WRITING

Michael Spooner, “How to throw a bomb” Metropolis Bookstore, 3 June 2019

An invitation to speak briefly at the Melbourne Launch of Helene Frichot’s publication, Creative Ecologies: Theorizing the Practice of Architecture, Bloomberg London, 2018.

It has been 10 years since the project A Clinic for the Exhausted was imagined into being. The intent was to “throw a bomb”, the image used in Helene’s book is of a pipe bomb, against logic and the institutions whose authority and legitimacy I found so unbearable, so troubling, and that incarcerated my joy in indifference.

A Clinic has as its conclusion the emancipation of life. All life. Even life that exhausted thought itself. It continues to be an invitation to enshrine the unknowable in our contemporary practices. It is utopic.

My critics did not openly denounce me. They waited till they had time to put pen to paper. So objectional and abhorrent was my bogus project that 2 of 3 PHD examiners recommended it never be allowed to happen at the institution again least it encourage others to do the same, or worse, to do the same badly. But they congratulated me on my conviction, the labour of my efforts, and wished me well.  It gave me the impression I was being encouraged.

The third examiner will enter heaven.

Since then I have become a lecturer. In architecture. At a university. The same institution I undertook this project and where I was so fortunate to meet Helene, who extended the impact of this work immeasurably.  But I have wondered and worried, that now “on staff”, was I was paid out my militancy….

It still shocks me that I was the author of anything, let alone something so ridiculous as this Clinic thing. Re-reading the document before today, I admit that if I am made to recant anything it will be the unnecessary brooding, and I will surely do public penance for my overuse of the semi-colon.

But what about now?

I am reminded that the stoic Finns managed to give the invading Russian army a run for their money with the perfection of the Molotov cocktail. The Finn’s would narrow the corridor of Russian passage, split the AV and infantry from the lines with gun fire thereby exposing the Russian tanks to menace from a snowman army welding bottles of gasoline.  Of the 6000 tanks the Russians pushed through the tundra only 3000 made it back to Moscow. The Finns, by comparison lost everything. All 30 tanks.

The action of throwing a bomb, mentioned before, has only really converged in the teaching of students. I have encouraged and armed about 1000 architecture students. I admit that not all are on my side, but I reckon this should cause some anxiety amongst the company I work for, and the profession where the students will be detained.  Because despite my incomprehension, there is something liberating in the extensive damage I will have done.

Michael Spooner & Peter Knight, “Hunters in the City” Architecture Australia, vol. 101, No. 4, July 2012: 82-84.

An invitation to write on Melbourne architectural style for a dossier on ‘Australian Style’.

Looking back over recent history, we might ask the question: How soon will we forget the Hills Hoist? More importantly, perhaps, will we recall the Victorian Football League shorts drying beneath humming power lines? Is there a historical shared experience that can be called Victorian, and how does this, like a twenty-cent bag of mixed lollies, inform our imagination and expectation of a city? Can we still speak of a Victorian architecture without the risk of thinking of a pedestrian plaza?

In his essay Against the Mainstream, Conrad Hamann suggests that following the initial enthusiastic architectural reform of Federation, significant regional differences developed in architecture across Australia. Victorian architecture remained poignantly tied to this wave through the persistent questioning of an authentically Australian architecture, sought through an architecture that was a synthesis of urban, suburban and country. An inconsistent lineage from the 1890s to the mid 1980s (when Hamann’s essay appeared) characterizes the emergence of this architecture of plurality, denoted by an inclusiveness and literacy of styles. The assertiveness of a regional architecture remains in the current bow wave; however, its concerns — or rather, the way it imagines its plural identity — have conceptually altered.

Thus, an invitation to write on style, let alone to distinguish what makes the current crop of architecture regionally significant, is an offer to pay up front for the indulgence: style is a pleasurable invention, but it ultimately makes one either want to reach for one’s revolver or chequebook.

