Sunday, October 5, 2014

EXPLORING THE DEFINITION & EDGE CONDITION OF CPD – JA!


The Bond University Abedian School of Architecture announced a lecture series that aimed to ‘expand and explore the definition and edge condition of architectural practice.’ This series was being presented in partnership with the Australian Institute of Architects as part of the AIA (not American: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/06/aia-comments-at-last.html ) ‘Refuel’ programme where points can be accrued for the Board of Architects of Queensland CPD, Continuing Professional Development re-registration requirements. So here was a chance to not only see inside, to see ‘the workings’ if you like, of the new CRAB School of Architecture building, but also to pick up two free points. The point accumulation requirement has spawned a business where so-called courses and the like to obtain points are run for a fee, usually a substantial fee: but Bond was free of fees - and it offered light refreshments too!


The new building at Bond University has been reviewed previously, but this was prior to and during its construction: see:
Only glimpses of its interior had been photographed. This occasion would be a welcome opportunity to experience its operation. A building’s success should never be based on texts, reputations or images alone. One needs to observe its functions, to see how it works: to feel the building, sense it. This type of study was once called a POE, a Post Occupancy Evaluation, but this fad, like Quality Assurance, Workplace Involvement Teams and the like, has now lost its currency. Did POEs reveal just too many failures? Did it formalise and document design, construction and practical problems that might be better forgotten, left off the record? One is reminded of the federal government’s site that compared grocery prices. It did not take long for this site to be closed down. It seemed that the major grocery retailers did not like having the opposition’s cheaper prices revealed for all to see: something like a possible 33% saving on a trolley of groceries appeared just too great a difference for any government to promote given the lobbying strength of the major retailers.


It was a rainy night, Thursday 25th September 2014. We set out for the campus in a light drizzle, parked and strolled up one of the axial pathways towards the carillon landmark adjacent to the sandstone-faced buildings. Bond University seems to have adopted all of the clichés of what ‘classic’ universities might be best remembered for. It even insisted on a rowing course on its lake. This university appears to clamour too urgently in its claim for immediate status. Close to this musical icon we detoured across to the Abedian School, all a-blaze in lights. Who pays this bill? It was the brightest place on the site. Wasn’t this new school of architecture, building ‘3B,’ a part of the Environmental School? What in the design features of this new structure showed any concern for the environment?


Entering between the array of posts that seemed to refer to the nearby cluster of plantation pine trees, and through the frameless glass doors, one found oneself confronted with two square pillars topped by trays holding the promised ‘light refreshments.’ One was reminded of the cut-out dapper black butler bellboy in uniform holding the card tray, a typical piece of Art Deco furniture. To the left of this amorphous, undefined foyer zone was another tall space labelled ‘FORUM.’ This was obviously the location for the talk as it presented an array of chairs facing a screen. It too was an undefined, ill-defined open area that shared its presence with studio spaces and a mezzanine projection above. A glazed wall on one side opened out to the entry area. One eventually discovered a small bar concealed behind a concrete wall in the foyer/entry zone that was dispensing cool drinks.


As time passed, the number of attendees grew. Even after the nominated starting time, 6:30pm, others kept strolling in. There seemed to be no hurry to start as folk stood around and chatted. Eventually, when the drinks had run out some fifteen minutes later, there was a movement towards the seats. Some students wandered in from the studio areas to add to the crowd. After everyone had settled, the evening began. The presentation was by Dagmar Reinhardt, Director, Reinhardt Jung Architects and Design, BAE Programme Director, Digital Architecture and Research Leader, University of Sydney. There was an impressive CV for review too: see - http://sydney.edu.au/architecture/about/people/profiles/dagmar.reinhardt.php  One could expect an accent.



