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May 28, 2024

Architecture Australia turns 120 | ArchitectureAU

Making it into the pages of Architecture Australia has always been a major milestone – for architects and writers alike. Often, it happens only once in a career. More often, it doesn’t happen at all. Appearing in this magazine has meant, or at least has felt like, being written into Australian architectural history.

I vividly remember the first time I wrote for AA . Back in 2000, then assistant-editor Justine Clark commissioned me to review a rooftop terrace extension in Balmain. I remember the architect, Sam Marshall, showing me through, hands shaking as I frantically scribbled notes – and I remember with gratitude his benevolence towards such a greenhorn writer. In the subsequent decades, I have written many articles for the magazine, my hands progressively less sweaty, but never entirely dry. Some of these pieces I’m proud of, others make me wince – if you layer youth upon diligence upon self-consciousness, the resulting prose can be wooden indeed.

In recent times, other commitments have curtailed my involvement, but I remain fond of AA . It’s a serious magazine presenting projects of substance by a national spread of architects, reviewed by smart and committed writers, overseen by a skilled editorial eye. It has outlasted every one of its rivals – which withered and died, or were purchased and shuttered, or degenerated into flick-through lifestyle lookbooks. AA has managed to retain currency even when the lead times for a physical print publication completely undo any claim to newsworthiness. Quicker than a book but far slower than social media, AA plays a curious role today – recording the work and thinking of a particular community, and reflecting it back to itself. It is, after all, a magazine – the origins of the word lie in a storage space or depot, the place where things are kept.

It’s notable that AA has always been well edited, demonstrating care in the craft and exactitude of architectural writing and visual production – including the precise reproduction of drawings. It has earned its continuing role as the “journal of record” and most important magazine in the cultural life of Australian architecture. This is not to say it doesn’t have weaknesses and blind spots – of course it does. On the occasion of AA’s 120th birthday, it’s timely to reflect on what the past 20 years have brought – in the magazine, in the architectural profession, and in the world.

There have been four editors in this period: Clark, who was assistant-editor to Ian Close 2000–2004, and editor in her own right 2004–2011; Timothy Moore, for a short but pivotal period 2011–2012; Cameron Bruhn, who overlapped with Clark and Moore in the new role of editorial director 2009– 2018; and Katelin Butler, the current editorial director. Each of these figures has their own predilections and values, and each has had different impacts on the magazine – just as the long roll call of earlier editors had done. So, what has changed between 2004 and 2024? Well, everything and nothing.

Some things have been consistent pillars of AA’s content: the national awards and the Venice Biennale; appraisal of the Institute’s Gold Medallist and publication of their A. S. Hook Address; obituaries of prominent practitioners. Some new things seem like natural extensions and outgrowths – the AA team’s expansion into real-time, real-world events with the highly successful AA Roundtable, Architecture Symposium, and other activities under the Design Speaks banner.

Moore made an important intervention when he instituted the “dossier” in 2011, bringing in external specialists – often academics – to guest-edit a section of the magazine on a particular topical subject. This continued under Bruhn’s editorship, with the express aim of bringing the academy and the profession into closer alignment – an ongoing aim that has, I think, been successful. These dossiers have examined important and current questions in clever ways. Of myriad possibilities, I might pick out two recent cases as exemplary: March 2023, guest-edited by Susan Holden and Kirsty Volz, on the role that architects can play in government; and “Who designs the city?” in September 2023, guest-edited by Andy Fergus and Felicity Stewart. AA’s dossiers have allowed a special issue to be wrapped within a general account of contemporary practice, and thus addressed the time-honoured architecture-magazine dilemma of whether to pursue breadth through an array of contemporary projects, or depth through a concentrated thematic or typological focus.

