For this 60th, and final, column for the year, I want to answer some of the criticism received. Whilst I'm grateful to Architecture and Design editor Branko Miletic for giving me a platform to raise ideas and issues (immediate and eternal), it has not been without some contrarian argument, which I’ll try to answer, with questions.
What is architecture?
In this piece I described it as ‘Space in Place’, emphasising ‘space which has use and usefulness, has purpose, designed for occupation by users and participants, built physical space, visual, tactile and haptic that can be palpably engaged inside and out’. Space for occupation. The contained over the container. Inside over out.
However, I was reminded by several correspondents that approach is not a contemporary attitude. I am out of step with most architecture websites (like ArchitectureAU or ArchDaily). Show me the money (shot) of a crazy angled or blobby object and I’m more interested in the space. I'm not interested in the building unless there's more interior shots than exterior. And some all too rare good text helps!
What are the fundamentals of architecture?
In contemporary life it is the triple bottom line: social, environmental, and financial issues. I've argued its importance in sustainability, autonomy, politics and social housing. It’s the frame for all that follows in my columns.
What are the social issues?
I've argued that we do not place enough emphasis on the users of the buildings, and thereby the spatial use. We premiate clients, wanting to turn them into patrons, rather than considering the people who will use the building. And almost all buildings will long outlast the initial client; even the most ‘glam’ home, customised to the commissioner, will pass into other hands.
Some found my use of the words ‘customers or consumers’ to highlight users to be vaguely neo-liberal, grubby even, but they served a shock purpose to orient ideas away from patronage, and ‘monumental object buildings’ towards occupiers and ‘spatial usefulness’.
Not to mention one, two, three, four columns on the most urgent project we must address: social housing.
What are the environmental issues?
I first encountered the idea of sustainability in my first year of studies 50 years ago, but it wasn't called that. Starting as passive solar it became alternative or integrated technology, then ESD or ecologically-sustainable design to full-blown sustainability. It continues to morph; now being about much more than energy, particularly focussing on user amenity and health. But sadly two big sustainability awards to practitioners this year have gone to quite old-fashioned ideas of sustainability.
It’s notable that Green Star has pivoted away from analysing energy to the importance of users / occupiers through its ‘wellness’ emphasis. Whilst ‘Architects Declare’ is noble, their concentration on personal energy use remains vain virtue signalling whilst we don’t address outcomes for the users of the buildings we design, not just our own.
When I argued early on that protests against fossil fuels were counterproductive, citing Bob Brown’s caravan of hubris, my emailer lit up. But my response that ‘The Green Karma is already running over the Brown Dogma’ still stands. Environmental sustainability may be big, but for me social equity is bigger.
What are the financial issues?
I argued that architects, particularly of single houses, are sadly innumerate about the costs of design and construction. I advocated that the best way into a project is always to start with a financial analysis: the feasibility study or ‘feaso’. This can address the triple bottom line whilst establishing the project viability and budget.
Even the smallest project should start with a feasibility study to make sure that both client and architect are on the same page. Crucially it can prevent the oft-experienced disappointment of building costs outstripping the client’s financial capacity, which I regard as a dereliction of the architect's first duty to the client, and inter alia the users.
A beautiful building on paper is of no use to anyone. But I’ve had no luck overturning the oxymoronic ‘digital building’, despite some reader’s support.
What is the architectural process?
I argued that architecture has only two inputs; purpose and place, being the social and environmental issues. Architects special gift is to be able to combine these issues from differing realms into one coherent proposition or concept, which can be developed into a building.
I love a great diagram, despite the critique here, but I'm even more impressed by the use of precedent, principles and patterns in order to create a viable, spatial building, all of which was demonstrated in a diagram here.
Yes, my diagram is clunky, but it represents my experience as a practicing architect over a long period of time, trying to draw out what the brain is thinking when it is designing. Despite some criticism I didn't receive any better diagram in response.
How to teach architecture?
In several columns I advocated a pedagogy and curriculum based on the above precepts: architecture is space; it is divined by the triple bottom line; we must put primacy to purpose and place in understanding how a proposition is developed. I repudiate the teaching of design composition as a primary subject, particularly if it is not connected to ‘content’.
One critic said that without a directed approach to composition I had no philosophy of architecture. In a way I agree. My aim in teaching has always been to elicit a personal design approach from each student, not to impose my own; a cause that's quadrupled in difficulty by the doubling of student numbers and the halving of contact time.
Contemporary architectural practice is based on collaboration, not only with other architects, but as interdisciplinary work with many consultants. The universities don’t teach this, maintaining the silos of the past; a crucial failing. For this at least there was much support from with and without academia.
Ultimately a university education should about the development of individual ideas and approaches, developed in collaboration, which our schools are currently ill-staffed, ill-equipped and ill-funded to undertake.
Why so much politics in the columns?
Because our design work is subject to politics every single day. Strategic or regulatory urban planning, the result of politics, rules our lives. A flip side of the coin is to consider that everything in politics is design; whether it be whole countries (the USA Constitution) to every politician’s response to Covid.
Politics infects even industrial design: I argued in one column that a principal problem for urban design in the USA was the failure to regulate automobile design. A critic wrote from the USA that Tesla cars were not large and anyway they outsold all the other (smaller) electric cars combined. Rather proved my point.
Whither the column?
What started out as a jokey idea, using an alliterative title with my face on the title page has soured somewhat. Yes, I am embarrassed by that. When the column reappears next year, it will have a different name and no visage.
If at times I appear to be chock-a-block full of the angry pills it's a response to the poor design I see around me every day, made ever more difficult by an infuriating year of COVID. Praise be to the premiers who have created a virus elimination that lends us an air of positivity going into 2021, where I hope our conversation will continue.
In the meantime, I wish every reader best wishes for the festive season.
Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to [email protected]