Saturday, February 14, 2015

ROOM 11: THE ARCHITECTURE OF SIMPLISTIC POETICS





The regular monthly Thursday evening lecture at the Abedian School of Architecture at Bond University on the Gold Coast of Australia, in Queensland, seemed to come up quickly. Was it really a month ago that Richard Leplastrier spoke? – see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2015/01/richard-leplastrier-ephemeral.html Well, no; only three weeks had passed. Perhaps the evening had been arranged to suit the visitor? Thomas Bailey, founder of ROOM 11, a firm of architects with offices in Hobart, and in Melbourne, was to talk on Thursday, 12th February 2015. The firm’s site gives the introductory blurb:
STUDIO
Room11 is a unique team of architects. Room11 studios are focused, dynamic environments, encouraging progressive and collaborative design processes.
We design with a social and ecological conscience, and create environmentally responsible projects.
[One has to ask about the graphic: is it ‘ROOM 11’ all uppercase as in the logo, or ‘Room 11’ as in the text? We’ll use ‘ROOM 11’ here from the logo.]


The issues with the venue, the FORUM area at the Abedian School of Architecture have been mentioned previously: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/10/exploring-definition-edge-condition-of.html  and http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2015/01/richard-leplastrier-ephemeral.html  There is no need to go over these as they do not change. Pedantically, one could add that the three glary LED lights around the speaker each have 12 bright LEDs in them, arrayed in three sets of three around a central set of three. Talks do have their low periods that require some analytical distraction in order to remain alert.

The logo

The attendees slowly settled down into the designer chairs set in a radial pattern, and the evening started at the regular late time once the bar had closed. After the introduction, Thomas Bailey clicked his microphone and projector buttons on. His hands purposefully rearranged his long locks around his face to let them fall back into the position that they originally occupied. It was a self-conscious, perhaps poetic-like gesture of refreshing readiness. A delicate image appeared on the screen. It was an octagon with sides projected to create an array of triangles that were further embellished with other triangles inside a concentric circle, all structured on the radial lines of the octagon and its extended triangles. In the centre of the octagon was a somewhat awkward uppercase ‘ROOM _11.’ There was no explanation for this subtle display of specific geometry that one supposed was the firm’s logo. Did the office specialise in space frames; domes? The diagram looked to have been taken straight from Hersey’s book on Baroque geometry – see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2015/01/george-l-herseys-hopeful-fashioning-of.html (a book not to be recommended). The image had a strange contrast: the beautiful rigour of the ‘diamond-cut’ geometry clashed with the strange, almost randomly casual set out of what seemed to be an ad hoc name - “We were in room 11.”

Thomas Bailey

ROOM 11

Thomas Bailey started by explaining that he did not know how to shape his presentation, so wisely he was starting at the beginning. He introduced his team, noting that two were brothers-in-law: “Typical Hobart!” A finely lettered title appeared on the dark screen – the name of his first project. “I have not spoken about this for years.” It was described as a concrete, underground house. He used images of the work to explain how the firm was interested in place and its poetics. Ecology and environment were encompassed within this broad, over-riding interest in the character of style. His images were selective and few in number. They were all in the ‘art’ photography, the ingenious ‘Hitchcock-dramatic’ mode with carefully selected locations and precisely framed, staged angles and subdivisions. The usual ‘clever architect’ idea was explained: this house was for a bomb disposal expert, so “we thought that it might be good to give him a concrete bunker.” And so they did – an off-form insitu concrete building, complete with a concrete slab ceiling marked with the family’s ley lines - ? It reminded me of the ‘smart’ architect who gave the client who liked keeping his car perfectly polished, a polished fibreglass garage for him to keep spic-and-span too. There is something playfully arrogant, something aloof in this habit of architects boasting of the games they play with their ‘ignorant’ unwitting clients.