After a short introduction, Ms Reinhardt explained that she intended to talk for one hour, noting that she had 150 slides. With a mediocre melodramatic gesture - was it planned? - she flashed her lecture notes and put them aside, saying that it would be faster to talk to the slides. The cynic has to ask: were these blank pages? She started. After ten minutes she had only managed to talk to about as many slides. She seemed oblivious to the simple fact that, for her schedule to be maintained, she would have to talk to slides at the rate of an average of 2.5 slides a minute. This was going to be a late night if she kept talking at the current rate. The presentation was structured into six ‘chapters,’ so one could easily gauge her progress. It was very slow. Her enthusiasm to expand her understandings in detail seemed to take over any intent to rationally manage time to suit her schedule and the convenience of others.


The subject was about digital architecture and her research: ‘materiality’ seemed to be the catchphrase, whatever this is – see: http://epress.lib.uts.edu.au/research/bitstream/handle/10453/9820/2008004651.pdf?sequence=1  As I type, I am interrupted by a telephone call from a colleague who has just informed me to look up Wikipedia to find out! – see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Materiality  The slides started poorly. The texts that one was expected to read high on the small screen mounted on the concrete wall were too small, illegible. Only the titles were easy to understand. This problem never improved. Slides repeatedly appeared that were incomprehensible, but this never caused Ms Reinhardt any problem as she continued on keenly as though there was no problem. Why show such slides? But there were other concerns with this show. Ms. Reinhardt was ardent in explaining how she has been able to use geometries in her acoustic studies, using familiar structures like those Felix Candela had developed for his structural shells; but was Ms Reinhardt aware of how poor the acoustics were in this Abedian space? One could hardly hear her for the first twenty minutes. Then suddenly one was aware of a distinct silence, a void of sound that made her voice a little clearer. The air-conditioning hum stopped. Had it been turned off? One was amazed how a background buzz could cause so much distortion to the perception of a specific sound. Maybe the presentation area needs a sound reinforcement system, or a better one: the event was recorded on video.


Looking around, for one had to do something when illegible slides were displayed on the screen, it became obvious how poor the space was acoustically. The floor and walls that bordered the open space were smooth, raw concrete. The ceiling was about eleven metres high, sheeted in plywood: an acoustic abyss. There were a large number of high glazed walls on the left enclosing this area. These reflected the speaker into the darker exterior, allowing one to become involved in yet another distracting diversion. The space was open on the right and the rear. As a presentation space designed for the natural voice to achieve easy projection, it was extremely inadequate. Yet it seemed to be the premier place for such occasions in this school. Did the dream of an ‘avant-garde’ openness take over from all other necessities?


There was an irony that the presenter was talking about good acoustic research and design in such a space. There seemed to be a gulf between the theoretical and the real, a schism that was only highlighted by other concerns. It appeared that no one was interested in factual outcomes or issues, critiquing these or remedying these. The problems with the physical space just seemed to be accepted unconditionally, to never be questioned. It was an awkward, perhaps multi-function area. Student models that had been spread around the perimeter of the space as if to make room for the seating, blocked the main emergency exits. The main culprit was a triple twisting DNA-like tower model that would have looked more at home in Dubai; but it did cause one to think about events in this school and its programme. The neglect of legal exit requirements seemed to suggest there was not much attention given to facts and functions, just ideas.


The lighting was a concern too. As one looked towards the screen, four large, bright LED lights on the wall that held the screen, caught one’s eyes. These provided a disturbing glare as well as an unwanted backlighting for the presenter who stood as a silhouette behind the lectern. One could perceive no facial details or expressions: nothing personal, nothing expressive other than some occasional body gesture. It was as if a dark ghost was before us. Only when Ms Reinhardt moved to one side could one see some personal detail and be impressed by her glowing pink luminous belt. It was a most unsatisfactory circumstance, especially so when the subject of the talk itself was design and research.


During the ‘down’ times of the talk, one had time to notice that one was not alone with one’s quiet frustrations. The young man in front was more interested in his iphone than the talk; but the seats offered an intriguing problem: how many variations were there? It looked as though the seats had been designed especially for this building, with their Eames-like bent plywood shapes on steel legs being randomly profiled and perforated to create different ‘Bond’ designs. The final calculation was that there were three variations on the theme. Then, after this diversion, the hands explored below the seat. Instead of the sophistication of the Eames rubber mounts that provide that slight, subtle, enjoyable movement to accommodate the body, these seats had what felt to be round plywood cut-outs for the screw mounts. One was left wondering why the original Eames chair was not selected for this project; but we know, don’t we: architects can always design something better than anyone else. The chairs seemed to be part of a decorative theme developed for the school, its ‘total’ design as Walter Gropius might have labelled it.


