Archive 2004

ARA writes about AAA

The April 2004 edition of Architecture Review Australia includes a well written summary of the AAA, its hopes and potential.

Here is the text:

By now every registered architect in Australia will have received an invitation to join the newly formed Australian Architecture Association (AAA). According to its mission statement, the AAA aims to promote architecture and inculcate its importance to a larger slice of the Australian public. Since worse practice in the built environment is often the result of economic and political processes (of which the public is largely uninformed), locking architecture out of an effective role, the AAA’s ambition to directly target the public and galvanise a constituency beyond the profession, must clearly be seen as a laudable ambition.

At this preliminary stage of formation, concrete details remain inevitably scarce and it is as yet unclear how such an profound change in the relationship between architecture and the public and indeed the urban decision-makers might be achieved. However, in general terms it might be useful to understand the AAA by first defining what it is not. It is not attempting to be another RAIA and will not be offering any of the RAIA services to architects, nor is its membership restricted to the profession of architects. In fact the AAA will deliberately canvas support from anyone with an interest in architecture. In seeking to discriminate between the welfare of architecture and the welfare of architects (a duty more apposite to the Institute), the AAA aspires to the status of like-minded cultural organisations such as The Architecture Foundation in London , the Chicago Architecture Foundation and Centre Canadien d’Architecture in Quebe .

One can usefully divide the AAA’s nascent program into three distinct fields: mediating, lobbying and event organising, of which the last is the most tangible. The cornerstone of the AAA’s program will be a revitalisation of the International Series of public lectures. This much is self-evidently of value in the promotion of architecture’s popularity, as nothing excites interest in any field as much as the visit of an overseas celebrity Though not in itself a new idea, there is little doubt that the combined reputations of the founding committee will secure a program of significant architectural dignitaries. Already names such as Alvaro Siza and Jacques Herzog are in the mix. Typically there will be four a year once the program develops. The recent confirmation of the Sydney Opera House as venue will help lure overseas architects and augment the Association’s public cultural status. If such an initiative can drag architecture out of the property pages and into the weekend culture supplements, it is to be applauded, Another key feature of the planned public events will be the establishment of an organised program of architectural tours around key sites of architectural merit. Amongst other long-term plans there are architecture exhibitions, film seasons and children- focused events in the pipe-line, with a singular goal to advance architecture as a part of public life and discourse.

Less tangible is the AAA’s mediating role. That is, to be a resource for architectural critics, journalists and the media, and indeed to be itself a media campaigner. There is no doubt that these are the skills which founding director Stella de Vulder will bring to her new role. However, clearly a pluralist ability to mediate diverse, if not occasionally antagonistic practice, requires a diversity in leadership, currently an issue for the founding committee. The architectural sympathies that bond the AAA’s founding committee are palpable – a strength that may prove a weakness unless the need for a greater heterogeneity in the Association’s composition is addressed as a matter of priority Regional spread will doubtless be achieved soon, with Kerstin Thompson and John Wardle already taking up the mantle in Victoria and others in the remaining states to be announced over forthcoming months. In the name of architecture’s mediation and promotion, inclusively of practice must be the corollary of accessibility.

The third and perhaps strongest card in the AAA’s pack, though as yet untested, is its ability to lobby government and law makers, while simultaneously creating closer ties with industry. As Stella de Vulder states: “Since taking up the Major Corporate Membership of the AAA, Bluescope Steel executives have joined the founding committee and their contribution to marketing and reaching target audiences is already taking an effective form.” With the reality that D&C will continue to dominate the construction industry, the urgent need to create alliances between architecture and corporations and further, the market, hardly needs arguing. Similarly the evidence that architecture needs greater leverage and robust advocacy in the courts piles up in the planning offices of every state in the country. If Russell Ward’s provocative Mayoral campaign in Brisbane signals anything (see letters p14), it is the concern that without challenging the web of bureaucracy encircling the profession, architecture will be reduced to a checklist of banal formulas.

Although the AAA is at pains to distance itself from a single-issue identity the ongoing bureaucratic constraint of architecture through ever-increasing planning regulation, is inevitably read as precipitous, given the vocal opinions of Harry Seidler and Glenn Murcutt. Their sustained criticism of planners and developers has been splashed all over the press for many years (albeit not always directed at the right target). As stated unequivocally by founding president Glenn Murcutt:

”... our current feeling of the health of residential architecture is that it’s a disaster. Government structures and regulations allow this disastrous planning and, combined with the requirement of developers to sell at the cheapest possible level, produces entirely unsustainable developments. The worst thing of all is the long-term economics for the occupants, with rising costs of ongoing heating, cooling, maintenances and transport. The whole thing’s a challenge, environmentally and spatially we must find ways of introducing more ideas and debate for government, the development industry and the potential house purchaser, if we want to assist change in this critical area.”

Words that will render whole-hearted support from many, but also concerned caveats from some. There is genuine reason to support any initiative with such worthy purpose, but there also remains a residual regret that the aims and agenda of the AAA has not been possible to accommodate within the RAIA. The logic for this division of energies, which has been characterised by some influential commentators as a split in the opposition, must of course acknowledge the Institute as something other than a passive spectator.

In Quebec , Chicago , Rotterdam or London , the establishment of comparative organisations defined a moment of maturity in that region’s culture of architecture. An aspiration for the same to happen in Australia , registers a will to substantially strengthen architecture’s vital role in a growing country. It is imperative that an organisation so charged captures the breadth and scope of what architecture is and might be in Australia . Such would be an Association of unquestionable benefit to the profession.