Tuesday, March 27, 2012

CPD EXPERIENCE


The RAIA web site for the 2012 convention was googled in order to find out more about this event. The site http://www.architecture.com.au/i-cms?page=1.64.34.15164.15651 opened with the bold declaration that this was a first ever for Brisbane:

Brisbane to host nation's top architecture conference for first time

 AIA experience Click here to visit the 2012 National Architecture Conference

I wondered if everyone had forgotten the National Conference called The Functions of Architecture held in Brisbane in the 80's, so I asked. The RAIA responded with the explanation that this conference was being promoted as the first in the last twenty years. Well, I have yet to see this mentioned anywhere, but it is an interesting twist - spin. It is not at all clear to anyone who has not asked. I clicked on the link provided and scanned the list of subjects on the left-hand side of the screen:
  •  OVERVIEW
  •  PROGRAM
  • SPEAKERS
  • EVENTS
  • ARCHITECTURE TOURS
  • VENUE
  • REGISTRATION
  • CPD
  • ARCHIITEXT  
A couple of links were opened and the information was scanned through quickly. Then my eye caught those letters that send a shiver of doubt and uncertainty up the spine of anyone who has given thought to the latest challenge for a registered architect in Queensland: Continuing Professional Development - CPD. The Board of Architects' information sheet on this subject had been read through and time had been spent chatting to colleagues on this subject. Everyone was asking about this matter, wanting to know what others were going to do. Might one learn more from this link that opened the following page boldly headed 'experience' in patchy colours? It offers far more detail than the Board of Architects information sheet. Is it really a part of the formal requirements for regiustration or just some one's wish list? Who prepared this text? Why has it not been distributed by the Board? Formal Assessment Requirements are all listed clearly along with a Suggested Structure:

https://www.architecture.com.au/experience/cpd/index.html

 

CPD

CPD is an important focus of experience.  The conference provides the opportunity to build your knowledge
across a range of engaging and relevant topics, making a significant contribution to your CPD needs.

Informal CPD:        All sessions provide informal CPD – your attendance counts as informal CPD.
Formal CPD:          Most sessions can provide formal CPD points – you need to complete a written report.

Formal Assessment Requirements
Formal assessment will take the form of a written report about the session attended. 
This means that you can choose to undertake any session as formal CPD according to your own requirements
and interests.

Format
  • Written report on the session attended.
Structure
  • You may use whatever structure you believe is appropriate.
  • Your report should focus on what you learned from the presentation/discussion, rather than just being a repetition of the session content.
  • A possible structure is suggested below.
Length
  • 400 words (approximately)
Time
  • It is expected that the assessment will take 15 minutes to complete for a session.
CPD Points
  • See the following table.
Submission
  • You must submit your report to the Institute to claim the session as formal CPD.
  • Submit your report on the Institute’s CPD website www.continuum.com.au/raia in the section CPD Submissions.
  • New users can register for free but must have individually attended the conference.
Deadline
  • Tuesday 12 June 2012 - Reports must be submitted no later than this date. We advise you to
    submit your report within the following week so the content is fresh in your mind.
Assessment
  • The report should be of suitable quality for public review. 
  • Check your own report against those published on the website. 
  • Reports will vary and most will provide a unique ‘take’ on the session.
  • Compare the perspective and issues covered with those in your own report:  what can you learn from others and their differing/similar views?
Publication
  • All answers will be published on the CPD Submissions page once they are approved.
  • Answers will be published as they are submitted, so please check them thoroughly.
  • Your name, as the author of a report, will be made public for peer-to-peer review.
Records
  • A certificate of submission will be sent to you acknowledging receipt of your report and identifying the CPD points earned.
  • Keep the certificate and a copy of your report for your personal CPD record.
Questions
Feedback
  • We welcome your feedback regarding the assessment process.

Suggested Structure
The following structure may help to make the report a useful learning exercise for you and your potential readers. 
The questions are provided as prompts for reflection and discussion. 

  • What in the presentation challenged you to think about architecture and its practice differently?

  • What were some of the key points/issues raised during the presentation?

  • What are some implications of these for the practice of architecture broadly?

  • What other issues/ideas do the key points suggest for you?

  • What did you learn from the presentation/discussion?

  • What will you do differently in your own workplace or apply personally as a result?
 Well, who could ask for more? The thought was that less might have been better. Why was  the CPD issue being treated like an exam? Has this material been prepared by academics/school teachers who know no better way to communicate?

The instructions read like a handout to a class of children being introduced to the ways of writing a report on a particular subject. "Now children, I would like you all to write down in 400 words just what you have learned from the class today. I want these reports handed in by the end of this week. To assist you in this task, the handout gives some guidelines for the preparation of these reports. Read these carefully and ask if you have any questions. The next class will be on Thursday. Don't forget to bring you notebooks. And please be on time."

One might cynically suggest that CPD stands for Continuing Pre-School Development. It is difficult to place this published information into the context of guidelines for architects of any experience, let alone those with mature skills. If this document is really seen to be useful - necessary - then one can see why CPD is essential. Indeed, it might be suggested that there is something awry with the basic training of architects.


There are many questions with CPD. The line that caught the eye amongst the many was the sentence: 'All answers will be published on the CPD Submisisons page once they are approved.' Gosh, it is a test! Who is going to do the assessments? What if you fail? Dention? Write out the answer one hundred times? Are assessments going to be based strictly on the guideleines issued? What happens if one writes that nothing was learned? The cuts? What if only one hundred words are written? Who is going to count? Then one reads that, 'A certificate of submission will be sent to you acknowledging receipt of your report and identifying the CPD points earned.' Who is going to do all of this? If this person is a practicing architect? Is s/he registered? Who does this assessment? What is the skills criteria for this task?  I doubt if any practicing architect would have time to be involved. Who else?

