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Creating Community & Diversity

Creating Community & Diversity

Community & Diversity Conference in Melbourne organized by the Architectural Foundation Australia

Our world is changing: climate patterns are unbalanced and political systems are distressed. Temperatures, of all kinds, are rising. How can architecture create structures, places for habitation and infrastructure solutions that address the problems of societies in need? Can design enable social and cultural change?

I departed Los Angeles International Airport only two short months after the most unconventional candidate ever had been elected to the presidency of the United States. The change sweeping the world had arrived in America. With the political landscape in such a state of flux, a conference which focused on how architects around the world adapt to social, climatic and environmental needs seemed timely.

My destination was The Community & Diversity Conference 2017, organized by the Architectural Foundation Australia featured a unique panel of international speakers and architects whose work and practice demonstrate how architecture and design can be a positive force for change and social impact. The majority of the speaker’s list was made of Glenn Murcutt Master Class (GMMC) participants. While Glenn Murcutt and all the other tutors participated and created the framework of the conference program, the canvas displayed sensitive and inspiring work performed by an eclectic alumni group.

The weekend in Melbourne was more than a mere conference and reunion of sixteen successful years of a master class program. One could say seeds were sown and met fertile ground. Inspirational architectural solutions for differing cultural needs were demonstrated during the conference, and showed the influence of values and principles taught and applied by Glenn and all the tutors during this program and all the previous years of the Master Class.

In 2005 I was selected for the Glenn Murcutt Master Class and travelled for the first time to Australia – a country about as far away from my origins in Germany as can be. As for many others, the experience was mind blowing and the challenge upon returning home was implementing the lessons learned into practice. Next to all the “bells & whistles” an architect needs for their career, participants gained access to a diverse international alumni group and mentors. Over the years of its existence an average of 480 people from 75 nations have experienced and participated in GMMC, one of the best architecture educational programs in the world.

2005 Glenn Murcutt Master Class Participants

Let by four national and internationally recognized tutors, Glenn Murcutt, Brit Andresen, Richard Leplastier and Peter Stutchburry, the GMMC is an intense two week design studio, held for one week in Riversdale at the Glenn Murcutt designed Yvonne and Arthur Boyd Education Center and one week in Sydney. Lindsay Johnston, governor and his wife Sue are the magical choreographers in front of and behind the scenes, making sure everything and everyone is motivated, organized and in place.

The 30 participants, all with varying professional experience and cultural backgrounds, are organized in groups. Collaboration is one of the mantras and consequently people are encouraged to develop their briefs in a team context. Participants who are in a place wholly foreign to them, in a different country, are challenged to gain knowledge of the local environment, understand unique components of the culture and history of the site and incorporate all of this into an architectural solution that addresses the specific program and communal needs. Continuous testing and refinement of design, the meeting of code requirements and development of innovative constructible solutions are all critical parts of the program.

The above process is nurtured and supported by daily individual or group crits with all the tutors. After the two weeks the studio culminates with a final presentation to a ten person jury formed by the tutors of the master class and eminent national and international architects.

Continuous Testing and Refinement during the GMMC 2010

Since my first Master Class experience I was fortunate to visit and re-connect with the tutors and alumni at this forum in 2010 as well as in 2013. The question “How can you do this?” comes up in many conversations with colleagues. Along with persistency, passion, funding - all things I contributed myself -an essential element was the support from my employer, Moore Ruble Yudell Architects & Planners who encouraged me in this special form of professional development by allowing me to take time off from my formal duties.

At Moore Ruble Yudell, creating meaningful and memorable places, inspired by climatic and cultural understandings, has always been a priority, has guided our approach throughout the years, and plays a vital role in every scale of building and plan. Our firm has great respect for the regional, contemporary work that Glenn Murcutt and others have created. Even though we evolved into an international office, our work is inseparable from its site, climate, and context wherever in the world that might be. A long-term and now long-distance admiration and friendship with Brit Andresen was created in the 1980’s when Brit taught with John Ruble the “Design with Landscape” design studio at University of California, Los Angeles.

And as Buzz Yudell and John Ruble quote in the “Why Charles Moore Still Matters” article: “Charles Moore is remembered for his unshakable belief in architecture as a celebration of the individual, the community and the place. Travelling, seeking out profound experiences of place and time was and is an integral part of the Moore Ruble Yudell partnership.”

16th Glenn Murcutt Master Class Reunion held at the MPavilion in Melbourne

Sixteen years of the Master Class has created a unique multi-cultural alumni group which was warmly welcomed by the “Masters” at the MPavilion in Melbourne in February 2017. There were many reasons to celebrate, to re-connect with old classmates and many new friends to meet. Of the 175 conference participants, 23 were international alumni who travelled to Melbourne from 14 different countries.

