Place Makers

Contemporary Queensland Architects
Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane
2 August – 23 November 2008

Curated by Miranda Wallace at the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA), ‘Place Makers’ offered a retrospective view on the recent development of Queensland’s residential, public and institutional architecture. For many, this history has been dominated by the Queensland house, with its widely shared language of orthogonal pavilions and timber screens (the ‘tin and timber tradition’), its opposition to divisions of interior and exterior, and a strong phenomenological claim to mediate between inhabitation and the world (a local expression of Frampton’s ‘critical regionalism’).

If anything, these characteristics give rise to a sense of ‘the Queensland School’—a contestable term that nevertheless has some traction in discussions around the body of work, and the domestic projects especially, in ‘Place Makers’.

The show, staged in the new GoMA building by Lindsay and Kerry Clare of Architectus (2006), documents over forty architectural projects by twenty-two practices operating in the state, though some are outposts of multi-state and multi-national offices.

A lavish 320-page catalogue complements the exhibition, and in an absence of other syntheses of contemporary Queensland architecture, it assumes a critical authority over the period. For those who did not get to see the exhibition in situ, this book will do most of the job of conveying its content. Therein, essays frame the exhibition’s content relative to Queensland’s historical and geo-climactic conditions. Some essays see clear architectural consequences to those contexts; others explore their complexity unprogrammatically. The most useful essay is by Wallace, who considers a series of soft markers for dealing with the projects and practices represented in ‘Place Makers’: regionalism, pragmatism, romanticism, conceptualism.

Each project included in ‘Place Makers’—and these are supplemented by another dozen examples in the catalogue—is given an article-length analysis, and as a collection these new pieces of writing conduct a fresh critical appraisal of the scene, adding to existing criticism.

In the exhibition itself, houses were given the lion’s share of the floor area. While conceptually troubling, this reflects both the dominance of the house in the state’s architectural image and the strong identification by visitors of architects and houses. The inaccessibility of architecturally designed residences to the general public was well compensated for here by a number of commissioned films that walk through individual projects. As well, eleven models at a uniform 1:50 scale offered visitors the chance to see the houses in the round—although one needs to rely on the site maps accompanying each panel of photographs, drawings and (in one residential case, Riddel Architecture’s Aquila, 2002) a 3D CAD animation, to build up a sense of context, detail or materiality.

At the exhibition’s opening, Queensland’s Premier Anna Bligh (who lives in a ‘Queenslander’) committed GoMA to further architecture shows and admitted that seeing ‘Place Makers’ made her want to commission a new house. Indeed, the state has not been remiss in recognising the potential economic impact of the show on the region’s architecture and building sector within a Creative Industries framework. A campaign (HEAT), conceived in parallel with GoMA’s curatorial line, is now actively promoting Queensland architects in those building markets with comparable climates, and in south-east Asia especially. The domestic section of ‘Place Makers’ was receiving the most attention by visitors each time I wandered through, and more than a few of those well-heeled punters appeared to be sizing up the work with a view to following the Premier’s enthusiasm to commission new work. New buildings aside, one wonders at the impact on property valuations of houses appearing in ‘Place Makers’—two houses that I have heard of were on the market while also at GoMA.

The incursion of market forces into the gallery is hardly new, but I think that in this instance it raises two issues. The first is the extent to which the image of Queensland architecture presented in ‘Place Makers’ translates into a resource for economic growth. The curatorial team is not a cultural agent of the Department of Tourism, Regional Development and Industry, even if that Department would not understand the problem of it being seen as such. The state has invested a significant amount of money in the show, and clearly intends to use it as a lever for cultural foreign trade. Whether or not this is palatable is open to debate, but as much as the show presents an image of Queensland architecture as a climactically and historically-determined regionalism, it offers many instances that resist this image.

This is not just an issue of marketability, but more broadly of an image against which contemporary work in Queensland is measured both inside and beyond the state. The architecture of m3, for instance, resists identification with the ‘Queensland School’, and ‘Place Makers’ allows that resistance to play out. The opening view into the show (which begins with the domestic work) privileges m3’s Micro Health Laboratory at the University of Queensland’s Gatton Campus (2001). This solid, ornamented red brick mass speaks against the obviousness of the answers offered to Queensland’s climes by Rex Addison or Steendÿk, whose work occupies the same sight line.

This exception is the least subtle, but to it we can add buildings by Owen & Vokes and Donovan Hill—both of which offices learned much from the most senior figures presented in ‘Place Makers’, while following paths often at odds with the values, forms and materiality of Andresen O’Gorman or Rex Addison. Andrew Wilson’s essay in the catalogue alludes to a longer history of Queensland architects negotiating issues of influence and context, and in practices like these we can find a contemporary iteration of, for example, Karl Langer’s debts in the 1940s to Rudolf Schindler. In contrast, ‘Place Maker’s’ claim upon Ian Moore finds little common ground and few starting points in common with the exhibition’s other cases.

Through these ‘foils’ to the strong Queensland image we are invited to view the work as part of a fulcrum, relating to a kind of orthodoxy while demonstrating new directions that might also be allowed by the climactic, historical, material and economic conditions in which Queensland architects work.

The second issue concerns the propriety of GoMA as an institutional setting for ‘Place Makers’. One way to tell if something in a gallery is Art is to see, on opening night, how close security allows you to get to it with a glass of wine in hand; at ‘Place Makers’, you could get very close. Indeed, I have a strong sense that the show has struggled to define this work as art, rather offering (and this is no mean thing) GoMA as a venue for an artful profession. Again, m3’s treatment here exposes a problem: it is the only firm to include process models; and the scale reproduction of the mesmeric screen from the Cherrell Hirst Creative Learning Centre (2007) is given the status of art. The m3 models and screen are presented as works in their own terms, whereas the remainder of the show is documentation of work that exists elsewhere—the originality of the models, photographs and video works as documentation notwithstanding.

This raises the status of the Gallery as a venue for the contemporary arts in a cultural climate that would have it act as a venue rather than an institution—a development also indexed by the blockbuster Warhol and Picasso shows held here. Perhaps this is a consequence of the proliferation of the rhetoric around creative industries, but for now it is serving the architecture profession well.

notes: 

Place Makers featured work by Rex Addison, Andresen O’Gorman Architects, Arkhefield, Bark, Cox Rayner Architects, Donovan Hill, Elizabeth Watson Brown Architects, Ian Moore Architects, James Russell Architect, JMA Architects QLD, m3architecture, Owen & Vokes, Phorm Architecture + Design, Gabriel Poole, Richard Kirk Architect, Riddel Architecture, Steendÿk, Jennifer Taylor & James Connor, and Wilson Architects.