A quick glimpse earlier into the lower curved room off the foyer space, an area at the base of the form that looks like a ship’s bridge overlooking the entry, a space labelled somewhat pretentiously ATELLIER, revealed what looked like a standard table design – a zigzagging star-like form, but not, with ad hoc holes like those in the seats. Did one have to spend much time avoiding the holes when writing; or likewise in hoping for pens and other stationery not to fall through? Design here seemed to have a lot to do with reputation rather than real functional performance. Was it that the Archigram image must not be let down? One wondered, would this exemplar become the standard requirement for the students?


The slides continued to the accompaniment of a staccato accent that was punctuated by a frequent ‘Ja’ that one didn’t know how to interpret. Was this an exclamation to declare and demarcate enthusiasm; or was it an inquisitorial expletive seeking agreement; or perhaps a rhetorical questioning of one’s comprehension of the matter. It was not clear, but the ‘Ja’ sounded frequently. The ‘Ja’s were accompanied by many other unique words that academics seem to like to use, as if something important could never be expressed in simple English; or is it that something ordinary has to be made to look important and ‘creatively’ original with astonishing words? One can recall the usual ‘conversation,’ ‘journey,’ ‘dynamic,’ ‘paradigm,’ ‘protocol,’ ‘identity,’ narrative,’ ‘intersection,’ and such words that seem to have been chosen for their different, out of context soundings. It was the ‘architectural plane’ and ‘architectural performance’ that self-consciously referred to an ordinary table and to people sitting around it eating, that became a serious concern and showed a certain elitist pomposity.


Geometry was one core factor in this work. The problem was that the investigation into geometries was to seek out differences and new forms that could be adapted for architecture, without really knowing why, other than for a divergent distinction. The geometry came first, and once ‘discovered,’ one then thought of an adaptation for its use as an architectural form, and then a function. The challenge seemed to be fractal geometry. Apparently no one has yet turned this into architecture. Ms Reinhardt must understand what fractals are: in one way all good architecture incorporates them as parts reflect wholes in nature. It was technology and geometry that were the core issues, never the function or the body, the physical, biological body, yet the word was there, and used frequently, as if to suggest some sensitivity to feeling. The body was merely placed in the technology that was determined by its own self-interests.


One was reminded here of the sixties. Does Ms Reinhardt know of Rayner Banham, and the classic image of him sitting in an inflated bubble structure illustrating the body in technology?# Does she know of his Theory and Design in the First Machine Age? Of Sigfried Gideon’s Mechanisation Takes Command? Is she aware of D’Arcy Thompson’s great study of nature and geometry: On Growth and Form published in 1917? Peter Medaway considered this to be “The finest work of literature in all the annals of science that have been recorded in the English tongue” – see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D'Arcy_Wentworth_Thompson  Ms Reinhardt’s presentation appeared to be suggesting these themes as though they were totally new. Strangely she was excited about discovering that a bee’s hive had the same geometry as a fly’s eye. Why not acknowledge the past and develop it as science does? Why does architecture always seem to grab other specialities and interests and distort them for its own purposes? One should always remember Einstein’s critique of Gideon’s Space, Time and Architecture - that it was a lot of rubbish. Architects need far more rigour in their work if they are to gain the respect of other fields of understanding.
Does Ms Reinhardt know of the English mathematician Roger Penrose’s clever geometries that have been used in architecture – by ARM in Melbourne? Does she know of Keith Critchlow’s astonishing Islamic Patterns that was instrumental in the rebuilding of Saladin’s Minbar? – see: http://www.thamesandhudson.com/The_Minbar_of_Saladin/9780500238431


