Friday, December 8, 2017


It was that time of the year again: the exhibition of the students’ work. The Abedian School of Architecture at Bond University on the Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia, promoted this event in parallel with one of its regular talks. Hannah Tribe, a Sydney-based architect, was to speak about her work after folk had milled around with drinks and nibblies while perusing the display, chatting, or just catching up: see
The evening was an occasion for such preliminary, 'end of year' events.

The Forum space with full-height glazing opening.
The main entry is on the top left.

The multi-function entry: Forum (on left), crit space (centre), and corridor.
The kitchen in on the right (out of frame).

The glare of the Forum space with its high glazing either side of the speaker and screen.

The space surprised: it was different. As one entered the familiar void, an intertwined mix of foyer, kitchen and Forum, the usual vista along the ramped corridor was boxed off with a chicane-like slatted timber screen offering two options for entry: or was one IN and the other OUT? One was reminded of the Ekka, the annual agricultural show at Brisbane, both the old entry gates with their narrow turnstiles, and the animal pens. The screen had the qualities of both, giving the feeling that one might have to pay for entrance, or be managed carefully like sheep, for their regular chemical drenching; or cattle, for their branding. It was not really a happy affair. One was left confused by this puzzling ambiguity. What was intended? The flimsy structure established a division between the bar with its cheese and bikkies, and the display, as if it might be dangerous for the two different purposes to meet or be shared: this is Queensland that likes to define public drinking areas precisely, with a determined precision and an enforced rigour. One wondered: was one allowed to take drink and food into the exhibition area; through which opening?

The passage ramp - view from main entry

Once one had negotiated this ‘control’ screen – this is how it felt; was one being recorded on camera; counted; supervised? - the usual open circulation zone was discovered to have a display structure erected along its central axis. This framework was made from the same pieces and parts of dressed pine that the entry screen had used. The idea was obviously a response to the swanky new building that had very few vertical straight walls available for a sizeable display – in a school of architecture? Originally artists’ easels had to be used for crit displays. The temporary display frame, effectively a linear easel, provided hanging places for the printed paper designs, and ledges for the associated models. It was a fragile frame, but adequate, with a rather Rietveld feel about it – piecemeal sticky, but not coloured. The detailing that used smart brass pins, nails and screws as fixings somewhat randomly, did not seem to allow for simple deconstruction and reuse. One wondered why. Bolts and wing nuts might have easily allowed for dismantling and reconstruction, but may not have looked as pretty.

The passage ramp - looking towards the main entry

The unfortunate fact was that this rectilinear display system was placed on a ramp, so everything was slightly askew. One thought of the Guggenheim: ramps are not really a good place for display. It may not be a popular matter to discuss, but Frank Lloyd Wright’s circular ramped building does not make a good art gallery, no matter how much tolerance and forgiveness might be offered to the master. Still, it is an astonishing place. The Abedian ramp is not so startling; just a little annoying, especially with such a formally gridded framing system standing skewed. It might sound a small matter, but are we not dealing with a place that teaches, trains architects? It might be a good beginning to have the importance and significance of all details, their precision and purpose, impressed upon young minds. One thought of this point as one perused the drawings that seemed at ease with the great, grand gesture, and recalled the Andrew Kudless talk that had showed how carefully the students had been tutored in the display prepared under his guidance. Here the mathematics of the 3D curves of the clever building had been analysed and deconstructed allowing each individual panel to be shaped so that the arrangement would form a continuous horizontal display as each touched the other and weaved an exact linear alignment around the walls to which they had been pasted. This was attention to detail; precision and perfection came together as carefully as the panels themselves. Had nothing been learned?

The display was, at first glance, impressive, but soon one sensed a void, something strangely, subtly askew like the support system alignments. Every presentation seemed to lack the sense of touch, the feel of having been the fruit of the hand. Everything appeared to have been the work of machines, even the models that obviously needed some manual manipulation. The forms and images all seemed to be suspended on a fine film of astonishment, with the delicately-cut forms of the models, and the spray of the ink onto the paper offering wondrous effects and clever, impressive, other-worldly images. Technology appeared to be on display rather than the work of students – ‘smart’ technology too. One feared that the student might be equally amazed at the production, with these forms and images appearing mystically, materialising magically from the machines. Might this distant delight make anyone over-impressed with their own creations, prompting a surprised self-praise that easily overtakes, blinds the critical eye with indulgence? The paper seemed to have not one impression in it from any line or shape, leaving a sense of a fuzzy haze of remote perfection, some otherness, enveloping the exhibition, as if everything might be floating aimlessly. There seemed to be a lack of intimacy here that separated ideas from outcomes; forms from feelings.

