Practicing from a Position

28 July 2017
First presented at Practice in Research <> Research in Practice
Symposium led by RMIT with Bond University,
Queensland University of Technology and University of Adelaide

Words by Aaron Peters

From the outset of our collaboration, Stuart frequently referred to his desire to ‘practice from a position’. When I first heard this, I found it enticing, a panacea to the confusion I had encountered as a student. It remains an elusive, though enduringly compulsive aspiration.

Nowadays, when we use the term ‘practicing from a position’, I think we are aspiring to be reflective, principled, and deliberate in the way that we conceive our buildings. As practitioners, we want to be capable of clearly articulating why we make certain decisions, both to our clients and to our peers. We don’t want to rely on the veil of professional mystique that can sometimes confound outsiders and obscure architectural practice.

So what kind of ideas do we seek to work with?  In principle, we’re attracted to ideas that are universally accessible, the kind of ideas that directly impact the lives of people who occupy our buildings or experience the broader urban context to which our buildings contribute. We want to work with ideas that are coherent, humane, and capable of resonating with people irrespective of whether they have been indoctrinated into the architectural fraternity .

What I would like to present at today’s symposium is a brief account of three key themes that are related to our practice’s ‘position’ on architectural design. Ideas that I find myself returning to — and around which many of my discussions with Stuart have centred.
1. Habitat theory: Rooms of enquiry

Since enrolling to train as an architect I have visited many spaces that I would describe as technically innovative, materially rich or spectacularly situated. Some of these experiences seem to entice while others leave no lingering impression. I often wonder why I am compelled to explore one room and not another.

For me, understanding how great rooms are composed is an ongoing personal and professional preoccupation. Like a child pulling apart a toy in search of the unseen magic that makes it tick, I am frequently reminded that beguiling spaces are often deceptively complex to recreate.  

One of the patterns of room making that I find most arresting is the convergence of adjoining spaces with contrasting, (though complementary) conditions, particularly those that manage this connection in ways that accentuate and exploit the tension between the spaces. These are the rooms that seem to capture the imagination and compel exploration: rooms of enquiry.

Rooms of enquiry often exhibit similar techniques: openings that foreshadow the act of moving to a partially obscured adjunct space, glimpsed views hinting at the possibility of discovering an as yet unknown, adjacent space.

A room of enquiry is more than a beautiful room, it is a room that engages the imagination, it compels action, whether it be exploration or contemplation. The best explanation for these phenomena is perhaps the one that I learnt on my first day at university: Jay Appleton’s Prospect and Refuge theory:

[...] the belief that one’s field of vision can be further extended if one moves to another observation point will accentuate the sensation of environmental advantage [...] Indirect prospects are essentially symbolic. They symbolically invite the speculation that they command a further field of vision. Whether they actually do so is less important than whether they appear to do so.1

Like the 12 bar blues chord progression that winds its way through the history of popular music, from Led Belly to Led Zeppelin, Prospect and Refuge principles seem to be intrinsically woven into the syntax of architectural space making.

For me, this is an idea capable of endless variety and adaptation. It is present in all of our work from the initial concept diagram to determining the placement of Chris’s tripod when we photograph the building.
2. An appropriate architecture / The architect as custodian

Some years ago I visited the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green designed by Caruso St John Architects. My initial impression of the building was that it was a welcoming and pleasant offering. Only after subsequent visits did I begin to appreciate the intelligence of the building.

I found myself confronted by how daringly understated these architects were willing to be. Here was a prominent commission for a major institution that could almost go unnoticed. Later, Adam Caruso’s essay ‘Traditions’ confirmed to me that this condition was no accident:

Our practice has always made work that is related to things that we have seen before. We are interested in the emotional effect that buildings can have. We are interested in how buildings have been built in the past and how new constructions can achieve an equivalent formal and material presence.2

Caruso advocates for the making of buildings that are ‘ordinary enough to become part of the urban background’. To me, this seems to be a built embodiment of a set of values espoused in ‘Subtle Innovation’, an essay written by Italian architect Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani:

[…] to forgo novelty-at-all-costs undoubtedly brings advantages to design: it need no longer cling to the almost always slim support of an individual’s momentary intuition, but can lean instead on the solid foundations of a collective endeavour built up and proven in time.3

In our work we have sought to make appropriate responses to settings. I think that the sentiments outlined in Caruso and Lampugnani’s writing best capture our sense of how this might be achieved. We see ourselves as custodians of ideas that have been passed down to us through several millennia of human industry — and with this comes a responsibility to refer to the past in our work.

We also see ourselves as custodians of the present built environment and with this comes a responsibility to make contributions that rely on more than momentary intuition or novelty; contributions that are capable of being overlooked, of being ordinary.

In the context of our home city, Brisbane, we seek to preserve historic fabric. We also recognise the value of open private open space in a low-density subtropical city.
3. Creative conflict and the aesthetics of inconvenience

As some of you here today in the audience may know, many of our built projects have  been alterations and additions. This kind of work was frequently viewed by the proponents of the modernist movement as somewhat undesirable; they preferred the Tabula Rasa. My personal experience has been that working in constrained or conflicted conditions can be far more desirable.

A work of art that defies or frustrates expectations can also stimulate and sustain interest beyond what might be expected from a conventional solution. It can also shock the observer out of their complacency. The most elegant summation of this notion that I have encountered is found in the writing of John Dewey:

The unexpected turn, something which the artist himself does not definitely foresee, is a condition of the felicitous quality of a work of art; it saves it from being mechanical. It gives the spontaneity of the unpremeditated to what would otherwise be a fruit of calculation.4

Conflict is not only a productive element in the creative process, but can also have positive ramifications for those who experience the work. Permitting moments of incongruence within a well ordered overall framework can potentially bring the user into a heightened state of awareness of their surroundings. This seems to touch upon Martin Heidegger’s concept of Handiness which Vycinas expands upon:

When an implement is not suitable for the work for which it is used, when it is not fitted properly into the implement totality to which it refers […] it becomes striking [...] A driver on a smooth road does not notice or does not comprehend the road objectively. He is merely using it as an implement, and is handy with it. Only when he hits rough pavement, does the road strike him as a road [...]5

Strategically introducing conflict, inconvenience, or even just oddity, is a powerful tool of the designer. This might take the form of a ponderously heavy door to amplify the passage through a key threshold, or be manifest by requiring an occupant to pass through an external space between two rooms to promote mindfulness of nature and the surrounding environment.
In conclusion

'Practicing from a position' is not about unveiling new ideas, it is about seeking to understand where ideas come from and how they can be best applied. For this reason, I see myself as a collector rather than an originator of novel inventions. If innovation occurs it is in the manipulation of a thing to fit a new context or in the combination of disparate ideas from independent sources. 

In my view, the utility of our shared aspiration to ‘practice from a position’ is that it provides a reference point for our discussions. A kind of benchmark which draws the conversation back to questions of appropriateness, emotional resonance and broader cultural practices.
One of the many advantages of a long term collaboration is bringing these ideas to the conversation and seeing how they are received and transmuted through that process. While Stuart and I share many interests and our design sensibilities tend to align, the way in which these predilections are expressed in our work is always subtly different and often surprising. Perhaps this is the key to practising from a position: a ready supply of productive agitation and uncertainty.
Appleton, J. (1996) The Experience of Landscape, Wiley, London, pp 80-81.Caruso, A. (2008) The Feeling of Things, Ediciones Poligrafa, Barcelona, pp 25.3 Magnago Lampugnani, V. (1992) Subtle Innovation. in Domus, ed. Burkhardt, F, Compagnia Publicata Periodici, Milan, pp (iii). 4 Dewey, J. (1958) Art as Experience, Capricorn Books, New York, pp 139. 5 Vycinas, V. (1961) Earth and Gods, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Martin Heidegger, Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, pp 36.