'Hitchcock-dramatic' images where the frame is precisely composed

One struggled to get any sense of what the underground house might be other than as a set of selected glimpses. It was difficult to see what was under what, where and how, and to what extent. One was shown stairs going down to somewhere; and dark passages slanted with bright sunlight. There was something cinematographic about the images that looked like stills from a movie. This limitation was to set the stage for the evening that was devoid of any drawings – no plans, elevations or sections other than one ‘poetic’ scribbled plan of what seemed to be a sketch for a small house, seemingly fuzzed to suggest hyper-sensitivity; and one small-scaled site plan of the GASP! walkway project. Why no drawings? Drawings tell so much more about a project than singular, separate snap shots, all carefully chosen, selected to create the preferred images that seek to make one see a project in a particular manner - see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/04/seeing-what-we-believe-idyllic-visions.html




Other small houses were illustrated. Each one seemed to have been given an ‘arty’ name like: Lookout House; Artist’s Studio; Wall House; Little Big House; Lighthouse; Highway House; etc. Each place was illustrated by only a few precisely framed photographic images, nothing more. The words did the rest: “Black is good because it cannot be seen in the hills;” “the slats are celery top pine;” “the light in Tasmania is soft.” Sometimes it was difficult to understand what one was viewing: was this photograph another view of a particular house, or was it an image of a different project. The projects all had a similar feel when seen only in part. Was this alikeness in the photography or the architecture? Both? One place had only one image of it displayed. Why? Is this the limit of the story, or was it to limit it; to control it? Most interiors were surprisingly empty, uninhabited voids. Was this the Harry Seidler technique of making sure the interior images were purely ‘architectural’ - stylish? Did people live in these buildings? How? There was no evidence of the random loving and trashing of life evident in the works anywhere.




Interior voids




As the images moved across the screen, one was reminded of Marcel Breuer, Philip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe. This was an architecture of simplicity maximised, heightened into a fine sophistication of imagery in order to present the absolute least of everything precisely, hoping, it appeared, for the most from the ‘less is more’ cliché: apparently eager that this startling rigour might be seen as something profoundly poetical, rather than as a stark limitation in expression or any forfeit of ideas. There is something easy when working with materials and proportions. Ideas and possibilities become limited by necessity rather than being exposed to a shemozzle of intellectual questioning seeking an appropriate emotional response to embody this complexity.





ROOM 11 work seemed to be boxes that used slats and frames to create a Modrian-like effect in three dimensions. The story that one house, the one illustrated with one image, was to be used - “today or tomorrow” - by a famous German photographer for a ‘car shoot’ background seemed to sum up the spectacular stage-set sense of this work. It created places to promote; in which to perform purposefully, dramatically: it was built to impress uniquely; memorably.
The house for the car shoot

GASP! - the terminal building



Moving on from housing, Thomas Bailey showed his one other plan, the site plan for the three-kilometre walkway project GASP! The plan looked elegant, a large arc fitting nicely into the coastline features. It seemed to be the reverse of fractal thinking, simplifying complexity into the most straightforward of shapes possible: a broad arc. Oddly, the images selected for this project were all taken by others. Do architects no longer have cameras; or is it that ROOM 11 only wants suave professional shots of its work for marketing? The scheme looked to be a very nice walkway, with various colours chosen to vary the experience along the path; but it was the story on colours that puzzled. Why tell it? Apparently the intent was to engage the roughish locals who lived nearby, to give them some sense of ownership. The idea was to use neighbouring community skills in the painting of this walkway, hoping that this involvement might prevent any vandalism. The intent seemed very sensitive, happily inclusive, but the blunt outcome was that “it did not happen like this, unfortunately” – shrug; smirk. Why tell the yarn that seeks sense and admiration in empathy if it exposes a failure to achieve this? It looks like the ‘bunker’ mentality again: playing with clients for architectural benefits - for the story-telling fun of it.

GASP! - the walkway

This walkway project was given more time than any other project. It was indeed nice work. Vertical wooden balusters, like slats painted in various colours, formed a reed-like band hovering over water that mesmerised with the interplay of its layers. It looked excellent in the misty light with the distant hills of Mt. Wellington behind it. It appeared to improve place.