Consider: the web site identifies, at the end of the scheduled programme - as if this was the answer - that this conference can earn one 13.5 points total. Is that good? Let's say that 500 architects attend the conference and all seek to maximise the points they can gain. Not everyone goes to all events, so let us say that the average is 10 points per person. At two points per event, this means that five events have to be attended 'in person' as the notes spell out. Surely no one would cheat? This means that 2,500 reports will have to be assessed and responded to. It looks as though the old problem has arisen - the teacher/lecturer has forgotten that while it is easy to set tasks and go home, s/he ends up with piles of paper or data to assess. It would take weeks to do this properly. Or is this just a pretend issue? Say it takes two minutes to speed read and take in the report. Less seems totally insufficient in relation to the seriousness of the guideleines;  out of scale with the original effort of 15 minutes per event. This means that it will take over 80 hours of continuous assessment to review all submissions - two weeks if you are not to go nuts, but there is no guarantee that this will not be the outcome.


What is the issue here? Apart from the problem with the school teacher-styled guidelines and prompts, one has to ask about the intent of CPD before one is able to comment on the process. Just what is the aim of this new condition for registration? The concept appears to be hinted at in the suggested structure of the reports - 'What are the implications of these (issues learned from the session) for the practice of architecture broadly?' It appears that the intent of CPD relates to improving the practice of architecture. This sounds reasonable until one asks: what is the practice of architecture? The writer of the guidelines seems to have realised that this is not an easy question to answer as the word 'broadly' has been used to qualify this understanding - apparently to allow for various and sundry interpretations.


This appears reasonable as the practice of architecture is indeed varied and diverse. Architects are well known to be so broadly skilled as to be able to apply their training to a variety of different tasks. While this breadth causes potential problems with definitions of practice, there is another meaner aspect of practice that requires a generalisation in its interpretation as practice also. Offices have become more and more specialised in their allocation of tasks for particular skills. So there are design architects; architects who spend most of the time documenting projects or writing reports; other use their time for supervision; specification writing; client management; staff management. Some architects give professional advice to corporations and the courts. There are many more variations beyond this short schedule. It is all the work of an architect. Then we have the tertiary educators of architects. Is this practice? Gosh, these are the people who have the authority to give courses for points for others to accrue! How can such a diverse set of tasks all be improved by CPD?


One has to agree with the idea of continued learning; but assessment? The concept of completing a course, graduating, registering as an architect and then practicing for the rest of one's life without ever again thinking about the profession, or researching or learning about things architectural, be these practical, legal, theoretical, managerial, or otherwise, is daunting. One has to at least keep up with 'the latest knowledge' or show some interest in it. The concept of progress suggests this, but there is also the matter of not forgetting the past too - of learning from it. While it almost appears impossible for one to practice architecture without 'keeping up,' one supposes that some architects might neglect this aspect of their profession. There is in some the idea that once they are out of college/university, they are then free to do whatever they choose to make money away from the constraints of supervision and the challenges of study and research that is subjected to review. So CPD could be useful in playoing a role.


Why is it so constrained? Reading the Board of Architect's information sheet, one gains a clear understanding that only certain 'approved' situaitons will gain points for an architect. These seem restrictive in thre light of the broad church of this profession. The 'flip' side of this rigour is the vague and unspupervised, casual - informal - aspect of CPD situations for which one is able to claim points. No situaiton is accredited by the Board for quality or content - formal or informal - so one can see a future of all kinds of seminars and sessions being set up to provide essential points by those seeking to make money out of the new rules. The danger is that architects will become just like the disgruntled students - shut up, do it, get the points and get out, just to be registered. There is no development here except in guile.


It seems that one way out of this dilemma is to have the Board run sufficient quality sessions so as to allow those who choose to attend to gain the points for one year. This would then set the standard for others. One would not have to attend the Board's sessions but would have to show how they have attended other sessions of equal quality. This is not perfect, but it is a start. It raises the old question: why does the Board do so little for the profession?


With such a broad professional set of skills, one wonders why many other circumstances are not point winners. Still, one becomes depressed and disenchanted to have to debate the principle of the collection of points, knowing that points prove nothing. There is a Zen saying about acting self-consciously and achieving nothing other than killing the outcome sought. 'If a man seeks the Tao, that man loses the Tao.' 'Your ordinary mind is the Tao, and by attending to accord with it, you immediately deviate.'


There is a quality of this self-consiousness of effort superceding the intent and becoming a task - a challenge - in its own right. Learning is richer than the imposition of tasks, and the grading of assessments. Experience is involved. Ironically this convention is titled 'experience.' There is a great gap between the sublety of experience and how we learn from it, and the strucutre and management of CPD. Bureaucracy will only tick boxes. Learning needs its own space and time - its own experience. It is complex. It involves love and care, not rules and points. These will teach one nothing but the scheduling of numbers when used to control people - and professions. Architects should be creative enough to develop a sysytem, (if one is needed), that can accommodate its broad interests and activities. Behaving like school teachers might is really an insult. Indeed, it is an insult to teachers too, as these, even pre-school teachers, know about learning through creativity and play. Why is CPD so stilted? Can it achieve anytihng beyond counting - accounting?


