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May 5, 2008 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Approaching architecture: ctrl shift ’07

“The pentagon war planners, with cold blooded lucidity, say the “feral, failed cities” of the Third World – especially their slum outskirts – will be the distinctive battlespace of the twenty-first century. Night after night, hornet like helicopter gunships stalk enigmatic enemies in the narrow streets of the slum districts, pouring hellfire into shanties and fleeing cars. Every morning the slums reply with suicide bombers and eloquent explosions. If the empire can deploy Orwellian technologies of repressions, its outcasts have the gods of chaos on their sides.”
-Mike Davis, Planet of Slums

Suspended as we are in our modernist ivory tower on the hillside, Kelburn campus students could possibly be forgiven for not paying much attention to the architectural makeup of Wellington. Minds focused on less concrete concepts, we are physically and mentally separated from not just the architecture and design school, but the city at large. This disconnect, it would seem, is exacerbated by desire to live in areas close to said campus – I sometimes feel like I’m permanently connected to a mini-rail track between Aro, Kelburn and Cuba Mall. However, the larger city is out there, and its face is changing at an alarming rate. Having spent my entire childhood in Wellington, I have an acute sense of nostalgia for the pre-bypass days, and a waterfront unmarred by high-rise development. Not to suggest that architectural and civic development is intrinsically unlovely, but the rate of change seems to have been cranked up a notch or two in the last couple of years. Architecturally, Victoria faces serious problems, especially given that the campuses are so disparate. The faculties are not only disciplinarily but geographically separate within the same university, to the extent that we are completely detached members of the same overall student body. Perhaps this is not unusual – it is difficult to know without assessing various education providers over the world. It is sufficient to say in this case that we are fundamentally distanced from each other in both locale and perspective.

This may explain (Kelburn students’) complete lack of engagement in the Ctrl Shift Architecture Congress, organised last year by a seemingly tireless band of students and recent graduates of Victoria. Having had the opportunity to be involved in a relatively insignificant manner, I have been constantly surprised by the succession of blank faces if I bring the subject up to students of any other discipline. Is this such a grave failing? Perhaps not. After all, students make choices early on about what gets them hot, academically speaking. If architecture to you suggests merely a concreted impasse of struts, foundations and people wearing black-rimmed glasses, then it’s hardly surprising an event such as Ctrl Shift would not register on your radar. And yet… And yet. When was the last time students of commerce, arts or the sciences banded together to organise an event that brought together students, academics and visionaries from around the world to discuss their common passion? The biggest critical mass Kelburn seems to accomplish is in the Quad when Hare Krishna are doing lunch.

What I am trying to suggest is that the accomplishment itself, aside from the disciplinary connotations, is something worth taking notice of. The outcomes and architectural specifics are similarly important, but to recognise this is to step out of the rigid boundaries of our own studies and confront wider concerns that will undoubtedly affect us in the years to come. For most of us, that would appear to be too big an ask. Is it not ironic that any dialogue about student apathy has been so fruitless that even those that decry this detachment are becoming impassive? Celebrating the imagination and commitment of the passionate group of people who put together Ctrl Shift is my attempt to stem the tide of futility.

We carry the sinking desperation of a species cornered by its own short sightedness. We are young and fucked. It’s no wonder there is cultural astigmatism that prefers to watch the infinite rise and fall of celebrity life rather then enjoy the sun setting on our flagrant global culture.

– Ctrl Shift 07 Organisers

I find it helps to start at the beginning.

Little is known about the earliest Ctrl Shift until the radical 1971 congress in Warkworth, north of Auckland. Fuelled by the social stimuli of their times – the 1968 Paris riots, the Beatles tour, general disenfranchisement and good weed (apparently) – a group of Kiwi and Australian students literally installed themselves for a week of architectural innovation and discussion. All attendees had to construct their own sleeping quarters, and the pictures you see as part of this article are of the geodesic domes some students created, inspired by the work of architect and visionary Buckminster Fuller. The biannual congress was tossed back and forth across the Tasman for the following 30 years, rifling the peacock feathers of academia and getting architecture students hot under their collective collars.

Fast forward to 2004. An unprepared group of four Victoria students make a submission at the University of Tasmania to hold the next student architecture congress in Wellington, aided solely by a cut-out silhouette of New Zealand on an overhead projector. Despite initially losing to a razzle dazzle 30-strong team from Queensland, the Australian contingent didn’t get their foundations erected in time, and the Wellington lobby were able to charge ahead full steam. Recent graduates Byron Kinnard and Nik Sargent were two members of the core team responsible for the congress’ objectives and concerns. Pontificating on the atypical level of student motivation and involvement in such an undertaking, they seemed to agree that the camaraderie born out of all-nighters and shared masochistic tendencies were partially responsible. Sargent believes that architecture students have a “predisposition to want to organise and create things … there is also a very social studio culture which catalyses this tendency.” More importantly, there seems to be within the architecture school a much stronger student engagement with the particulars of the curriculum. The project brief model, which requires a lot of independent initiative from early stages of the degree, is also conducive to high student motivation levels. Combine these foundations of independent thinking with a highly political Studio (the student organisation of the architecture and design school) culture and you have the catalyst for inventiveness. According to Kinnard and Sargent, