Saturday, 2 May 2015

Anything but superficial

A portrait of failed criticism

Under that clever title, Architects Without Frontiers chief Andrew Mackenzie reviews recent commentary in  ArchitectureAU, on ARM Architecture's Portrait building in Melbourne, Australia.  He finds the critical discourse 'marred by racial profiling, pedantry and unsubstantiated opinion'.  And I have to agree with him.

As often happens, the best thing I can do is point you at MacKenzie's excellent and readable article.  Click here to access.

But it's worth adding a little more information not highlighted in MacKenzie's piece.
First, biographical.  Ashton Raggat Macdougal (ARM) Architects are a firm that since its beginnings has invested as much effort explaining their architecture as actually doing it.  In this they reflect, and have arguably taken a leadership position in an intellectual and architectural tradition cultured in Melbourne for at least forty years.

At least some of that tenure as local heroes has invited criticism of their less convincing metaphors and other design generating 'ideas'.  ARM has courted notoriety by strategies such as deriving a contemporary facade for a medical clinic by running the iconic photographs of the Vanna Venturi house through distortions on a photocopier; or 'quoting' Alto's Finlandia Hall facade in positive and negative, concrete exterior and golden fibreboard interior, for an office wing of a local town hall......

But you can't argue with success, and frankly, you can't be too down on an architectural practice that actually can explain their buildings.

Second, a couple of specifically architectural issues brought out by the Portrait apartment block, and perhaps not immediately apparent.

There is a social and cultural context before one discusses whether an apartment block is an appropriate monument.  One of the few aspects most 'white' Australians think they know about Aboriginal culture is that offense can be taken over the use of an image (or even of the name) of a person after their death.  Whatever the actual, more subtle understanding of those cultural practices, it would immediately trigger a heightened awareness to see the building-sized image of an aboriginal man.

And there is an issue of building technology in the service of architectural expression. Of great interest to me is that the 'picture' emerges out of the very traditional delineation of concrete architectural detail, in light and shade, rather than the increasingly virtual LED delivered illusions one would expect as the expression of the zeitgeist.  That digital technology and BIM systems make the teasingly indeterminate, but stridently concrete expression possible to produce, is a nice twist.

Do I think it's good architecture?  Put it this way, I agree with Andrew MacKenzie.  When I have actually seen the building in life, I may commit myself.

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