This is one of the problems of becoming self conscious, and all education is an instruction in self-consciousness. What do you learn in education? You learn words - symbols about reality - and with those words you become able to talk about living, to think about living, and to have knowledge about living. Knowledge is not academically respectable knowledge unless it is knowledge in terms of words or in terms of numbers, that is to say, in terms of a symbolic language about life. Once we know that we know, and we know we are alive and we know we are going to die because we can anticipate our futures, we feel that we have lost our innocence and something has gone wrong.
The whole problem of self-consciousness is that it puts us in a perennial dither and doubt.
Alan Watts, Talking Zen, Weatherhill, New York, Tokyo, 1994, page 167.

One might be asked to please explain.
. . . by explaining these things to you I shall subject you to a very serious hoax.
ibid., page 185
Traditional wisdom says that if these matters can be explained, they would have been.
 . . . one cannot act creatively except on the basis of stillness, of having a mind that is from time to time capable of stopping thinking.
ibid., page 194.


    












Sunday, March 25, 2012

EARTHSHIPS AND BANANAS




On Friday 24th February, 2012, a seminar by Biotecture on Earthships was held at Bond University’s Cerum Theartre on the Gold Coast in Queensland. Three weeks prior to this date, an article in The Weekend Australian Magazine (February 04-05, 2012), reported on Michael Reynolds’ company and his structures that he calls ‘Earthships’ – see Burning Ambition. The attached images showed an interesting sculptured home that the text elaborated upon in some detail, explaining the philosophy behind this approach to housing. It was seductive. Tyres and general trash were the basis of this technique of construction that used energy-saving principles to service the interior living spaces that could be kept at a comfortable 21 degrees celsius with nothing but natural heating and cooling in all climates, both freezing and tropical, passively, without any extra energy input. The house also grew all the food that a family of four would need. So confident was Mr. Reynolds of his proposal that he guaranteed to pay the extra utility running costs if they rose above $100.00 per annum.

It all sounded romantically idyllic. Cheap housing, no huge mortgages, comfort and beauty, for the materials seemed cheap and the images attractive. The article spoke about a couple in Kinglake – Daryl Taylor and Lucy Filor - who had lost their house in the Victorian fires. They were going to construct a new home on their site, an Earthship incorporating the ruins of their old home, because these Biotecture buildings were also fireproof. The budget for the greenhouse face of this project is $260,000.00. The remainder of the house is to be built from recycled materials. The article seemed to suggest that the total is probably less that a conventional home that relies on traditional energy input, but this is not clear. Still, the Earthship appeared to have an answer for everything. The article noted that Mr. Reynolds was coming to Australia to start work on this house and give some seminars. It seemed to me that Biotecture needed more research, so Google was clicked.

It took only two web sites to discover that Mr. Reynolds was travelling north to the Gold Coast to give a seminar during his visit. His plans were to speak at more detailed sessions in Adelaide and Melbourne, but the Gold Coast and nearby Bangalow were going to be given an opportunity to hear Mr. Reynolds’ story too – just $28.00 per person. So tickets were booked on-line. Well, a payment was made and a receipt was received. One supposed that this was sufficient evidence for entry. It is interesting to ponder just why little Bangalow, of all other places in Australia, was selected to be on the list for lectures. Does it have a large ‘hippie/greenie’ population that might warm to the Earthship ideas? Did Mr. Reynold’s have a potential project in the vicinity? And the Gold Coast? Still, it seemed an interesting matter to follow up.

Friday was a rainy night that made the approach to Bond University along wet, reflective roads only more confusing than it appeared to be as roundabouts wove their tricks. Even the campus map and university signage did not help much as main signs faced away from one-way traffic flows, making one manoeuvre around extended loops to discover the information being displayed. It was a frustrating start to a planning/design evening. Why are institutions so blind to the needs of the stranger? Surely good design accommodates all with dignity, simplicity, grace and ease rather than causing repeated frustration and failure? Is this the problem with the ‘look-at-me’ design approach?

One was stamped on the wrist at the entry and then allowed to settle into the theatre to listen to iPhone users engaged in their own self-important performances. With the advertised 6:45pm start stretching out to just after 7:00pm as others dawdled in, the introduction was finally made, not for Biotecture, but for a movie to be shown at the Gold Coast on 5th March – Wasteland. It seemed that this production had something in common with Mr. Reynolds’ work - rubbish - and might be of interest to those who turned up to hear the Earthship message - building from trash. The subject of the film was apparently the making of art out of refuse and the generation of good feelings amongst the workers on the tip. It looked interesting. It had won many awards. Awards seem to confirm something for some just by their naming, without anyone really knowing the details of what or why.


Mr. Reynolds eventually took the floor and immediately played a short video of his work in Haiti. It was a tiny project – a 12 foot-diameter hut built using his system. It displayed in miniature the principles his Earthships were based on. It also highlighted the potential social impact of such a strategy for housing in third-world countries. The exuberance of those involved became a joyous display of song and dance that seemed overly excessive in relation to the actual outcome. One could only assume that the potential was enormous. Still, this little hut did cost $4,000.00 – modest but still a challenge for Haiti. Just how these huts could come to replace the tents in a structured and organised manner to suit the community’s social demands was sketched only diagrammatically, but was never exposed for any considered review or analysis. The critical issue of such environmental strategies is not how the one shelter might work, but how the many might operate as an organism. One unit can be made to look beautiful, but one hundred? What are the public spaces like? What hierarchical arrangements are to be used for villages and towns beyond ordinary geometrically patterned design layouts? Without a successful adaptation strategy for quantity, environmental approaches such as these will remain quirky asides, unique wonders, rather than global solutions.

