Sunday, 6 October 2013

What is it about Australian architecture?

To judge a building as the best of its kind in the world is a risky business.  By what authority, by what criteria?  And always the shadow of all the buildings that nobody nominated to be considered.  Nevertheless, the World Architecture Festival in Singapore appears to have gained some traction as a competition for recognition as the best each year.  Perhaps this is happening because the WAF is so much more than a magazine promotion, or an endowment by a rich patron.  Unencumbered by the sometimes strange thematic abstractions of the Venice Biennale, the format of the Festival is a celebration, a combination of competitive presentations to juries and a place to hear keynote speakers, an opportunity to be challenged and stimulated.  It is an event that increasing numbers of architects around the world are apparently treating seriously.

The competition is definitely international enough, to take notice of regional strengths.  It is in that context that one realizes just how over-represented are Australian architects amongst the premiated projects.  This year, the supreme prize for buildings went to the Auckland Art Gallery extensions by Sydney firm Frances-Jones Morehen Thorp, who last year collected the prize in the office building category.  The award for the best landscape project has gone to a botanical garden at a former quarry outside Melbourne; The Australian Garden was designed by landscape studio Taylor Cullity Lethlean and plant expert Paul Thompson.  There were numerous other category wins by Australian practices, and a solid representation of high commendations.  Future Building of the Year went to Australian practice Cox Rayner Architects for the National Maritime Museum in China.

All of which begs a few questions.  I will leave the harder task of identifying the complex web of unifying threads to someone who, I hope will write a long-form piece about this. But as an immediate reaction, it's almost like Australian architecture represents a direct line of transmission from early modernism, picking up mid-20th century Scandinavian influences, and eschewing the subversion of traditional ordering systems that has been one of the strident slogans of the new parametrics. I can't help noting that almost without exception, the Australian projects are formally and spatially disciplined, inviting very strong elemental readings of roof, wall and floor, with an enthusiastic display of authentic materiality, and at least an evocation of craft.

Less obvious perhaps, and best exemplified by the winning landscape project, the Australian designs seem to share a propensity for both abstraction and understandable narrative, with strong metaphors but few similes.  Least obvious, and maybe a figment of my hopeful imagination, they also seem to be exceptionally driven by contextual fit, to the point of the best being actually adaptive reuse.....think the reworked harbour infrastructure of JPW's Sydney Cruise Terminal, the disused quarry as botanic gardens, the extensions to the Auckland Art Gallery, the  Left-Over-Space House by Cox Rayner Architects, winner of the House category.  Even in the sole premiated project on American soil, Housing winner 28thStreet Apartments, expatriate Australians Koning Eizenberg rework a historic 1926 YMCA to insert new housing on a small site in south Los Angeles.

I do find it equally interesting that the judges have been rewarding this casual conservatism. Less spectacularly than the post-WW2 identification of design culture with Italy and Scandinavia perhaps, Australian architects seem to be steadily positioning the country as a notable source of considered good design.

Many blog and zine sites have covered the World Architecture Festival.  But the first place to look should be the event's web site.
Click here.

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