Quotes this week

To err is human, to be corrected by one's readers is divine.” Pro verb in this proverb.

Last week I wrote in praise of the Canberra College of Advanced Education School of Environmental Design (CCAE SED), turning 50 this year. My enthusiasm for the symposium, organised by current staff and attended by several former, got the better of me, and I made a couple of mistakes. So let’s clear that up, before moving on to the worst architecture books of 2023.

Was the CCAE SED unique?

I described the CCAE SED as being unique in offering an interdisciplinary design course. Gaven Gilmour, architect in Rockhampton, graduate of QIT and DN reader begs to differ. He writes so passionately about his education, I think it's worth quoting at some length:

(The CCAE SED) was not unique, I had almost the same experience at the Bach Applied Sc Built Environment at QIT in Brisbane, I started in 1978… First year included architecture, landscape architecture, planning, industrial design, building and quantity surveying. Second year you selected one of three strands; Arch + Industrial Design; or Planning + Landscape Arch; or Building + QS (for those who couldn’t draw!).

Year One had no design subject, but it did have “problem solving” being the major studio-based subject, an all-day event which had doing all sorts of things, field trips everywhere, making mud bricks, geodesic domes etc…. we also studied Ecological Principles, today this would just be called being all things green. They were not teaching us what to think, rather ‘how’ to think, how to thing laterally.

The course was so innovative it attracted numerous lecturers from overseas, particularly in the landscape field. One lecturer even organized a field trip to the Papua New Guinea highlands staying with a tribe in their village. The faculty hierarchy didn’t approve so we all went in the term holidays.  

(As) described at the CCAE, subsequent to my departure I understand the course suffered from each discipline trying to dominate, and it being broken apart. The cracks were probably already there when I left.

The course was so influential and such an intellectual explosion, I’m not sure what sort of architect, or even what sort of person I would be today if I had not experienced this course. I am forever grateful for having the benefit of experiencing this course when it was at its peak.

How good to hear an architecture course spoken of so fondly. Whilst I accept that his reminiscences align with my description, I would say that the uniqueness of Canberra was its emphasis on design, right from the get-go.

Roger Johnson

My account of the foundation head of school, Roger Johnson erred on a couple of points, and James Weirick, a former colleague in landscape architecture at CCAE SED (and not coincidentally, the finest lecturer I ever heard), wrote to correct the record.

Roger Johnson did not join the RAF, he was an officer in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and served as a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm. He was a Prisoner of War of the Germans from 23 July 1944 to 21 April 1945 (liberated by the Red Army) – i.e. nine months in total as a POW, not two and a half years. He was released by the Red Army to American forces on 20 May 1945, ten months after being shot down.”

More importantly on that time, James pointed me to his war journal, which is kept at UQ:

https://espace.library.uq.edu.au/view/UQ:332656, which looks wonderfully detailed and cleverly illustrated; something I look forward to delving into as my holiday reading.

Everything else I wrote about Roger Johnson, how he was a gloriously talented architect, a brilliant administrator, and so widely respected, was corroborated by all you knew him at the recent symposium.

On knowing architecture schools

Gaven Gilmore’s letter raises an interesting point for me: how do we know the quality of an architecture school, then or now, and the importance of staff in determining that quality.

A salient point I omitted about CCAE SED last week was how many of the initial staff had a science AND design background. Both David Harman and Steve King had master’s degrees in architectural science, Jean-Pierre Favre was an engineer and architect, Don Dunbar was a credentialled heritage architect.

All gave great weight to evidence in their (often professionally trained) teaching, combining building physics and spatial design. As a student who had endured the coruscating rift between architecture and architectural science departments at the University of Sydney in the 1970s, this came as a welcome change, seemingly innovative but actually essential in teaching good design process. That the rift was still there 15 years later when I had returned to teach, as is still there, was and is appalling. 

Perhaps it's time for a review of the curriculum and pedagogy at architecture schools in Australia, particularly with their expanded number. It would be an immensely helpful to have a guide for high school graduates in choosing a school to attend. Or even better the schools could mount a weekend information market, as is done every year at ‘Archtober’ at the Center for Architecture in New York (images above and below).

On designing the modern University campus

Listeners to Johnathan Green’s Blueprint for Living on ABC RN this week would have heard a fascinating discussion about a new book called Campus which investigates the design of the modern University campus in Australia. I eagerly sought it out. A hefty tome by the heavyweights of architectural history, Andrew Saniga and Robert Freestone (editors) and Philip Goad, Susan Holden and Hannah Lewi amongst the contributors.