Thoughts wandered as the video finished and Mr. Reynolds – everyone was now calling him ‘Michael’ as though he was a long-lost friend – started his presentation. He explained that his houses were not for hippies, greenies and social dropouts, even though he struggled to find an image that could illustrate appearances to prove this point. Most photographs showed peculiar forms and shapes that recalled the ‘hippie,’ ad hoc, self-build forms of the 1960s. Eltham mud brick houses came to mind. Almost as an apology he tried to suggest that his homes were normal on the inside, and flicked quickly through images that tried to display this concept – smooth walls and normal furniture. But even here, the eccentric sculptured detailing appeared in parts as fireplaces, columns, ledges, seating and claddings. All tyres and trash had been concealed, covered in plaster. Only the cans and bottles that had been built into the concrete walls could be seen as decorative panels and friezes.

Little self-deprecating jokes fluttered throughout Mr. Reynolds’ presentation as if to make him appear foolishly brilliant, perhaps rather like the cliché absent-minded professor or the misunderstood guru. He explained that he had lost his architectural registration in Mexico so had to invent the name Biotecture for his sustainable architecture. Apparently the silly officials did not like the sewer in the living room. The subtext might have been that they failed to recognise genius. These little jokes only appeared to stimulate the audience into little indulgent giggles of agreeable bemusement that highlighted the hagiographical course of the evening. Mr. Reynolds spoke of his disquiet with the word ‘sustainable’ as he had once been shown a ‘sustainable’ nuclear reactor. This playing with meanings is a core problem with things green, especially with the ‘green star’ calculations that take numbers as a framework to prove experienced performance, as if additions and quantities equated to anything other than a mathematical total of items arbitrarily labelled ‘stars,’ perhaps inspired by the ratings of movies or hotel accommodation. All of this serious calculation seems randomly remote from reality when, say, the ten bicycle racks, showers and lockers, and, say, the fifty small car parking areas at the front door that could add the extra star or two might never be used. Yet the star rating is still the statistic promoted in the boasting about a building’s ‘green’ quality. The same cynicism with the relevance of hotel ratings where stars can be gained for an extra chair and a full-length mirror, or lost because of a dirty spoon or lack of a corkscrew, lingers in the mathematics of green buildings. It seems perfectly possible to have a six-star pigsty as well as a six-star academic building - perhaps side by side?


Mr. Reynolds explained how he used locally available trash – tyres, tins, glass bottles, paper, plastic and metal panels – and anything else that might be able to be collected nearby. He elaborated on the systems of air extraction and intake, and passive heating and cooling that would keep the home at 21 degrees celsius. His graph seemed to suggest a variation between 19 to 26 degrees, but this was never spoken about. The plumbing was traditional plumbing that had additional ‘bio loops’ attached, thus cleverly giving the local authority all of its specific requirements while solving the environmental challenges of zero emissions. The layered approach to comfort meant that the outer, warmer, brighter layer of glazed, greenhouse volumes could be used for growing food. Bananas and other plants were illustrated. Protein was available from fish living in tanks. All water was stored and reused in a cycle that saw rainwater treated to three different levels for different uses, to then be run through gravel beds for plant nutrients and subsequently used to flush the toilet. This waste then moved on to other planting beds for more food supply. It appeared as though the great vision of perpetual reuse had been solved, giving enough of everything for a family of four, forever, for almost nothing. One could only be impressed - amazed. Was it really possible?

Mr. Reynolds then stretched the idea further. He was obviously aware of the question of repetition – housing as clusters forming villages and towns: how does the model work for these situations? His images showed great linear strips of repeated homes with the front, glazed space becoming a transport corridor. It looked like a pedestrian way, but wasn’t this the hottest, therefore possibly the most unpleasant part - the greenhouse? How could it be a comfortable communal corridor? Then a 3D model video of how the system could be developed into a multistorey scheme – perhaps for China – flashed onto the screen. It used Corb’s basic 1920s classic slab and column framework infilled with the stepping Earthship homes and fitted with a large stair spiralling around a vertical axis wind generator. It was unclear how one might get from the stair to each house. The diagrammatically attractive moving 3D graphics were quickly skipped over to display a proposed scheme for New York – real highrise? Well, it looked to be only a two-storied below-ground development between two high Bronx browns, serviced with a giant mirror to catch and reflect the light down into these low spaces. The sketch was so schematic it was difficult to interpret accurately, but Mr. Reynolds’ enthusiasm seemed to overcome all possible doubts. One wondered: how would a street of these developments work?

The problem with this form of housing is not the one-off solution. The Bruce Goff/Herb Greene/Antonio Gaudi sculptured free forms in open country - desert, forest or mountain - always look beautiful. It is as though nature has been cajoled into a new difference using the same principles that made earth to provide habitation – a place for man and for his spirit to grow and glow. The context becomes a raw harmonic resonance that enhances the seeming reality of a mystic presence in these homes. Just how gathering these structures together might provide an equivalent quality on a larger scale remains unknown. Even basing a school plan on the geometry of a pretty blue flower, as Mr. Reynolds showed later, does not give the building any essential floral or subtle quality beyond the visual delicacy of the primary match. This numinous patterning may have nothing to do with the functioning of a school with its demanding social requirements, in spite of the suggestive illusions. One is encouraged to interpolate matters in this change of scale by transferring every nice feeling about the one into the conglomerate clustering of the many without ever really knowing just what the social implications might be. The patterns of villages and towns are never ad hoc or irrelevant. Their specific shaping is just as important to the functioning of the whole entity as the tiny spaces and details in the home are to the wellbeing of those living in it.

