Monday, 23 May 2016

Is Architecture Art?

Is Architecture Art?  It’s a question that surfaces periodically in the architectural profession: I wrote on the issue around 1995 and a recent edition of Architecture Australia (March 2016) raised the question again.  My answer remains the same as it was 20 years ago, but it is perhaps more interesting to ask why architects feel the need to ask the question at all.

The concept of architecture as art has, in the modern era, aligned with the conception of architecture as object.  This understanding of architecture in its relationship to the broader environment is a defining characteristic of modernism.  Object oriented design evolves largely from the oil age conception of the city as a place zoned into monocultures linked by mechanized transit.  In the shift away from the pre-oil age necessity for walkable mixed use environments, architecture was freed of its role in generously enhancing and activating complex human scale urban realms, towards emphasis on presenting individual self contained sculptural forms to be viewed at a distance and at speed, with the ground level urban interface becoming a kind of shadowline, barrier or void to enhance the expression of those volumes.


An ‘object’ building by Frank Gehry creates a mute, scaleless and barricaded street interface (as posted by The Urbanist,



Architecture prior to modernism was, in contrast, predominantly defined by a component based approach.  Component based architecture saw architecture as composed of human scaled elements arranged according to a visual hierarchy or set of rules, or styles.  These provided grammars for creating the interfaces with street and setting, defining entries and vantage points, framing and defining boundaries and activating the public realm.  The buildings were, in turn, seen as components of that public realm, with an understood role within a hierarchy of urban spatial types.  It was also clear that architecture was the servant of the public realm, its performance was judged by the way in which it contributed to making the city more than the sum of its parts.


Component based design in Collins Street Melbourne: colonnades, bays and detailed shopfronts provide human scale and activation at street level
Object oriented design has tended to have the opposite effect, fragmenting the urban realm and placing emphasis on buildings as disruptive and singular.  This partly explains why more rigid town planning controls developed in parallel with modernism, reflecting the broader communities search to protect human scaled component based urbanism from the visually and functionally negative aspects of object oriented design.
This trend has led to the increasing disengagement of the architectural profession from the public.  Just as architecture is frequently seen as not having a constructive engagement with the public realm, so architects are seen as agents of negative effects on the community.  This has led to a loss of confidence within the profession, and a retreat to a self defeating cycle of ever more extreme object making in a fruitless search for affirmation and validation.

A recent object building for the Cooper Union in New York by architects Morphosis results in a street interface that appears like a void or shadowline, with a mute and fortified fa├žade above (as posted, with commentary, by The Urbanist,
The modernist myth of the irrelevance of history reinforces this trend, a view that the only valid architectural expression must derive from the ‘spirit of the age’, which for modernism has focussed on the opportunities afforded by oil age materialism.  This has led to a constant restless search for the ‘new’, but in so doing has ironically generated its own traditions and grammars of object oriented design.
Recent object oriented architecture in Docklands, Melbourne, results not in a coherent or inviting streetscape but a banal jumble of design 'statements' with a 'shadowline' interfaces at ground level. This problem was highlighted by urbanist Jan Gehl's critique of the area, which identified low levels of activated frontages
The modernist promotion of object architecture is probably a primary driver of the tendency to see architecture as art.  This fails to understand the fundamental difference between architecture and art, which is habitability.  Buildings are things you live and work in.  They support social structures.  They provide protection and comfort.  Above all, they define the quality of public realms.  And as such, they engage with the timeless values and requirements of humanity, ways of creating social engagement and consensus at both interpersonal and societal levels.  It is a difference which devalues neither architecture nor art.  It just asks for them to be seen as performing different roles, and to be assessed fully against those roles.
Simple, ordinary architecture can be a very effective servant of urbanism in creating coherent and receptive places.  A streetscape in Carlton, Melbourne is made up of component based architecture bound by a common commitment to the definition and activation of the street edge
We are now rapidly approaching the post oil age.  We already understand that the profligate use of resources that has underpinned modernism and modernist urban structures are unsustainable and environmentally damaging.  We realize that with population growth there is increasing competition for resources of all kinds.  We need once again to create dense, walkable, complex, mixed use, low energy urban environments that support the universal and timeless requirements for constructive and equitable human engagement.  Far from being irrelevant, a skilled generalist such as an architect has a more important role than ever before.  This means fully integrating new skills in urban design, building physics and community engagement into routine practice, and also reintegrating the qualities of component based design into contemporary practice.  This will give architects the richer and more adaptable vocabulary to create buildings that can more generously contribute to the overall environment.
The profession should not be overly defensive, but we do need to break down the ‘Bauhaus wall’ that has prevented, for the last 100 years, a more broad ranging and open minded re-examination of all ways of creating successful human settlements from antiquity to today, in finding solutions relevant to our current predicament.  Worrying about whether architecture is art or not should be the least of the profession’s concerns.