It was interesting that most of Ms Reinhardt’s work appeared to be centred around theatre, performance, and entertainment. Where was architecture, the nuts and bolts of building? What was a puzzle was just why it seemed impossible for her to provide a good, timely, entertaining performance here, given her stated interest and expertise. It must be admitted that her performance was not helped by the context. One had always to struggle to hear and to understand, not because of the complexity of the concepts, but simply because of the mechanics of the event area and its failing functions. One never had the luxury of relaxing just to concentrate on the ideas. Sadly Sullivan’s ‘form follows function’ played no role here, and held little importance. Architecture as real built form seemed to hold even less importance in this talk. Architecture appeared to be the selecting of forms, shapes, movements, and technologies that could be adapted into things ‘architectural’ for the body to share. The introduction of the body looked like a red herring that was used to add something personal and emotive.


The body, though mentioned frequently, was always merely a thing that be placed into a context that was the ‘architecture’ - the geometry made and illustrated by technology, robots, machines, computers for their own interesting involvements. What role did the thinking, feeling emotional body hold in this world? What had the concept of all design being a ‘handle’ to do in this world? – see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/03/what-is-handle.html  This ‘handle’ notion highlights a world where people exist not to perform, but to live, to be accommodated by things made to be touched, made to be a part of the body, its extension; to allow its operation and interaction to be fulfilled with a maximum of subtlety and care, rather than with the greatest self-interest and public display: look at ME!: a ‘reverse engineer’ architect was the term used. Just why Ms Reinhardt chose a set of intersecting domes to explore is unknown. They looked like the Pini domes of the 1970s. Yet there was much said about this study that involved a robot cutter to expose the interior. After acoustic studies, seating could be placed in the correct location. This was the ‘reverse engineering’ - the making things, any things, work. Sullivan also spoke of the ‘function following form,’ but this was an integral part of his first catch phrase that he exampled with a flower: the form of the rose is the function of the rose; the function of the rose is the form of the rose. Ms Reinhardt used flowers too, but these were deconstructed and laser cut copies of the various botanical parts that were produced to become design elements for further ‘artful’ explorations.


The talk had its interesting pieces. The concern was that everything appeared to be an activity to generate some promotional matter to become a listing in the CV, a publication, or some the equivalent sponsored enterprise. Matters were theoretical but always sought to relate to architecture in some abstract manner. There was something strangely vague and misguided here. The idea of design involving geometry could be accepted, but everything seemed to stop here and get diverted by the interest in matters digital. Everything was CAD, video or referred to some different technology. This involvement appeared to be the core concern. There was no in-depth consistency or rigour as is found in bridge engineering, for example. Consider the Firth of Forth bridge: this engineering involves geometry and intricate structural relationships, but it has all been taken much further, right down to the size, location and number of rivets and of other such detail as is necessary for bridges to be built, to allow it to express the beauty sought in the primary vision. Louis Kahn referred to this process as: “A great building must begin with the unmeasurable, must go through measurable means when it is being designed and in the end must be unmeasurable.” This talk spun around matters of interest in a somewhat phoney, hollow manner, suggesting creativity, originality and genius when there is much, much more hard work to undertake if architecture is to become engaged in any substantial manner. Are we getting back to the days where design is all and everything, where discussing ideas needs to be taken no further than the dance of the intellect, that seeks to perform for its own indulgence?


It was, in short, an unhappy evening: unsatisfactory; somewhat concerning. Leaving the premises down a secondary axis route, one noticed a new track of bitumen beside the concrete path. It was boldly labelled ‘BUGGY PATH.’ This was the first time one had seen a track dedicated to the buggies used by the disabled and aged. Unfortunately, just before the pedestrian path began to ramp down to the car park, the Buggy Path stopped, right in front of a drain in grass! The termination seemed as ad hoc as those of cycle paths, with their random stopping and starting. Perhaps this little bitumen track is boasted about with just as much enthusiasm as cycle paths are? One could not resist the pun by noticing that any buggy rider would be ‘buggered’ when it reached the limits of its thoroughfare, to end up in a drain, or left to the perils of a long pedestrian ramp.


. . . . . . .