It might be argued that positing the idea of a Victorian architecture could once again refocus the gaze of the various international magazines that have trained their lens onto the antipodes, and along whose channels Australia’s inconclusive inroads into Venice have been furrowed. How Australian is it? Leon van Schaik has already identified the difficulty of an “Australian architecture” in his essay headed by this same question. This is Australia, and that’s OK. She’ll be right, mate.

Van Schaik’s question draws out the tightening of hands around Hamann’s proverbial loose end during the procurement and construction of Edmond and Corrigan’s Building 8. Evidentially, Jennifer Hocking has remarked on the number of architects that had previously worked for Edmond and Corrigan. But a more pertinent observation on Victoria would have been that Melbourne still maintains its 1966 floral clock — a return of temporal fauna to Melbourne after the 1888 version for the Centennial International Exhibition.

Empirical evidence of the past twenty years of Victorian architecture continues to be found loitering about Swanston Street, between Lonsdale and Franklin Streets and, in particular, in the askew face-off between Building 8 and Lyons’s Swanston Academic Building (SAB) that is currently nearing completion. Both have a stake in a quest to understand plural Australian architecture through a plurality of architectural tropes, styles and references. But, post-Building 8 architecture in general has taken on similarities more akin to suprematism in its attempt to encapsulate the complexities of immediate and broader contexts through a nature and through a geometry that causes architecture to revert to a subordinate role.

Ashton Raggatt McDougall’s Storey Hall, adjacent to Building 8, is an instance of what can be realized when architecture is conceived on a temporal and even footing with physics, chemistry, painting and music, practices which are grounded in the comprehension of an immutable unknown. Storey Hall is an architecture that shares with these practices their lucid intervals of thought and that fosters, without appeal to some lost architectural Eden, a role for architecture. Establishing this role is the single greatest challenge faced by the profession, a claim that offers a retort to the troubling, but not unexpected attention that contemporary architectural discourse has paid to our environmental anxiety. Hence SAB, seen against John Wyndham’s Kraken Wake, having fallen unknown from the heavens and risen from the ocean, could conceivably melt the polar ice caps and flood the city. And thus maybe “Corro” has had the last laugh as Building 8, seen by ARM’s Howard Raggatt during the design of Storey Hall as a phantom ocean liner, draws anchor and like an architectural ark makes for the local Ararat.

Yet Building 8 draws on the common too, but does so in a more knowing way. This is, ironically, problematic in our “information age,” where value and understanding are subsumed by sheer mass. Nevertheless, its classical composition is distinctly Victorian. In roughly gathering up its urban locale, it also pulls in the suburbs and country. Its loose precision of expression gathers up those things that are Victorian and produces an assemblage that is technically true, but which is also a time capsule: the fading relevance perhaps of a building as a city. Like picking up an early 80s copy of Transition magazine.

Lyons, however, deals in a primitive architecture, but not in a pejorative or Laugier-like Parthenon, cubbyhouse sense. It is not primitive in the sense of being an idealized colonial “nature” or “native,” but instead delves back into something fundamental. It speaks to intrinsic reaction to form rather than extrinsic reading. Unusually, it offers itself whole, whether you grew up across the road or not. Lyons offers gnashing teeth streaked with lipstick, articulated by the suggestion of some fundamental order (openings that at once appear lewd and threatening mark the extent of the building’s arboreal circulation). They woo us with a false-nail exterior, bristling like a beckoning hand, the pungent smell of the newly attached nails sharpening every gesture. Thus a city in a building is turned outward: a heaving, bulging architecture is distended and shaped by the enormity of an idea, the city, that which is found couched in Hamann’s pluralities. A city that is at once urban, suburban and country. This is to suggest that the city is still a rogue idea; an idea without assurances.

On one side of the street we see Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel the Elder: a work full of allegory, full of intention. On the other side, we come up against the new deal — a square building in a larger, square city. What might come to rest at the feet of a Victorian architecture is a hope for the city.

 

Peter Knight & Michael Spooner, “The Cube: An obituary”, Architect Victoria: The Art and Artifice of Architectural Visualisation, Spring 2014, 33-35

Edition of Architect Victoria reflecting on the architectural image. 