It is strange that China is noted as a place suited for the multi-storey version of Earthship, as if social need and poverty together might find its awkwardness acceptable, through the necessity of poverty: beggars can’t be choosers? The proposal is a rather incongruous collection of Corb and dirt without any vertical limits. What on earth (no pun intended) is going to happen to the gridded spaces between the columns and slabs behind the stepping standard homes – well, Earthships – that have been slotted into one edge of this reinforced concrete frame that could apparently go up to ten stories or more? Potential heights beyond three levels were not illustrated so the details of the idea were never displayed. These rear spaces appeared to offer all of the nasty threats of car parking areas and under-bridge spaces. In the same way, it seemed that the grand strips of transport corridors in the linear proposal would offer no great charm beyond that apparent in the high-rise apartment block that has external balcony access - like the infamous Priutt-Igoe model of modernism. Gathering for town-making is much more complex than simple multiplication and extension, and requires more subtlety and care than town planners seem to be able to bring to their profession that now has uniquely large numbers in this present world - more than ever before - but, in spite of these quantities, it remains a world with an alarming number of grand failures in outcomes. Our cities are getting worse in spite of all our planning efforts, be these performance-based or otherwise.

The magic and mystery of the impossible – beauty and comfort for nothing, (well, for little or less) – is something everyone aspires to. Any suggested solution is easily enthusiastically grasped and held up as the work of a genius. Things are even better if the concept has been built – at least once. Mr. Reynolds enjoyed a heroic response on this Friday at the Cerum Theatre. There was a strange, over-agreeable, unquestioning feeling about the man with the long grey hair and broad accent. Do Australians still get excited about different voices, vowels and appearances? Do Australians still cringe at the accent and assume immediate superiority in the difference? The cringe came later in the evening when the moderator of the appointed expert discussion group embarrassingly asked Mr. Reynolds to say ‘banana’ once more – ‘ban-ann-na’ came out in contrast to her ‘barn-narn-ah.’ The response was a little squeal of delight - “Oh, isn’t that beautiful?” Well, no. One could only wince in silence, suppressing a whimpering cry of dismay. The moment was trite, like her manipulation of the crowd that was asked to exhale with a communal sigh to release the tensions of greening the world. The loud chorus of “Ah” only seemed to suggest that most were intoxicated by the genius of Mr. Reynolds and willing to play silly games compliantly – on call, to order, as if to overtly display this emotion to our visitor. What did Mr. Reynolds think of this?

The standing ovation that thanked Mr. Reynolds for coming “all of this way to talk to us” seemed to ignore the fact that Australians themselves are well travelled, are not unfamiliar with distance and difference, or intimidated by it, and should know that Mr. Reynolds is here to promote his company. The naïve colonial response to the stranger left one bemused, as it is this unthinking approach that sees no problems with the apparent answer to the challenges of the universe. If these matters are to be truly respected rather than blindly deified, then they need to be reviewed and criticised in the Popperian sense of things scientific - conjecture and refutation. Accepting conjectures without any refutation is never useful if one wants to get to the true heart of a matter. It is like debating with another who is never willing to change an idea or concept, and offering criticism to deaf ears. One must never be afraid of the challenge of questioning doubt. It can only improve matters – well, those beyond determined preconception that knows, and wants to know, no other possibility.

Earthships? The name is interesting. This home is likened to a ship. Ships are solitary objects that interact with the world and nature alone. Even in fleets they are singular. They do not like gatherings or great numbers as these cause anxiety about collisions. They need to keep their distance and unique identities. They are internal, turning their hard, protective outer shells to the environment as they house and shelter the occupants in homely comfort, in all weathers. The Earthships seem to do likewise. Is this the problem with their multiplication? They have only a front, literally turning their back to the world. What will happen to the backyard barbecue? The ‘cheap’ version of the Earthship - Mr. Reynolds acknowledges that his attractive promotional ‘Phoenix,’ (rising out of trash?), is expensive and elitist - becomes an uninspired, one-dimensional, small glass entry wall with graphic red flowers hiding the tyres. What happens when the flowers drop? Is the aim perhaps to minimise the most expensive part of this home – the glazing? While some cultures like the frontyard exposure for private living - I was told that the Turks in Cyprus love such displays - Australians are more reserved and love not just wide open spaces, but also the privacy of the backyard. What does the Earthship model offer other than potentially cheap, enclosed environmental bliss and food tucked into an earthen berm? What are its civic roles? What is its real potential in sets - in towns and cities?

The facts of habitation and performance in Mr.Reynolds’ presentation were very thin, all glossed over quickly as though they were undisputed truths. Providing your own protein with fish from the tank? He illustrated this with a child catching one fish with an overly long rod and then cooking it. The camera panned in to show decorative red carp gliding under the water plants. Are these fish or plants edible? What are the details for fish production? What space is required? What numbers? What is the cycle for sustainability? If a family eats fish three times a week, as some dieticians recommend, then at least a dozen large fish will be required every month; a gross in one year. What infrastructure is required to achieve this outcome? How many banana trees are needed? How many other plants and varieties have to be cajoled to continue production 24/7/52? Plants have cycles and seasons, as the Bible tells us everything has. Just what has to happen to allow for a constant, sustainable supply of food for four? Merely feeling good and happily enthusiastic about the possibility and being won over by singular images of luxurious green growth and fertile productivity is not enough, for this glory could be a very short-lived possibility.