But what of the points for the evening? How did one get the two CPD points on offer? An A4 page handout for attendees explained the arrangement in an assertive bold: ‘To claim 2.0 Formal CPD points attendees are required to complete all of the following questions:’
It sounds like an exam paper. Six questions were then listed:
1.                  What in the presentation challenged you to think about architecture and its practice differently?
2.                  What were some of the key points/ issues raised during the presentation?
3.                  What are some implications of these for the practice of architecture broadly?
4.                  What other issues/ideas do the key points suggest for you?
5.                  What did you learn from the presentation/discussion?
6.                  What will you do differently in your own workplace or apply personally as a result of the presentation?
It was surprising that the number of words required to be used in each response as a minimum was not prescribed.


The serious problem of CPD requirements has been written about previously: see –
These comments need not be repeated here, but one can point out the sheer insult that such a requirement presents for anyone with some depth of experience in the profession. The rude demand that ‘all’ questions be answered applies to a recent graduate just starting out in the profession and to those who have worked successfully for years in it. There is something clearly absurd here. The Board has the power to assess re-registration using ‘experience’ and ‘architectural services’ as a gauge – refer Architects Act, Division 4, Section 16, part (2), (a) and (d): see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/05/who-or-what-is-architect.html , but it seemingly chooses to ignore these. It appears to be the same stance that the profession as a whole has for its elders. Instead of the respect that other professions hold for their experienced members, the architectural profession chooses to ignore its elder statesmen.


Years ago, the directors of an innovative firm of architects, Hayes, Scott and Henderson, Eddie Hayes and Cam Scott, resigned from the then RAIA, the ‘Royal’ Australian Institute of Architects, without any comment or protest from the profession. They were just allowed to go when they should have been offered life memberships. My personal protest at this time was to do nothing about renewing my relationship with the institute. I have never been contacted by any member of the profession on this matter. After a very active involvement in the RAIA, I was just allowed to disappear. No one could care less, just as the profession appears to currently care nothing about anyone but themselves. Whenever an architect was offered the role of guest editor or contributor to the Institute’s magazine, all that would be offered would be promotional material for the particular firm involved, nothing else. Currently the primary image on the AIA (not America) site presents a masthead photograph of one of the President’s projects, as if he was using his position to promote himself. It is all a very sad situation. Even the death of Robin Gibson appears to have had little formal impact on the AIA (not America): see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/03/on-death-of-robin-gibson-architect.html  The profession must do more; it must be better than this. Two other elders, now deceased, come to mind when neglect is mentioned: Neville Lund; and more recently John Morton.


For the record, my answers are:
1.                  the poor context – ja!
2.                  the poor presentation – ja!
3.                  to improve the context and presentation – ja!
4.                  to become more aware of contexts and presentations – ja!
5.                  to improve planning for contexts and presentations – ja!
6.                  to continue to critique the pretentious gulf between theory and fact – ja!

Note that chapter five was skipped to make up time, and the talk finished half an hour late. One wonders: what of importance was deleted? Did it make any difference?
Maybe one should have waited for the video to be put on line. Will it be curtailed too? Perhaps the sound might be better; and, viewed in the comfort of one’s own space at one’s convenience, one would be able to relax and concentrate on the subject, being able to stop, start and rewind at will, or switch it off, as required.


P.S.
It was announced at the end of the talk that the next month’s speakers would be Lindsay and Kerry Clare. The rider was that the talk would not be given at Bond University, but at GOMA, a building by the Clares that has reportedly inspired other copies - see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/05/pairs-3.html  and http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/07/pairs-10-art-culture.html  Have previous speakers told the Clares how poor the presentation space is at Bond University? The choice of the preferred GOMA location does appear a little rude, demanding that all those at the Gold Coast who wish to attend will have to travel to Brisbane. It is a little like the mountain going to . . oh! Can one say that these days?



# NOTE - 6 October 2014
Almost as a re-enactment of Banham's image, but taking it a little further, the news today reported that a United States man had been found floating in giant inflatable bubble off the Florida coast - ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)


The drawing accompanies Banham’s 1965 essay, “A Home is not a House.”

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