The School of the Clash

Project

The intervention explores a broad context, which involves urban, architectural, managerial, pedagogical and material confrontations. The revamped building mediates with the city through a strong geometrical insertion, whereby the university reclaims an active presence and also suggests an active role for the school in the cultural and political future of Sydney. Assemblages of typologies are brought together in new ways – reprogrammed as dialectical battle learning devices – in order to question the landscape of multiple micro-paradigms currently reigning in the school. Each element (walls, columns, doors, claddings) is in conflict with every other element, but the results are not attempts to recreate a particular scenario. Each recombination is magnificent and abstract, and caricature is skilfully avoided. Confrontation triumphs; struggle drives the architecture.

Brief:

Contemporary I: Revamp of the UTS School of Architecture

This studio proposes to overhaul the UTS School of Architecture.We will challenge not only the building itself, but also the institution housed within it. It is my firm belief that schools are anti-institutional – they act as pedagogical experiments, cultural platforms, political forums, construction laboratories, and innovation clusters.

Prior to tackling the redesign of our own school, we will survey the building’s fragmented, chaotic interior space and analyse the dominant managerial style driving the institution. We will search for the relationships between these two apparently unrelated topics. Are the milky glass partitions of the Dean’s office related to the lack of transparency in the decision-making process of the university? Is the fragmentary plan of the building connected to the absence of communication with students? Are the never-ending corridors in the staff area linked to employee absenteeism or are they tied up with the large-scale use of air-conditioning? Is the depth of the building affiliated to the deficit of life in the studios? Is the isolation of the robotics labs and the library related to the absurd battle between theory and technology, which is reflected in the design studios? By exploring these questions we will attempt to articulate the positive aspects of what otherwise feels like a formless environment and a dysfunctional academy.

We will use references as a design strategy. We will inspect both recent architectural examples, with the conviction that schools of architecture must pay attention to the contemporary scene, as well as other educational models. We will dissect recent renovations with intellectual precision, and we will replicate them on our site with rigour, proving that we do not fear contemporary precedents. We will carefully examine other architectural institutions from across the globe in order to question our own.

Proposals could includeeducational protocols, furniture designs, demolition schedules, maintenance standards, strategic plans, so-called  ‘traditional’ refurbishments, and a combination of some of these items, thus demonstrating that the expansive nature of our studio question is not at odds with possible fragmentary solutions.

The Peter Johnson Building 6 (702-730 Harris Street)has undergone continuous transformations during the last few years in order to “improve student experience”. It is up to the audience to judge the success of this mission. Our proposals will by no means provide definite answers – rather they open up discussions about the study of architecture in the twenty-first century.

The studio aims to be the first iteration of the Contemporary Series. These classes intend to explore what it means to live today.  

Note:

I am deeply immersed in this insane school, and cannot be expected to be neutral. Sometimes professional things do become ideological.1

1 On 5 March, I was notified by the interim Head of School that my involvement in the Green Dip. studio was no longer required after more than two months of preparation. On 6 March, a week before the ballot, I was invited by the Masters director to teach a different studio. The treatment of casual staff is an on-going problem at UTS DAB, which has obvious educational consequences. The university employs more than 50per cent of its academic staff as casual employees working on short-term contracts. Casual academics have most of the direct contact with the students although they are hardly involved in the educational debates of the institution.

Interview

What defined your response to the brief? To what extent was it informed by your personal experience/satisfactions and un-satisfaction with the academic institution?

The brief was positioned clearly as a critical response to the current governance and built fabric of the architecture school. The opportunity to work on an introspective project was an interesting one, allowing us to be both client and architect at the same time. Of course personal experience and satisfaction/dissatisfaction played a part in our response to the brief, however, more importantly, and as we uncovered throughout the course of the project, architecture schools are complex social and political environments. The challenge was to embrace not only how we perceived the school but also how the different actors and factions in the school operated and what their interests were.

What are for you the greatest limits of the current architectural environment of the Peter Johnson building?

The Peter Johnson building is much maligned around the circles of the architecture school and while it has its faults, its values are too often unrecognised. The plan is congested with a number of renovations that have continuously worked against each other and transformed the building far from its original intent. This congestion, while causing a number of practical problems, breeds a sort of “disfunctionality” which we perceive as fundamental to the working of the UTS architecture school. The disfunctionality of the building, combined with the current chaotic state of the school and its diverse micro-paradigms of architectural education has culminated in what we believe is a largely positive educational environment.

In terms of research and understanding the existing configuration and the problematics- how were these discussed with other students, professors within and without the discipline of architecture?

The studio was run by Guillermo Fernandez-Abascal in conjunction with a lecture series that brought together prominent educators and architects in and around the UTS School of Architecture network, including the original architect of the building, John Richardson.

Throughout the course of the studio, every detail of the building’s history and construction was dissected and discussed, with different design teams choosing to focus on diverse facets of the building. The end result was a broad base of knowledge to draw upon across the studio.

The studio attracted plenty of attention around the school due to the introspective nature of the project, frequently inciting discussion amongst our peers and teachers. We were particularly interested in bureaucracy and the governance of the school and as such conducted our own interviews with academics and students to better understand the school’s political landscape and its relationship to the broader institution of UTS. Being on site for the entirety of the project also allowed us to examine in great detail the tectonics of the building.

What was your work process in terms of formulating a design? What role did the model and drawings play within this process?

The plan was the most prominent drawing throughout the design process. As the project was a renovation, the challenge was to negotiate how our conceptual understanding of the project could be realised in the context of an already complex built fabric with the core question of “what to keep and what to remove?” The design process involved numerous iterations of organisational strategies with the aim of developing a project that embraced confrontation between the multiple micro-paradigms of architectural thought within the school.

Extending from the plan, the model allowed us to understand how the project would operate volumetrically. As the project spanned two levels of the Peter Johnson building, it was important for us to understand how the school could maintain a level of continuity and tension throughout.

What tools did you use throughout?

Our primary tool throughout the design process was trace paper which allowed us to test ideas quickly amid heated discussion. Rhino, and VRay were used to produce drawings while the model was a mixture of laser cut, hand cut and 3d printed parts with a wide selection of paints.

If you were to design an ideal space for the teaching of architecture- how would you imagine this?

The foremost consideration for us in designing an ideal space for the teaching of architecture was the negotiation between maintaining places of autonomous thinking vs. spaces for the confrontation of diverse ideas in order to establish an intellectual tension that could extend throughout the school and beyond.

Too often these days, architecture schools are increasingly corporatised and sell a brand of architecture that comes to define their education without allowing for flexibility of thought and the ability to adapt to shifts in contemporary discourse. Our proposal acknowledges the diversity of thinking within the UTS School of Architecture and is based on creating tension between these schools of thought, developing student’s abilities to seek and to position themselves within the greater discipline rather than being spoon-fed one particular canon of architecture.

To what extent have your studies at UTS affected how you will operate as architects?

The School of Architecture at UTS is in an extended period of transformation and is still in a process of deciding it’s place in an Australian and global context. As explored through the Revamp project, the school is currently composed of a vast range of architectural ideologies, with influences from both Australia and internationally. This diversity of thought and the chaotic nature of the institution has given us a unique perspective on the field at large and allowed us to develop a deeper critical understanding of the Australian architectural landscape.

What would you say is the architects most important tool?

We would say that the architect’s most important tool is the image. Through this project we are able to establish a powerful critique of the school as students that will have far greater impact through its visualised proposal of what an architecture school could be. The image allows us to project possible futures without being caught solely in a constant and futile critique of what is past.

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