One feels a little awkward asking questions about such an apparently beautiful concept for life and living, with its grand ambitions for the human spirit, but if the facts are ignored, there is nothing. Beauty must rest on facts and figures if it is to have depth and substance. Ephemeral dreams of possibilities need only pretty pictures and inspiring words for their sustenance. Mr. Reynolds is an enigma. He is rooted in both worlds of dream and fact. He ponders, promotes and builds. He knows the problems: how the challenge can become the criteria for creativity; how flexibility and adaptation are critical. He is sensitive enough to know that his approach cannot just be blandly reproduced for the Australian aboriginal shelter. He is an ardent promoter of love and care for our environment and in our lives. He has produced beautiful living conditions from waste. He is a realist. Just how he chooses to develop his idea beyond the pretty one-off and the singular, stand-alone structure will be of interest, for the world needs more than hope and love to survive, let alone thrive.

Sadly the fact is that we have a capitalist society. While Haiti and perhaps China might have tonnes of waste doing nothing and available for nothing, the developed world is already collecting and recycling waste. This has its own cost. One has already seen, with the growing popularity in the recycling of building products and other materials, how the management and supply of these items has become organised as businesses. Prices soar as demand and interest grows. Many years ago I purchased some old leadlight windows and doors for a refurbishment project. The windows were $20.00 each and the door was $70.00. If I were to try to buy these today, I would be asked to pay hundreds of dollars for each item. The idea has caught on. One can envisage a future of Earthship popularity where tyres become expensive, and where dirt is a valuable commodity. There will always be someone ready to make money out of this situation, in spite of the idyllic dreams. Such is the so-called developed world. It has already happened. Recycled materials are expensive now. A finger-jointed length of timber that is made from random off cuts is more expensive that the one piece of timber cut from the tree. Why?

Then there is the debate about local government building approval or certification. Everyone knows that government institutions are metaphorical brick walls. Look at the Bernard Madoff situation where a Government body was told repeatedly for nine years that Madoff was a fraud, but took no action. Natural market forces had to finally expose him, not the questioning or any investigation from the governing body. Our institutions are just as reluctant to take bold steps in spite of the facts. It is this apparent grandstanding when everything says otherwise that makes governments so frustrating. Earthships need more questions. Multiple Earthships need greater review. But the dream must be kept alive and not squashed by bland bureaucracy. Hero-worship and blind enthusiasm gets one nowhere. Rigour is critical. Mr. Reynolds knows this. Let’s hope he retains his ideals as he seeks to grow his dream. Let’s hope that Earthships can be truly tested for performance, both environmental and social, and prove to be a success. Living comfortably in an awkward social situation will never be satisfactory. The award-winning Pruitt-Igoe proved this. Facts are needed to match feelings on all scales.

It is suggested that Eartships are DIY – that everyone can get grand poetic outcomes by using trash. I suggest that the outcomes Mr. Reynolds showed us of his efforts rely a lot on his unique skills for their resolution - that Earthships cannot become beautifully assembled trash without the feeling, skills, knowledge, understanding, ambitions and the creative energy of Mr. Reynolds himself. His homes are unique. His solutions and approaches are his alone and require his input for their wonder. They are indeed beautiful – but I suggest personal. Beauty is never a necessary outcome of a DIY enterprise. It is usually otherwise. It would be interesting to see the results of the DIY projects that have not had any input from Mr. Reynolds. Apparently there are thousands (two thousand) but none were shown at the seminar. The movement implies that Mr. Reynolds’ creative, intuitive and inventive efforts/outcomes can all be replicated by others, but is it so? This perception leaves everything in an amorphous cloud, a little like all of the stories, facts and figures in this concept for recycling where, as Mr. Reynolds explains somewhat in jest, (but many a true word is said in jest), power is needed primarily for charging the iPhone and iPad.

One has to wonder what is wrong with a recycling strategy that uses some chosen trash as it ignores the tonnes of other waste generated by our society, like the ever-growing number of batteries that are discarded daily - in Australia at least - from our gadgets and solar devices: our iPhones and iPads and the like that were mentioned as part of the story, as a humourous aside? Are we dealing only with a quaint trendy fashion - here today, gone tomorrow? Is it a ‘feel good,’ distracting cringe by the 17% of the haves to the 83% of have-nots of this world - a quick moral fix to overcome guilt? There are lots of questions still to be addressed. Feeling good is just not good enough. It is indulgent and gives us ill-considered signs like that at Bond University - looking the wrong way. We need to make sure we start looking the right way and asking more questions rather than being mystified by accents and longhaired strangers or our own importance.

So how does one encourage students to develop an interest in recycling? Should one? It was suggested that Bond University might build an Earthship, (even though it may never be used as a home), to have its architectural students involved in its construction as an exercise. There is something close to the obscene here: to have students paying tens of thousands of dollars a year training to recycle trash, has a quality that does not appear genuine or in tune with the feelings of the primary raw intent. The world is topsy-turvy. I have recently seen real ‘grass roots’ recycling in Penang. Folk who earn as little as 16 – 20 ringgits a day, (six to seven Australian dollars), collect the smallest of items and quantities and take them to the local agent in the nearby shop house that is filled with heaps, piles and stacks of refuse that have been weighed, sorted and organised ready to be moved on. All this is done for a small but modestly critical payment of cash. I saw the hotel maid dragging two large plastic bags of plastic bottles to this agent. It was trash she had collected from the rooms - perhaps her ‘pocket money,’ but I think it is more essential, more necessary than this idle luxury. Others load their bicycles high with the waste to transport it for cash – anything has some value, even a few cardboard boxes. I watched a man shell garlic bulbs just to collect the outer layers for reuse. Boxes of orange peel lay out in the sun drying to be reclaimed. There is a necessity here - something genuine and in scale with the lifestyle where metalwork is still carried out by a human hand tapping with a wooden mallet, making letter boxes, cake tins, stainless steel downpipes, copper floats and more, while sitting on the floor. The blinds that give Penang’s its characteristic tropical charm are all assembled slat by slat in an identical shop house to that of the waste merchant’s store and the metalworker’s workshop. Similar spaces are used as retail areas for the gold merchant, the local restaurant, the chemist, and the haberdashery shop. The model of this patterning works well.