GASP! - the intermediate shelter between heritage trees



Along this walkway was a shelter; at the end, another. Richard Lepalstrier was mentioned as an inspiration for the handling these places. The work had a subtle sense of fineness and finesse. Thomas Bailey explained how the 100mm deep structure was able to span nine metres by pre-cambering the beam to allow it to sag into the horizontal position. It sounded tricky, a clever manipulation of national standards. This light span framed the vista of the waters and hills in a pavilion that linked two beautiful heritage trees with a long horizontal, formal gesture highlighted with amber glass. It was a very sweet resolution; trim; precise. A few images revealed the detailing – a haze of timber slats. The necessity was that slats could go to the roof, but had to keep clear of the ground. Such essential needs of the materials had become the guidelines for form and expression once the idea to link the trees had been agreed as the strategy. It is a truly modern style: forms formed by functions defined by the rational performance of materials making pure style. It is chic elegance that is important here: as image. Is this why the work was being presented as a set of selected photographs? A few travel shots of Australian landscape and some old buildings taken from a moving car were shown to break the rhythm of the work story, perhaps to ease its formality, in order to illustrate the inspiration for these projects. Some very hazy images puzzled rather than informed. Maybe this is where the interest in shade and shadow came from? The link to the ROOM 11 work might be more poetical than immediately obvious, for the connections between the arty images and the built projects were never obvious or explicit, just suggested, hinted at.

GASP! - the landscape wind wall

GASP! - the rose-coloured glass of the terminal building

The terminus building of the walkway was the highlight of the GASP! project, complete with the red glass “Oh, Johnny!” experience. As one approached this pavilion on the edge of and over the water, a forty-metre long double polished concrete wall led one into the box. The wall was an exaggerated Meisian blade slicing out into the landscape while holding a distant floating horizontal slab over the ground plane. The wall was apparently intended to protect folk from the harsh wind of the region, but trees that could do this seemed to have been planted nearby. As soon as one entered the shelter, a large red-glazed window wall coloured the landscape vista with a real chromatic surprise: ah! - to see the world through rose-coloured glass. This seemed to sum up the ROOM 11 work: it was theatrical, dramatic. Indeed, ROOM 11 has been involved in performance art at RMIT. Photographs of fuzzy feet apparently making noises while moving on leaves - or was it gravel? - were artily illustrated in black and white images filled with blinding bright light, like the LEDs nearby. These shots seemed to be as relevant to the whole as the travelling images were, linked by subtle inference alone.

This drawing was not shown by Bailey in his talk

This image was shown by Bailey in his talk

This terminal pavilion cantilevered out over the water with a dramatic flourish: look no hands! Strangely an exclamation mark had been used in the GASP! graphic. Why? Images of crowds in this pavilion, and an alone dancer performing in it, were shown, perhaps to show folk were interested in it, or that the terminal was a good theatrical space.



Then another house was shown – well, selected pieces of it were presented. Drawings would have been useful here, for there was said to be an interplay of external and internal voids, somehow. How did this place accommodate habitation; everyday life? More information was needed.


Without any pause, the next title on the dark screen was ‘THE END’ – silence. What a surprise. It was only 7:30pm. The talk was scheduled to finish at 8:00pm. Previous complaints were about running over time; now we were being short changed! At least the presentation was in tune with the firm’s sense of strict minimalism. To try to give more ‘value’ to the evening, questions were dragged out of a few: How did the thin beams span so far? The pre-cambering was explained, and how even with this strategy, the beams had to be cut and adjusted, fiddled with to give the horizontal line desired. It sounded like a trial and error process. “Not many engineers work like this,” was the comment given almost as a warning that seemed to be somewhat like those messages on TV that tell one not to try this at home. Then there was a question on the cantilever. Well, not surprisingly, this same engineer held this box up from the top, with heavy beams tied back into huge footing - “As big as the moon” - and into the long concrete approach wall for additional restraint. The problem was that the ties into natural rock had failed. The $30,000 contingency was used up for one variation, to allow an over-stressed concrete box - “to the very limits: I hope it doesn’t explode” - to hang over water. Would a couple of props have changed anything? One of the world’s most famous cantilevers has them and does not become less for this – Wright’s Falling Water. Was the ambition to ‘out-amaze’ this house of the century? The work of ROOM 11 seems to be an architecture of planned drama – a real theatre of amazement. Is architecture just this? The question on the lack of protection over the entry door in one of Bailey’s favourite residences was answered somewhat apologetically, somewhat dismissively: “There is a shallow recess outside and a long hall inside.” Drawings would have shown this. Style seemed more important than functional weather protection.