Straight to the index, hoping to learn more about the origins of the ideas and work of Fred Ward and Derek Wrigley in the Design Unit at ANU and their influence in the creation of the CCAE. Nothing. You’d learn more from my personal reminiscences last week, and that’s an indictment. Seems Canberra University (as it is now) just dropped off the radar, despite the authors interviewing Ken Taylor, the long-time head of Landscape Architecture at the CCAE SED.

Magnificent piece of research, pity about the lacuna.

Why I hate Instagram, and Instagram books

This Christmas a lot of architects and designers can expect this book as a stocking filler. Other People's Homes By Sandy Weir. It’s a collection of photos of the fronts of unusual, naive and mostly gauche houses, selected from the author’s Instagram account of the last two years. No doubt it will be popular, and do very well for the author, despite what I'm about to say, which is that it’s rubbish.

I would say that wouldn’t I, given my long hatred (not too strong a word) for most of Instagram. You see dear reader, I hate the ‘hero shot’ and all it stands for, which is a substitute for real architectural design, which is about space. About where people live, not what they look at. I rail over the prominence of the container over the contained.

But then, it’s everywhere. Recently the NSW Government Architect put out a call for great examples of medium density for the ‘missing middle’. But what they wanted was hero shots, external only and no interiors, no plans. No space, no architecture. If the GA is seduced by glamour shots what hope do the designs of good affordable housing have? But back to this book.

As I was saying, it epitomises everything about lazy Instagram, the facile obsession with the look rather than the content, parlayed into a collection of random guffaws. I know thousands enjoy looking at ‘archiporn’, but at least ArchDaily and Dezeen (the best of them?) have the decency to include plans sections and interiors.

I find the lack of ideas, information, rigour and scholarship rather depressing. Here’s a couple of examples.

Number 68, (left on the page) is a house in Dee Why, with the desultory comment: “delightfully colourful, slightly confused with a shell on its forehead”. That’s it. Let me help out here. The architect is Diana Lucas, who built the house together with her classmate Robert Clarke, as recent graduates in the late seventies. A quirky personal postmodernism of delight and humour.

If Charles Jencks had seen the house, he would have recognised a fellow traveller to add muchly to his own Cosmic House (with Terry Farrell). Here are some interior images. Nothing confused here except the viewer.

This highlights a serious lack in coverage the of the diversity and quality of Australian domestic architecture. We see the same houses repeated again and again, whilst richness beyond the orthodoxy is not recognised. Further diluted by hero shots without explanation.

Number 238 is an apartment building with curves at Bondi Beach, one of many, with another at #294. This building makes far more sense if it's co-located with its two neighbours (as shown here), in a sequence of buildings where the rhythm of the curves echo the idea sand, waves and the curves of the beach. Architects work with context; an isolated image with a glib caption is an injustice.

Bookends: the worst books of the year.

At this time of the year many publications, such as the New York Review of Books published their top 10 or top 100 of books. I prefer to go the other way and help my readers avoid poor purchases. Worst book of the year? I thought Other People's Homes was a shoo-in. Beating out Aalto in Detail (all photos, no drawings of details), or Lost in Palm Springs, taking happy snaps from the street.

I thought that was the worst that you could get. But I was wrong.

I came across these two books that are gobsmackingly, simplistically, awful. Medium format photographs of houses, taken square on like elevations, with the most banal and dumb captions that I have ever seen. They’re display copies because I couldn't bring myself to part with $60.

It adds nothing to an understanding of architecture, of housing, of personal design or taste. All it says is that some people have an obsession with the hero shot. Maybe the very reputable architectural firm in Newcastle that supported the venture can explain the joke, and why a book of Howard Arkley paintings is not infinitely better.

Signs Off

Our sign this week is a tribute to Derek Wrigley (again), given he went missing from Campus.

Next week

The architecture profession is broken. As are my predictions.

Tone Wheeler is an architect /adjunct prof UNSW / president AAA.

The views expressed are his.

These Design Notes are Tone on Tuesday #191, week 49/2023.

Past Tone on Tuesday columns can be found here

Past A&D Another Thing columns can be found here

You can contact TW at toneontuesday@gmail.com