Germs of Culture Folding Ever Outward

They say that culture is what turns milk sour. The biological metaphor is apt – the germ of an idea falls into a fertile medium, and before you know it you have a thickening swampy yoghurt of new artefacts, new behaviours, new ideas. You would think that the RAIA national conference would be exactly the place where such germs would be swarming around in a fecund cloud, and where we, the architectural fraternity, would stand ready to catch them and cultivate new colonies of architectural culture. Is that what happened at this year’s conference? Well, yes and no.

For one thing, some presentations lacked anything we might actually call an architectural “idea”. Sure, they had craft and refinement and an exquisite level of professional competence, and on more than one occasion I pondered whether we should all just leave architecture to the Germanic scientist-types, with their hyper-effective harm-minimizing architecture-machines. But then I thought, no, there is more to architecture than bloodless technique. It is only when you consider the overwhelming, exhilarating, poignant ferment of culture more broadly, when you set aside the sometimes impossibly stultified and internalized aspects of architectural disciplinarity, when you realize and celebrate the fact that there is more to life than buildings, that you really begin to see the potential in architecture.

So there we all were, all thousand-odd of us, sitting expectantly in the Sydney Convention Centre on that first cloudy Thursday afternoon. The lights went down and the music began and lo, it was a passage from ‘Idioteque’, a song from Radiohead’s fourth album Kid A, its rumbling, pounding techno beat built up in layers of stuttering distortion and overlaid again by a high, sweet progression of harmonic electronic tones. As it happens, this is one of my favourite songs, by my favourite band, so I will come back to that.

Accompanying the music, in a sequence that we would become accustomed to over the next three days, was a sleek audiovisual montage – a trajectory beginning with flood, cyclone and melting ice, changing to slums, people displaced by natural disaster, mass industrialized agriculture seen from the air, shifting again (sometimes from the literally sublime to the almost comically trivial) to images of the architectural work of the speakers in that session, and ending with a lingering image of the earth as seen from space, the blue planet hanging there all jewel-like and vulnerable in the void, the point driven home by the low whistling of a desolate space-wind. There is of course a certain unspeakable aesthetic charge in these kinds of images, a pleasure that is also terror, a revelling in the aesthetics of destruction. In many ways it had the same enjoyment as watching a disaster flick. More than that, the occasional artful glitch and swerve of the images had its own message: the end of the world will be televised.

After this it seemed quite appropriate that creative director Richard Francis-Jones’ opening speech should be full of the dire facts and figures that we have all come to know so well, laden with urgency and portent – the world is going to hell in a handbasket, doom is looming and no-one can any longer deny it. Francis-Jones has always had the delivery of an orator, but never before has a subject been so well suited to his grave and elegiac tone. Sitting there in that opening session was like being present at the funeral of the world. An apocalyptic tone hung over the whole conference; the hot dread of nuclear Armageddon that darkened all our childhoods has been replaced by the colder and more inexorable dread of massive climate disaster. But if Francis-Jones’s opening speech was remarkably like a eulogy, it could also have inflected the rest of the conference with the character of a wake, with all the tragic excess and delirium that entails. There was little of this, and I wished that there had been more.

So we had the grey eminence of Kenneth Frampton, doing what he does so well – a magisterial survey that would have been quite at home as an undergraduate lecture, but which we all lapped up because it was authoritative, and canonical.. Frampton was most impressive, and most interesting, when making frank critical asides – for instance, about Herzog and de Meuron’s “bird’s-nest” stadium in China, an “irresponsible and inelegant” building that they “have seen fit to inflict upon the Chinese”. There were other memorable moments: a strangely gender-orthodox pattern in the formation of the panels and amongst some of the international speakers, whereby the women did materiality while the men did technology; Leon van Schaik, outside of his Melburnian element, as elegantly threatening as a coiled viper; Hannah Tribe twice stealing the show with her architectural and rhetorical wit; James Weirick, affable and statesmanlike, flicking in the blink of an eye from the most effusive praise to the most devastating critique; Tom Kovac doing a flawless imitation of a boorish coked-up rock star, but clearly winning the prize for best suit. Altogether, Francis-Jones is to be roundly congratulated on the diversity of speakers and formats, and on a genuine attempt to precipitate discussion beyond doctrinaire position-taking.

But for me the main highlight was Howard Raggatt. He is one of the most eloquent and intelligent architects working in Australia today, and Lord knows we rarely see him speaking in Sydney, so one wonders whether he could have been given a headline gig rather than us all listening to some of the internationals “burbling on about timber detailing for an hour”, as one colleague put it. Raggatt sees architecture in light of much larger metaphysical questions, and even if Christian mysticism is not your own cup of tea, there is no denying the power and coherence of his position. For me this is often disappointingly counteracted by the flippant tone that Raggatt frequently also affects, presumably to defuse his own gravitas and ward off accusations of being overly earnest. But no matter how outrageous some of the schemes he showed, and no matter how we might secretly breathe a sigh of relief that they won’t actually be built, Raggatt’s two short presentations had more architectural ideas, more casually brilliant inventiveness, more overt creativity than most of the other speakers put together. This was nowhere more evident than in his vocabulary – no-one else spoke of an architecture that is “chubby”, “frothing”, “sticky”, “wayward”, “humming”; no-one else spoke of an architecture of longing, or proposed that “surely it is also something like prayer”. Raggatt’s strange enthusiasms, his obsessive architectural eccentricities, are exactly the kind of provocations one would hope for from a conference like this. He also offered a way out of what threatened at one point to become a stalemate of (false) polarization between the digital and analogue realms in architecture – arguing that it doesn’t matter what methods or techniques or tools you use, whether high-end software or a cold chisel, what is important is whether the outcome actually means something.

And this brings me back to “Idioteque”. That piece of music, and specifically the clip that was featured at the conference, contains a four-chord progression sampled from Paul Lansky’s “Mild und leise”, one of the first pieces of entirely electronic music, laboriously produced on an enormous IBM 360 mainframe at Princeton University in 1973. Lansky had in turn based his synthesized composition on the so-called “Tristan chord” from Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, hence the title of his piece, which comes from the famous last aria in that opera, the German words meaning “fair and gentle”. The point here is clear: this song demonstrates the patent falsity of any polarization between digital and analogue methods of production in music, and is a salutary demonstration of the way that culture propagates, across time and place, in a recognizable lineage of musical association and inheritance, a reworking of musical ideas which produces something quite original and distinct and equally valid in the shift between different instruments. It would be just as absurd to criticize Radiohead for using digital techniques in composing and recording this song as it would be to complain that they haven’t used a harpsichord. They have created an entirely new piece of digital music, using fragments of older electronic and operatic music, and also using that most analogue instrument of all, the voice, in a new seamless and inventive whole. The resultant piece is as contemporary and meaningful and affecting and actually material as architecture using all the tools at its current disposal can also be. When I think back to what germs of culture I caught at the conference, this was the most profound: an architecture that shuts itself off from the possibilities that new technologies and techniques have opened to it does no justice to its own history, nor to a concept of architecture as itself culture, nor to the world at large. Being true to the discipline means folding it ever outward and then holding it open, exposed, quivering.

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