The modernist resolve to appeal to the intellectual presentation of space through the cube must be re-examined if the virtual – which pervades everything despite its co-opting by the automated digital framework of the present – is to be germane to the insistence of meaning accorded by the contemporary practice of architecture.

Our position was prompted by the unintentional intersection of the theoretical, architectural and digital presentation of the virtual as a cube in a 1925 project by De Stijl artist Theo van Doesburg for a flower arranging room within Robert Mallet Steven’s 1924 Villa Noailles. Exploiting axonometric presentation of architecture he rendered the walls and ceiling with a surface pattern of flat colours that attempts to spatialise a four dimensional cube. The method of visualising a four dimensional cube was expounded by the mathematical theorist Charles Hinton in his book The Fourth Dimension (1904). Hinton assumed that ‘as a line can be projected perpendicular to itself to generate a square, a cube might equally be projected in an imaginary direction perpendicular to all three of its defining axes to create its four dimensional equivalent.’  As Richard Difford notes in his essay on the flower arranging room, ‘the four dimensional cube was one of the first entities to be subjected to exploration using computer graphics.’

This dubious line of thought nevertheless carries the concern of the cube forward and annotates the reflection in this text that the increasing contemporary determination to represent the virtual requires a radical reassessment of the cube and its subsequent relation to the new field of data.

Such a thought, one that replaces Hinton’s fourth geometric dimension with a dimension of information, might find expression as a tensor, where linear relations between vectors, scalars, and other tensors are understood as the tensioned space between the actual and the real as conceived in the virtual world. If manifested it might take the appearance of Thomas Heatherwick’s 2.4 m aluminium cube, the Sitooterie – a precursor to his UK Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo 2010 – which expands its physical form through projecting a light source from its centre.

In the television play Quad by Samuel Beckett, four cloaked protagonists walk the perimeter and diagonal vectors that imply a square. On coming to the centre along the crossed diagonals the figures are forced to walk around each other to avoid contact. In doing so they fail to render the intersection of the implied vectors, gesturing to a dimensionality that can never be realised but that confirms, by the ill formed side step into reality, the pregnancy of the virtual. The suggestion here is that architects can be found walking along those tensor vectors, their passage marking at once a surface for dust to settle on and gesturing to a profession that projects itself beyond its bounds and into consciousness.

If architecture is to continue along its path, the fundamental at its core must not inherently be contained within its fabric, arrangement or the mind that created it.

Subsequently, the visualisation of architecture becomes specifically didactic, using the representation of the actual to frame, understand and synthesize ideas and meaning. This suggests that the actual can be infused with the real concerns of the virtual. Returning back to Quad’s figures on their voyage, we might ask how their movement could turn a cube and all of its contents over and through.

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s seminal dance work Fase, a collection of four movements in response to musician Steve Reich’s phase shifted musical compositions  offers another suggestion of the virtual framed through the actual. The duet is set within a black box theatre in which point light is used to refract, reflect and multiply the dancer’s movement. The light intensifies their movement not just with shadow, but with the capacity for this new information to feedback upon itself. Consequently De Keersmaeker choreographs not the dancers, but their extrapolation.

The potential contained within the virtual for representation of ideas and meaning is analogous to Big Data visualisation – that is, as additional sets are added, they spawn further sets. Data visualisation uses tools that are formed by the data it seeks to represent. The more data represented, the more the form adapts by the data.

As a conclusion we offer an example in the form of a Masters of Architecture thesis project by Jo-Han Seah, completed in 2012 at RMIT University. These images advocate, despite architectural visualisations maligned position, for a similarly overwhelming presentation of ideas, meaning and character, all of which reform the architecture itself. As it does so, it nourishes the virtual, and points to an approach by which the profession might keep its tensors active.

 

Hélène Frichot  & Michael Spooner, ‘Shelter: On Kindness’,  Architecture Australia, Vol 99, No.1, Jan/Feb 2010:35-36.

Review of the exhibition Shelter: On Kindness, RMIT Gallery, Melbourne, 25 September – 25 October 2009.