The crit space.

Did a lack of personal critique allow the main efforts to concentrate only on the big images, suggesting that further development was not needed with such impressive results; indeed, that these might be disrupted, spoilt with further interrogation? There seemed to be no sense of questioning here; little doubt: there was something of an over-confident hiatus. All the schemes looked like they had concentrated on the big picture that could be modelled, confirmed as ‘real’ 3D matter rather than explored, tested. Everything was presented in sufficient detail to give the impression that all issues had been attended to, that the design was complete, and completely considered. Alas, once one stepped closer to peruse the planning details and the structural intents and resolutions, it soon became clear that there were massive gaps in these alluring images; huge vacancies. Living rooms with space for one lounge chair; dining rooms with a table only and no room for chairs let alone circulation; open plans with names only defining emptiness were displayed without apology. One wondered if anyone had ever thought of living in these places; felt them; imagined being there? This was the void: the apparent separation between self and object, what Martin Buber might have referred to as the 'I-Thou' gap. It was not immediately obvious that any consideration had been stretched so far, let alone any emotional engagement. So how did the forms get formalised? Was it merely a matter of developing something ‘interesting’ on the computer - ‘morphing’? - and labelling it: selecting something from Pinterest? The accompanying words were impressive and fashionable, but were frequently left isolated, alone, as an aside; an intellectual involvement. These texts sought to amplify the drawings, as if the statement of the words might magically imply that everything was as it had been described. It does not work like this: the images frequently appeared otherwise, making a mockery of the texts, and vice versa.

The crit space.

There was a lingering concern with the work on display. One sensed that it might be seen as being like projects published in glossy magazines, work publicised only to impress. One could perhaps understand how it might be considered acceptable to have student projects presented in this manner – grand in idea but vague on the more intimate details: such is the persuasive power of print and fashion. Work like this is being built and published every day, so why might one question functions, materials, details and structure? Anything is possible! This thought became more worrying when the publication of the students’ work was seen. It is a slick, glossy, 20mm thick coloured document reproduced on quality paper, looking impressively comprehensive and creative with its double covers. Here the concept of technology overcoming the critical eye is confirmed. Students are able to see their own projects published as if in an international magazine, or an acclaimed architectural volume, such is the identity, feel and smell of this printed tome. This is a serious concern. Education needs tough depth and rigour, not easy gloss.

Professor Keniger noted in his introduction for the evening’s talk that the publication was a significant item for the young school. He spoke about it as establishing some identity for the place, possibly to establish the school’s credentials: hence its moth-like ‘attractiveness’ for future students? Education is now a business. The idea of the book seemed to be a gesture towards creating an awesome reputation for the school with all the skill of a marketing maestro. One hopes that a school is not training architects to be impressed with coloured printed material that truly materialises schematic and uncertain projects, mystically turning them into quality, graphic facts. This scenario is something like the way the art gallery restructures attitudes that allow nearly any event and thing to go unquestioned as 'art,' if not ‘great art’: see - The school should be wary of basing a future on phantom glitz and glitter.

But is it already doing this? When one discovers that the working portion of the school, the workshop that holds all of the ‘magic’ machines, is in a nearby tin shed 'out the back,' one soon gets the impression that the building by Sir Peter Cook of CRAB could itself be purely a promotional item: a quirky, different, eye-catching structure that might gain the national and international attention and recognition that the institution seeks, and become its icon: the drawcard. Such, it seems, is the competition in education today, and reputations.

The exhibition offered a glimpse into ideas that seemed to fit the promotional mould of educational and architectural commerce. It was indeed flashy, a floating world, ambiguous in its commitment, certainty and intent. Now this had nothing to do with Edo, although some projects were related to the study tour to Japan undertaken by some of the students. It has to do with the impersonal haze of ideas and technological outcomes that appear to impress, and to seek to impress, well beyond the actual reality that they pretend to define.

Education needs to touch the everyday. As Henri Lefebvre said, Man must be everyday, or he will not be at all. It is really too easy to be ‘exceptional.’ The challenge must be to make the ordinary extraordinary; the ‘everyday’ rich and vital. Just how this can be achieved in this building is not clear.

25 DEC 2017
This article in The Guardian gives an insight into education, teachers, students, attendance and commerce – universities run as a business:
How might these understandings be interpreted in current architectural education?

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