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Annals of archibabble

Architects are brilliant visual communicators but when it comes to words some can’t resist resorting to dense, obscure and pretentious “archibabble”

Proposal by Felix Laboratories - one of the shortlisted finalists for Sydney City Council's Greensquare library and plaza design competition

What struck me most when paging through the 173 proposals the Sydney City Council received for its competition to design the new Greensquare Library and Plaza, is the extent of ‘archibabble’ or ‘talkitecture’ in the entries.

Architects are blessed with the ability to visualise ideas much better than most people. They can express their visions on screen or paper with a clarity and elegance that’s beyond mere mortals.

Yet many insist on writing in ways that are painfully obscure and portentous. There are way too many to examine all 173 entries, but I thought it would be an interesting exercise to look at the five short-listed finalists to see how much they rely on archibabble (I make no comment on the quality of the designs).

The $40 million library and plaza will be part of the commercial, retail and cultural heart of the $8 billion greater Green Square development on the southern fringe of the City of Sydney. The area is expected to accommodate an additional 6,800 residents and 8,600 workers.

The Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, says Council invited Australian and international architects to create an iconic architectural centrepiece for Green Square. Council has done a great job of making the process public – you can examine all entries at the competition website.

The five short-listed finalists, who the Lord Mayor says will now be “under the microscope for the remainder of the year”, are:

Sydney: Stewart Hollenstein in association with Colin Stewart (#124)

Adelaide: JPE Design Studio (#171)

Melbourne: John Wardle Architects (#172)

England: Flannery & de la Pole (#195)

Fremantle: Felix Laboratories (#197)

My expectation was the finalists would display greater clarity than the rest i.e. they’d be less prone to archibabble. After all, in order to have made the short-list they must’ve communicated the merits of their designs to the judges concisely and effectively.

The entries of John Wardle Architects and Flannery & de la Pole are consistent with that hypothesis. In fact when it comes to archibabble they’re positively puritan – they make a virtue of plain-speak and straight-talk!

The best I could find was in the Wardle submission, which describes an existing timber fence as a “hedge”. Sure, it’s overblown, but by archibabble standards barely worth a mention.

Given the name, I expected more from Fremantle firm, Felix Laboratories. Any architectural firm that calls itself a ‘laboratory’ would seem to take a pretty liberal approach to the meaning of words.

Yet while it’s not too bad on clichés, it’s entry is merely workmanlike:

The design of the public spaces foregrounds the concerns of this team. The building is part of the process rather than the central concern. The ground plane is brought to life through the creation of opportunities….The architecture is not just the building.

Stewart Hollenstein and Colin Stewart however are prepared to step up to the mark. They’re on another plane. They start out forcefully:

We don’t believe the brief calls for an architectural ‘full stop’, which seems too quick and too definitive for Green Square.

They seem a bit bolshie. They’re on about “rejecting the model of the formalised institution and instead redistributing it into the fabric of the city.”

In their proposal, the “library and the plaza are fused into an urban terrain….”. It feels a little like a battle:

This approach of tactical urbanism fosters sponteneity (sic), is suggestive not prescribed and can be actively shaped and remade by the community.

Yet if the competition were judged solely on archibabble, the clear winner in my opinion would be JPE Design Studio. I don’t know whether JPE’s entry made it onto the short list because this opening sentence excited the judges, or despite it:

Reacting to the porous edge of the site, stimulated the concept of temporality, and the fluidity that water has on developing connections, fostering interactions and leaving a reminisce of what has passed.

Of course it’s possible to infer what you think they’re on about and most times maybe even get it right, but you can never be sure. Apart from a few unambiguous facts like numbers, I’d like to see architects let their designs do more of the “talking”.

While it might be pretentious, archi-babble’s relatively harmless. What disappoints me much more about this competition is there’s no published statement on why the judges selected these five entries and why they rejected the other 168.

It must be a daunting task in this litigious era to sift through 173 proposals and evaluate each and every one fully and fairly. I’d really be interested in knowing how they did it.

I can’t find the relevant material on the site, but doubtless the judges used the same selection criteria in their evaluation as was (presumably) made available to entrants at the start of the competition.

I expect the judges wrote up a detailed, reasoned and comprehensive justification for their decision. It’s just disappointing Council has chosen to keep it under wraps.