Other aspects of the magazine’s presence are dramatically different now to 20 years ago: most notably, the influence of digital technologies and the internet. The World Wide Web was still relatively young in 2004: email had caught on, and Wikipedia had launched in 2001, but Facebook only started in 2004, YouTube in 2005, Twitter in 2006, and the first iPhone became available in 2007. Architecture Media, the publisher of AA, was early to the digital party, with versions of its various magazine titles going online from 2000. But it wasn’t until 2011 that publishers Ian Close and Sue Harris consolidated these to launch ArchitectureAU.com, which drew content from AA as well as Landscape Architecture Australia, Artichoke, Houses and Architectural Product News. (It’s worth noting that this is a kind of royal flush of institutional magazines – the official organs of the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects, the Design Institute of Australia and the Australian Institute of Architects – a fact that has surely contributed to the longevity of the whole.) The ArchitectureAU platform, including its newsletter, quickly took over the news function of the AA “Radar” section, which had once been a mainstay of the magazine, but was dramatically outpaced by the speed of the internet.

Back in 2004, the magazine celebrated its centenary through a rather magisterial essay by Philip Goad in which he surveyed its long history and argued that AA has been characterised by a “deliberate and altruistic mixture of the prosaic and the poetic.” The journal has, he argued, continued to champion a form of discourse that is cons- tructive rather than uncritical, and one that is national rather than parochial. Content is couched always within those boundaries that mark it as a journal of a profession: a gentlemanly style of criticism, always treading the fine line between the safety of sanction and the thrill of dangerous (though oft justified) critique, oscillating between the newsworthy and the noteworthy, between the documentary and the speculative, but always in the service of those who “care for Architecture.”1

By and large, these attributes remain true. AA has never been the most edgy architectural journal in the world, but nor has it claimed to be – and it hasn’t been the most stodgy one either. Some will say it’s been too mild, too anodyne, too unwilling to be drawn and to stake a position. Certainly, it has always been sober and decorous, its negative critique most often fitting into the “damning with faint praise” category. Some will say it has stuck to covering good projects, remaining silent on the vastly larger array of execrable, harmful buildings going up every day.

Elements of these complaints are valid, although there are also valid explanations: the impossibility of direct criticism between members of the same professional organisation (aka don’t rat out your fellow Institute members); the legacy of past defamation litigation (notably, the infamous case of the Blues Point Tower cartoon); the social networks, conflicts and dependencies of a small and tight-knit architectural community; the need for critics and publishers to stay on the right side of architects so that they will pay for the photography … I’ve laid out the common complaints about the culture of architectural criticism in Australia before, in an essay in these very pages.2 Personally, I have appreciated the fact that AA has never set itself up as an architectural cage fight. I’m less interested in criticism as judgement and passing sentence, and more in a culture of critical enthusiasm that is politically and socially engaged, and places us all – critics and architects, writers and designers, educators and practitioners – in the same community of people who are committed to the value of architecture: to working constructively, together, to make the built environment as good as it can be.

Back in 2004, Goad found that “issues of Aboriginality and architecture” had not been well covered in the magazine to date. Since then, this has shifted, with the work of Indigenous architects, commissions for Traditional Custodian groups, analysis and advice on the particular complexities of Indigenous housing, and discussion of what it means for all architects to design on Country notably and increasingly present. Goad contrasted this lack of focus on Indigenous architects to an increasing seriousness in attending to the work of women – moving beyond earlier slip-ups involving some jaw-droppingly smutty product advertisements. He observed that in the past, when AA’s discussion of the work of women architects wasn’t overtly sexist, it was often satirical or sarcastic – reinforcing the idea of the profession as a private club for white gentlemen. Over the past 20 years – and particularly under Clark’s leadership – the voices and work profiled have gradually expanded. Although there is still a way to go, this represents a considerable achievement.

Alongside Goad’s piece in 2004, AA also celebrated its centenary through reflections from past editors. Davina Jackson (1992–2000) had presided over the magazine’s shift from internal industry freebie to commercial model with a significant “news-stand” audience. It’s a tricky task to balance the profession’s internal (and occasionally arcane) conversation with itself, with the needs and interests of a broader audience. In 2004, in an admirably frank mea culpa, Jackson reflected on her own editorial “blind spots”:

I did not do enough to publish student work, I overlooked some excellent architects in smaller states, the annual AA Prize for Unbuilt Work never gained professional traction, I foolishly resisted the pictorially unsexy agenda of ESD and I missed how some commercial firms were paving the way for worldwide exports of architectural services.3

