CASA Reverse Critique

Amidst the current media debate of 'Architecture and Criticism' the second Reverse Critique was recently held on the Blue Carpet Level of Building 201. Organised by Curtin Student Architecture Association (CASA) this ongoing event aims to reverse the typical positions of student and staff in their roles as presenters and reviewers of work pinned up for critique. The understated styling of the poster advertising the event concealed the secret longing of the student body for some form of 'get even' with staff. Those to be lined up in the theoretical crossfire of pinup board and student firing squad were Simon Pendal and Stephen Neille who were discussing their recent exploration of transportable housing types, Dr Elizabeth Karol championing her own home's good intentions of sustainability, Sambit Datta highlighting the conundrum that is servicing an architecture of learning, and Leonie Matthews and Paul McDonald expelling the pleasures and pitfalls of pro-bono work for various sporting communities up in the hills.

It was a sudden but silent scrum of students which surrounded the opening critique. I had feared that the event might be a flawed concept - whereby any stern student rebuttal would only ever be lightly dealt with the wary knowledge that:  

One should not throw stones from glass houses, if one does not want boulders catapulted back during one’s own final year review.

However, from the numbers gathered and the extent of work pinned up it was clear that the idea of reverse critique was taken seriously by both staff and students alike. 

Pendal and Neille's description of the poetic potential in architecture was always going to be a sure and sturdy pairing against the blank canvas brief of a transportable house. Typical site constraints and poetic resonances with place were replaced with self imposed restrictions in order to push an oxymoron-like request for an 'upmarket affordable' transportable in the suburbs. There appeared little room for critique with the brief seemingly requesting a takeaway version of Pendal and Neille in a box. Rather than a blood-bath of interrogation it was an insightful presentation which distilled their practice modus operandi down into a 65m2 module. Once again Pendal and Neille showed that neither size nor program need impede an intent for Architecture clearly grounded within the ideals of material, light and spatial experience. When open to comments from the floor an attempted dissection of the project's lyrical curves (in relation to Stephen Neille's once crushing review of a student's work as "all curves lead to hell") was brushed off with a calm re-setting of context that soon rendered the question void. Next time the event might require hotter and brighter lights cast onto each the presenter if these tough nuts are to be cracked in under 10 minutes.

Dr Elizabeth Karol, on behalf of the collaborative pairing of Paul Wellington and Elizabeth Karol Architects, somehow escaped any heat regarding the whereabouts of a site plan, floor plan, section or elevation with which to judge her one panel based sustainability sermon. As per the first presentation it was reassuring to hear lecturers putting their money where their mouth is with considered descriptions of built work - thus confirming their intentions put forward in their classrooms. Karol quickly took the ventilation out of any baited sustainability questions with some light humour and honesty in regards to the inherent physical effort and timing required to maintain a constant balance of comfort between inside and out by the owners. There may have been potential to rock the boat if the increasing crowd of students could have somehow dragged the critique away from the words presented. What might have been the response to a provocation that the most sustainable initiative might be to not build a two storey home in the first place? Instead a steady stream of respectful and informative Q+A prevailed and could be considered more beneficial to ongoing student-staff relations than any spectacle of wit and ego could have hoped to achieve. 

So what might have been an event, of highly charged verbal payback between student and lecturer, was turning into a group hug in the form of civilised Architectural discourse across a varied body of work offered up by Curtin staff. 

Where were the sweating brows, stumbled words and undermined presentations from which ill-prepared projects and presenters implode with a final bleating cry of "Oh but...but I ran out of time"?  

Sambit Data presented a panel typical of a 'blue carpet' pinup submission. Within the confines of a single A1 panel the typically unspoken requirements of site plan, floor plan, sections and elevations were accompanied by a series of supporting evocative images. As such the plan and section, to be visually coherent, were required to be scaled up to exclude the surrounding context discussed. This is not a criticism  - but a clear example of how often what is expected to be submitted does not always provide a comfortable footing on which to put forward one’s ideas. Interestingly the presentation concluded by posing its own questions, rather than defining a clear position for critique. So how might architects deal with the conundrum to contain or reveal the real guts of a building such as service ducts and plant rooms? It seemed as if the student review panel also got lost pondering this thought instead of questioning where the programmatic planning and experiential requirements of a learning centre were placed within the thinking of whether return air ducts should be hidden or seen. And so we were all left wondering. What was the real intent and what was the resulting outcome? Happy clients and happy kids on both counts it seems.

Leonie and Paul of Matthews McDonald Architects appeared comfortable standing in front of their timeline-like pinup which stretched for the full length of the sporting ground complex presented. It was always going to be a stretch to cover that much work in the time allotted and so there was much jest, from both staff and students, when they fell short of fully explaining the entire project within 15 minutes provided. The discussion continued into the Q+A period whilst still failing to touch on the model or the many iterations of plan and elevations on offer up the other end. However by conclusion their open lament backed by an dogged determination to pursue architecture amongst a myriad of setbacks (no budget), constraints (no money), and shifting political influences (too many conflicting wants) was a refreshing presentation to the students. Its honesty revealed the Architect’s ongoing attempts towards a communally beneficial outcome whilst confronting the reality and struggles of Architecture in real life. A process and intent made clear to the students present by the display of strong convictions rather than shallow final renders. 

With humour and positive discussion now flowing freely it was unfortunately time to conclude the proceedings.

The Reverse Critique event provided an interesting example of how future discourse might be nurtured within the teaching and learning environment of Curtin Architecture. The relaxing of constraints, defined by learning outcomes and authoritative positions, allowed a mutually exclusive discussion between anyone and everyone - thus yielding positive lines of enquiry - rather than simply flailing trials and tribulations across the Blue Carpet Level walls. In placing students on the other side of the critical gaze it was also made apparent to those trying to formulate concise questions on the fly, the deft and developed skills of lecturers and guest reviewers who are often required to quickly discern work, focus on its short-comings (and highlights) whilst still providing critically considered comment. Much thanks must therefore go to each presenter for their time and courage in standing before a riot sized review panel of students and also to the student organisers who appear to be making solid progress in reviving the engaging and ultimately educational benefit of studio culture once prevalent at Curtin University.


Adon Buckley said...

Who wrote this? It was great insight into the event, I wish I could have been there.

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