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Coincidences and curiosity - Q+A with John Wardle and Stefan Mee (Part 2)

John Wardle Architects has cemented itself as a significant cultural force in Melbourne’s architecture scene. In this the second half of the discussion with John Wardle and Stefan Mee, the conversation turns to the bigger picture issues facing our city and the architecture profession.

To start from the beginning of the discussion click here

MS – As a Melbourne-based architecture practice, how do you critique the trajectory of our city? What are we doing well, and what do we need to be doing better?

JW – Well, I think we have to be aware of the responsibility we have as agents of change. As architects, we serve those with ambition and capital to substantially change the fabric of the city.

We must always be prepared to have our own set of principles by which we engage with the projects we take on.

It’s important that we are both acutely aware of that power and slightly self-conscious as we perform our tasks. We’re often encouraged to do things that may well be, at times, beyond our better judgement. I think it’s good that both State Government and the City of Melbourne is now looking very critically at many aspects of high-rise residential development in the heart of the city. I think that the latest state government changes to planning, to both plot ratio and boundary setbacks, will draw more oxygen back into the city centre.

SM – I would add that, as a city, there is a strong appreciation of the value of design and the value of architecture in Melbourne, which is important. When new parts of the city are being built and being commissioned, I think the role of the OVGA (Office of the Victorian Government Architect) has been very effective in terms of encouraging good design outcomes across a range of different project types.

More generally, with high density apartment buildings, there have been some planning decisions that have happened in the city, where the quality of the outcomes at street-level and in terms of the public realm of the city, aren’t as good as they could have been. The issue with those building types is that they will be here for a very long time and so too will the impacts.

On the bright side, in terms of the quality of the urban realm, many very good architects in Melbourne contribute a diversity of design thinking to university campuses in the city, to public competitions, and to urban design that together really add to and improve the public realm. So, I think the city’s in pretty good shape from that point of view.

MS – On the topic of competitions, one of the ongoing questions of our profession is the role of the architectural competition. Whilst it does typically produce excellent outcomes for the client and the public, it consumes a great deal of resources from sometimes hundreds of projects missions. What is your view on the use of the architectural competition?

SM –  It is a vexed question, as there are definite benefits from design competitions in terms of the quality of the built environment. As architects, we do invest a huge amount of time and resources into them, and as a practice, we’ve been lucky enough to win competitions, which has allowed us into new types of work, and larger types of work as well. But, we’ve also lost competitions, and we know what that’s like too – it can be very dispiriting. So, I would say that we support the idea of design competitions, but a competition needs to be quite carefully organised for it to strike a balance between the investment of ideas by the profession and the public benefit.

Generally speaking, it is good to set a limit on the amount of work that each architectural practice needs to commit to at the competition phase, before a selection process occurs. I think you can convey ideas and a concept for a project without necessarily having to provide a huge amount of detail. The hard thing for the profession is that we are still giving away the kernel of our creative work, our intellectual property, often for little recompense at an early stage. So, I think it’s still a very vexed question, there are definitely advantages, and good ideas come out of some competitions, but there are a lot of challenges, particularly if they’re run poorly.

JW – For that reason, our preference is to engage with competitions that judge conceptual ideas, and an expression of methodology that you propose if engaged rather than those that require complete development of a proposal into an exhaustive amount of documented detail.  Work that is well beyond what you really need to make that assessment. We have to be careful in stating this as a mature practice because competitions have been very much a part of our success in both growth and diversity of projects that we now engage with, but at the same time we have to look very critically at them.

The recently opened Tanderrum Bridge by JWA + NADAAA (Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen)

SM – I was going to say, a really interesting, positive recent example was the Tanderrum bridge design competition run by Major Projects Victoria. It started as an open competition so that it allowed for a diversity of ideas, and then progressed to a limited stage two competition. As the winner of the competition, we have been able to work on a project that is embedded in the public realm and perhaps that we may not have otherwise had an opportunity to work on.  It was also an opportunity for us to reprise our collaborative relationship with NADAAA.

The recently opened Tanderrum Bridge by JWA + NADAAA (Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen)

MS – 2017 feels like an extraordinary time of political upheaval, from the international forces of Trump and Brexit to the national questions of housing affordability and public access to the federal parliament. How do you see the relationship between politics and architecture? Do you think this climate of political upheaval is going to influence our architecture going forward?

SM- Architecture is intertwined with politics and commerce. That’s one of the differences between architecture and art, I guess, is that we are producing buildings and spaces that have to fit into those contexts. Politically, the world seems to be taking a turn towards isolationism, which is a pity. I think architecture does offer a small way of perhaps resisting some of that, by being more open, in the way that architecture responds to the urban realm, the city, and the way that people interact with it. There are always opportunities to think about the context you work within, and perhaps to either support it or to resist it. You try to hold on to the values that are important to you as an architect and, collectively, as a practice.

JW – I believe this climate of political upheaval will certainly influence our architecture. It will be a primary driver of our economy and these forces will, to a large degree, be instrumental in affecting social change. Do these forces that you’ve mentioned, particularly Trump and Brexit, value cultural investment as much as we have been able to over the last decade or two? I would suggest possibly not. There’s a brutally simplistic viewpoint that the issue of jobs and unemployment, in the global economy, is paramount. This shifts the balance away from many good things that are seen as ancillary to the immediacy of those issues.

I firmly believe that complex problems require complex solutions.

There seems to be a politics of reducing complexity down to three-word, ‘stop the boats’ sort of responses. Generally architecture at its best, deals with complexity and expresses its values.

MS – Having practised architecture over a long time frame, what have been the more surprising changes and developments you’ve seen in respect to the architectural practice, or architectural culture?

SM – When I first started working, after graduating, a forum like the Halftime Club was a place of pretty fierce criticism and critique. That type of forum doesn’t really exist anymore. It has been replaced by a sea of information, globally channelled through technology without a critical filter.

Critique is far less prevalent. There’s less of it out there, compared to the amount of information about projects that is available. So when you read a really constructive, fair and in-depth critique of a project these days, it is interesting because you can learn so much from it. So, from a cultural point of view, I think the role of the critic has shifted quite a lot.

JW – On an optimistic note, I think the means of engagement of architectural practice has opened up to more players. When this practice started, there was a much more rigid approach to selection, based on sort of past performance which generally was the fore. This created limited pools of practices associated with different project types.

The opportunities nowadays for practices to be invited into new areas of endeavour based on other aspects of their performance has increased markedly.

MS – Having achieved so much, where to next for JWA?

JW – Well, we’re constantly in a state of change, responding to constantly changing circumstances. I think we said somewhere in the book that sometimes we feel that the operation manual of how to work here needs continual revision. We are investing enormously in the skills of communication and empowerment within the practice.  As well, we’re constantly looking at our methodology and devoting interest to the practice itself as well as the projects that we produce.

We’re right in the midst of a very engaging process of workshops and areas of research into change within the profession. So for me, starting this year, this is the latest fascination.

MS – Thank you both for your time.

​​​​​​

Michael Smith is a principal at Ateiler Red+Black. This article originally appeared on the Red and Black website.

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