We are too few to be divided.

The debate that took place as part of The Housing Project Exhibition was succinct and insightful. It was also another example of architects talking about issues of urban design, density and housing and concluding the talks with glasses of wine instead of a critical reflection of their own work and perhaps making difficult decisions towards a change (if needed truthfully) in order to get a step closer to a real solution.

I noticed there was a pattern amidst the comments made by the architects and there was another pattern amidst the comments made by the audience (made up of architecture students and non-architects).

The architects invited to speak at the event were generally communicating a sense of optimism in regards to the true aim of architecture in the Australian housing dilemma. Parallel to this optimism was their complaints of restraints of the industry and reasons as to why this optimism remained unachievable or ‘too difficult’. The restraints that were brought to light were mostly something to do with how architects needing to understand developers more or complaints of differences in the motivating values between architects and other parties involved in the act of building buildings. The public is torn between the AUD$550,000 bungalow with a backyard and the identically priced two bedroom inner Melbourne apartment. Developers want to reduce risk (this generally leads to reduced innovation) and maximise profits. While apparently, architects just want to change the world (and are struggling to do it because no one sees eye to eye with them)

This underlying sense of failure and underachievement was contrasted with a beautiful view presented by a few members of the audience who made reassuring observations and asked questions like “If architects were conceiving a future, why then submit to constraints of the present?”; And a call for an engagement with a larger debate and for massive shifts in the architectural paradigm.

One lady cried “Aren’t you visionaries? I thought architects are supposed to be capable of visualising a better future and implementing it as reality?” This was then met with almost unanimous cries from the architects of how poignant and untrue that assumption is and it is just ‘too difficult’. Lou Sauer from RMIT University provided a respite by characteristically interjecting ‘too difficult’ comments with reminders of reality and bringing everyone back to how architecture worked, how architecture can work.

Every profession needs to collaborate with many other professions in order to shine. Even the pen that we hold in our hands as we write requires the skill and knowledge of numerous individuals. No single person in the modern world knows how to make a ball-point pen entirely. This might be largely due to industrialisation, but the defeat of the Axis powers in World War II was also partially thanks to American industrialisation of an unprecedented scale. Blame and praise will sink in the wells of chit-chat.

With that said, in order for architecture to work, of course, we need to work with non-architects, and of course they will have completely differing values and goals. The act of building buildings is an art and a business. And why can’t good architects be good businessmen also?

The issue of housing is an economic and political issue. It is also a business. Architects need to understand these social, economic and political faces of housing before they can start solving it architecturally by inventing new typologies and so on. Constraints exist in every corner of the Earth. Problems exist in every corner of the Earth. This is the world that we have to work in and it is time for architects to answer the calling, and deal with it.

To deal with it, dialogue is a good start I think. There must be a constructive, unrelenting and honest dialogue between architects, developers, the general public, and with academia. Architecture by itself cannot solve the problems of the world, but it can and most definitely has to contribute generously to the solutions of these large concerns.

Housing is not just an architectural issue. No architectural issue is constrained within the architecture industry. I think in order for these debates to really sting where it matters most, we need to invite people who are not architects; we need to encourage a communal dialogue and stop this development of insular schools of thought.

For instance, architects have been ‘trying’ to solve the issue of affordable housing and repeatedly coming up with solutions like ‘flexible planning’, the ‘flexible house’, ‘pre-fabricated house’, ‘the small house’, ‘the house that grows’ and so forth. But the word ‘affordable’ has everything to do with money and nothing to do with ‘flexibility in planning’ and that sort of thing. It is fundamentally a financial word. Why then are we not looking at banking structures? Why then are we not looking at working with financial institutions to devise plans and policies to help the public afford architecture?

It is this insular school of thought that is developing in Australian architecture that I criticise. If architects can just stop playing king of the hill and if we encourage a communal spirit in problem-solving, we can perhaps move forwards faster. The beginnings are always going to be difficult, but I think solving problems together is a much-invested act than to try to solve these non-architectural issues exhaustively with architecture. There is a lack of and a need for better understanding between professions and this entire obsession with the ‘local’ is hindering the problem-solving process. The ‘local’ must work with the ‘national’, the ‘multi-national', ‘international’, and ‘meta-cultural’.

Collectively, we have an immense pool of knowledge, wisdom and experience within and among various professions, architectural or non-architectural. If we work together, we can tap this precious resource of the ‘communal spirit’ and move towards a common goal. This can be done if it is done collectively, it has been done before and it was done collectively.

The north won the American Civil War because it had better communication; it had faster and smarter logistics, and most importantly because Abraham Lincoln made everything and everyone work together towards a clear and common goal. He made everything work together; the rail system, the telecommunication system, the industries and the military.

Fidel Castro succeeded in the Cuban Revolution because of the support of the people, because there was a clear and common goal, and everything and everyone was working towards a common and collective goal. It was an armed struggle, but the revolution consisted of more than soldiers. It was a communal effort.

If we remain insular and voluntarily oblivious to what other professions can bring to the table, we are doomed. Architects will not be able to produce innovative solutions no matter how many constraints we remove.

We are too few to be divided. Everything unites us.


By Steven Chu

Steven Chu is a Burmese-Australian architect and the Founding Director of Alter Atlas.

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Steven Chu