(Re)gaining My Agency
By Tim Randall for ArchitectureAU.
There is very little in our lives that hasn’t become commodified; even life-giving (and architectural) fundamentals of space, light, air - all now come with a price tag. Especially in Sydney. Renier de Graaf said it more eloquently than I am able; “A building is no longer something to use, but to own… once discovered as a form of capital, there is no choice for buildings but to operate according to the logic as capital.”
“Land has become real estate.
Homes have become products.
People have become consumers. This concerns me.”
I tweeted this on the first day of the 33rd Australasian Student Architecture Congress in Sydney from 28th November - 2nd December 2017.
‘Agency 2017’ curated by graduates Estelle Rose Rehayem and Peter Nguyen grappled with these complex issues. In the Creative Director’s own words “Agency [sought to] question the limits and extents of the power possessed by architects to influence a world facing ever pressing challenges.” These challenges are very real to us ‘Millennials.’ These challenges are also very real to any architect who is trying to work for someone outside the 1% and still make a profit, not to mention architecture students who are now leaving university as some of the worst paid graduates in Australia with at least $40,000 in debt. So where does this leave us? As a group of idealistic young architects, how can we (re)gain agency?
Agency of Capital
On day one architecture graduate-cum-property developer, Clare Sowden (Aecom), explained that logic of capital to which de Graaf refers and granted us a peephole into the world of property development; demonstrating how we as architects can infiltrate it as she has. I was left hungry for advice on how this model can be subverted, to elevate the social and environmental in place of the economic. Marc Vlessing and Angharad (Harry) Palmer presented their alternative ‘Pocket Living’ from London; which proved divisive amongst the group; their 37sqm apartments are providing an alternative housing solution for the ‘yuppy’ who can’t crack the market but at what cost - environmental performance, social homogeneity, reduced amenity - should people really be forced to live like this?
The most concerning thing about these two presentations was the rhetoric; real estate, products and consumers. Maybe it’s just about ‘talking the talk’ - there is no doubt architects need to engage in this financial and legislative realm as there is much we can learn and much we can offer. However, we cannot allow ourselves to be consumed by it, to simply become another cog in the neoliberal capitalist chain. I make this statement as though it hasn’t already happened, as though architects haven’t already buckled at the knee to project managers and bent over backwards for capital driven developers.
Agency for People
So many decisions happen before architects are invited to the table; but we did get to share that table briefly with architects and policy makers working at the ‘front end’; Kim Crestani, Peter Mould, Prof. Rod Simpson, Dr Geoff Gallup. The take away from a panel discussion moderated by Tim Horton was that regulation stops the worst but doesn’t necessarily encourage the best. I’m misquoting someone smarter than myself when I suggest that regulation is basically a measure to stop people screwing each other in a capitalist society. Julie Eizenberg (Koning Eizenberg) pulled me out my cynicism by her simple response to building regulations in California: “Yes, and…” in essence; how can you take a piece of regulation and make it work to your advantage.
Eizenberg offered another simple but poignant piece of advice: “Design everything as if you’re going to live there.” It’s this sort of level of care that I feel architects regularly exhibit, that keeps us somewhat sane and socially responsible. As someone who works for a firm that specialises in architecture for people with a disability, I feel like a have a real opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives, but a sage reminder such as this is worth keeping front of mind to keep perspective and avoid becoming bogged down in the dark depths of accessibility regulation. We mustn’t forget the power or the humanity of architecture, themes that were explored at ‘People’ - the last Congress in Melbourne in 2015. (http://architecturenow.co.nz/articles/2015-australasian-student-architecture-congress/) These humane sentiments were echoed in the exquisit vaulted architecture of Peter Rich from South Africa who said “all you’ve got to do is be a human being” and Emma Williamson from Cox, (formerly of CODA) whose design philosphy states that there are always “opportunities for generosity in every project, no matter what it is.”