Has AA addressed these blind spots in the intervening period? Some, but not all. It’s still rare to see student work in the magazine; and while “ESD” is now more of a given precondition than a special category, the bias against “pictorially unsexy” work continues – including almost the entire genre of industrial architecture, plus much other work that is modest, unspectacular or hard to photograph. On the other hand, the magazine can now claim to be genuinely national in its coverage and, after its rebooting in 2007, the AA Prize for Unbuilt Work is going great guns. Further, with the 2023 introduction of the ArchitectureAU Award for Social Impact, there appears to be a strengthening of Architecture Media’s advocacy role. This is in tune with the times. In recent years, great swathes of the profession, at least in the big cities, have mobilised around social and environmental causes. The climate crisis, the 2017 campaign for same-sex marriage, and especially the 2024 referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, have all seen the profession present a strong and seemingly unified position in support of progressive values. This shift is signalled in the pages of AA and evident in the lauding of projects that manage to be simultaneously socially, environmentally and economically advanced – for example, the Nightingale model of design-led collective housing.

But has the magazine reflected major events taking place in the world? Only kinda. In the volumes of the past 20 years, AA often feels like a walled garden – inured and isolated from the events of the nation and especially the wider world. Consider important events in Australia’s social history over this period: the Cronulla riots, the apology to the Stolen Generations, the Black Saturday bushfires, Julia Gillard’s election, the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), the release of the Uluru Statement from the Heart … There are some passing references, but overall, these events might have occurred in another world, outside of this oddly floating parallel universe. Of course, AA is not a current affairs journal. It’s in the nature of a professional magazine to be more of a searchlight than a lantern, and AA ’s beam is strongly directed when it comes to current concerns within the profession.

Here, AA ’s role has been clear, and its contribution significant. One example, provoked by then Institute president Carey Lyon, is the “Why architecture matters” series of 2006–2007, which finds leading practitioners and thinkers writing in a loose, lively, polemical mode, focused not on a particular building or project, but rather on the larger issues facing the profession. A rollicking torrent of ideas on how architecture can contribute to the national conversation, it begins with Sandra Kaji-O’Grady remarking drily that good architecture, according to author Alain de Botton’s “architecture of happiness,” is seemingly anything with bare wooden floorboards. Later, Timothy Hill, in full flight, argues that “architects have little real impact on most buildings, and even less constructive participation in Australian city-making,” while Geoffrey London reframes the question to “how can we make architecture matter?”

The most compelling of this manifesto-like series is from Ian McDougall – himself a former AA editor (1990–1992). Arguing for the significance of architecture in a minor mode, and calling for “the provision of the artful, the experimental, the conjectural, in the most prosaic of building types,” he explains:

For me, architecture matters where it is about our thoughts and actions that relate to a world we try to make. When it is full of the texture of our lives, real, open, and explicit. Work that is about an endless searching. It is the opposite of style. It matters when buildings are made of bright, complicated stories about belief and physicality; when they try to talk to you. Whether they are in the bush or in the city, they should be full of foibles and frailty but also of strength and resolve. Architecture matters when it works for its community with integrity, passion and humour.4

Rereading this “Why architecture matters” series now, it strikes me that opinion has not been so prevalent in AA across its history, especially in the form of polemical position pieces such as these. We’ve seen plenty of this in other architectural journals, including Transition and a number of “little magazines.” But AA has traded less in opinion and more in evaluation, less in speculation and more in factual reportage. Of course, it has never claimed to do anything other than that – to be careful and accurate, to articulate and celebrate the projects of the day, to take seriously its own venerable legacy and its attachment to the Institute. It has been, in a word, institutional. And that’s what makes the “Why architecture matters” series so noteworthy: it represents a snapshot of thinking, and aspiration, and exasperation, extending to architectural culture beyond built work. In a series like this, we see AA’s most significant claim to thought leadership – not just to reporting and critiquing and preserving for the historic record, but also to charting a path forward for the profession in Australia. Over the past 20 years, AA has weathered massive technological and social change, observed and participated in the advancement of equity and diversity in architecture, and supported the continuing rise of values-led leadership and advocacy in the profession. It has attempted to be a force for good and it has, I think, succeeded. Here’s to another 20 years.

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