ROOM 11 frequently uses slats in its projects

While it was always suggested that the work was really regional, influenced by its place and country, it appeared otherwise. The work was pure minimalist modern, ‘International,’ and appeared to suggest that such extreme, sophisticated rigour must result in tensions revealing a deep and meaningful ‘poetic’ expression. Did it assume too much? One saw this search for the ephemeral in the scribbled plan where small ‘slatted’ marks were hesitantly put onto paper, accumulating a haze to be gathered into a line or a mass, making it seem that any firmer, more decisive gesture might have been less ‘poetical.’ Was this apparent unwillingness to commit to anything certain why the work was all left so empty for the photographs? Is this indecision, its ambiguity, why the ROOM 11 work uses so many slatted surfaces, vaporous planes?


Even with the crowds arriving at the terminal building of GASP! - was one supposed to gasp! at this experience: ‘Oh, Johnny!’?– the space appeared to have only one coffin-like seat, a look-alike sarcophagus  placed in the middle of nowhere, as they are in art galleries, for style and appearance alone, rarely for comfort. Where might one unselfconsciously sit, quietly, privately; where might one pause to do nothing, artlessly? This lack of any casual opportunity for the accommodation of ordinary being and being there highlighted something noted in the images: they were all for display rather than being shaped for any sense of life and simple, unpretentious living. Life’s clutter of bits-and-pieces and its random needs for easy comfort reach well beyond the rigours of location, appearance and placement for the angled, preferred photograph. This was ‘arty’ work: artful. It did not reach out considerately to accommodate folk with things gentle and ad hoc. It asked folk to perform like the dancer, to become part of a simplistic poetics in the architectural image - to admire and be admired: astonished.



Yet was there more. The head of school explained in his summing up that this was quality work that not only looked good in the photographs, but it maintained its intriguing quality as experience. This was an important aside: indeed this GASP! project was an award-winning work. It won the 2014 National Architecture Award. One was left with an enigma – why no drawings: not even on-line? Why is this work so reminiscent of Mies and his ilk? Is it ‘revival’ time, retro, like fashions? The strange thought was that this work relies on its precise detailing for its crisp resolution, but nearly all of the photographs were general ‘ambient’ shots, expressive moody images, apart from an apartment project that showed a full-screen, interior detail of a joint that one could make little sense of. Why? What is the real ambition of this work? Does it seek a simplistic poetics expressed in an extremely fine refinement of vague voids and spaced slats creating a theatrical expression, over-dramatically? What is the relationship between people’s lives and architecture? How can the complexities of feeling and being inform form? Does simplicity have to be minimal; singular; void? How can architecture enrich our lives without making statements to amaze us with a startle rather than gently, humbly, unassumingly? Is the measure of architecture its ability to be reproduced endlessly to create an even more beautiful place?  One thinks of the older cities and wonders why architecture has now become so declaratory as iconic individualism.


THE END


The audience was reminded that this talk was worth two full Continuing Professional Development points. It seemed that the length of the talk had no impact on the potential score one might achieve. A form was available at the rear of the room. One was picked up to see if there had been any changes; but no. The demands were as specific and as trite and threatening as usual:

BOND UNIVERSITY
Abedian School of Architecture

To claim 2.0 Formal CPD points attendees are required to complete all of the following questions: (in bold to emphasize that the requirements have to be taken seriously?)
  1. What in the presentation challenged you to think about architecture and its practice?
  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 to 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?

These questions have to be responded to by all, whether the individual is a recent graduate or a professional with over forty-year’s experience. The concerns have been expressed previously: see – ….

