In pursuit of an architecture realism

O'Brien, Kevin (2011) In pursuit of an architecture realism. Monument, pp. 35-36.


The noble idea of studying seminal works to ‘see what we can learn’ has turned in the 1990s into ‘let’s see what we can take’ and in the last decade a more toxic derivative ‘what else can’t we take’. That is my observation as a student of architecture in the 1990s, and as a practitioner in the 2000s. In 2010, the sense that something is ending is clear. The next generation is rising and their gaze has shifted.

The idea of classification (as a means of separation) was previously rejected by a generation of Postmodernists; the usefulness of difference declined. It’s there in the presence of plurality in the resulting architecture, a decision to mine history and seize in a willful manner. This is a process of looking back but never forward. It has been a mono-culture of absorption. The mono-culture rejected the pursuit of the realistic. It is a blanket suffocating all practice of architecture in this country from the mercantile to the intellectual. Independent reviews of Australia’s recent contributions to the Venice Architecture Biennales confirm the malaise.

The next generation is beginning to reconsider classification as a means of unification. By acknowledging the characteristics of competing forces it is possible to bring them into a state of tension. Seeking a beautiful contrast is a means to a new end. In the political setting, this is described by Noel Pearson as the radical centre[1]. The concept transcends the political and in its most essential form is a cultural phenomenon. It resists the compromised position and suggests that we can look back while looking forward. The radical centre is the only demonstrated opportunity where it is possible to pursue a realistic architecture.

A realistic architecture in Australia may be partially resolved by addressing our anxiety of permanence. Farrelly’s built desires[2] and Markham’s ritual demonstrations[3] are two ways into understanding the broader spectrum of permanence. But I think they are downstream of our core problem. Our problem, as architects, is that we are yet to come to terms with this place. Some call it landscape others call it country. Australian cities were laid out on what was mistaken for a blank canvas. On some occasions there was the consideration of the landscape when it presented insurmountable physical obstacles. The architecture since has continued to work on its piece of a constantly blank canvas. Even more ironic is the commercial awards programs that represent a claim within this framework but at best can only establish a dialogue within itself. This is a closed system unable to look forward. It is said that Melbourne is the most European city in the southern hemisphere but what is really being described there is the limitation of a senseless grid.

After all, if Dutch landscape informs Dutch architecture why can’t the Australian landscape inform Australian architecture? To do that, we would have to acknowledge our moribund grasp of the meaning of the Australian landscape. Or more precisely what Indigenes call Country[4]. This is a complex notion and there are different ways into it. Country is experienced and understood through the senses and seared into memory. If one begins design at that starting point it is not unreasonable to think we can arrive at an end point that is a counter trajectory to where we have taken ourselves. A recent studio with Masters students confirmed this. Start by finding Country and it would be impossible to end up with a building looking like an Aboriginal man’s face.

To date architecture in Australia has overwhelmingly ignored Country on the back of terra nullius. It can’t seem to get past the picturesque. Why is it so hard? The art world came to terms with this challenge, so too did the legal establishment, even the political scene headed into new waters. It would be easy to blame the budgets of commerce or the constraints of program or even the pressure of success. But that is too easy. Those factors are in fact the kind of limitations that opportunities grow out of.

The past decade of economic plenty has, for the most part, smothered the idea that our capitals might enable civic settings or an architecture that is able to looks past lot line boundaries in a dignified manner. The denied opportunities of these settings to be prompted by the Country they occupy is criminal. The public realm is arrested in its development because we refuse to accept Country as a spatial condition. What we seem to be able to embrace is literal and symbolic gestures usually taking the form of a trumped up art installations. All talk – no action.

To continue to leave the public realm to the stewardship of mercantile interests is like embracing derivative lending after the global financial crisis.Herein rests an argument for why we need a resourced Government Architect’s office operating not as an isolated lobbyist for business but as a steward of the public realm for both the past and the future. New South Wales is the leading model with Queensland close behind. That is not to say both do not have flaws but current calls for their cessation on the grounds of design parity poorly mask commercial self interest. In Queensland, lobbyists are heavily regulated now with an aim to ensure integrity and accountability.

In essence, what I am speaking of will not be found in Reconciliation Action Plans that double as business plans, or the mining of Aboriginal culture for the next marketing gimmick, or even discussions around how to make buildings more ‘Aboriginal’. It will come from the next generation who reject the noxious mono-culture of absorption and embrace a counter trajectory to pursue an architecture of realism.

Impact and interest:

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ID Code: 76303
Item Type: Journal Article
Refereed: No
Additional URLs:
ISSN: 1320-1115
Divisions: Current > Schools > School of Design
Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Creative Industries Faculty
Deposited On: 24 Sep 2014 22:18
Last Modified: 29 Sep 2014 23:06

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