Spatial Intelligence and New Domesticities: TEDxSydney 2012

Anuradha Chatterjee, Sydney Correspondent

TedXSydney commenced in 2010. It is a ‘flagship TEDx event (one of a handful throughout the world that qualify as top tier for TED) that has already established itself as a platform and an ongoing pipeline for the propagation of Australian ideas, innovation & creativity to the widest possible global audience’ ( TedxSydney 2012, held on Saturday 26th May 2012 at the Carriageworks in Redfern, featured three speakers from the University of Technology Sydney, who delivered two separate talks exploring the connection between design and urbanism.

Anthony Burke (Associate Professor and Head of the School of Architecture, UTS) and Gerard Reinmuth (Director of Architectural Practice TERROIR and Professor School of Architecture, UTS) delivered a talk on the profession and its practice. Burke commenced by challenging the ideal and the unreal image of the architect, positioning her/him in the well within the links inside the network theory rather than above it, asking the audience to embrace disorder and dynamism in creative practice as the reality and the necessity. Burke went on to argue that the architecture is ‘mongrel not a thoroughbred’, suggesting the inevitability of complexity, diversity, and messiness.

This goes against the commonly held notion/image of the architect (Howard Roark in Fountainhead, the movie, 1949) and architecture (image of Villa Savoye, 1928-31, by Le Corbusier as the perfect example of a building standing pristine in its environment). Reinmuth emphasized spatial thinking and intelligence, and quoted Howard Gardener’s inclusion of spatial intelligence as in his list of seven types of intelligence. Burke and Reinmuth maintain that every human being in equipped with this faculty, somehow diminished in capacity in adulthood but incredibly important to reawaken and foster if the design of the built environment were to be removed from the hands of the architects and placed in the custody and care of the people. Yet, Reinmuth notes, the planning of cities is located in the planning laws and documents, and silos of thought, without sophisticated spatial thinking tying it all together.

Tarsha Finney’s (Senior Lecturer, School of Architecture, UTS) talk on multi residential housing highlights the discussion on the spatial knowledge of the city. Finney suggests that cities are fundamentally informed by cellular thinking. They are underpinned by the delineation of separate private and public spaces and a vast amount of resources are required to keep them separate. This is achieved by thinking of the city as a vast ‘net’ that is radically held apart, keeping the ‘fabric’ sparse, flat, and separate. Finney suggests that to be sustainable, we need to undermine separateness, and consider density.

Whilst she acknowledges the current trends in multi residential housing, she suggests radically new ways of conceiving and inhabiting the domestic space, thereby expecting a level of agility in contemporary society. Finney cites examples of apartments that not only have shared laundries and pools, but also libraries that can be booked out by occupants who work from home. She suggests that another way of rethinking the domestic space might be to think of a shared commercial kitchen attached to one’s dining room, to experiment and entertain – a virtual impossibility in a six seater dining space setting.

Finney closes by citing Kings Road House (1921) by Rudolph Schindler – a pinwheel organization shared by two young families that pivots around a central kitchen and a shared guest room. This is a prompt that suggests that rethinking domesticity is crucial to designing sustainable cities, which will not become possible through the consideration of density alone.

N: Speaking in Different Voices

Anuradha Chatterjee, Sydney Correspondent

N is an interdisciplinary curatorial collective founded in 2010 by Sam Spurr, Adrian Lahoud, and David Burns, and recently it has been increasingly visible in leading discussions concerning the intersections between architecture and urbanism with visual and performance arts. Spurr, Lahoud, and Burns are/were academics at the University of Technology Sydney. The interdisciplinarity of the cohort is thus made possible: Spurr is a designer and theorist with interest in performance; Lahoud is an urbanist; and Burns is interested in images and installations. N is therefore interested in the links as well as the gaps between art and architecture, positioned against issues pertaining to the city. Furthermore, the curation is not of objects but of ideas and conversations that are as material as built works. They note on their website the different typologies of conversations as ‘adversarial’, ‘roundtable’, ‘radial’, ‘lecture’, ‘linear’, and ‘studio’, declaring their commitment as follows: “N’s research involves the study of the typologies of conversation and their impact on art, architecture, and design.” Hence, the projects undertaken by N have almost always involved the organization of panel discussions, roundtables, and interviews and talks with and between designers, commentators, and philosophers.

