Architects, bless'em!

I became a registered architect in 1960 and have been running my own practice ever since.  I like most of my fellow architects but they constantly both delight and infuriate me.  They have such egos about their importance and the ideal role they see for architects in the world, but despite the potential importance of the architectural role (dare I say vital role), I'm afraid that the real life situation is constantly being diminished and made less important by many of the current ways buildings are procured.  These often place the architect in a less important position without much power; just imagine being the architect in the middle of the Ararat PPP scandal trying to satisfy so many masters!

Over fifty years later with a lifetime of architecture behind me, I wrote a novel The Architecture People to try and tease out the attitudes and behaviour of architects like myself and the people I'd known ( click on Publications).  I attempted to describe what motivated architects like Michael Grant, the hero of my novel.  Michael is married to a painter called Lotti and at one point Michael recounts how Lotti often described modern architects to outsiders in a faux serious routine, telling them,

 'What you have to understand is that modern architects are a tribe, they are the Architecture People,' she would say, 'in the same way that gypsies are the Romany People, both are world wide tribes, both a bit at odds with the modern world.  They all have Eames chairs or Aalto furniture, and most have made pilgrimages to Falling Water and the Villa Savoye.  They have a strong preference for the music of J S Bach and cool jazz, and they all take the same sorts of photographs, they're very keen on arcades and courtyards, and townscape sequences are big too.' 

 Michael goes on to describe how,  'Modern architecture became a religion with me, I was convinced good modern buildings and enlightened town planning could change the world.  Poverty and unemployment, poor health and other social ills would disappear if the slums were replaced by modern buildings designed to admit sunlight and fresh air combined with open space and greenery.  

 Although it's clear that this sort of determinism doesn't make sense, good design may help but it clearly can't solve social problems by itself. Never-the-less these imperatives still motivate a lot of architects; it's a profession with a great deal of idealism.   One can argue, as I would, that a lot of this idealism is misdirected, but it's still one of the more endearing traits of many architects.  Architects also see themselves as the self-imposed guardians of the environment while at the same time, many of them often don't give more than lip service to sustainability in their buildings.  They'd probably blame their clients and too tight budgets for any shortcomings, and while these factors are often real stumbling blocks, they're not the major ones.

          Members of the architectural tribe could be said to fall into a number of related categories.  The largest group is what I call the Service-Providers who are primarily interested in architecture as a business, to make a living.  They design most of the run-of-the-mill buildings you see around, but despite their emphasis on the business and practical aspects of building design, some of them do very competent and good looking buildings which are generally produced efficiently and don't leak. 

        The Greens are the next, much smaller group.  They are mostly interested in environmental things, passive solar design and building houses out of mud bricks or hay bales, water capture and solar power. The Whole Earth catalogue and the Permaculture book are always on their shelves.  They've done a good job in bringing water and energy conservation to the fore, and more recently a new breed of more scientific environmental architects and engineers have arisen.  The CH2 building in Swanston Street next to the Town Hall is a world class, outstanding, high tech, example of this total sustainable approach.       

        Then there are the Aesthetes who are trendy and fashionable and take themselves very seriously and are absolute masters of the tribal in-language; if you can't understand what they're saying, it shows you're not part of the elite!  They're primarily concerned about the external appearance of their buildings and getting their work published inMonumentmagazine.  Again, sometimes they also produce attractive, workable buildings, but if there's a choice, appearance is the dominant factor and their designs can sometimes be quite capricious and breathtakingly willful in their visual emphasis.  

        The last and smallest group is those who try to combine all these things, and who also have aspirations that their buildings will make a difference, both by having good social impacts and improving the quality of the urban environment.  I like to think I'm in the last group, but it's hard to be dogmatic, and there are notable exceptions, they all tend to overlap a bit with one another.                   

Every year about this time the Institute gives awards for what are considered the best buildings of the year in different categories.  Some of my friends poke fun our awards, pissing in one anothers pockets, one said.  I don't agree with this although I am critical of the way the black tie way the awards are handled. After the 2011 lot I wrote to the then Victorian President, Robert Phuksand, arguing that the awards weren't doing a good enough job for architects, that their purpose isn't to make carved in stone judgements about architecture for all time, or just to give a warm glow to the winners.   I thought that the main purpose of the awards should be to educate the public, to show people what architects can do, to create an awareness of better design, and to be downright mercenary, to help create a bigger market for architects.  At the moment the Awards rarely get more Press than an eye-catching photograph of one of the major awarded buildings.  In my opinion we should climb down off our pedestal and go all out to show as many of the most interesting buildings of the previous twelve months in some central location in one of those big office foyers perhaps, and explain them all to the general public in a supplement in theAge.  Perhaps there could also be an 'open day' for some of the 'awarded' buildings in the way there was for the ARM recital hall a few years ago. The awards shouldn't be for us alone, they should be a gift to our fellow citizens.

He didn't even acknowledge my letter and nothing has changed this year.  There were 56 awards and commendations made in fourteen different categories, too many of both although some buildings won awards in more than one category.  While there were no epiphanies there were some beautiful and interesting buildings and they were all published in the Victorian Architect but without plans, just photographs.  The absence of plans is one of my bĂȘtes noir; you simply can't tell enough about a building from one or two photographs and I like to see a plan I can understand.  I'd go so far as to say that there must be a plan if the building is to be properly appreciated.

What can I say about the four award winning houses?   Three of them were 'beach houses' on broad acre sites, which always makes for such beautiful photographs.   The only house in an urban setting (designed by Jackson Clements Burrows) was complicated by a heritage overlay and the designers solved a difficult site with great flair.  It's a pity you can't see them for yourself so why don't you email the RAIA President at and suggest a public exhibition of the annual awards, they'll probably take more notice of you!

 I'm afraid I'm a bit skeptical about the awards, I've won more than a few in my time and although they look good on your CV, I've never got a job because of them. I also have a bit of a puritan streak; I don't approve of the high cost of most architect designed houses, not their fault I hasten to add, it's their multiple bathrooms and expensive kitchens more for show than use that worry me and translate into high unit costs.  A lot of it seems a wank on the part of architects, an admission of failure and an indication of our diminishing role; we're in danger of becoming fashion arbiters of stylish bathrooms and kitchens rather than being the apostles of sustainability! 

We should be building better and cheaper housing for more people with greater social purpose, in planned communities with good public transport, not building larger, often second houses for fewer people with two or three garages; it's just showing off how much money they've got.  Besides there's plenty of evidence that three and a half bathrooms aren't making people any happier; continuing satisfaction in the consumer society is clearly an illusion.

At the same time houses are what I always call the crucible of architecture, it's where most architects get their first job, and when an enlightened client meets a good architect, the results can be special and have great influence. That's why architects still go to see all the famous houses first hand.  Where would we be without Falling Water, the Villa Savoye, the Farnsworth house and the Eames house to inspire us?  Houses have always been a place for architects to experiment, and each generation restarts the odyssey all over again.  

I revisited the Villa Savoye, Le Corbusier's most famous house on the outskirts of Paris, a couple of years ago.  I'd seen it in the immediate postwar years when it was in a bad state after it had been used to store hay during the war, but the French government finally realised what an important monument it was and did a real restoration number on it.  It looks superb and apart from a kitchen designed for servants, if this eighty-year-old house were built in Melbourne today everyone would be surprised at how much more avant-garde it still is compared to the current crop of award winning houses, and what's more, how good it would be to live in.


Don Gazzard
1st August 2012