Eminent architect Sean Godsell from Melbourne welcomed this celebratory group and set a framework for the following next two conference days. He challenged everyone with these questions: Is diversity a first world aspiration? What locates architecture? And what protects architecture from acquiring a stifling cloak of amorphous, homogeneous sameness?

An international mix of speakers presented selected work and ideas © Architectural Foundation Australia

As mentioned at the beginning, eleven speakers from nine countries presented architectural solutions that were not just an architectural form or language but portrayed a process which created engagement, interaction and a positive social impact in their respective countries. Often the issues of diversity are either neglected or seen based only on one perspective in the communities one lives in. One of the benefits of this conference was the opportunity to better understand local or regional specific issues and compare them on a global scale.

Community & Diversity Conference Impressions

The projects presented varied in size but all exemplified a sensitive approach to locale, forms of habitation and community.

  • A dance of construction was an example by Camilo Moraes Zambrano that enabled the re-construction of an entire village in Chile that had been destroyed during a fire.
  • The freedom park project in South Africa designed by Mpheti Morojele, represents the vision and a “shared dream by a community.”
  • How big is big enough? Architectural solutions constructed by Mette Lange in Denmark provide a high - standard of living on a “mini - house footprint.”
  • Rick Sommerfeld showed how pre-fabricated buildings that utilize local resources and indigenous rituals enhance the living needs of the indigenous Navaho community in Utah .
  • Wim Goes from Belgium touched everyone with his example of how mental accessibility can be created by forms of social interaction and engagement during the construction and deconstruction of a project created for a client that was diagnosed with a fast - progressive, incurable disease.
  • Marina Tabassum, one of the keynote speakers, locates architecture by her response to the continuous play of immersion and erosion of her home country of Bangladesh.

Her work and that of the many other speakers nurture the soul. These are just a few of many outstanding examples presented and reviewed during the conference. In addition, wonderfully arranged lunches in the nearby park, drinks in the lobby of the Avalon Hotel and other curated social events around the conference became avenues of continued discussion and important intellectual and emotional exchange.

The dialogue continued in various forms and settings throughout the conference © Simone Barth – Auster

A highlight of the conference program was the site visit to Glenn Murcutt’s latest project: “The Center of Islamic Faith“- A new home for the Islamic community in Melbourne. The project has been in design and under construction for 10 years. An accompanying exhibition titled “The Architecture of Faith” was showing at the National Gallery in Victoria located on Federation Square in Melbourne.

Center of Islamic Faith Construction Visit © Simone Barth – Auster

The semi - urban site, its adjacent park and residential neighborhood are as unusual as the scale and public nature for a Glenn Murcutt project. The building was designed in collaboration with Hakan Elevli from ElevliPlus, a Melbourne - based architect who brought expertise in the mosque building type to the table. The need for programmatic flexibility was only exceeded by the desire for the building to create, or better, spark cultural adaptability. Desires for this mosque included: “Can the design extend an invitation not just to the Islamic community but also to the adjacent neighborhoods?”, and “Can the building design help to link the Islamic community to Australia?” These subtle yet ambitious goals were piggybacked onto the other complex program requirements.

Center of Islamic Faith Interiors © Simone Barth - Auster

These were refreshing and nurturing sentiments at a time when a "Muslim Ban" was just issued in the United States. We don’t know yet if the building will be Glenn Murcutt’s greatest masterpiece or magnum opus as Pierce Taylor, who spoke and participated in the conference, describes it in his article in the Architectural Review:

Center of Islamic Faith Interiors © Simone Barth - Auster

This article describes the project's key architectural points very well. So instead of going further into detail about the architectural legacy Glenn Murcutt has created and still continues to do with dignity, I would like to focus on another form of a master piece these five tutors have created.

Their excellence in architecture and passion attracts clients and architects around the world. However It was pretty clear during the conference and the days in Melbourne that the seeds of an architectural ethos, that puts at its center environmental, site and cultural sensitivity, that Glenn Murcutt, Brit Andresen, Richard Leplastier, Peter Stutchburry and Lindsay Johnston have planted in their students over so many years of continuous mentorship and teaching have reached fertile soil.

What makes this program exceptional and unique is not just only the architectural knowledge transmitted but the values offered and exchanged beyond architecture. This generosity of learning and spirit extended to include an invitation into their homes, lives, families and history of their country. Lessons learned are carefully offered and personal moments shared which create a “special connectedness” to their country, principles of life and architecture that connects this alumni group.

I would like to end with a heartfelt thank you to Glenn Murcutt and all the masters of the Master Class for their continued efforts in spreading the seeds of their knowledge and mentorship. Their contributions are best summarized by the words of the Aboriginal elder Uncle Max Dulumunmun Harrison,” If you want to keep your knowledge – you have to pass it on!”