Sam Spurr, Adrian Lahoud & David Burns. Source: N website

‘How to be a Good Witness’ – the architecture section of the 2011 Prague Quadrennial – explored the productivity of the gap between linguistic practices of interpreting and translating through a range of exhibited works surrounding the concept mapping of the city. Gwangju Design Biennale ‘Networks of Surrender’ 2011 (also curated by Nicole Bearman) highlighted the potency of sharing, blurring of ideas and words as they ‘transform the image of this harbour city from generic postcard perfection to a set of multiplicitous, individual urban narratives’. INDEX Forum 2011 involved Charles Renfro of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, New York and Eva Franch I Gilabert of the Storefront for Art and Architecture. It was a round table conversation on the way cultural events can change a city. N collaborated with Kaldor Public Art Projects on a series of events to coincide with ‘The Dailies’ by Thomas Demand, which attempted to ‘capture everyday moments and objects’. N organized ‘The Doppelgänger Parlour’ and ‘The Mirror Parlour’ events, which included panel discussions, model-making workshops, architectural interventions, and film screenings. More recently, N was commissioned by the Office for Good Design in Melbourne to conduct interviews with local and international designers to explore the connection between design, happiness, community, belonging, and civic wellbeing.

Robert Beson, Outram Street, Chippendale NSW,20 January 2011, 14:40, Photography by Jack Dunbar & Tosh van Veenendaal; Source: N website

What is really interesting about N is their commitment to conversations rather than objects. As academics and architects/designers, the collaborators undertake a research-practice of a different kind. Burns notes that their ‘sister organization’ is the Office for Good Design and New York based AND AND AND. At least in Sydney, this is as yet an unrecognizable form of practice as it is not predicated by known and codified formal and curatorial strategies and outcomes. The interdisciplinary collective of Spurr, Lahoud, and Burns informs N’s interest in the notions of the untranslatable gaps between language and form, and intellectual space as a shared realm. N is also conscious of building models of engagement that involve wider disciplinary participation. This is informed by their interest in ‘dissonance’ (declared on their website and defined as ‘a simultaneous combination of tones conventionally accepted as being in a state of unrest and needing completion’). N’s involvement in the forthcoming event Audio Architecture (curated by Office for Good Design) will explore the concept of dissonance by ‘designing, installing, and exhibiting site-specific installations in Hamer Hall’.

Philip Beesley’s Hylozoic Series: Sibyl

Anuradha Chatterjee, Sydney Correspondent

Canadian artist and architect Philip Beesley has contributed to the 18th Biennale of Sydney 2012, the installation Hylozoic Series, an interactive, immersive, and sensory installation at Cockatoo Island. Beesley’s work explores the thresholds between the animate and the inanimate, the natural and the artificial, and the intelligent and the mechanized, working across the disciplines of art and architecture. The installation is underpinned by the philosophy of Hylozoism. Beesley and Jonathan Tyrell explain Hylozoism as the ‘ancient perception of life arising out of material…arising from the chaos–borne quickening of air, water, and stone. Implicit in this way of seeing the world is an oscillation and it might be said a certain ambiguity, between the parts and the whole. Out of this oscillation emerges a spirit that is not fully transcendent of its material origins and yet somehow distinct’ (379).

Hylozoic Series, Philip Beesley, Cockatoo Island, Sydney, The 18th Biennale of Sydney, 2012, Photo: Anuradha Chatterjee

Physically, the Hylozoic Series consists of ‘hovering filter environments, composed of tiny laser cut acrylic elements’, ‘groves of meshwork’, ‘scented wicks and glands’, ‘delicate glass spines’, ‘seaweed-like filter clusters housing protocell flasks’, and ‘gauze bladders’. Caressing the glass spine makes it vibrate madly, which prompts the feathery wings to raise themselves. As we move on, the proximity sensors illuminate parts of the clusters in response to closeness and movement. Parts of the installation remain inert as they refuse to obey aggressive prompting. The balloon-like elements obviously expand and contract in response to the flow of people through the installation. Beesley and Rachel Armstrong also explain that the flasks and bladders contain protocells (‘chemical models of primitive artificial cells’), which grow due to visitors’ presence. These are imperceptible.

