Six months post-graduation, I had come to terms with the fact that I was no longer a student; that my time of architectural education, subsidised conferences and student rallies was well and truly over. Yet it was by some twist of SONA membership fate- and possibly subconscious nostalgia-that I found myself at the biennial Australasian Student Architecture Congress, held in Melbourne this year.
Each of the three days delivered a dense lineup of lectures, fora and workshops, and took place in a different venue along the central spine of Swanston Street. From Deakin’s Edge at the well-established Federation Square, to the infamous RMIT Storey Hall, and finally to the newly opened Melbourne School of Design, it became evident that this Congress operated at the scale of the city- a deliberate showcase of Melbourne’s creative diversity and design innovation. Even so, I recall having a few reservations as I stepped through the fractured mouth of Federation Square for the first day’s proceedings:
How conducive would a full-day lecture format be for dialogue, exchange and discussion? Would there be more talking ‘at’ than talking ‘to’, and how ideal would this be for a large student crowd?
Would the radical essence of Congresses past, those freeform impulsive student expressions, still be present in this year ’s formalised meetings?
How would students respond to the material presented? Would discussions revolve around popular stylistic and technological concerns, over that of history, theor y, praxis, crises and politics?
Would there be many naive first-year questions (or worse still, none at all), and would they reveal a painful ignorance of current affairs outside of the insular student bubble?
I entered the first meeting with conflicting expectations. On one hand I anticipated an excellent series of challenging talks by respected professionals; on the other I was apprehensive of feeling disconnected in a sea of keen (and possibly quite green) undergraduate attendees. But by the end of the first panel discussion, most of the scepticism I harboured had promptly faded.These students were eager to learn- but not blindly so. I soon realised that I was, in fact, in the company of intelligent, critical-thinking young individuals who not only exhibited a deep interest in architectureand urbanism, but also recognised the value of proactive dialogue- certainly not the thumb-swiping, disengaged youths I had envisaged.
The days that followed became catalysts for participation and exchange. Students were exposed to an array of architectural and human-centric topics, often in juxtaposition: from parametrics to poverty, housing affordability to public art, music to museum exhibits. Between lectures they mingled readily amongst their peers, and quickly fostered new networks between continents, states and universities. Looking back over the weekend that was, I am pleased to report that the People Congress 2015 has held fast to its own theme: not just in the ideas explored but also the creative, collective and cohesive environment that was cultivated in such a short time.
The Forever House by WOWOWA, a young Melbourne firm. Photography by John Gollings.
Age was certainly not a dividing barrier in this conference- the list of speakers were a well-curated mix of experience and experimentation, acquired wisdom and unprecedented innovation. It was immensely inspiring to hear from emerging local architects, such as Monique Woodward of WOWOWA and Lucy Humphrey of Archrival, who have been making real impacts in the spheres of policy, politics, art and culture. Through the projects and initiatives created by those who could only be several years our seniors, these talks were living proof of what was possible simply by being pro-actively (and courageously) invested in the profession.
More than anything, these creative entrepreneurs encouraged the young crowd not to underestimate themselves, not to fear the uncertainties that lay beyond school walls, and that the only limitation to taking new ground was one’s own willingness and imagination. One only has to be reminded that the actual Congress was fully curated, developed, organised and then hosted by students themselves (either still studying or recently graduated)- an impressive undertaking in and of itself that testifies to the kind of optimism and drive these lectures were alluding to.
Amongst the more established speakers, there was a strong recurring sense of responsibility for education, influence and knowledge transfer to the ’next generation’ of architects- almost as though to charge us up with their vigour for practice so that in due time, we could take on the weighty mantle that the field of architecture carries.
Over the three days, delegates were able to see and hear first-hand the rich professional and personal life experiences of architects making waves in society. There was Jeremy McLeod (pictured left), a self-professed ‘Gen X’ architect, who animatedly expressed the architect’s ability to make collective economic change in housing, and explained the importance of mutual support networks amongst fellow architects, in ameliorating property market inequalities.
There was also Julie Stout’s captivating presentation on her extensive sea-voyages, how these journeys were translated into beautiful architecture and influenced her stance onurban issues such as harbour redevelopment in New Zealand.
There was Sean Godsell, the architect behind the innaugral MPavilion (pictured below), who spoke of the profession like a baton to be passed down, and that their generation of architects were working hard to lay the foundations for transition and eventual handover to us, the next stewards in line.
Photography by Earl Carter
Then there were the two Paul’s (Pholeros & Memmott) and Des Rogers, who each had a deeply moving heart for the nation’s Indigenous people, and spoke about making humble, incremental yet extremely tangible impacts in the lives of oft-excluded minority groups, rural dwellers and those below the poverty line.
Short of listing every speaker on the program, there was an incredible volume of lifelong design excellence and research rigour that found a deep respect with the audience, who in turn listened attentively, took notes and aimed to absorb as much of this intellectual nourishment as possible.