But why is a university participating in and promoting this silliness? Is there no one at Bond who is able to say that this requirement is pure nonsense? Is there no one in the AIA (Australia) who is prepared to point out that these are the questions young children are asked? It really is pure stupidity and says more about the institutions that promote this questionnaire than anyone else. Who assesses the responses? To continue in the same vein of silliness: Is there a requirement for a specific minimum number of words? Is there a time for submission? The requirements are simply astonishing, truly embarrassing; insulting. The profession must do better than this.

Let’s see how one might perhaps respond to the questions:
1.                  thin structure, wet doors and life
2.                  be wary of theatre
3.                  do your research well
4.                  prepare talks better to suit time
5.                  use drawings
6.                  avoid style

Practice - architecture itself - is much more coherent than this analytical rationalism. If a rich and fertile integration is the ambition of good work, then these questions work against such an attitude. They are self-defeating if they are seeking proof of real continuing professional development. One fears that the questions have been framed by doubters, for others to ‘prove’ that the talk was really attended.  One has to make sure that those who claim points actually made the effort to go rather than prepare a catalogue of possibilities from the annual calendar of CPD events! Perhaps Bond should hand out tokens?


NOTE:
There are plans on-line of some projects: see - http://room11.com.au/projects/ Perhaps they were not in the talk because drawings may not be a core part of this practice that might prefer the 3D power and impact of style to be enhanced in selected images and words?

Lookout House

Allens Rivulet House

(showing open space coloured)

Highway House

GASP!

GASP!

Pocket House


For the beauty of planning, one should study the work of Wright and Aalto.

As an aside, it is interesting to note how images like those seen in this work are used in movies and television dramas as modern ‘architectural’ pieces, examples of ‘Modernism’: unique style; extreme chic. Everyone will be able to recall a circumstance where the set has been such a house. The architecture becomes the background for the drama involving architects and ‘smart’ clients when the script demands this setting. The buildings and their interiors are used as cliché diagrams for the latest in style. The car shoot mentioned in the talk is another example of how these images get used in commercial advertising to promote a chosen image. What does this say about the work? The Jacques Tati 1958 comedy Mon Oncle comes to mind.
See: Modern city image in http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/04/seeing-what-we-believe-idyllic-visions.html



Urangan Pier, Hervey Bay, Queensland


P.S.
I have to admit to having experience in public walkway design. My comment on the walkway structure over the water is that it has the unfortunate feel of a cattle race with its unchanging width, boarding and balustrade detail. My preference is for walkways to be articulated to respond to the various circumstances and opportunities available along a route, and to the different micro-contexts that exist in any precinct, rather than present those strolling along with a bland avenue, even though it might be prettily coloured and photograph dramatically. People rarely walk along the straight alignment of any path, even curved ones.

My explorations have an interest in body direction in space; places to pause; angles to respond to vistas; changing surfaces with place and purpose; varying balustrade details likewise, to open and close them. and to change the textures used (they all cast different shadows and stimulate different senses); to vary the materials used throughout; etc. to suit the feel of the place and its location; to identify thoroughfares, pause points and lookouts, and the like. The idea here is to annotate the journey, to offer subtle variations to enliven, to enrich the experience in the finest of intimacies rather than channelling the visitors from one end to the other, ‘efficiently’ along the same profile. If folk choose to walk like this along an articulated path, then they can; but opportunities are there to be discovered, revealed, and chanced upon.

Brisbane’s reconstructed floating walkway, (now not floating), has the same singular treatment with stainless steel balustrades, offering a boring sameness along its length. One has to realise that it are the little things that are critically important in all design rather than the big gesture alone. I know that old jetties strike out in the same manner along their length, but these were designed as functional paths. The interest in these is how people pause at balustrade seats; dangle feet through gaps in balustrades; gather at top landings that widen for stairs to reach water; pause at corners where the end widens to a small wharf space; and stop at other unusual parts that are different for functional purposes, or have been modified or require maintenance, as in missing deck boarding or patched-up balustrade, just for a peep below or to enjoy the different risk.

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