Architects have always displayed a fascination with futurism and the ideals for how to live and work. Every epoch has a champion for social and cultural change embodied in a radical change in the way we build.
Gustav Eiffel’s radical tower, Tatlin’s monument and the Constructivists, Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, Bauhaus Collective, Le Corbusier’s Radiant City, Superstudio in Italy, Tange and Kurakowa in Japan, Peter Cook, the Smithson’s and Amanda Levete in the UK. In Melbourne, Grounds, Romberg, Boyd, McIntyre, Borland and the Murphy’s, Yunken Freeman and the Featherston’s all championed structuralism and material economy to change the way we enclosed space.
The greatest experimenter though, Jean Prouve, smashed apart the barriers of traditional construction and adapted mechanical and automotive techniques to housing solutions. His flat packed pressed aluminium and steel sheet panelised systems were sublime, elegant and economical to make and erect. His furniture and lighting was utilitarian and economical, but also comfortable, robust and beautiful. Prouve showed that the pioneering work in automotive and aircraft manufacturing could be transferred successfully to our industry. Although the business did not always stack up for him, Prouve’s work showed that prefabrication was not just for industry, it had true artistic potential and could solve critical problems such as the affordable and transportable house.
The relevance of auto design still holds true – take for example the humble Ford Transit van. For a mere $40,480 you can buy 10 sqm of waterproof, insulated, glazed and secure space – including lighting, power, interior design and climate control from -10 to +40 degrees. It can also grind along at 160 km/h and partially protect you from the worst if you hit something, all for $4000 per sqm. This is the power of mass production.
Without the need to actually move, factory manufactured space could be half or a third the price, maybe less than $1000 per sq m, and the quality and durability could be far higher than hand built buildings. There is a catch: mass production requires massive investment – in the order of $600m to $1b for a new vehicle model. This is partly due to regulatory compliance, but also due to design, tooling, factory and marketing costs.
Trailblazer, Nonda Katsalidis, has built several large buildings using prefabricated technology in Melbourne. He continues to pursue this path both here and overseas as part of the answer to the problem of high labour, low tech construction. The tower blocks of Melbourne in skin and content, are now largely manufactured off site, and often offshore, but Katsalidis has taken prefabrication a step further than most and is challenging all the traditional modes of design and construction in doing so.
There is a tiny window of opportunity in Australia as we say goodbye to our struggling car industry, one which became uncompetitive in a global environment with a small domestic market and unrestrained imports. The legacy is a huge industrial complex with nothing to build – casting plants, forges, steel presses, production lines, robotics, galvanising baths, spray booths, electronics, skilled labour – and the design and marketing intelligence which goes with it. Roland Snooks told me there are scores of robots available for a fraction of their original capital cost, world standard technology waiting for redeployment to design and construction.
Archier, at the Sawmill House in Yackandandah, inventively used concrete waste blocks and are currently commercialising them with the supplier. This broad thinking about what can be done with what we already have is a refreshingly industrial approach, and the quality of thinking shows in the work. Sustainable building practices are our future and can also drive the aesthetic agenda away from digital hero shots and back to the realities of building with economy and function. It is fantastic to see young architects challenging the traditional models of design and procurement in this way, showing aesthetic and productive judgement to demonstrate real leadership and a new way of working.
Medium sized firms are increasingly looking towards the development model for opportunities to add value and to protect the design integrity of the product. Jeremy McLeod’s Nightingale model is a step towards change in extracting value from a traditional development model to increase the sustainability and quality of the project. Other firms such as Neometro and Fieldwork have shown that control of the building process is a powerful lever for good design in the right hands. The potential of digital disruption through crowd funding of projects is something we are likely to see in the forthcoming years, subject to corporate legal obstacles being removed.
The younger generation of architects whom I meet have a fantastic attitude towards helping each other and collaboration. It is my hope that the Institute in the coming years can foster this collegiate spirit, and help build a productive and provocative review of the way we work.
Thanks to Jon Clements, Alison Cleary, Chapter Council and all the Chapter staff for their support over my term as President. It has been an honour. Declaration: Six Degrees and Peter Malatt are participants and investors in the Nightingale model.
With more and more love to Aurelia.