The Congress had a way of rounding up each group of talks with a Q&A panel, to summarise topics as well as prompt vital commentary from what had just been digested. These back-and-forth moments of shared perspectives left the greatest impression on me- perhaps it was the intriguing balance between input and output, between student and speaker.
It was refreshing to see so many unsolicited questions put to the presenting professionals- and from a broad cross-section of the student audience, not a recurring few. Having experienced my fair share of painfully forced post-lecture Q&A sessions, I was quietly proud of the delegates for being so vocal and genuinely inquisitive.
These students were unafraid to ask the contentious questions, and to flag any unclear aspects of the work presented by established senior academics (who, to their credit, rose to the occasion and responded with a matching grace, wisdom and honesty where they could not provide a definitive answer).
Take Sean Godsell’s lecture for example. After Sean’s rather heartfelt and deeply serious oration about his work, childhood and paternal relations, a delegate from Helsinki raised her hand and asked, with a brazen yet genuine innocence only a student could pull off: “If you could present a project to your father, which would it be?” Sean was momentarily taken aback- a rare moment for those who have heard him present before. But like most quick-thinking architects, he quickly recovered, and with a joke managed to dodge the bullet.
Another anecdote: after the final lecture by Takaharu Tezuka, one student enquired about the absence of process and iteration in his form-finding. How could the single timber model, one that persuaded the authorities into unanimously approving the scheme, not have undergone rigorous development? Without skipping a beat, Takaharu replied with a little laugh and a wise smile that he had actually made 2000 models for the project (for which he had an exhibition in Tokyo), from which he selected and presented the best one. Needless to say, the entire student body was amazed. He then advised everyone that if you, too, made a hundred models for your first presentation, you might also find the same favour with your jurors.
It was also fascinating to hear about architecture from the perspective of architectural photographers such as John Gollings. From his slideshow of largely personal photographs, it was evident that the joy of photographing buildings was not so much about the ‘timelessness’ of architecture and detail, but almost always about people, and a scale of temporality: capturing a brief moment in time, balancing out a composition of light, revealing a particular demographic of building users, or simply telling a narrative. In fact the realities of architecture mattered so little in comparison to the captured memories of it, that at one point Gollings exclaimed, ‘Once I have the photographs, the building can burn down for all I care!’
On the second day, students dispersed across a variety of local architecture offices in inner-City Melbourne for a 3-hour design workshop. Everyone worked to a common hypothetical (yet nonetheless pertinent) brief of accommodating an influx of 10,000 refugees into the city of Melbourne. I had the privilege of attending Nigel Bertram’s studio at RMIT Building 45 in Carlton, for which his practice NMBW had done the fit-out. While I looked forward to meeting the prolific architect-educator-writer in person, I had not yet given thought to what could be gleaned from the other attending delegates.
As such I was happily surprised by the degree of passion and quick thinking these mostly undergraduate-level students possessed. After a brief discussion led by Nigel, ideas about the re-use of state housing stock were quickly developed in small groups and presented in rapid succession through collaborative brainstorming and pin-ups.
Ironically, I was not just the sole graduate in the group, but the only participant from Melbourne. The group comprised interstate students from the University of Adelaide, and a large group of New Zealanders from Victoria University, who travelled together from Wellington to Melbourne for the conference, all of whom engaged head-on with a topic as one of urgent design intervention- not just in this city, but as a reflection of state housing and migration in their own cities.
How could the collective synergies and enthusiasm of a short workshop such as this be channelled back into the semester-long design studios at our universities? How could ter tiary design education benefit from the ’super-studio’ model, known for intense productivity and uninhibited peer-to-peer contributions?
All in all, this year’s People Congress was far more than just a literal formation of people, but a high-collision assembly of students rallied together in the same spirit of progress, guided by the generous support of mentors and teachers. It was emblematic of what the profession should and could look like.
The ‘call-to-arms’ nature of this Congress has surely instilled in every delegate a renewed sense of purpose and possibility in any direction he or she so chooses; that being young or under-experienced should not preclude students and graduates from making a difference or becoming voices of influence in the field.
That the design industry is neither as intimidating nor impenetrable as it might have once seemed to the emerging entrepreneur or work-experience seeker. That there will be big shoes to fill when the time comes to build upon what other ‘Gen X’ practitioners have established and left for us, the next generation.
That in order to move forward, everyone involved with must not be self-focused, but outward-reaching. This may mean diversifying the available modes of practice, creating common goals instead of corporate rivalry, jointly responding to human and ecological crises, and ultimately stewarding the liveability of our society and our cities.
As the final night wrapped up with good cheer, newfound friends and free SONA merchandise, I glanced across the bustling auditorium and thought to myself: if these motivated students went out into the world and really made something of the lessons learnt and ideas shared here at this Congress, then the future of architecture- both in discourse and in practice- could well and truly be in good hands.
Amelyn is a Melbourne-based researcher-designer of architecture and urbanism, with a particular interest in critical practice and consumer behaviours in architecture.
She has worked at a variety of practices such as John Wardle Architects, JCBA and Fieldwork Projects (current), across a diverse range of project scales- from masterplanning and institutional buildings to apartments and single residences.