Architecture is an intellectual practice: ‘Open Agenda 2011’

“For those that assume architecture is only about buildings, this exhibition will disappoint.”
– Anthony Burke (Head, School of Architecture, University of Technology, Sydney), in his introduction to the Open Agenda 2011 catalogue.

It shouldn’t take long for the gravity of architecture to be felt by new students of the discipline. With the first late night spent at the studio, it’s likely to hit home that – structural concerns aside – architecture requires the weighty task of responding to many factors in a single creative work: the location and physical condition of a site, political and economic contexts, cultural and social realms and narratives, material and technological possibilities and agendas, relationship of built form to resources and services, access and safety, wider urban or natural conditions (including their governance), architectural precedents, methods of design communication, possible future conditions, and on, and on.

Furthermore, graduates will quickly discover the need to position themselves in terms of their approach to professional practice.

Indeed, architecture is not only about buildings.

Open Agenda is an annual Australian competition for speculative architectural design research. It is an initiative of the School of Architecture at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), and is open to recent graduates from any university. The winning entries in its second edition are being displayed at Sydney’s Customs House until 20 January 2012.

The Open Agenda 2011 exhibition presents three voices of critical enquiry that interrogate architecture in Australia and explore its relevance into the future. The intention of the competition, explains Anthony Burke (in his catalogue introduction), is “to create a tension between three points of view, while acknowledging the breadth of issues in contemporary architecture and the value of different approaches to design research.”

The exhibition, he states, “seeks to revive a space of intellectual and spatial enquiry through architecture.” Evidently, he perceives a lack in this area.

‘Greater Western Sydney Special Economic Zone (SEZ)’ by Daniel Fink

Daniel Fink’s enquiry explores the framing and generating of urban development with contemporary flows of ideology and capital. He reimagines the two western greenfield growth areas in Sydney’s current metropolitan plan as a single independent economic entity similar to the SEZs seen around the world – “spatial products of extra-jurisdictional alliances between state and non-state agents.”

In his Greater Western Sydney SEZ, he derives an “engine of urbanisation” from its “specific infrastructural apparatus” aligned with “Sydney’s covert project in infrastructural Balkanisation”. He explores the functional and architectural possibilities of the interfaces and thresholds between Sydney’s existing frameworks and those of the imagined SEZ with, for example, manufacturing plants, a train interchange station, an airport, warehouses, office spaces, and hotels.

‘The Cars that Drank Lake Eyre’ by Mark Leong and Nicholas Sargent

The work of Mark Leong and Nicholas Sargent explores the architectural potential of place and landscape in an ‘end-of-the-world’ scenario. Their project utilises architectural representation and techniques to investigate, analyse, and express the strange middle ground between romantic and apocalyptic depictions of the Australian landscape – in particular, Lake Eyre – as it relates to place and the space of architecture. The project aims to address specific and universal questions fundamental to the ground of architecture, like ‘who are we?’ and ‘where are we?’

Lake Eyre (South Australia) is an expansive temporal lake sitting at the lowest point of the continent at the drainage centre of two basins. It is transformed from a ‘dead heart’ to a life-filled inland sea when it is flooded. It is the remaining incarnation of a prehistoric sea that once covered much of the Australian continent. Early explorers had mythologised a great inland sea, but found only Lake Eyre – “symbolic of a national romantic ideal gone bad”.

Leong and Sargent write: “Lake Eyre mysteriously sits both central to Australia’s national narrative, and elusively at the edge of our imaginations. To many, the lake is characterised by a morbid and difficult relationship with the landscape – a struggle between an internal reality and an external reality, for what is wished for and what is given.” With a range of facts, fictions, texts, and characters, they tease out realities and impressions both present and past that shape people’s relationships with this mysterious entity. Their abstract architectural drawings “trace human experience and encounter, becoming analogous to the task of architectural practice: to find the world and speak of it sensibly.”

‘Potential Futures for Design Practice’ by Rory Hyde

Rory Hyde’s investigation into modes of design practice presupposes that the twenty-first century’s complex design landscape cannot be adequately addressed by the design professions as they exist today. ‘Potential Futures’ indexes new directions / territories / tools / processes that today’s designers might consider if they wish to remain relevant.

His research, expressed in a series of posters, has been undertaken for the book Potential Futures for Design Practice (to be released in 2012). The posters feature images from the ‘real’ world – of protest, nature, crisis, and the surging city. Overlaid are architectural proportional systems such as Corbusier’s Modulor and the Golden Section. Writes Hyde, “The mismatch between these supposed ‘systems of control’ and the images they accompany illustrate the vanity of architects’ attempts to impose order on the necessarily chaotic and uncontrollable world.”

The ‘potential futures’ take the form of models of practice: ‘The Opportunistic Architect’, ‘The Social Entrepreneur’, ‘The Historian of the Present’, ‘The Professional Generalist’. There is an underlying assumption that these potential futures are positive, yet there exists the possibility that such new roles would be misused. Hence, negative slogans accompany the positive ones to question the direction that the roles could take if practiced irresponsibly.

The three projects illustrate the extents to which architecture is an intellectual practice and design is a form of thinking, as described by Burke. The exhibition presents heady subject matter, and it is surprising (but good) to see it within a venue that serves, and works to attract, a generalist audience – including tourists. Customs House is a City of Sydney venue that presents itself online as “a dynamic cultural institution” and an “accessible 21st-century public space” with free entry and free Wi-Fi. The heritage building contains a public library, city model (beneath a glass floor), exhibition spaces, and popular food and wine venues.

Open Agenda is sponsored by the City of Sydney, Customs House, the University of Technology, Sydney, and Architectural Review Australia.

2 responses to “Architecture is an intellectual practice: ‘Open Agenda 2011’

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