Kindness smells of beeswax; the stink of a chicken coop; torn cardboard that has been pissed on by little children; discarded mattresses; the dampness of thick, grey felt; bushfire-burnt, charcoal-encrusted battens of wood; and pussy willow. When it is most mawkish it heaves like strawberries and cream. When it arouses the most discomfort, it has lips like a wet fish and its exhortation to you is: be kind! These sensations and more are excited in the exhibition recently shown at RMIT Gallery, Shelter: On Kindness. The brief offered to the artists and designers was in the form of a book by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor, entitled On Kindness. Take care: kindness is not all that it seems, and similarly, shelter is not necessarily a gift that requires no return.

The history of kindness, as Phillips and Taylor argue, is fraught, especially when it comes to our contemporary context, characterized by the will to self-sufficient individualism. The logic of the free-market capitalist economy demands that exchange value is paramount – everything is measured “in kind”. Kindness demands some return, even if that return is merely the warm feeling you get having expended yourself for a brief moment in being kind. What’s more, just when you, the architect or designer, thought you were being altruistic by extending the gesture of shelter, perhaps, after all, you were just showing off your design expertise. A strangely ominous fort by March Studio styled from an enormous stack of re-purposed four-by-two planks smelling of farmyard hens not only offers shelter, but expresses the might of architectural form. The archetypal Aussie four-by-two plank can also be used to knock you over the back of the head.

It’s a dog-eat-dog world, a Hobbesian vision of men [sic] as self-interested, survival-anxious wolves made inexorably manifest: this is our twenty-first-century milieu, eat, be eaten, or spit it out if you don’t like it. Men and animals dig burrows and trenches to shelter from marauding, unnameable enemies. If you know who is on your side, then you also know to whom you can express a modicum of kindness. Lab Architecture Studio has composed a burrow lined in grey felt, and spiked with plastic cable ties, after Kafka’s short story The Burrow. Its lascivious folds resemble a Joseph Beuys prophylactic gone awry or a plucked feminine. They have also drawn our attention to the prison and the refuge as forms of shelter. Anne Frank’s diaristic murmurings of adolescent sexuality aroused in the midst of her annexe are placed perilously alongside the Marquis de Sade, who takes shelter from polite society in order to explore his sadomasochistic routines. As psychoanalysis tells us, kindness and desire are bound up in a complicated association of ideas and urges that we must untangle as adults so as to avoid killing our father and marrying our mother (or vice versa).

There is the admixture of kindness and desire in Charles Anderson’s ceiling installation, a patchwork of ceilings that have sheltered the long history of his itinerant journeys. Imagine the lovers who gaze up secretly at Anderson’s ceilings, and, from an imagined topography of old mattresses, whisper, yes, I remember that moment of kindness too!

The emphatic shakes of a single yes burst forth in a rolling yes, yes, yes! as William Eicholtz’s pediments grasp rolling mattresses in an onanistic gesture of bulging strawberry bodies in heaving cream. As with Anderson’s ceiling you will miss these pediments if you don’t look up. The erotic desire that can be associated with kindness allows our sympathy to extend from self-love to love of the other and rebound back again.

Where are you most likely to discover the shelter of kindness? Woman and her chore as primary caregiver to children (yes, even today) is the sanctuary where kindness is still to be found. And children themselves are capable of spontaneous acts of kindness (as well as cruelty).

NMBW Architecture Studio’s corner of kindness reflects on the theme of homelessness by revealing a punched-out cardboard cubbyhouse in the gallery wall, as well as laying out a little suburb of cardboard houses glowing from within. This will be every child’s favourite and look out for the picture books! Women and children also feature in the Indigenous corner of the exhibition. A Waramirri baby in north-east Arnhem Land sleeps soundly beneath a curve of woven grasses that will later be wrapped around his mother by way of a skirt.