We need a more sincere involvement in our building, care and understanding, and should not be satisfied with some indulgent worshipping of a design messiah who is making 1960s structures with some passive energy additions for an unknown future that is optimistically promoted as positive. It may not be. It will take much more to attend to the problems of our world than some Earthships and a few bananas, no matter how one might choose to pronounce this word – but it is a start, a start to get people thinking more seriously about what we must do in our world and how we can achieve this. One can only wish Mr. Reynolds good luck.

DRAWN OUT


MATISSE  Drawing Life
Gallery of Modern Art  Brisbane
3 December 2011 – 4 March 2012


Gosh, time flies! We had hoped to see this exhibition before it closed and thought we had plenty of time. Well, we did have until we realised the weeks and months had passed, prompting the usual comment: “Why do you always leave it to the last minute?” We were left with only four days to see this Matisse exhibition at GOMA. We were not interested in going on the last Saturday or Sunday. Even the last Friday seemed too terminal, so we selected the last Thursday. It was really the only option left for us. We drove to the Art Gallery and were pleased with ourselves for being able to drive directly to the car park through the city maze, only to discover that the option of hourly parking no longer existed. It was all-day parking for $15.00 or nothing, with an enigmatic notice advising that the car park closed at 1:00pm. It seemed that the nearby city demand for parking must be just too tempting a money-raiser to ignore. We were left to find our own parking in the surrounding streets. We were lucky! We found a park only a block away, four hours for six dollars.

We strolled to GOMA, but crossing busy roads did not remove us from the hazards of traffic. Unfortunately, the area that could have – should have – become one of Brisbane’s great riverside civic spaces now contains a roundabout, dragging vehicles deep into the courtyard formed by the Queensland Art Gallery and Museum, the Queensland State Library and GOMA. This area would have formed a marvellous civic square connecting the axial strip of Southbank’s Stanley Street to this cultural heart of Brisbane, complete with the possibilities of sculpture, shade, water, city views and more. Alas! – this is Brisbane, a ‘most liveable’ city dominated by freeways and busways, leaving ‘peds,’ (the traffic engineering term for pedestrians), to fend for themselves, as best they can. Vehicles reign! Even bicycles are relegated to tiny lanes beside white lines broken with cycle graphics that frequently also define the spaces for parked vehicles.

It was not until we had by-passed the bus stop and strolled along the pedestrian path linking the surrounding buildings that we felt safe; but it was extremely hot on the open pavement in the blaze of the mid-day sun. Finally, after passing crowds of students on educational excursions, we reached the flash, flush automatic GOMA glass-door entry. Would the gallery be crowded, crammed with groups learning from loud, analytical descriptions of the works? At the Matisse counter, money exchanged hands for tickets that went through the process of presentation and tearing prior to being allowed entry into the exhibition spaces that were the same as every other ordinary display area – frames on white walls with blocks of large text establishing the theme and with small cards describing each separate piece, all ‘artistically’ arranged. The only surprise was the pretty QR – quick reference – codes, but these were few in number.


We had been seeing these interesting little graphic squares more frequently in all strange places, so had explored the Internet to discover just what they were. We even downloaded the appropriate app so that the codes could be interpreted, and tried out one code on a bookmark that very disappointingly gave us an Internet address with the same information as was printed on the piece of card that displayed the code. It seemed pointless, but we impressed ourselves with our digital skills.

As with any commonplace display, the lighting was basic and average; the spaces uninteresting, and the texts bland. “Nude Standing - charcoal on XYZ paper with an ABC watermark: 1924 – loaned from LMN,” etc. told very little beyond what was obvious and not much that was relevant to the ordinary viewer. Yes, it was a standing nude in black and white. Why is this detailed, explanatory information so uselessly excessive? Or, to put it another way: why is there not more useful information to enrich the experience of being there with the work? A QR square was decoded to see if there was better information in this reference. Crikey, it worked! Four blue squares glowed in recognition of something, a GOMA web site was referenced, and when opened, it started a video presentation of – well, too much information! Can we never be pleased? We should have remembered to copy these codes and spent more time later, away from the gallery, watching and listening to these facts and stories. Maybe the gallery could have published a small set of cards containing these codes for this purpose, as a handout? The system is potentially excellent, but one does feel a real dork standing in the gallery trying to get the image decoded. ‘Smarty-pants’ glimpses give others’ thoughts away. Then one has to cope with the listening to/watching of the content as though one is using one’s mobile telephone in the centre of this public space, in the midst of visitors who continue to flick accusatory glances at the apparent impertinence. But it was not always a simple matter of holding one’s smart phone over the image. I watched one fellow try and try, and try again, until he gave up with no result other than frustration, a shrug and the lacklustre acceptance of failure. Maybe there is a little tweaking needed? The codes seem to be an excellent beginning for gallery displays and for many other possibilities too, but perhaps with some development? As for lighting: this was indeed pretty ordinary, general exhibition lighting. Nothing amazed or surprised. Looking at one’s own shadow spread over the exhibits on the tables that were trying to be viewed became more than aggravating; and the usual problem with reflections had not been addressed. Had it even been considered?

