I am sitting on an Air New Zealand flight bound for Los Angeles. I boarded this flight in Sydney, Australia. When I reach Los Angeles, I will immediately travel on to Toronto. This brief trip around the world is what could be called the Empire tour.
When you visit Australia you can immediately observe an insecurity about their identity. The cry often goes up: 'Who are we?' Or: 'Is this piece of architecture Australian?' While in Melbourne I noticed that the newspaper The Age carried a series of letters asking whether the newly completed cultural complex at Federation Square can be described as Australian architecture.
This project, which was the product of an international competition, was won by Don Bates and Peter Davidson, a young American/Australian duo with a strong London pedigree who go by the name of LAB Architecture. The scheme is a brave and extraordinary attempt to drag the city of Melbourne into the 21st century. If the locals are worried about its credentials as a piece of Australian architecture then they should never have held an international competition.
The project is, as one would expect, an amalgam of varied architectural references and interests that span the globe. They do not belong to Australia any more or any less than they belong to anywhere else. Fractal geometry, low energy, multi-function, reduced budget, over managed and much maligned. These are all qualities that could be used to describe the work. And all of them are to be found anywhere in the world. The project in Federation Square is a global product in a parochial market. This parochialism forces the architects to invent stories about their product in order to appease their local critics. They talk at length about the use of local materials. They stress the fact that the vegetation is Australian. They demonstrate their commitment to Australia and its culture by reminding their detractors that they live and work in Melbourne.
All of which serves to remind us that the efforts of the architect are often thwarted by the concerns of people who are ill-informed, myopic and jaundiced by their own lack of imagination. Architecture has never killed anyone, and it is usually made with the best intentions.
Mere buildings, by comparison, are made with no intention at all, yet never seem to incur anybody's wrath.Society gets what it deserves, and I wonder what the good people of Melbourne imagined they deserved when they announced the competition for Federation Square.They certainly did not deserve what they got.
This article was started a year ago and for some reason was never concluded. Having just re-read it, I feel that it is still relevant. We are still dogged by people who set themselves up as a filter in order to protect their own perception of the 'people's'wishes.
At best, these people are a mixture of politicians, who distance themselves from projects in order to avoid being laughed at (a sad reflection on their own lack of confidence) or, at worst, other architects who are often jealous that they did not get the job themselves.
The whingers in Melbourne included both nervous politicians and embittered architects, but the ordinary 'people', as far as I know without exception, loved it - as did I.
Who is protecting whom from what? People are desperate for more variation and individuality. Yet there are large parts of our society which are hell-bent on making sure they do not get it.
WA, from a plane and my table at Parkgate Studio