Ducks (and Architecture) in Christchurch

It closes soon but I encourage anyone with interesting ideas and the time to enter.

It is a peculiar brief that demands some radical creativity to transcend it.    Three of the five goals of the brief are about the promotion of: architecture, architects, the local branch, and the New Zealand Institutes of Architects.  One is for it to be relocatable, and the last for it to be usable by other groups.  Incongruously, the brief asks that the project provide weatherproof and secure space for exhibitions, and that the exhibitions be able to be viewed by the public after hours and without anyone resident.  This is a great design challenge.

In light of the enormously generous projects that have popped up around Christchurch that provide physical and cultural amenity for the city such as neighbourhood water fountains, dance spaces, free cinemas, petanque courts and a new cross-city mini golf course, it seems extraordinary that the primary goal of this building is to promote architecture and NZIA.   We might as well install a giant sign saying THIS IS ARCHITECTURE.

Although, perhaps this is an enlightened challenge to the architects and designers of our times. What is architecture about architecture? Is this possible? Is it is an oxymoron?  What is the function of a building that primary purpose is to promote architecture?

We all know that this city is in desperate need of good architecture, and to develop a culture that promotes and understands the role that design can play in making this an even more beautiful and liveable city.    But I’m not sure if we need architecture that is about architecture.   It reaks of the eighties.    One of the great post-modern texts on architecture called Learning From Las Vegas says there are two types of building.  The first, Decorated Sheds are generic buildings with expensive and expressive signage that communicate its function; think service stations, the warehouse, and even the new gallery in Christchurch. The later is The Duck, which raises the symbolism of what it is to the architecture, at its most literal a duck is building that sells ducks, a giant hot dog that sells hot dogs, a building with a steeple that reaches to the sky is obviously a church, you get the idea.

Should the pavilion be a duck or a decorated shed?  Well to answer that we need to understand its function. What is this building for?  To promote architecture with exhibitions about architecture by architects.  Its all spirals into self-referentiality;  I can’t help but think the first exhibition will just have pictures of the building inside it, will those pictures have little pictures of the pictures that are in the building in the pictures?

Perhaps we should just build a giant duck that acts as a building, and it can sell little bath-sized-duck-buildings.  This surely is what the brief is asking for, this giant duck will once and for all convince the public on the need for good quality architecture.

Has the NZIA  demonstrated an extraordinary inability to connect with reality. Look at all the suffering, people living in garages, extraordinary high flu rates, destroyed heritage buildings, angry red zoned people, a council that has lost its democratic powers, a broke and broken university, a bully with dictatorship powers ruling the city, inefficient and non-communicating layers of government control; eqc, sera, council, and the strange sense that its the Insurance Companies with their $20 billion mountain of cash that is making the calls in this process.  All this and the architects of the country think the most important way to spend $30,000 is to design architecture about architecture.  Its like the organisation that represents architects like to think that architecture isn’t political.

Now, I would enter this competition. You think I’d be the sort of person they’d want to enter this competition.  I’ve been involved in the design and fabrication of complex contemporary pavilions in both Melbourne and Sydney, won design awards in NZ, Australia, and Europe,  worked on the design of temporary builds for the Rio Olympics, and now I’m doing a PHD looking at the emergence of temporary architecture in post-earthquake Christchurch.  But the rules of this competition state you either need to be a member of the local branch of the NZIA or team up with one.  So not only is it an architecture about architecture by the institute of architecture; only people associated with the institute of architecture can enter the competition.  Which is funny given how few of the amazing projects that have arisen since the earthquakes have any architects involved with them.

This is either a remarkably self-serving display by the NZIA, or a move of critical genius designed to facilitate much needed discussion about the role of architecture in the rebuild.  The latter seems unlikely, but then the former is too depressing to contemplate. I don’t know what to believe.

The only thing I have any confidence is that we can, on occasions, do brilliant design, and that there will be some people much less cynical than me who will push their way through this peculiar brief and propose a building that contributes meaningfully to what is happening to Christchurch at the moment.

I also have confidence that the judges will know what this is when they see it.