Michael Spooner & Dia Le
First published: un.Magazine 12.2, Spring 2018
The Victorian Pride Centre was a hard-won project that would secure a future built legacy for the state’s LGBTIQA+ community. It proposed a single building for health service providers, youth advocates, and festival and entertainment networks, underpinned by a performance venue and exhibition space, and an archive. Located on Fitzroy Street in the seaside suburb of St Kilda, the project was positioned as a new cultural and economic anchor for the area. This had been brought about by the Port Phillip Council’s offer of significant funding from the Victorian Aids Council (now Thorne Harbour Health) and the State Government, and collective regard for the suburb’s historical entanglement of social, economic and cultural contrasts that had supported the marginalised, the anti-authoritarian, and the bohemian, including LGBTIQA+ activities, alongside sex workers, established wealth, religious orthodoxy, the influx of backpackers and the advancement of gentrification. The two-stage competition required an initial submission of two A3 pages that would contain 400 words and visualisations of the proposed design. The status of the nominated architectural brief that contained everything from conceptual ambitions to the height of a reception desk was considered partly illegible on the basis of the A3 submissions. The competition was also framed by suspicious professional metrics required to be met before participating; registration as an architect for no less than ten years, recipient of at least two design awards and evidence of prior work of no less than $10m. The consequences of racial and gender inequity that prevent or inhibit various groups from accessing opportunities that would enable them to meet this criteria would narrow the field of competitors allied to the conceptual ambitions of a building for the LGBTIQA+ community. Accompanying all of this was the ongoing actions of the marriage equality debate and the misconduct of the federal government who were, at the time, in full disavowal of the rarefied harm the proposed apparatus of public engagement they had conceived was about to wreak.
Our endeavour was spearheaded by Darius Le, a recent architectural graduate from RMIT University ensconced for only a week in the month-young architectural practice of Koslofcf Architecture, a new venture by established architects Julian Kosloff and Stephanie Bullock. The inimical origins of this practice and the opportunity presented by the competition to inaugurate a model for future collaborations meant that Le was responsible for eschewing existing relationships. Instead, Le galvanised an operative list of additional characters to join Kosloff Architecture’s team of four. Dr Michael Spooner, a provocative educator in architecture at RMIT, ongoing mentor to Le who had graduated alongside Bullock some ten years prior with a thesis remembered by her as containing a very particular kind of architectural drama. Zac Henderson, an RMIT architectural student Le conspired with during her studies in Spooner’s design studio at university and who had effectively emerged as a platonic lover. Stuart Geddes, a graphic designer of significant acclaim with an existing working dynamic with Spooner, and someone who was the object of an ambiguous but professional desire by Le. The landscape and urban design practice Openwork directed by Mark Jacques, an RMIT Professor, that also included Marijke Davey, an RMIT architectural graduate. Jacques had forged Openwork in a garden shed from the estrangement of large-scale practice and the elevation of a small but influential output. Le’s association with Davey had been established as students, prompted by her overhearing a song being played by Le that she had once experienced during the unfolding of an LSD trip in Helsinki.
The Pride Centre was positioned through the competition documents as an emblem for the LGBTIQA+ community on the basis of inaugurating a pioneering singular built response. However, our first group meetings quickly imbued the competition with greater significance because the submissions, including our own, would emerge as evidence of a collective proximity to a community via queerness, friendships, patronage and professionalism. The competition was an occasion to not only secure a building, but also to source an enigmatic making from an ongoing discussion around the vitality of queerness – its production and reception – in architecture and to catalyse an assemblage of thought, action, expertise and naïve anticipation into a crucible of exchange. It could become the mirror for the conditions of our company to be reflected. Unfortunately all eighteen Stage One submissions received were never exhibited publicly.
Le was conscious that her attempt to coin a new collaboration could easily fall into conventional models of architectural production and procurement, so had engaged Spooner to prompt the team using filmic and literary examples, and a series of instructions cast from his work in innovative pedagogical models, that might overcome the practice of collaborations to arrive with habitual views on a suitable response. There was significant optimism in this undertaking, perhaps because it was an intrusion into the daily functioning of practice, but also because of the colloquial insistence of a couple of glasses of wine. Ken Russell’s film Lisztomania (1975) was provided to watch for its wayward ludic magic, a gaudy sex-rock- opera that pitted the hysterical response to the nineteenth century composer Franz Liszt against the contemporary emergence of celebrity. George Haddad’s novella Populate and Perish (2016) was offered to read for its urgent apprehension of otherness, focusing on an Australian-Lebanese brother and sister travelling to Lebanon in search of their missing father, a story framed within the unguarded queerness of both brother and author. Spooner also asked for a personal anecdote that was concerned with the exceptionality of any number of LGBTIQA+ experiences as encountered or lived and that could open an empathetic dialogue to the built form of architecture. Spooner himself expressed interest in the swing of doors. He recounted a story from high school when his physics teacher burst into the form-room in full-flight anger, expressing that he was indeed gay and that should any of the students have a problem they should come talk to him, dismissing the schoolyard rumours and obvious parental concerns as the door slammed behind him. This was the first openly gay person to reflect a younger Spooner’s self-awareness of his frightening difference, strongly codified in the intentionality of the door being swung open and the thwack of it being closed. These anecdotes effectively configured the conditions of the shareable and communicable during the ongoing modelling of collaboration and were given space unchanged in the final submission, underscoring their role in the delivery of our proposal’s key architectural strategies. We were instructed to design an insult that would be hurled at the completed building and a response that would be just as divine. There was a level of discomfort, even avoidance, with the task requiring a slur and the most threatening examples emerging from participants who identified as queer, gay and trans. But, Spooner informed the collaboration later, this instruction was an attempt to pair the implications of our behaviour with those experiences we could not know, without miring it in the conscientious and acceptable language of the competition’s briefing document. Architectural examples were also prompted, not for their suitability to embody a speculative queer future, but for the fact that they were examples that situated architecture as a sophisticated proposition that could ennoble a sense of identity.