In Hylozoic Ground (2010), Beesley explains: “Akin to the functions of a living system, embedded machine intelligence allows human interaction to trigger breathing, caressing, and swallowing motions and hybrid metabolic exchanges” (13). The composition is therefore a sensorial and charged environment, of ‘exquisitely deliberate weakness’. It is neither living nor inert, but somewhere in the middle (transitional). It is intended as an embodiment of collective or composite identity, emerging out of ‘empathy, and perhaps even a space of desire, between the subject and its milieu’ (380). This sets it apart from what is ordinarily understood as interactive installation, now a well rehearsed genre.

Hylozoic Series, Philip Beesley, Cockatoo Island, Sydney, The 18th Biennale of Sydney, 2012, Photo: Anuradha Chatterjee

While the Hylozoic Series makes a significant contribution to technical and poetic possibilities in the networked and multi disciplinary fields of ‘sustainable design, geotextiles, material science, environmental engineering, robotics, psychology, and biotechnology’, it is somewhat alienating. There is little chance of understanding the installation without ‘surrendering’ oneself fully to the language of the scholarship surrounding it. Also, the experience was not immersive. This was possibly because the visit to installation was closely managed, visitors told what they could touch and not touch, and told to follow the spatial split in the installation (one part responsive to touch, the other responsive to proximity and motion), thereby making it a disappointing experience and certainly incapable of producing what Beesley notes as the space of desire and empathic affinities. Ironically, the beauty of the installation too was overwhelming. The reliance on the familiar images of hybrid and multiple ecologies – skeletal, feathery, glandular, membranous, winged, mesh, grove like – is too invested in formalism, and hence the visual. For me, this undermined the accentuation of other senses. The Hylozoic Series is no doubt a key feature in the Biennale. It is on display until 16 September 2012. Video available here.

Sources:; Philip Beesley and Jonathan Tyrell, ‘Transitional Fields: Empathy and Affinity’, In (eds) Catherine de Zegher and Gerald McMaster, 18th Biennale of Sydney: All our Relations (Woolloomooloo, NSW: Biennale of Sydney, 2011); Philip Beesley and Rachel Armstrong, ‘Soil and Protoplasm: The Hylozoic Ground Project’, Architectural Design 81, 2 (March/April 2011): 78–89; Philip Beesley, Hayley Isaacs, Pernilla Ohrstedt, Hylozoic Ground: Liminal Responsive Architecture (Ontario: Riverside Architectural Press, 2010).

Talking (up) the City

The culture of debate emerging strongly in Sydney informed the free community discussion held on the 20 June at the City Recital Hall. Titled ‘Urban Conversations: Triumph of the City’, the discussion was a three part event, prompted by Harvard University Professor Edward Glaeser’s talk on the city (based on his recent book, Triumph of the City, Penguin Press 2012) followed by panel discussion and questions from the audience. The panel consisted of NSW Government Architect Peter Poulet, and the Department of Planning & Infrastructure’s Giovanni Cirillo and Norma Shankie-Williams, and Sarah Hill, President, Planning Institute of Australia NSW Division, mediated by ABC’s James O’Loghlin. The event is underpinned by the premise that Sydney’s 4.2 million population is expected to rise to more than 5.6 million by 2031, which will necessitate creative thinking around the provision of social, cultural, physical and economic infrastructure.

Urban Conversations Talk, Professor Edward Glaeser, Image courtesy NSW Department of Planning & Infrastructure, Photographer: Paul Wright.

Through a historical survey of American cities in the twentieth century, Glaeser explains that infrastructure needs are crucial because every historical city was linked to ports, harbours, waterways, railways, and roads. Glaeser argues the following: cities are humanity’s greatest invention; density is related to income productivity; density fosters proximity, and adjacency which in turn makes possible the collaborative knowledge economy; knowledge economy is the basis of wealth and prosperity; and increasing wealth of cities prompts the questioning of liveability and the benchmarking of liveable cities. Glaeser notes that cities support entrepreneurship and diminish unemployment, providing an antidote to financial crisis (historically and currently) but failure of infrastructure is also what makes cities fail. His talk is interesting because it not only talks up the city, but it also demonstrates the city as simultaneously being the site of failures and successes.

The key topics and instances of city making in the panel discussion included Urban renewal at Green Square, as providing jobs and amenities, and the Eastern Distributor as having re-energized Surry Hills (Cirillo); Revitalization of Darling Harbour (Poulet); Developing Penrith, Parramatta, and Liverpool as mature regional cities distinct from the city along the Harbour (Williams); Need for Leadership in city making and emphasizing the idea of active places and spaces in the city as creating a market to invest in (Hill); Systemic thinking and future planning to design sustainable cities (Glaeser); Engaging the voice of the community for successful urban renewal (Williams); and Greening cities to reduce the heat island effect, increase well being, and tackle urban food production (Poulet).

