Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Saving John Andrews

Scarborough College, Toronto, 1965. Image:  Philip Drew
Anyone would think that I read nothing else than ArchitectureAU.  In the latest issue, architectural critic Philip Drew traces of potted history of Australia's first truly influential architect on a world stage, John Andrews.  He is impelled to action by the threat of demolition facing the Sydney Convention Centre at Darling Harbour.

I am of the age that explains why I was an early and ardent fan of Andrews.  There is no disputing the seminal impact of a number of his buildings.  Starting with Scarborough College in Canada and continuing through the Cameron Offices in Canberra, he actually brought to fruition buildings in the nature of mega structures, that others only managed to illustrate as rhetorical projects.  Arguably, his success was due to his ability to express the guiding principles of his designs in brutally short and evocative words, conveying a quintessential Australian pragmatism in suitably colourful language. These days I am forcefully reminded of him whenever I see Bjarke Ingels of Danish firm BIG present on TED.  Same ruthless logic with a structuralist twist.

To be clear, John Andrews was held in such high esteem that when it came to appointing an architect for the new building for the Graduate School of Design at Harvard, they trusted him to work the miraculous transformation of the program, rather than any of his eminent fellow students, or modern masters who worked there as teachers.  When describing the design of Gund Hall, Andrews would point to the generative placement of the toilets in the circulation system.

I make much of this side of John Andrews, because notwithstanding my own admiration, Philip Drew ignores the obvious.  What was great about Andrews' buildings because of their simply stated organising principles, often came at the cost of similarly simplistic, powerful statements about things he was determined to do, but which were actually (to use his own favourite pejorative term) bullshit.  I have the privilege of being able to quote him presenting his designs from the late 60s and early 70s.

A lot of those things were not particularly important.  About Scarborough College, Andrews said he was absolutely determined to do a building without columns (apparently there is one in the plant room). 

Other things made some of his buildings temporarily remarkable, but were not really great ideas.  The vertical stainless steel space frames supporting acrylic sunshades and window cleaning platforms, which clad what became the American Express Tower in Sydney, were sold to the developer as an idea based on completely circular logic and an economy of truth about the actual cost.  Not surprisingly, the photogenic facade disappeared in favour of a much more practical curtain wall during the building's makeover by others.  The same building had a stunningly convincing diagram for how it dealt with largely imaginary desire lines at footpath level, from which generated a really hostile subterranean space for shopping and dining.  Not surprisingly, this badly oriented and unloved space also disappeared during the makeover.

Cameron Offices Site Plan
Andrews justified the Cameron Offices in Canberra, as a skyscraper laid down horizontally, a good 40 years before Stephen Holl claimed the phrase to describe one of his adventures in China.  But then he elaborated it with the compelling rationale about sun angles giving rise to a deterministic geometry of courtyards and office wings.  Philip Drew refers to this sort of headline logic as a pioneering climatic sensibility.  And as far as he goes, he is right.  But he does not mention that the courtyards were never going to be allowed to be randomly accessed by the security conscious government departments which the building housed, and therefore their hopefully benign environments enjoyed as anything other than a view.  The ultimate frustration of those occupants, with the extremely long circulation paths, ramps and half levels resulting from a misguided social construct, contributed to the demolition of most of the complex, while other, more pragmatic mega structures by other architects of the 1970s continue to function.

Unfortunately, this sort of story can be told about so many Andrews buildings, that you could almost generalise the problem.  Buildings, one after the other with powerful generative ideas.  Let down by one or more equally determined ideas about materials, systems of construction, whatever, but sooner or later irritating enough to compromise the whole.  We might be saddened by the loss of the artistic integrity of his powerful buildings important in their time.  But frankly, we shouldn't be surprised.  John Andrews is a great and influential architect.  But to be one of those, you have to be first and foremost a salesman.  John has always been good at selling his ideas, the bad with the good.

All that said, I agree with Philip Drew that the Sydney Convention Centre does not deserve demolition.  Read Drew's article in full here.

For a short, interesting read about the powerful 'structuralist' thread through Andrews' work, supported by a good collection of images, go to here.

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