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  • 1
    Dylan Nicholson
    Posted November 19, 2012 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    “Reacting to the porous edge of the site, stimulated the concept of temporality, and the fluidity that water has on developing connections, fostering interactions and leaving a reminisce of what has passed.”

    I challenge anyone to even meaningfully parse that as an English sentence. Needless to say, ‘reminisce’ is NOT a noun (I couldn’t find a single online dictionary that allowed it as such). Is it really ‘stimulatED’ in the original? Or is it ‘stimulated BY’? Even so, there’s still no subject.

  • 2
    Holden Back
    Posted November 19, 2012 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    Wow, Dylan, that analysis is like so patriarchal hierarchical and oppressive. /sarcasm.

  • 3
    fractious
    Posted November 19, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    The design of the public spaces foregrounds the concerns of this team

    “foregrounds”? Foregrounds???! Ye gods.

  • 4
    melburnite
    Posted November 19, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    Yes sadly architects talking about their own work sound like or artists, if they ever to explain their work (most fortunately leave it to art reviewers to explain). But then some of the highly regarded architectural writers / theorists of the mid to late 20thC sounded like that – in fact come to think of it, all this mangled lanuage could be a late last flowing of post-modern discourse, the original of which was dense and difficult to follow. In fact the language itself could be subject to a post-modern analysis that it is all surface and style intended only to convey complexity and depth of thinking, and free of actual meaning.

  • 5
    Pinklefty
    Posted November 19, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    On the other hand, maybe there is some merit in trying to encapsulate the artistic esotericism of a truly professional outlook in an exciting synergistic rendition of architectural perfection.

  • 6
    Hamis Hill
    Posted November 19, 2012 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

    Well, in Australia, “Master-Building” is an Art, not a Science.
    But you already knew that, didn’t you?
    So what’s your problem?

  • 7
    supermundane
    Posted November 20, 2012 at 3:16 am | Permalink

    I recall watching an interview with an artist recently, whose name escapes me. He was asked to give an account of his work, which in the main consisted of rough and crudely drawn renditions of famous cartoon characters such as Mickey Mouse defecating or with enormous erections. He began with a melange of misused and abused words – a cacophony of trite meaninglessness. This went on for some time until he began to stumble over his words. He sank into his chair mis-sentence, deflated. ‘Fuck it’ he said with a wave of his hand, ‘I don’t know what to say about it – I got nothing.’.

    In that one act, he exposed the post-modernist malaise that besets both art and architecture (and no I’m not referring to the post-modernism architectural style – the return of ornament and whimsy witnessed in the 1970s-1990′s). The deliberately opaque and intimidating language surrounding both nowadays is an attempt to propagandise the spectacle, empower the creator of the spectacle as an unassailable technocratic elite and deflect attention from the essential triteness and hollowness of the disciplines as now practiced, shorn as they are of any claim to moral truth or purpose as expressed through beauty, form, symmetry and an aspiration for permanence.

    When everything is equally valid and valued, including pencil scrawls of Donald Duck with a hard on, then ultimately nothing has intrinsic meaning or value. Ultimately it’s all meaningless and ephemeral and the opaque language employed to validate these disciplines and their practitioners only ends highlighting this fact.

  • 8
    supermundane
    Posted November 20, 2012 at 3:21 am | Permalink

    To add regarding that artist, stripped of all the pretentious verbiage, at the end of the day he’d spent his time drawing pretty ugly and poorly executed renditions of Snow White going down on the Seven dwarfs.

  • 9
    floorer
    Posted November 20, 2012 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    “Reacting to the porous edge of the site, stimulated the concept of temporality, and the fluidity that water has on developing connections, fostering interactions and leaving a reminisce of what has passed.” Not that hard;
    When it gets wet it will look different.

  • 10
    Dudley Horscroft
    Posted November 22, 2012 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    Rather off topic, it reminds me that when I was a boy doing my homework I decided to turn on the radio to the BBC Third Program, to listen to some good music. I heard various odd plunkings, and when my Mother suggested it wasn’t music I agreed, and said “They are just tuning up. I’ll wait a bit.” I did, and after 10 minutes the announcer said “You have just heard the first broadcast of Iain Hamilton’s First Symphony, which was commissioned by the BBC.” I believe it had one more performance, a few years later, in Scandinavia, and then sank into the cess-pit of bad music.

    Not only in architechture do you get nonsense!

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