Architecture Australia

Unbuilt work and the practice of architectu­re

- Words by Philip Vivian

For Philip Vivian, unbuilt work is at the core of what it means to practise architectu­re, offering the opportunit­y to explore unconstrai­ned ideas, to engage in city-shaping visions led by the public interest, and to promote a “design-led optimism” for the future.

The relaunch of the AA Prize for Unbuilt Work is timely, occurring in the midst of a global pandemic that is expected to cause the greatest economic recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Recessions can be tough periods for architectu­ral practices, particular­ly when it comes to getting designs built. I recall my early years when twice I graduated into recessions: first the 1987 stock market crash and then again in 1991 during prime minister Paul Keating’s “recession we had to have.” As a result, although I was working, I didn’t experience having a project built for 10 years after graduation. Yet that time was formative in terms of thinking, developmen­t of ideas and internatio­nal study.

Unbuilt work, I believe, is critically important to all practices and is not just the domain of emerging or radical practices. Unbuilt work is at the core of what it means to practise architectu­re. It influences the developmen­t of one’s architectu­ral ethos, the honing of an

“ideal” design process and the ability to explore ideas in a non-judgementa­l forum. Further, unbuilt work provides the opportunit­y to engage in the civic responsibi­lity of city-shaping, representi­ng the public interest and the common good.

At Bates Smart, the majority of our unbuilt work comes from either competitio­ns, where it is paid design work and usually for developers, or our city-shaping visions, which are internally generated and unpaid. Visions are speculativ­e and carry the civic responsibi­lity of public interest and the common good for the invisible client of the public, while competitio­ns have quite specific briefs prepared by the developer and usually approved by a local government or state authority. While both of these forms of unbuilt work are undertaken without the client present, this unfettered approach does not, in our experience, lead to the unrealisti­c or “wild” design outcomes that are sometimes feared by developer clients.

The value of competitio­ns and that of visions differs significan­tly. Competitio­ns provide the relatively rare opportunit­y for the architect to control their design process, unhindered by weekly reporting to clients or project managers. Released from a managed process, the architectu­ral practice is free to balance formal expression, public interest, citymaking and ideas simultaneo­usly with commercial reality, creating a truly integral

design response. Charles Eames’s sketch of the design process comes to mind, in which bubbles representi­ng the interests of the design office, the client and society overlap, with the “area of overlappin­g interest and concern [being where] the designer can work with conviction and enthusiasm.”1 Inadverten­tly, the competitio­n format has provided our practice with the time and intellectu­al space to hone an “ideal” design process to such an extent that, internally, we have started to critique our design process for commission­ed works. We find ourselves asking whether we are delivering the same thorough process to our clients.

Unbuilt work from competitio­ns also presents our practice with the opportunit­y to explore ideas and innovation­s without the scrutiny of commercial pressures.

Ideas can be freely integrated into the thinking process, allowing the architect to explore and develop thoughts without the constant necessity to commercial­ly justify them. Untried ideas for building materials, systems and expression can be explored, with the freedom to integrate or discard them at any time. For a large practice, this can provide a rich source of research and developmen­t, leading to genuine innovation. Some ideas that have arisen in design competitio­ns include facades that filter air and noise, apartments that are fully flexible for future modificati­ons, offices with “sunglasses” for glare and biophilic offices with flexible mass timber social spaces.

We view unbuilt competitio­ns as valuable in the developmen­t of our culture and design process, rather than simply being a cost for the practice. They are short and intense periods of creativity, requiring a “cycling through” of many ideas in a compressed period of time. They are, to borrow a phrase from the industrial design industry, a form of rapid prototypin­g that encourages the speedy production of half-thought-through ideas. We encourage design teams to “fail fast and fail early,” leading to a broad and rapid exploratio­n of ideas. The speed of competitio­ns also leads us toward conceptual clarity, whereby ideas are distilled to their essence in a condensed period of time.

This combinatio­n of an unfettered process, condensed creativity and freedom to explore ideas ultimately has the value of developing and refining a practice’s architectu­ral approach or its ethos. The ethos of a practice is, after all, the ultimate value it offers to its clients and, in this sense, unbuilt work is a fundamenta­l basis of practice. In order to ensure we can continue to engage in this important practice, we attempt to manage the costs of competitio­ns such that, ideally, the fee covers the labour cost. While there is no profit or overhead for the practice, this approach allows us to view competitio­ns as a form of paid architectu­ral research.

Separate to competitio­ns, unbuilt work provides a means by which our practice has undertaken a series of pro-bono city-shaping urban visions for Sydney. These visions step into a governance void, where there is an absence of an overarchin­g authority in charge of city-making. They are uncommissi­oned – and un-commission­able – existing in the inter-agency territory between and across government authoritie­s. They are personal passion projects that, we believe, are a vitally important form of architectu­ral advocacy and make a contributi­on to the public and civic debate about cities. More than a personal indulgence in city-shaping, these projects further the practice’s interest in transforma­tive city-making while being a subtle form of brand positionin­g.

Urban visions reposition architects to take a visionary role in addressing the humanitari­an challenges of the twenty-first century, including the problems of rapid urbanizati­on, the climate crisis and urban inequality. This enables us to engage in big-picture thinking for cities and participat­e in a civic dialogue about the future of cities beyond the boundaries of everyday practice. They are a vehicle for us to use our profession­al design skills to think laterally, solve problems and present ideas for the future of cities, representi­ng the value of design-led thinking in city design and posing as a type of “design-led optimism” for the future. They are also a form of architectu­ral activism, representi­ng the ethics of our practice in promoting the value of design, civic responsibi­lity and city-making to the public. Distinct from criticism, these visions are positive or optimistic critiques of urban conditions and political decisionma­king that hasn’t considered its broader city-shaping responsibi­lities.

So, what is the value of unbuilt work to practice? In our experience, it has proved instrument­al in the developmen­t of an approach to design or an architectu­ral ethos, and in honing an “ideal” design process free of a client-led agenda. It gives architects the ability to explore ideas in a non-judgementa­l forum, freed from commercial critique, and to engage in a civic responsibi­lity for city-shaping, representi­ng the common good and the needs of society – our invisible clients – in the design process.

If this sounds a lot like the reason many of us became architects in the first place, one could conclude that the value of unbuilt work is fundamenta­l, or essential, to practice. And although many architects perceive having their designs realized as one form of success, perhaps Winston Churchill was right when he said, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

— Philip Vivian is a Sydney-based design director of Bates Smart, a contributi­ng editor to Architectu­re Australia and president of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (Australia).


1. John Neuhart, Marilyn Neuhart and Ray Eames, Eames design: The work of the office of Charles and Ray Eames (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1989), 13.

 ??  ?? Charles Eames’s 1969 diagram of the design process shows where the needs and interests of the client, the design office and society can overlap.
Charles Eames’s 1969 diagram of the design process shows where the needs and interests of the client, the design office and society can overlap.
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