Urban Conversations Panel, Image courtesy NSW Department of Planning & Infrastructure, Photographer: Paul Wright.

The panel discussion was a bit haphazard but it was inspiring to see the panel members place emphasis on newness and optimism, and open channels of communication as the fundamentals to addressing urban challenges. The questions from the audience were many and pertinent, with one member in particular questioning the relationship between erosion of psychological wellbeing and cities. Glaeser responded by citing the frequency of youth suicides in country towns as a counterpoint. What was slightly disappointing was the American voice to Australian issues. Whilst Glaeser’s talk was insightful, a complementary insight into Australian cities and/or Sydney was not available.

It is surprising that the event failed to call upon urban sociologists, economists, and thinkers who are able to reveal incisive thinking about Sydney and emerging Australian cities. Also, Glaeser’s raison d’etre of the city is almost too narrowly focused on economy (and not culture, history, or tradition), which is apparent from the sub-title of his book, How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Healthier, and Happier. It privileges a narrow, materialist point of view. Nevertheless, ‘Urban Conversations’ was a valuable and a well attended event, and hopefully not just a one off.

Communities in/of the Cloud

Cloudscape at Night, Sydney Harbour, Vivid Sydney Festival 2012, Photo: Woods Bagot

Anuradha Chatterjee, Sydney Correspondent

Cloudscape – an interactive light architecture installation – was a key feature in the Vivid Sydney Festival 2012 (25 May-11 June). Designed as a destination, a beacon, and a place to meet, the installation was a collaborative effort between Nicolas Thioulouse and Kim Nguyen Ngoc of Woods Bagot, and Michael Day, Frank Maguire, Victoria Bolton, Kristine Deray, with Woods Bagot, sponsored by Built, One Steel, Traxon e-cue, Inlite, Elan Construct, Enstruct, UTS.

Situated at the Sydney Harbour, the installation is a grid covered with hundreds of inflatable silver mylar balloons. The designers explain that during the day, the balloons move with the wind and reflect the weather, transformed at night into an illuminated horizon and canopy. A pro bono installation (at the cost of 30, 000 dollars, not including lights), Cloudscapes was a gift from Woods Bagot and the sponsors, intended to provoke curiosity and interaction amongst the visitors.

Cloudscape, Sydney Harbour, Vivid Sydney Festival 2012, Photo: Woods Bagot, 2012

Cloudscape is an interesting term as it means that people ‘act’ as clouds ‘casting’ their shadows onto and over the silver balloons that constitute the light installation. They do so through interacting with the installation and with each other. A visitor’s testimonial captures the experience: “The best moment was when we saw people holding hands and forming a small chain under the installation to activate the lights. Then they were moving into a bigger and longer chain, about 30 people, kids and adults, it was a fantastic moment. Strangers holding hands and watching the clouds and the lights. A real moment of collective art.”

The main thing was that it got strangers to interact with each other and hold hands for the briefest time. Cloudscape builds upon Alf (Artificial Light Form) – light installation for Vivid Sydney 2011, designed by Kim Nguyen Ngoc, Victoria Bolton, Catherine Kuok, and Guy Hanson of Woodhead architects, along with Steven Brims of Umow Lai, Osram, Waterman, Philips Dynalite and Powersense. Alf was based on an interest in biodiversity and nature-city interactions, which ‘led to the design of the artificial biomorphic entity that glows when people interact with it and sleeps with a subdued blue pulse when it is solitary’. The provocations for Cloudscape are similar yet different.

Cloudscape, Sydney Harbour, Vivid Sydney Festival 2012, Photo: Woods Bagot, 2012

Thioulouse highlights the innate and primal desires of a human being, as he notes: “As children we look for anthromorphic forms in the clouds; making sense of the universe by relating to our sense of self”. Similarly, Ngoc calls upon ‘our primal fears and fascination with clouds and thunderstorms’, which underpins the generation of ‘storm of light effects’ by the energy of people. The installation then is a response to these ‘archaic’ human desires.

