Over the weekend of 18-20 March, I had an opportunity to volunteer at the AIA Symposium – Lost Opportunities. The symposium’s theme revolved around the idea of ‘opportunities’ in various meanings – unbuilt works, potentials of a place, approaches towards creating a design intervention, struggles with bureaucratic obstacles, the roles of an architect, competitions and procurement (getting buildings built), etc. Many of the sessions were conversational rather than presentations, which made me feel like I was sitting in a circle by a fireplace, listening to the masters talk about their ways of thinking, living and designing.
I’m writing this article to process and reflect on my thoughts and experiences from attending the symposium.
What Architecture means
One of the common threads through the discussions was the thoughts on what architecture means. Glenn Murcutt stated that architecture is the experience of discovery, where one can immerse oneself in a place’s quietness, integrity, sincerity, and joy. Furthermore, Rick Leplastrier and Prof. B. V. Doshi explored architecture as encompassing fragility, sanctity, sacredness, reverence, grace and frugality within a vast time frame (an eternity to a flash of a second).
Numerous speakers talked about architecture, not as physical built elements, but as a means to bring out the transient beauty of the landscape, being recessive but present. Architecture, fundamentally being a service and not a tangible commodity, highlighted that what architects offer needs to demonstrate their understanding of the place and what it needs – it is our responsibility to respond to a place thoughtfully.
I got the impression that many of the distinguished speakers at the symposium are modest, observant and empathetic listeners, which is reflected in their attitude towards architecture. In particular, the act of listening to the landscape and all kinds of living creatures seemed to be one of the fundamental approaches the speakers shared. For example, Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell mentioned that architects are scientists with a ‘sensorial microscope’ who can listen and understand ‘unspoke wishes of strangers’, or what Prof. B. V. Doshi called ‘the land murmuring’. These conversations made me feel confident in my belief that architects are the communicators or storytellers of the place.
One of the most eye-opening moments was hearing about Glenn Murcutt’s design process during the early stage of a project; he would spend over several years between receiving a client brief and starting to design to understand the project site thoroughly. Some of the key factors mentioned were elements such as solar access, fauna and flora, temperature fluctuation, hydrology, geology, seasonal changes, and spatial experiences on the existing site. In addition, in an urban context, elements such as typology of surrounding buildings, topography, materiality, morphology, climate, rainfall, scale, movement and textures are some aspects to investigate.
Challenges in the modern practice
As much as many architects and design professionals wish to spend more time thinking and exploring the best way to respond to a place, many speakers highlighted the challenges with limited time to think, little opportunities to engage with stakeholders (not through contract manager), bureaucratic and regulatory constraints and the lack of public appreciation beyond superficial qualities of built elements. The fast-paced design process, conflicts with planners and cost-saving attitude of developers or clients seemed to be the common struggles for architects across the globe. It led to the discussion on being selective with clients, ensuring that they appreciate architecture as much as architects do (or at least clients try to understand architects’ views). It underlined the need to balance architecture as a profession vs vocation – finding a way to continue developing one’s architectural approaches and philosophies alongside the everyday work responsibilities. It would be my dream to be able to integrate those two, working as if I were playing.
The other aspect of the challenges mentioned was the competitions. The emerging architects Esther Chew, Jessica Spresser and Polly Harbison articulated the importance of learning from the competition process and having one’s definition of ‘success’. Although winning them can help a new architect further develop one’s career, the three speakers mentioned that unbuilt projects or even speculative projects could be a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ that may catch the attention of future clients.
I had invaluable opportunities to talk with Rick Leplastrier and Peter Stutchbury outside of the symposium sessions for more philosophical conversations. I particularly enjoyed when their responses to my questions made me think even deeper – ranging from advice on defining a career direction, searching my way of practising architecture, the need to find a way to learn what I want and need to know (‘you can’t swim the butterfly if you continue to learn freestyle’) and encouragement to pursue ‘chances in architecture’ (over conversations, I interpreted it as getting out of comfort zone… just like how I came to study in Melbourne 11 years ago).
Furthermore, during the opening party and breaks between sessions over the weekend, I met other architects and students who had a similar interest in the architectural approaches explored through the symposium, including Sarah Lebner, who I had known for the last two years over zoom through The Architect Project. I found those moments between the symposium extremely precious – it is one of the reasons I love attending the symposium in person.
In conclusion, I found this year’s symposium so touching. From an architecture student’s point of view, listening to the discussions by architects I’ve studied over the years was simply a joy. I also loved how discussions were not necessarily just about the project – for me, learning about the process and attitude towards architecture is as (or more) valuable for learning as (than) outcomes of projects. Through attending the symposium, I was very much empowered to continue pursuing my interest – architecture as something emerging out of landscape and site contexts – as it affirmed that I’m somewhat on the right direction. It was like a gentle nudge for me to keep going.