The only material witnesses to this process were those who construed its passage. Thus our competition entry hinged on making the judges into spectators, with their noses pressed against our collaboration as though ongoing. Our intention was to open up a series of viewing points for the judges into our mode of enquiry and the company that had been kept and for this to resemble a practical way of moving forward should we win. The collaboration was being offered not only to secure the competition outcome, but also as a blueprint for expanding the ambiguity of the brief; for securing a model of inscription, repetition and reproduction that could confront the inelegance of the competition procurement process; and a suggestion that representing a community should employ more than just seeing it. This was braced against the anxiety of our politics and our collective bourgeois good faith. We were also aware of the differently lived experiences that inform the social and political allegiances of the many LGBTIQA+ communities but which maintain a chain of indexicality connecting their voices, including members of the competition team.
It would be irresponsible to talk about the work as a holistic undertaking with an equal investment of time, labour and sociality. At points, the undertaking was endowed by Spooner moving across the expanse of prior conversations to arrive at an architectural conclusion offered back to the collaboration as a gambit. Le, Henderson and Spooner operated as an ideologically attuned ménage à trois with a strong dissident standpoint that was occasionally burdened by a historical hierarchy of student and tutor. Decisive programmatic and communicative inroads came from Bullock and Kosloff, who had an alarming willingness to allow Spooner and Le to run amuck. Meetings at the office of Openwork, with Jacques’ questions resembling the casting process, a desire to move beyond the diagram and metrics of the competition and into the architectural character, were further enriched by insights into the collaboration’s growing backstory from architect Amy Muir, who shared the space. Davey contributed a commitment to the auratic, an insistence that things should not be too concrete and that the collaboration should secure space for what we cannot know. Bound up in all of this was the precision of these temporal exchanges to grasp a benevolent interpretation of those who were not present at that moment. In the end each individual, pairing and grouping was at pains to evidence the affection held for another. Though we were collectively aware that this could be difficult to measure on paper adjacent to the persuasive establishment of architectural form from other entrants, collectively we decided not to idealise the isolation of an architectural object from our personal narratives. We could not resist continuing along the path we had struck out on together.
Our competition text was both covert and explicit about its genesis as we sought to respond to the ten key competition criteria, mirroring our prior conversations. In honouring our LGBTIQA+ past we referenced the striking truth of the thirty-six islanders of St Kilda Scotland who immigrated to Australia on board the transport ship Priscilla. This was a serendipitous fact that threw into adjacency the popular Australian film of the same name and the domain of the competition site, but that was historically irrelevant. A pattern on the roof of our building would render a pixelated Google Maps image of the Scottish island inland from St Kilda beach. In doing so we sought to consider history as a distinctive platform for provocation. We pointed to our decision to use Noto, a font family developed to support all languages, across our competition submission. Noto presented in this case not an idle utopianism of cultural or linguistic cohesion — it is not a tool for proper translation — but a model of the (digital) infrastructure that can be developed to support interconnected and multivalent communities. For building the community, we spoke of the word JOY emblazoned on the façade of our proposal as mirroring the concrete L, E and O that literally forms the façade of Leo’s Spaghetti Bar on Fitzroy Street, ennobling the local and reflecting both the potent line from Haddad’s novella ‘I was bricks and mortar in this city’ and the concrete poetry of Emmett Williams introduced by Geddes during the first weeks of conversation. JOY would also signal the presence of the Melbourne radio station joy.fm, a tenant in the final building. It also had an expressive legibility which felt unconditional, compared to the global branding of ‘pride’, and considered to have been stubbornly accepted despite the opportunity to pursue something locally remarkable. We noted our wonder at how we might sign off our emails if we got the job. Davey’s suggestion of ‘I touch your wrists’, drawn from the Paris Review, made us all fall silent. It was an expression that struck the right note of attention.
The final entry, two single sided landscape A3 pages, was an attempt to propagate the perpetual unfolding of our collusion. We didn’t win. We didn’t come second. We were not shortlisted for stage two. But this was far from a total and devastating critique. What we orchestrated was the conditions for a space of encounter with those who we could not know, but who we held close and with deep affection.
Dr Michael Spooner is a lecturer in the Architecture program at RMIT University. His writing, design and teaching projects can be viewed at www. thexhausted.com.
Dia Le is an alumna of RMIT Master of Architecture program and currently a PhD candidate at RMIT. She was previously an architectural graduate at Kosloff Architecture.