However, Cloudscape is also a response to the manner in which identities and desires are construed in current times. As the contemporary person is a product of networked and connected thoughts, ideas, and people, Cloudscape fittingly evokes the metaphor of social media, as the direct and indirect alignments between people generate the energy to power the light effects. Ngoc says: “It creates the conditions for new and forgotten types of relationships between people, a sense of communion with climatic elements, by using electronic, photonic, and spatial constructions.” In doing so, Cloudscapes combines the natural, with the technological and the human – a symbol of our hybrid existence. This is what makes the installation meaningful, and not yet another light installation that is merely visually delightful, static, distant, and non-corporeal.

Culture of Criticism

Anuradha Chatterjee, Sydney Correspondent

The opening of Museum of Contemporary Art Australia annexe by architect Sam Marshall on the 29 March 2012 has met with intense debate and discussion. These debates were tabled in a public forum, Open Conversation, held on 3 May 2012 by Make-Space for Architecture (MS4A) – an independent agency that ‘seeks to challenge and recalibrate normative ideologies found in architecture, design and the built environment of Sydney’. Held at the UTS School of Architecture, and moderated by John de Manincor (UTS and DRAW), Open Conversation included the following panellists: Sam Marshall, Architect, Architect Marshall; Andrew Donaldson, Architect Marshall; Paul Berkemeier, Architect; Philip Cox (AO), Cox Architecture; Elizabeth Farrelly, Opinion Writer for Sydney Morning Herald (SMH); Imogene Tudor, Director, MS4A.

The conversations are prompted by Farelley’s note on the lack of spatial delight as well as clarity of circulation in the building; Andrew Anderson’s observation that the building lacks nuanced and shifting visual qualities; and Philip Cox’s declaration that the building appears to be championing the ‘bland architecture of old with bland architecture of new’. However, they probe additional issues of the architectural brief, the ‘white box’ interior, and the troublingly elusive big idea. However, MCA demands a slower meander to allow a deeper understanding. It delivers the following: a strong and seamless connection from the foreshore to the street; a tortured but fascinating sightline from the entrance through to the foyer to the gallery space on Level 2; beautifully crafted staircases that provide a view of the sandstone walls of the original building; the transparent lift shafts that allow episodic but dramatic views out to the harbour; the plasterboard interior lining which transforms artificial light into a luminous glow that encounters the daylight filtering into the building. The restrained language of the Mordant Wing can be interpreted through the metaphysical lenses of absence and light – approaches that underpin minimalist approaches and that address the issue of spatial delight in a subtle way.

Image 1: Mordant Wing, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Photo: Anuradha Chatterjee Image 2: Mordant Wing, MCA, Foyer Level 1, Looking out towards Circular Quay, Photo: Anuradha Chatterjee

What is interesting about the Open Conversation, however, is not the substance of the conversation, but the manner of its appearance. It was ‘bookended’ by published conversations that closely followed each other. These include two articles in SMH in March 2012: Heath Aston, ‘MCA’s chequered reception’, 04 March and Elizabeth Farrelly, ‘Spatial delight gets lost at MCA’, 27 March; followed closely by three articles in Australian Design Review in May 2012: David Neustein, ‘MCA: Open Conversation or Guarded Debate?’, 04 May; Gerard Reinmuth, ‘Critical Thinking’, 07 May; and Gillian Serisier, ‘Lines of Division: The New MCA in Sydney’, 09 May; tailed by Farrelly, ‘Bold, Frank Criticism Can Only Nourish Architecture’, 10 May, SMH. Neustein’s essay vividly narrates the event, portraying the multiple tones and voices that speak differently and discordantly about the same object – MCA. Reinmuth’s essay questions the manner of critique undertaken by and through this event and the missed opportunities. Seisier’s essay restores the MCA to its rightful glory by providing a fuller understanding of the exhibition spaces. Farelley’s ‘Bold, frank criticism’ recounts the Open Conversation, continuing to defend the critic’s privilege to opinions that must be fearlessly expressed.

