AAA Unbuilt Architecture Awards 2013 – review in The Block by Pip Cheshire


Pip Cheshire reviewed the AAA Unbuilt Architecture Awards in the Block, issue 1 of 2014.

The review is provocative, and challenges architects to speculate upon their vision for Auckland and realise it in drawn and built form. In his lecture, Pip discussed the power visionary drawings have on the development of a city. Can architects contribute to the political vision for Auckland simply by drawing it, and pushing it out there.

It is tempting to stay on this track, to assume we are Oscar Wilde’s few who ….“are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars”. This is however a fairly precious and unsustainable view. What does it say of us if we truly believe our fellow travellers in the industry lived, without exception, lives that were solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short? No, for better or worse most of us have entered this world willingly, though perhaps lured and duped just a little by the rose tinted architecture school prospectuses with their hints of attainable utopias pouring forth from pencil and mouse. It is the implicit hope of giving birth to the new, the not yet done, the possible and the experimental that I assume has lured most, if not all, students to study. Despite this a priori visionary optimism it is the very poverty of such projects from the country’s studios in the last year end AAA Unbuilt Architecture Awards that I find perplexing.

It may be a measure of just how comfortable most of us down in the gutter and gazing only occasionally at the stars above, or perhaps of just how revved up the industry is at present. Whatever the cause, there were few entries in the open section of the awards. There was some interesting work presented in the ‘under construction’ section, projects yet to break ground but well on the way. As we might expect they were generally illustrated with recycled presentation drawings and renders that invariably veer toward the explanatory at the expense of the evocative.

In contrast the ‘open but not build-able’ section included a few intensely wrought projects whose authors were clearly either unemployed, users of illegal stimulants or suffer severe sleeping disorders. Where the student projects are confident in their exposition of the imagined, and privilege provocation, wonder and delight over the practical and the occupiable, those by graduates are somewhat more respectful of gravity and spatial organisation, if not of the finer points of construction. The awards though do not seek the completely resolved and it is the combination of a potent idea with just enough information to suggest that the project might be able to be realised that makes this section of the awards so interesting. These are projects born of a restless desire to re examine. They are a sort of paper architecture, driven to a higher level of realisation by the insistent precision of CAD models.

We are in desperate need of more speculative projects of this nature in Auckland. Despite the best intentions of the legion of planners buried in Auckland Council and the heroic representations made by the Auckland branch of the Institute, over indulged baby boomers have dug their toes in to defend the stand-alone suburban house. The elderly boomers, being rich in both time and property, have swamped Auckland Council’s consultation meetings and all but routed the planners, sent them packing with their statistics and wall charts.

One suspects that as the boomers enter the broken hipster stage mowing the back lawn will have less appeal than an urban pad with a small raised potager for the herbs and a farmers market down the street. This may, in the fullness of time, break the current impasse, but for now we are in danger of following some of Melbourne’s shires and actually reducing density. Those opposed to increased density housing invoke visions of serried ranks of high rise tenements rolling across the isthmus and denying future generations room for backyard cricket.

The information produced in support of Auckland’s great leap forward has a number of images showing in a generalised fashion what a more densely occupied city might look like but we have precious few built examples and the use of the typical and the general lacks the credibility of the specific and the actual. Given that statistical arguments have been dispatched as yet more pointy headed damn lies and the spectre of pre unification East German tenements raised, it falls to we architects to offer a vision of a more densely occupied isthmus.

To address this shortcoming and generate a number of propositions for a specific site that might better inform the public debate the Institute is delighted to be working with a company with a good record in medium density housing to promote a competition for a residential housing development on a site in the urban fringe. It’s a little early to name names but the goal is to call for conceptual strategies in a quick fire first stage requiring minimal presentation, winnow out four or five for greater development and for the winning project to be constructed. The Institute hopes that the combination of brief, site, developer client and its own skill at running a fair competition will give greater voice to architects in the realisation of the city through the promotion of an innovative prototype. Keep a weathered eye on the Institute website and emails.

It’s a strange church, architecture – arbitrating the brilliantly elliptical entries in a student competition one day, bashed around the ears for not understanding the vagaries of entrance lobbies required by the Remuera bourgeoisie the next.

The former is a pleasure, a work out for the soggy grey matter, a test of current reading, of one’s ability to launch into that layer of the atmosphere where dream and poesy float. For a few hours a possible world is glimpsed, a world, to paraphrase Matthew Arnold, of sweet cities with their dreaming spires, needing not November for beauty’s heightening. There are some few people who manage to parley such dreaming into a lifetime of architecture, perhaps research, teaching and writing or those most blessed, attracting a steady stream of like minded souls upon whom one builds a folio of lyrical, Arcadian delights. For most of us though we have to suffer a more earthly realm, peopled not by magical sylphs and salamanders but building inspectors, planners and the regiments of fellow travelers of our trade who lay siege to our dreams, wielding the dreadful engines of the district plan, the value management session and the critical path.

If judging unbuilt, and generally unbuildable, work is a delight suffering the capricious commentaries of Lazarus like developer’s agents is somewhat less so. Barely have the court cases of those lured by the market’s last wild fling been settled than the hucksters are back, returning as regularly as seagulls to newly ploughed land, whirling and pirouetting overhead as they search for fat wriggling prey amid the confusion of a changed landscape.

The Block is the regular bulletin for the Auckland branch of the New Zealand Institute of Architects, the PDF of The Block 01 2014 can be found here.

Alistair Munro