We gave up on the QRs and decided to just enjoy the drawings – information free, away from those frowning eyes. To be bluntly honest, some early drawings, (and a few later ones too), were pretty ordinary. But one is not able to say this because they are ‘Matisses.’ Such is the world of art. Then, out of the array, one would see a miracle – lines dancing from two dimensions to three, effortlessly, with simple charm and vigour, even though the spaces these works were in remained constantly boring and bland, truly uninspiring. The height of these spaces was used only as empty volume because it was there, with a few Matisse quotes pasted at about four metres above the floor onto a few walls. Why? Why not use the height creatively, even if only to negate it? Indeed, why not use colour? Ideas are needed.

While, at face value, the exhibition looked to be assiduously arranged, the rude carelessness of the organisation of the display kept catching one’s eye. Visually heavy.- about 400mm thick - fake plasterboard partitions that shaped the theatre for display had been constructed over parts of the air conditioning vents in the floor, as though the grilles were not there. Likewise, the coloured rectangles of carpet – were the curators confused with Mondrian? – had been placed at apparently random angles with no obvious necessity, to cover vents and parts of vents, all when there appeared to be some simple options to avoid these clashes. It seemed an astonishing neglect or arrogance that the vents – their forms, articulations and presence – had been so ill-treated. It was not as though the space was too cold, for it was chilly, even with some vents, or parts of them, blocked off. The offence was that any considered articulated relationship between the introduced display parts and the main fabric of the building, had not been given any importance in a place where one is expected to enjoy subtlety of form, line and juxtaposition. Visitors were being asked to appreciate the style of the drawings and to ignore these clashes in the order of the designed exhibition areas and the elements of the original undivided/undecorated space. One was left wondering if this was a series of spaces designed for another earlier exhibition with more rigorous spatial requirements, as it seemed to have no specific tie to things Matisse, or any particular reason to be so articulated. It all looked very poor - ill considered - with its apparent ad hoc parts that had been so carefully contrived through what appeared to be, perhaps at best, self-interested neglect.


Collectively, the drawings were stunning, but one can really only enjoy so many sprawling nudes with their armpits exposed to the world. Maybe the narrowness of the subject matter of this exhibition has forced the curators to try too hard to give it substance with just too many drawings. Was there too much of the same thing being drawn out to develop a story with the scale expected for a major ‘block buster’ exhibition? Maybe it was this that made things a little boring. Or was it the bland spaces containing frame after similar, almost identical frame?

One lady was overheard exclaiming: “Colour at last,” as she moved into the final space that displayed the beautifully bold JAZZ illustrations. It was odd that these coloured plates had been lumped together as a large rectangular grid on the wall when all other drawings had been dragged out linearly. Had the gallery run out of wall space to continue the horizontal theme? One did indeed eventually get distracted with the sameness of everything else and started looking at the frames, their mitres, and their subtle differences in size, profile and timber colour and species. Architecturally, it was sad to see the great opportunity to reconstruct the space of the Matisse chapel at Vence in this exhibition get wasted. It is Matisse’s only involvement in things architectural. Such a space could have enlivened the exhibition by forming a stunning and memorable centrepiece – a core zone – around which the other display spaces could gather.

After parading through the boxed exhibition spaces complete with their interesting links roped off as no-go ‘EXIT’s where supervisors in adjacent zones could meet and chat, one came to food and drink without having to exit the exhibition. What a blessing! Here pencils, paper and tablets, complete with still life exhibits, were provided for all to indulge in the wonder of drawing. Yes, we can all draw. As Coomaraswamy noted many years ago: an artist is not a special kind of man; every man is a special kind of artist. This space appeared to promote this concept that our modern world so easily forgets as heroes are promoted and praised as superhuman – a little like Matisse.

So after sustenance and scribble, the exhibition was re-visited, just to see it again in another light, refreshed. Matisse has shown us all how to draw. He has also shown us how to see things. He has had an important impact on the photographic eye as well as the sketching hand. His drawings repeatedly take parts, angles and positions to reveal surprising aspects of forms. Ignoring the little challenges and disappointments with the exhibition - we had seen many pieces before in other places, but these became as friends, good to see again – one can only agree that Matisse had a great eye, hand and feel. It gives us all hope that he was so productive to such a good age.


But how can one get away from the over-familiarity of reproduction? When we see the real work, we frequently recall the reproduction and our feel for it; our memory of it and its context. The ordinary backgorund of this exhibition did not change this. It did not enliven or add vigour. There was no epiphany. Sadly, it was all a little flat, a little like flicking through the main catalogue, which was well-produced; but it does lack the QRs that would have been so easy to print as a little package of easily-accessible information, and more too. These little squares are far more than attractive graphics. I prefer to recall the wonderful Matisse lines and their elusive yet bold images, but this miniature digital code is authoritatively impressive.

Does our technology change us? A trial of the sketch tablets after completing a pencil and paper drawing highlighted the difference – the unusual feel; the difficulty of achieving a smudge; the unforgiving immediacy of the marking in instant time that limits feedback. The finger was easier to manage than the blind pen called a stylus. The tactile sense of the screen gave a better feel and flow, but a thicker line. Yes, there is a significant difference, but it is just another tool to become familiar with. Just as well the competition was not to be judged on the quality of the drawing. It was apparently just a lucky dip – like exhibitions have become. This exhibition leaves much for one to ponder, as does Coomaraswamy’s interesting question: Why exhibit works of art? Attending to this query might make curators a little more aware of the implications of their decisions. It is too easy just to see exhibitions as fund-raisers, like the associated parking facilities seem to have become, and to forget about the real priorities.