What if ... an Australian Festival of the Built Environment?

By Linda Carroli
Arts Hub,
January 2010

After attending much of the London Festival of Architecture in 2008, I was moved, when returning home, to suggest to colleagues in the cultural and design sectors that a rapidly growing city like Brisbane, with its burgeoning research cultures in design disciplines, distinctive vernacular architecture and attention to urban issues and ideas, might find it useful to plant a catalyst event focused architecture and urbanism into the urban and cultural fabric. The reality, of course, is that any Australian city could host such an event. However, I propose Brisbane because it’s the city I know best and I have seen enough signs of life and innovation in the urban development, planning and architecture sectors to be able to visualise the possibility as a unique, geographically sensitive venture. The city clearly has the resources to make such an event work while also offering a specific environment and outlook for city-making. The London festival was a sparkling array of interdisciplinary events programmed across that massive city, including suburban sites, that resulted in large scale temporary structures and major street closures animated by art, music, dance and other events as well as exhibitions, walks, talks, boat and bicycle rides, discussions, locative media, publications and performances.

Incidentally, Sydney presented a one day festival of architecture in October 2009, which attracted 4,500 attendees at Customs House, with plans underway for a 2010 event. The Sydney festival is a local event focused on celebrating the city's architecture and aiming to engage the public in exploring aspects in the built environment. By necessity an international or national initiative would need a broader ambit, possibly similar to the British Council’s Creative Cities program, which has been running for several years across several continents including Australia. Given that there is no internationally focused Australian festival of the built environment planned for my city, the fate of this proposition has obviously fallen on deaf ears. Perhaps a festival isn’t the best form, perhaps a biennial exhibition or a specialised public program in an existing cultural or industry facility - there is clearly some research and consultation required to assess the feasibility. Perhaps a new style of event is warranted that can act as a springboard for alternative types of linkages and practice trajectories - a festival that is aligned to ‘next practice’ principles that embraces the festival as a platform for trials and experiments. Perhaps, in Brisbane, that’s the intended role of the proposed Design Centre. However, as the Design Centre is some years off, a more distributed event can make use of citywide cultural assets and infrastructure to address immediate urban priorities.

Through a quick mental scan of local activities focused on the built environment, including architecture and urbanism, such an idea isn’t far removed from many practices that already proliferate in the city. Over the past year, I have been working on an Australia Council funded cultural writing project titled Placing, which is an exploration of urban innovation and creativity. Primarily focused on ideas of writing place and place writing, the project has endeavoured to draw out emerging and changing ideas about urban environments with a particular emphasis on the interdisciplinary practice across the arts, design, planning, architecture and other forms of urbanism and community development. In part, I have sought to create a rudimentary, inconclusive and speculative map of ‘Australian’ practices that often do not attract significant international attention.  What I found is a nationwide community of practice that is gathering momentum and energy but which is somehow dissolute, possibly indicating weak forms of association and networking where practitioners are unable to extend from their current modes and locales of practice. For example, in Brisbane alone, there have been an array of initiatives, many too informal, specific or singular to significantly engage and educate the public, such as public art projects, Park/ing Day, the Design Superstudio event, heritage walks, awards, community gardening and farming, streams in other festivals such as the Ideas Festival, the occasional guest speaker at the State Library or one of the universities, student exhibitions, design labs and seminar series, the odd news feature and so on. Other than the exhibition Place Makers: Contemporary Queensland Architects held at GOMA last year, the critical and community engagement and exchange hasn’t rolled on in Brisbane in a way that has broadly engaged the industry, international community, local citizens and media. Such events and articulations can catalyse alternate thinking and connections. They stress engaging processes aimed at experience and learning, while government and commercial planning and design practices continue to impress their own agenda, which is ill equipped to foster creative conversation as part of an urban and suburban development or design process. More importantly, such processes can result in disruptive innovations where practitioners are using the city to progressively address their ideas and concerns about it. However, it needs more of a push and concentration for momentum to move.

A ‘festival of the built environment’ is not solely a festival of architecture – it embraces the whole city. As the inner city is reshaped and redesigned, controversies, which are better placed to attract media attention, also rage, with the King George Square redevelopment, North Bank proposal, Kurilpa Bridge, Howard Smith Wharves proposal and others attracting vehement opposition and criticism. Neighbourhood planning initiatives attract outcry when densification aligned to Smart Growth is proposed. With so many small events and big controversies sprinkled across the city, it’s clear that both citizens and practitioners are already talking. The potential has already revealed itself; scaling up seems plausible. With its planning on steroids, rescaled precincts, major developments, and potential climate change impacts, an event like this in Brisbane may promote a larger conversation about what city-making means in this millennium. Public discussions about urbanism and architecture often prove to be popular – I recall from my own work with the Ideas Festival that the architecture and urbanism sessions always created a buzz, especially when dynamic thinking was applied to pressing problems such as disaster response, affordable housing, community planning and long term futuring. Likewise, the Brisbane and River Festivals have both provided spaces in which vested interests can consider cities. However, it seems that this public conversation – including in the mainstream media – doesn’t facilitate urban literacy and strategy, and ignores planning and design for many suburban communities and greenfield developments, where most city residents continue to reside and work.

Having noted the recent shortlisting for the Venice Biennale of Architecture and read about the 4th International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam, the idea surfaced again. Brisbane could comfortably host an international built environment event. Geography provides a readymade focus on the Asia Pacific region where many Australian firms have secured contracts and, more broadly, the global south, considering the important work undertaken by organisations such as Architects without Frontiers from their Melbourne base. Through the Placing project, I discovered a rich vein of architectural and urban thinking that highlighted research, projects and possibilities emerging from the folds of urbanism, culture, interdisciplinarity and sustainability. There is a seriousness in this proposal, perhaps masked by the notion of ‘festival’, that acknowledges, as Queensland Government Architect Phillip Follent did during the World Architecture Festival’s Road to Copenhagen event that the homes of many Queenslanders may be under water by the end of the century, by which time neighbouring Island-nations will have long disappeared given the Copenhagen ‘outcome’. The architectures and cities of our country are impacting on the survival of other countries especially in the face of the Prime Minister’s ‘Big Australia’ proposition, warranting the long overdue reintroduction of Federal urban policy, and domestic issues such as housing supply and affordability. A festival won’t solve these pressing issues – particularly if it is framed as a talkfest punctuated with static exhibitions and publications that are concerned with valorising professional and corporate interests – but it can mobilise critical mass, participatory learning and deliberative intensity. In this context, it’s not as if Brisbane – or any other Australian city – doesn’t have the creative and intellectual capital to initiate locally inflected international events of this type that can recast and deliberate about our cities and communities in relation to the horizons or thresholds of environment, culture, land use and population growth. 

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