Notwithstanding these contributions, the Open Conversation is firstly (and mostly) theatrical. Its boundaries held tightly together (hosted, moderated, and published), and complemented by conversations between the various ‘participants’ (at the table, and off the table through blogs and social media), the Open Conversation calls upon the act of witnessing the occurrence of debate. Secondly, the urgency to settle the meaning of the building counteracts the expectation that proper critique ought to be a sustained activity. It should be capable of maintaining interest as well as energy, without simply providing material for instant consumption. Thirdly, the Open Conversation was shaped by very precise inter- and intra-professional associations and institutional settings. It is but one of the many critical networks existing in Sydney. And finally, even though the debates were undertaken in a public forum, they should not be mistaken as representative of public perspective on the building, as they did not include artists, art critics or writers, curators, visitors, staff, and guides, despite the insistence that the speaking voice of the public is the foundation of good criticism. All in all, the Open Conversation was much needed, as wittingly or unwittingly, it opens up questions about the future and form of architectural criticism in Australia.

Talking House

Anuradha Chatterjee, Sydney Correspondent

The theme of the dwelling is quite fittingly explored by the Historic Houses Trust, Sydney in the Sydney Open Talks: House, from Thursdays 26 April – 14 June 2012. Historically, housing has functioned as the key cultural symbol as well as instrument of colonization, ownership, commodity, belonging, citizenship, and more recently sustainability and compact urbanism. The talk series covers eight typologies, Bungalow, Apartment, Villa, Mansion, Shack, Terrace, Project Home, and Portable Home, covering varied cultural, economic, climatic, and ecological milieus in Sydney, NSW, and Australia.

Dr James Broadbent considers the mythologies surrounding the Bungalow whereas Scott Robertson maps the rise and fall of the Bungalow from its introduction in 1906 to its decline in the 1930s. Dr Caroline Butler-Bowdon considers the tower, the slab, and the walk-up Apartment types in Sydney with Adam Haddow reflecting on the challenges and challenges as well as the rewards for creating ‘new living environments’ that foster compact living in cities. While Scott Carlin locates Sydney’s inheritance of the British suburban Villa as the origin of the ‘love of the quarter acre block and Sydney’s urban sprawl’, Philip Goad uncovers the two kinds of Villas, based on conceptions of the landscape as pastoral and wilderness, arguing that the Villa is a ‘resilient and romantic ideal’. The Mansion is considered historically by Charles Pickett, who observes the ‘Australian desire to dwell in excess’, from colonial to contemporary times. This is complemented by Jonathan Chancellor’s presentation, which notes that the ‘residential monumentalism’ of ‘McMansions’ has failed to gain cultural legitimacy.

Analytic Sketches, Kirribilli; House Stuff, Hannah Tribe, Tribe Studio

The Shack is presented as domestic architecture without architects by Michael Bogle, complemented by Peter Stutchbury’s discussion that regards the shack as the logical response to coastal occupation and economy in Australia. The Terrace, according to Keri Huxley, has changed from its humble beginnings as working class dwellings in the nineteenth century to gentrified commodities in the contemporary Sydney. This is complemented by Hannah Tribe’s presentation of a Victorian, a Federation, and a Georgian terrace, which demonstrates the indivdualization of typologies that appear to have a uniform exterior form. The link between successful Project homes and the involvement of architects and designers with project builders is considered by Dr Judith O’Callaghan. This is accompanied by Tone Wheeler’s discussion of Environa Studio’s projects homes that seek the middle path of negotiating standardized design of the draftsman and the customized design of the architect. The Portable House according to Megan Martin is an outcome of intersecting political, cultural and economic factors, like the colonial expansion, military endeavour, and gold discovery. Sean Godsell imparts political potency to this typology, as projects such as the Bus Shelter House, Park Bench House, and Picnic Table House respond to the urban infrastructure’s resistance to occupation by homeless citizens.

Presented as eight ‘conversations’ between historians, writers, and commentators on the one hand, and architects, policy makers, and property specialists on the other, the talks close the supposed ‘gap’ between theory and history, and the practice and the contemporary, as well as that between the ordinary and the innovative. Even though the talks do not overtly engage social and cultural practices of domesticity (based on ethnicity, gender, and class) focusing exclusively on the object, the dwelling, they generate a great deal of optimism by showcasing the breadth and depth of scholarship and expertise that exists on Housing in Sydney.

