PRAXIS - National Architecture Conference Day Two

The second day of the conference begins after the Emerging Architect’s breakfast where the work of Anthony Balsamo is recognised. Anthony was awarded the Australian Institute of Architects National Emerging Architect Prize, sponsored by Architectural Window Systems (AWS).

Ken Maher once again opens the morning, this time with a number of awards. The National President’s Prize is awarded to Professor Michael Keniger from Bond University, and the Special Prize is awarded posthumously to Jennifer Taylor, a professor from University of Queensland, and Sydney before that.

First up for presentations, Vo Trong Nghia takes to the stage. He fills the screen with beautiful images of greening Vietnam, in particular Ho Chi Minh City, an immensely dense urban space with only 0.7m² of green space per person. Vo Trong Nghia has designed a number of projects, which he runs through in great detail – from low cost housing projects that rehabilitate to owners and private houses that act as a park for the community, through to large schools and universities integrated with their outdoor environments. He is also a pioneer of bamboo architecture and modern interpretations of vernacular buildings are just as strong as the more contemporary work. It is clear from the work shown, that the natural environment is key to Vo Trong Nghia Architects’ work, and from this much of the beauty of their projects is derived.

Similarly to yesterday, following the first international speaker a panel of Australian architects prepare to speak about their practices. Huw Turner and Penny Collins of Collins and Turner begin, discussing their differing lifestyles growing up on the opposite side of the world. They then delve into their projects including the futuristic Weave Youth Centre in Waterloo, which maintains the safety of the community centre and enclosed courtyard while the outside engages with the community. In contrast to this small community project, Collins and Turner are currently creating a new foodie precinct for Lend Lease - a stack of charred bowl shapes, spilling over with greenery - which is soon to be completed. Their work is a reflection of considered concepts and brings a sense of life and humanity to their projects.

Emma Williamson, of Perth studio CODA, is up next. Unlike some of the other speakers, Emma doesn’t talk of CODA’s project but rather their practice. There is an emphasis on how little money they make, despite years of toiling away and a multitude of children, yet their practise has grown and blossomed into a well-known medium sized firm. This has happened due to a number of factors - their ability to admit shortfalls and focusing on helping many rather than just a few. Like many of the other speakers across the weekend Emma also reflects on collaboration and the difficulties that come with it, but like those before her admit that is necessary for a thriving practice.

Last of the Australian group, but definitely not least, are Neil Durbach and John Wardle. Their banter is infectious as Neil discusses famous collaborators like the Beatles and Bob Dylan, and his work’s strong connection with artists. John takes over and talks of their joint gallery project, the design speaking uniquely of both Durbach Block Jaggers and John Wardle’s architectural styles in a complimentary manner. The project shows that collaboration can lead to truly unique architecture.

After Winy’s excitement yesterday, it’s hard to imagine another architect with as many ideas or as much fervour. However, Rahul Mehrotra provides good competition. He is impassioned, rushing through hundreds of ideas, trying to fit as much of what he has to say into such a short period. His prolific career in India has seen his work span a variety of genres - from the heritage of conservation of the Taj Mahal, to housing for the wealthy, university campuses nationally and internationally to public toilets for the slums and even housing for elephants and their carers.

Rahul takes a moment to recognise his speed of the talk, as he states he’s going to rush through the next section, and the crowd gets a laugh in the middle of the very serious discussion of the importance of craftsmanship and labour relationship. What is obvious throughout Rahul’s talk is his empathy - empathy for the history of an area, empathy for workers, empathy for the environment, empathy for the poorest and empathy for culture. His work spans a variety of scales and aims to touch not only his clients but a greater community.

Following Rahul’s speech, the Australian Institute of Architects Gold Medal winner is announced. Peter Elliot is recognised for his architectural works, contribution to the academic community and active participation in the institute and with the architectural community as a whole. Following this, a special Gold Medal luncheon is served.

Like Rahul, Anupama Kundoo is from Mumbai and begins her discussion talking of the impatience of architecture in her city. As part of her practice, Anupama always makes sure she takes time with her work - making models, reworking concepts and testing the design. The usual models of urbanity do not fit with India, as the country has larger population densities and more urban issues than most.

Anupama’s work is embedded in research and she is constantly evolving her building practices, thinking back to a time when vernacular architecture produced wonderful homes. She sees this as a negotiation between high-tech and low-tech, between machine-made and hand-made. Both have a place within her practice but they are carefully considered for each individual project to engage local workers and the local community. Whether it is creating houses from kilns that make the bricks, rethinking household waste or building with local pottery, Anupama creates innovative works, which speak of a sense of homeliness. She believes in striving for a peaceful void space to spend our lives, without compromising on beauty.

After the break, O’Donnell and Tuomey are the final speakers of the conference, discussing the concept of ‘Here and There’. They met in the 1970s at University in Dublin and were inspired by Corbusier and Sterling houses throughout their time studying. Sheila and John are life partners as well as working partners, and as such their life heavily influences their work. They work through cardboard models and evocative watercolours, maintaining the romance in their work ensuring they never commit too early in a project.

Again the practice of collaboration is highlighted in their work, like so many of the presenters before them over the past two days. The couple run through a few of their projects including ‘Brickopolis’ in which they collaborated with a number of other architects, bringing the design together through a series of principles and single material. They also talk of a community project, inspired by their friend, an artist, polymath and visionary, who donated his house back to the people of the village. Sheila and John also highlight the work of their pavilions; sculptural and almost a little dark mood, they evoke a sense of spirituality for the secular. They finish with two larger university projects - an economics building in London and a university campus in Budapest. Both aim to integrate with their sites, allowing the right to fight in London and connecting a series of disconnected buildings in Budapest. However unlike the finished London Economic School solidified in brick, the university in Budapest was never started - Sheila and John comment ‘A building of liberalism has no place in an illiberal democracy’.

Ending the conference on a more sombre note, O’Donnell and Tuomey have highlighted the differing spectrum of ways in which architects think of PRAXIS. Winy Maas’s enthusiasm and joy in challenging the beliefs of what is the norm or even possible, is different to Vo Trong Nghia’s beautiful green buildings designed with their feet firmly in the ground, and again different to the passion of Rahul Mehrotra. The conference has been a busy and fulfilling experience that leaves us all with a sense of optimism and enlightenment to how we can approach architectural practice every day.

Written by: Alexandra McRobert (NSW Event Correspondent for AWS)

Alexandra is a PhD Candidate at the University of Sydney and practising architectural graduate. Her research and work focuses on delivering affordable housing and prefabricated manufacturing techniques.