Michael Jeffreson



Monday, 12 May 2014

The Architecture of the Clubhouse

Demaine Partnership has an unequalled record in Australia in the design of clubhouses.  This work has principally focussed on golf clubs, and concentrated in Victoria, with new facilities for some of Australia's finest clubs, including the Royal Melbourne, Kingston Heath, Sorrento, Woodlands, and now more recently, Peninsula Kingswood Club.

Creating an outstanding golf club facility is part science, part art, part sociological study.  While it is acknowledged that the origins of golf reside in the UK, the modern game and the flowering of sophisticated clubhouse and course design has its origins in USA.  The so called 'gilded age' of the 1920s in the USA resulted in proliferation of new recreation facilities.  Golf moved from a slightly arcane pass time for an initiated few, to a sport with broad appeal and sophisticated social dimension.

A special feature in the Architectural Forum Magazine of March 1925 devoted 82 pages to exploring the intricacies of the newly emerging discipline of golf clubhouse architecture, then barely 30 years old in America.  The lead article admitted that club member's expectations of the period was for 'fine appointments, luxurious fittings and service akin to that to be found in a metropolitan hotel...' leading to an indictment that golf 'was a game within the reach of the rich alone.'

This the magazine attributed to a rather extravagant attitude of the members of those early clubs.  'If the men who make up the membership of the numerous clubs about the country ran their own businesses as they allow that of their clubs to be run, in a large majority of cases they would shortly be facing bankruptcy proceedings' the magazine observed.

However it also noted a trend to a much more professional and efficient administration of both buildings and courses, and a broadening of the reach of clubs a much wider and less elite audience.

This trend was mirrored in Australia, with many of Victoria's leading clubs having origins in the late nineneenth and early twentieth centuries.  Demaine Partnership was a participant in developing some of those clubs in the post war era, with modern facilities for both Royal Melbourne in the 1960s and later for the Healesville Country Club and Kew Golf Club.  Elements of these facilities remain today, but our redevelopment of the Royal Melbourne facility is emblematic of the shifting expectations of contemporary golf club members for the quality and character of their 'homes'.

Royal Melbourne Golf Club

When we built the Royal Melbourne Golf Club clubhouse in the 1960s it was hailed as an appropriate and modern response that placed the course itself front and centre, with the building being a quite recessive and low key element within this setting.  However by the late 1990s the austere and utilitarian character of 1960s modernism was no longer so appealing.  Older clubs, built in the 1920s, had stood the test of time much better, providing settings that had a sense of tradition and a more elegant relationship with their attractive course settings.  The club set a brief: to create a new facility that would deliver a range of well proportioned and flexible spaces that created a strong sense of arrival and echoed the pre-eminent status of the club itself.

Our design response embodied an understanding of the clubhouse-course relationship as akin to that between a grand formal landscape and a traditional country house: a dialogue where the building framed and anchored the setting, enhancing and enriching it not by trying to disappear, but by entering into a meaningful dialogue.

But a golf clubhouse is much more than just an ornament to an extraordinary landscape, it is a starting point for the event of the game itself, and a finishing point for gathering and socialization.  There is a sequence of activities from the point of arrival, to departure from the course some hours later, that a well designed building can orchestrate and enhance.

In our next posting, we'll talk the sorts of design features needed to enhance that golfing experience, in the context not only of Royal Melbourne Golf Club, but the Demaine Partnership designs that followed it.