More information on the talks can be found at:
Open Lecture Series
Terrace: Thursday 31 May

Form follows Flow

Anuradha Chatterjee, Sydney Correspondent

On 14 March 2012, Michael Neuman (newly appointed Professor of Sustainable Urbanism, at the Built Environment, University of New South Wales) delivered the Fifth Annual Paul Reid Lecture in Urban Design: ‘Sticks and Stones Will Make My Bones: Durability in Design’. The lecture set out to interrogate the following questions: How do we know when a city is truly sustainable? Is it even possible for cities in a global age to be so? How can professional practices retool to be sustainable urbanisms? Urbanists design forms, traditionally. Yet in nature as in cities, humans, other species, and ecosystems live, evolve, and adapt through processes. There were three aspects to the lecture: material sustainability; sustainability as similar to the thermodynamic system; and the city as a sustainable system.

Neuman explains that ‘sticks and stones’ are the natural materiality developed over time, ‘make’ is what designers create and produce, and ‘bones’ are the infrastructure that supports everyday life – ideally synthesized into one. Durability is connected to sustainability principles such as resilience and flexibility. Hence, using ‘natural’ materials like wood, bamboo, iron, or steel is sensible, because these materials can be reprocessed, have low life cycle cost, acquire other qualities over time, are resistant to heating and cooling as they have evolved from nature. Using the image of a cliff face, Neuman argues: “Form is understood as the interaction between nature and culture. In nature, processes convert flows to form, and in culture, processes convert materials into meaning.”

Neuman then goes on to explain sustainability through the laws of thermodynamics. He argues that urban practice and theory is spatial only and it does not engage time. While it does engage the theory of thermodynamics, it only does so partially. It thinks only of conserving energy and matter, entirely bypassing the concept of entropy (irreversible dissipation and decay of matter and energy over time). Hence, the inability to grasp the constant input that cities need to maintain life, proportional to the size and complexity of the city. Neuman advances a (new) view of sustainability based on flows – natural, topographical, human, digital, information, financial, and so on. Flow and form are in a constant bi-directional or reciprocal relation, evident in the manner in which nature sustains itself. Neuman states: “Flow determines form. Form follows flow.” He suggests that by using the thermodynamic concept of entropy and rate process theory, sustainability can be mapped using a formula such that it is a measurable and objective practice.

Neuman then uses the analogy of the tree to explain sustainable urbanism, which is when cities are understood as systems. The tree is regarded as the paragon of ‘permanence and continuity’, as the archetype of the web of life. Neuman suggests that trees are ‘open systems connected to other open systems’, complex yet resilient, a repository of knowledge and intelligence. ‘Sustainable urbanism is networked urbanism’, argues Neuman, because they are open and interconnected networks (of processes and not just forms).

The lecture presents ideas that are innovative, complex for the right reasons, applicable to a range of scales, from the material choice to infrastructure. It is objective and at the same time aspires to better design and planning practices. Rod Simpson’s closing of the lecture brings out the idealities in Neuman’s propositions against the conservative business models in current practice, which disallows quick or palpable change. Simpson also suggests that facts generated by formulas can gain agency only through informed political processes, activism, community engagement, and communication, and that it is only through these complementary processes that sustainable urbanism can even begin to become a reality.

Small Spaces/Big Ideas

WAN would like to introduce you to our new Sydney Metroblogger is Dr Anuradha Chatterjee, a Sydney-based architect, academic, and writer/critic. Anu has taught at University of New South Wales, University of Tasmania, University of Technology Sydney and University of South Australia, where she has contributed to theory courses and design studios at BArch and MArch Levels. Some of her key research interests include theoretical and cultural history of vision, architectural surface, and its design implications; emergent practices in Australia and Asia; and dress, body, textiles, and architecture. Below is her first post for WAN.

On 28 April 2012, a quiet Saturday afternoon in the Surry Hills Library, inner city Sydney, is vitalized by the talk ‘Small Spaces/Big Ideas’, delivered by architects Christopher Polly and Sam Crawford, organized by the City of Sydney and presented with the Australian Institute of Architects (represented by Andrew Burns). The premise of the talk as noted by the City of Sydney is: “In a period of diminishing land availability, living small becomes a necessary and logical way of life”. The talk is also pertinent for other reasons/trends such as the shift towards designing and delivering compact cities in Australia; reducing the ecological footprint; domestic downsizing by empty-nester Australians; and the demand for affordable (and rental) housing for a wider demographic in Sydney.

Sam Crawford noted that Australia has largest house size in the world (243 sq m, a figure sourced from Simon Johanson’s article in Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Australian homes still the World’s biggest’, August 22, 2011). Crawford mentioned examples of people experimenting with reducing house sizes in the US, Denmark and Japan, to foreground the key distinction between expectation and need. Using examples of his own projects, he demonstrated that more space could be achieved on small lots and within older existing houses, like his own house built within the existing shell of a Queen Anne house.