As the gallery doors were only just opening to the public, the busiest hive of activity was the construction-in-progress of a tea-house designed by Terunobu Fujimori and Jun Sakaguchi. A bulbous, black-and-white body smelling of wet plaster and the charred vestiges of the Victorian bushfires has been elevated atop five dark bestial legs like a John Hejduk masque. Students assisted in the collection of the charred bushfire timber that clads the tea-house and, with local construction workers, volunteered their labour to complete the building work as a gesture of collective kindness. A ritual of collaborative endeavour extends from construction to the tea ceremony itself, and kindness emerges through the collective spirit that singles out no one individual, nor any transcendent being.

Ishmael contends in Moby Dick that “Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy” and so he turns to his pagan friend Queequeg for other expressions of kindness. Likewise, lapsed Catholic Peter Corrigan seems to be asking whether duty and the “mother knows best” attitude of a profession such as architecture must be tempered. In Corrigan’s vision, too easily dismissed as theatrical, the mother and her wagging finger have aged. Sitting on a red kitchen chair, maternal kindness has been reduced to a puppet in plastic couture with the head of an old fish demanding to be kissed. Around her elevated stage are four exclamations of kindness: Be Kind, A Kind, In Kind, Kinder. The last could be misread as the German word for “children”, but do children have an innate sense of kindness or one that is manufactured through societal norms? Should we be kinder still, with an excessive kindness that is empathetic and generous, a kindness that leaves no-one wanting? Kindness is not something that happens through the actions of a built structure alone, however generous the offer. It is at one end of the spectrum a long wait for an unknown, a wait that may overshoot or fall short of the mark, and at its other extreme, kindness can strike its target fatally: the proverbial killing with kindness. Before you dismiss Corrigan’s puppet, call to mind the closing scene of Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire. As poor Blanche the crack-up – still in search of her ideal beau – is being led away to the loony bin by a kindly doctor she exclaims, “Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers”. After all, what do architects depend on most if not the kindness of strangers daring enough to realize their mad-as-March-hare schemes and ambitious plans?

Michael Spooner,  ‘A City,’ Architecture New Zealand, no. 2, March/April, 2011:15

An invitation to reflect on the city of Christchurch in the South Island of  New Zealand, following the 2011 earthquake. Born in Christchurch, I spent the next 20 years in the city before relocating to Melbourne in 2004.

For Joseph Conrad every clearing determined where a city would be built, no questions asked. Thus, could a city that has been marred by a deceitful turn claim each of its own clearings with the same affirmation?  To proceed in this way is not a means of stopping the violence, fleeing some incomprehensible danger or for that matter starting again, taking leave of what has already been assured by the very suggestion of a city. A city must yield, again, to what is promised by any such undertaking, by the realisastion that it is the still quiet in the offing that permits a city to be heard. Conrad knew this.

It must be remembered that a city is what distinguishes itself in the turning of the spool. It is a thread that touches the eternal flame in passing, Prometheus glaring from its shadow, to cast a blind hope or to launch a gilded ship, only to throw-off the trappings of its ocean home; to turn out, to be rid off and to expose. A city is what offers all a passage in a ritornello that proceeds from the middle out; a wake that accompanies the virtual passage of death; that concedes a wake behind in the reticulated water of an approach; and realises a wake that casts the threads of good fortune before taking leave. It is a collective enunciation, a wake that keeps watch by turns, by turning its attention to all. It is a voice raised to the cacophony of the sea, to realise other voyagers, adrift on parched waves, those who share a vocation…. companions in distress or giddy conspirators. Admittingly, there has been a contract that has long established every architect as a stranger to this city. Nevertheless, it is enough that we have all leant over one side of the boat and sworn a ballad softly to the sea. Such is its melody,  a single breath which tells of a first meeting…near my lips, on my lips, turning on my lips… sound edging forward, to pick us up and to send us all spinning.

Brother Masseo went on turning faster and faster in the hope of choosing a city. But could our indecision, punctuated by the infinite of Molly Bloom,  mark every conversation hence? The divine language of yes thrown into a dithyrambic passage…Yes I said yes I will Yes.  It is the duration of these sentiments which advance that city, and obligates all those whose sentiments are yet to come.

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