortable suburb, where the combination of architectural and planning codes together with the real estate, development and finance industries create houses that are individual isolated units, many being brazenly conceived and commissioned to on-sell for profit. And when a particular property is at sometime later tagged as “under capitalised” it is quickly pulverised to dust and landfill and new “product” is built. In Marinko’s experience, this seems to be what most people actually like and want; a far cry from the push for urban (or ‘suburban-urban’ in our case) vitality.

In the mining of deeper concerns both presenters partially exposed their interests in a conceptual framework from which to design, that is founded on a scholarly awareness of the historical and regional contexts in which they practise and, by extension, an interest in the most banal products of our domestic life that index a means out of the claustrophobic cage of “lifestyle and convenience” captured by the market-driven housing industry as a pseudo-luxury style. For architects who are clearly pursuing an alternative housing typology that offers individuals a personalised and engaged relationship with their immediate environment, and contributing to a collective tradition of modest yet dignified suburbs that manifest an air of confidence and pride that is not predicated on commodification, it is disappointing that their work is not more influential or respected outside of a small group of local architects and students. This work is significant and executed with well-mannered intentions: architecture  built to last, not necessarily in a material sense. Our housing has become expensive yet it remains low budgeted but from an understanding of a base sustainability that escapes the star rating system; namely, to construct buildings that will be both useful and inspirational to society for many generations.

One of the fruits of recent ‘science studies’ is the realisation that the small practises of scientists, researchers and lab technicians, their physical and conceptual tools, procedures and methodologies employed in the everyday activities of their work are fundamentally crucial in the collective production of scientific knowledge.  With a similar recognition of the value of small-scale architectural research and practise, the State government along with the profession might effect a genuine progressive improvement in our constructed environment. 

Of course this cannot happen unless there is agreement that improvement is needed, agreement on what is not working, and a shared opinion that the results of a new focus would be widely beneficial.  If this were to be the case, the way forward is to question the hegemony of corporatised architectural practise and institutionalised thinking that completely dominates Perth’s architectural scene, the “success” of which being the subject of much commentary in the media.

Case studies of design cities such as Melbourne, Sydney, Gratz, Antwerp, Rotterdam, Barcelona, Bilbao, and the great iconic cities of London, Paris, LA, NY, Buenos Aires, Milan, Berlin, Rome and many others, will show the clear and sustained presence of multiple voices.  From the successes of these places we can learn to better champion and reward conceptually informed and inquisitive work for its underlying yet crucial contribution to richer practise and a better built environment. Rewarding design architecture will not threaten or weaken the overall dominance of business architecture, the latter characterised by a necessarily over-simplification of issues supporting expedient execution and encouraging easy consumption, the life-blood of the market’s trend cycles. But, the flow-through of tacit knowledge and the cross-fertilisation gained from the intervention of new positions that are staked out from design exploration, an acceptance of cultural complexity, methodological experimentation and new modes of expression, will inspire and benefit big practice. This has always been the case in great cities, and centres of creativity.

Reminiscent of similar events (albeit with a much smaller attendance), staged during the 1980s at the Fitzgerald Hotel, the Black Cat Café, Wizbar, the former Magic Mirror Theatre in Roe Street, Café Sport and other “underground venues”, the first of the OGA’s presentations was distinguished by the guest presenters’ particular (and in my opinion very relevant) type of architectural knowledge. The audience, numbering around 100 patrons was noticeably young and stylish and the evening’s mood was keen. We all entered the cool venue through a stimulating exhibition of erotic imagery. Passion, sex, architecture, society, enthusiasm, commitment, youth, integrity, debate, conversation, generosity, talent and hope is a tremendously valuable resource- in-waiting for our State, but if history repeats itself, again, the majority of the ability and capability  will soon migrate to more receptive and creatively fertile cities east of here, or move further afield to even richer and more vital places that thrive on the inspired commitment and energy of young designers and new ideas.

Like the suburban houses in which most of us live, Perth architects and designers tend to practise in isolation and avoid engagement in critical debate,  (intellectual work consumes a lot of time and effort and is very unprofitable), much preferring a low-calorie chat and light refreshments at a Chapter function. As Government Architect, Geoffrey London has been noticeably active in raising awareness of contemporary architectural issues and showing how the opportunities that are all around us and our allied disciplines could be embraced. But, as shown by Charles Landry’s recent reports, that very responsibly mirror twenty years of local commentary, a point that his detractors missed completely, as critical debate and action are very distant relatives in Perth. Given the mandate and the necessary support, the Government Architect can bring these two positions much closer together, initiating new and fruitful action that will be economically sound, socially beneficial and culturally enriching. But this probably cannot be realised without some initial upsetting of the apple cart.