Elliott Ripper House/ Haines House, Christopher Polly Architect. Photos: Brett Boardman

The key design principles of this approach were identified as spilt levels to create different spaces creating the feeling of more space; the use of different materials to create the effect of spaciousness; designing multi-functional spaces like the staircase landing at ground level that is extended into a seating space, or the low window sill of a large south facing window used as a kids play area, or the integration of bookshelves and storage spaces along staircase walls. It was also noted that the smallness of the house demands a careful consideration of acoustical buffers.

Christopher Polly discussed Elliott Ripper House (161 sq m), Haines House (115 sq m), and Darling Point Penthouse (100 sq m) – all small dwellings, which explore design strategies like the use of elements stretching across one space to another; creating adaptable spaces, through the use of internal building elements such as folding metal panels that can be folded back or folded out to increase or decrease room sizes. Central to creating the impression of space was light, both artificial and natural. Polly noted that this was achieved through a choreographed arrangement of strip windows on the exterior wall and on the internal walls to allow light to flow between rooms – an experience further augmented through the use of reflective white surfaces.

A short and an interesting talk, Small Spaces/Big Ideas was attended by built environment enthusiasts, most of them not even architects, and complemented by the presenters’ enthusiasm in responding to ‘lay’ queries as well as more searching, discipline specific questions. This, I think, was a very positive outcome of the profession’s recent consciousness of communicating ethical and urban concerns informing practice to seek and sustain legitimacy and meaningfulness of architectural practice against the needs and expectations of multiple stakeholders in the built environment.

ABC: Art, Business, Creativity!

That is what I like about the big metropolis of Sydney: the contradiction. While we are still discussing the potential for a new $1bn hotel project in the Bangaroo area, the City of Sydney has announced that two large properties on William Street are destined to become affordable accommodation for artists and creatives. The buildings are to include showrooms, warehouses, offices, stores and one-room apartments, to create spaces where the artists can work and live. The first supporter of the initiative is Lord Mayor Clover who has said: “Sydney’s creative culture attracts people to live, visit, work and invest here – but there’s no creative culture if artists can’t afford to live and work.”

Credit: Jake Ryan

Sydney is not new to this kind of initiatives. If we think of the many places in Surry Hills and Chippendale, as the building in 151 Foveaux Street that houses firm such as Ian More Architects, Lawton Design and Collins and Turner Many of these buildings are old warehouses renovated to create this vintage style studio that perfectly matches the artistic environment.

So what is new? This time the location is William Street at five minutes walking distance to the CBD, where the cost for sq m is really high and the building usually housing offices of big companies. Just last year the same initiative was realised in Oxford Street, where the City of Sydney approved the project to create a new Cultural and Creative hub.

This area from more than a couple of years is involved in an action plan to improve and promote the Oxford Street Cultural Quarter, characterised for its designer shops, fashion outlets, iconic book stores and to represent the border between Surry Hill and Darlinghurst. The Oxford Street tenants include Scale Architecture, The Fortynine, Rouse Phillips Textile Studio, the Oxford St Design Store, He Made She Made, Province and Platform 72, as well as multimedia and arts organisations.

Credit: Parramatta City Council

Sydney, supporting art does not mean just increasing the space to help young creatives to develop their activities, it also means re-launching the future of a whole district. That is the case of Parramatta: a suburb of the city, not really famous to tourists and foreigners, but well-known by local residents as an unsafe area of the city.

The Trade & Investment Art Department of the New South Wales Government in collaboration with the Parramatta City Council launched the project Pop-Up Parramatta on 2010, offering training and support to develop the entrepreneurial and business skills of artists in the area; at the same time the initiative creates connections between artists, local communities and the business sector. The idea of the New South Wales government is ‘recognise that the creative industries can drive economic and urban renewal’.

That is the first sign that Sydney will be a city to keep an eye on over the next few year, not for the archistars that are working on its ground or the money invested in its development, but the contradictions. That is the first sign that can show that a city is lively. Many ideas, many voices, many interests as long that all aspects are still playing, building the city will be such as good game!

With this article I finish my time with WAN as Sydney blogger because I’m starting a new experience as intern in Architectural Review, but it is not the end of my collaboration with WAN.