Agency in Practice
Moderator, Chris Smith (University of Sydney) opened Day 2 with an evocative academic polemic reminding us that “Agency doesn’t belong to the architect alone, it also belongs to architecture.” This notion was reinforced by Neil Dubach during a workshop in which I participated at Durbach Block Jaggers’ office; he explained the expression of form belongs to the architect, but form belongs to architecture itself. Days 2-4 of Congress included a variety of workshops traversing territory from design sessions and sketching to site tours and pub debates. This was a great opportunity to engage with students and practitioners on a more intimate level. I was suitably impressed in my first workshop how easy it was to assemble a six-person-load-bearing-structure from bamboo and felt incredibly privileged in my last to be given a tour of the Sirius Tower with its architect Tao Gofers and meet the last remaining tenant, 91 year-old Myra Demetriou. (https://architectureau.com/articles/sirius-listed-for-sale-could-be-replaced-with-85-apartments/)
Perhaps with their finger more closely on the local pulse Clinton Cole (CPlusC) and Robert Beson (AR-MA) quietly outshone their international speaker pairings from the United States and offered alternate business models to standard practice in Australia. Cole demonstrated his success as architect-builder despite resistance from the peak bodies of both industries. While Beson quite radically suggested “we need to stop making drawings.” Instead his firm AR-MA produce mind-bogglingly detailed ‘4D’ models and in turn fabricate a series of components to “assemble not construct” on site. While AR-MA’s work is currently focused on detailing structures designed by other architects, there is definitely a clue here as to how present and emerging designers might reshape their business models to take back control of the design process - from concept through to post-occupation.
Jeremy Till (Central Saint Martins) weighed into the practice model discussion on Day 3; critiquing RIBA’s ‘Plan of Work’ (https://www.ribaplanofwork.com/PlanOfWork.aspx). He rejects the linearity of the Plan, points out it’s deluded optimism of a bygone era and argues we should even drop the title of Architect. As “Spatial Agents” rather than Architects we might regain our agency through “seiz[ing] the brief” and deploying other value systems at every stage of the design process, of which we must re-engage. Like Beson, he too, rejects the value of ‘the drawing’ or in Till’s words the “privileging of image making.” A fascist who makes exquisite drawings does not make a good architect he points out. His address “Educating Otherwise” critiqued the serious problems within architectural education and the way these filter through to the profession in an unhealthy feedback loop. (Read more in Amanda Sun’s article here: https://architectureau.com/articles/students-have-become-dependent-on-being-brutalized-central-saint-martins-jeremy-till-on-architectural-education/)
Agency through Research
Jeremy Till’s impassioned critique was preceded by Landscape Architect Julian Bolleter whose lecture “Is there such a thing as a humanitarian city?” was full of sensible propositions. However his research suggested perhaps there isn’t such a thing as a humanitarian city having been piercingly critiqued by Sarah Lynn Rees during the Q&A for a lack of acknowledgment or understanding of Indigenous Peoples’ culture and connection to land. I got the impression Bolleter genuinely took on board Rees’ comments which were applauded by the audience. I think this was a critical moment we’d all been waiting for after Byron Kinnaird and Barnaby Bennett’s blistering provocation on the first day calling us to account “as people who scrape, bury and flatten this land” with each pencil stroke and mouse click - usually with no thought given to the Traditional Owners.
Yoshiharu Tsukamoto of Atelier Bow Wow and Tokyo Tech. rounded out the Congress with a talk that charted a great swathe of research and projects centred his notion of ‘Behaviourology’; where natural, human and architectural behaviour intersect. Tsukamoto presented Koisuru-Buta Laboratory as an architecturally simple but socially sophisticated model of instilling agency. Providing long term employment to people with physical and mental disabilities, the pork processing facility, restaurant and farmers market, reconnects individuals (consumers) with primary producers. Meanwhile the construction of the centre’s latest wing has revitalised a small scale forestry industry and provided possibly the last opportunity for a number of elderly carpenters to pass on their skills to another generation.
Agency as Congress
Congress as an institution is a tonic; presenting a series of possibilities to consider and debate, reject or hybridise and disseminate through our own practice. Agency 2017 has provoked more questions than answers, as any good Congress should! I still don’t know how to de-commodify the Australian understanding of ‘home’; I am still unclear of how we can best revolutionise professional practice; but I left Sydney invigorated, and determined to seek out and deploy every inch of agency I can muster. As the first Australasian Student Architecture Congress in eight years to be completely orchestrated by students, Agency 2017 is the very embodiment of its theme and the entire team should be applauded this stellar effort. An understandably emotional Peter Nguyen closed the Congress by quoting the late great Paul Pholeros: “You have to make a difference every single day.” As spatial agents heading back into halls of our institutions or the workstations of our offices, these words are now our call to arms.