Few of us would disregard the fact that what we do as A+D is inherently political. Often, it is all too easy to forget the level of responsibility and the degree of influence we hold – which is why the WorkLife Seminars at 2016 Melbourne Indesign proved to be a much needed reality check. Covering topics and controversial discussions surrounding the place gender holds in our industry, or the role ‘community’ plays in the design process, the talks were both inspiring and very, very heated. We thought we knew what the landscape of A+D today was all about. We were not prepared for the surprises and the shocks.
Melbourne is currently undergoing a widespread redevelopment in the public sector both in the CBD and its outlying suburbs. While the discussion around designing for public use and amenities has been hot-topic in the A+D community, the seminar hosted by Interface entitled ‘Designing for the Public’ was concerned with what the discussion around public design has been outside of A+D. What is the public saying back? Well, on the one hand, we were prepared to hear that there would be a discrepancy between the perception the public holds for design compared with the same for the industry. What we didn’t expect was the degree to which the level of know-how among the Australian public has risen in the past few years with particular respect to the nitty-gritty of design, conceptually. Speaking extremely incisively – and with eloquent precision – about questions of sustainability, access and opportunity, the dialogue generated by the public around the developments of the National Gallery of Victoria, Federation Square and the Melbourne Pavillions, proved to intervene in our concept of what ‘good design’ might actually mean. On all counts, the seminar highlighted that in the year ahead A+D will have to reorient itself to stakeholder positioning when approaching projects designed for public use and benefit.
For all our talk about integrity, democracy, and mindfulness in design, there is undeniably a worrying movement afoot which harbours the potential to compromise these important values to A+D. The concept of ‘fame’ is cavorting rampantly through the A+D community worldwide – beguiling architects to the starchitecture flame while designers are rubbing shoulders with the glitterati of the celebrity world. As a result, we took some time out of our weekend to ask ourselves ‘are we fed up with fame?’ The question of whether celebrity is still a valuable currency in not only the business, but also the craft, of design is by no means easy to answer. The discussion, hosted by Urban Edge Ceramics, proved to be passionate and provocative, and we were sitting on the edge of our seats throughout the lengthy consideration of what celebrity-status provides A+D in terms of distanciation from criticism. Needless to say, the room was divided, and then subdivided again. Of course, an answer wasn’t reached – but here’s the food for thought with which we left and are still digesting: what does it say about the business of design that so much fame is given to those designs that channel a sense of avant-garde or novelty? We seem to be saying we value something, and then not following through. Well, not following through often enough.
Meanwhile, novelty or the avant-garde lures some, commerce lures others, and we suppose that the remainder are lured by purism. Well, we used to suppose that. The seminar hosted by Hub and entitled ‘Experimentation vs Commercialisation’ considered what design means at its most fundamental level: impulse. To consider what drives design is to consider not why it’s important, but, simply, what it ‘is’. Because A+D is so intimately connected to stakeholders across the public, private, corporate and academic sectors, the role commerce – or, just, the role of the person footing the bill – should not be overlooked too swiftly. The discussion focused largely on what happens when we focus too strongly on commercial outcomes that could potentially be at the expense of individuality and innovation. While recently we’ve seen some of the most brilliant designs and unique ideas spring from A+D in the commercial sphere, it is odd that it hasn’t really captured the imagination of the broader public. Sequestration according to sector still proves to hinder what we would otherwise like to view capital-D Design as: democratic.
Speaking of democracy, then, ‘imbalance’ – across geography, across sectors, across each of us in A+D – seemed to be a unifying theme at showrooms, parties and events throughout all of Melbourne Indesign 2016. Kicking off the seminar series with Products for People’s seminar ‘Gender Bender in A+D’, discussion of the gender imbalance in architecture and design was both shocking and inspiring. Of course we like to believe that we’ve come a long way in redressing the chronic imbalance in gender disparity in the A+D disciplines and professions. And while we’ve certainly made some progress, the seminar speakers proved that we are by no means close to where we should be. What is worrying is that there is a persisting underrepresentation of women in leadership roles across all the professions intrinsic to A+D in Asia Pacific. Unfortunately the mentality of the Old Boys’ Club which we’ve been battling for generations now, continues to plague the gap between men and women’s representation in an industry that likes to flatter itself with unachieved pretensions. Well, unachieved, thus far.
Finally, we sat down to both vent our frustrations, and actually try and pay some overdue dues, for what is undeniably the most understood person in all of A+D. The Project Manager is sometimes seen as the hurdle, the villain, the pain in the neck on both the designer- and the client-end. But the discussions hosted by District – ‘Who Hired the Project Manager?’ – ended up evidencing that co-ordinating the work of the design team, numerous consultants, logistics, specifiers, communication, and the client, is the most difficult and important job in the whole design process from brief to delivery. Actually getting down and dirty with the frustrations and difficulties the project manager faces from all stakeholder angles was an illuminating moment. It needn’t be all goodies v baddies in A+D. The project manager is no (anti-)hero – think how often they’ve saved the day.
Words by David Congram.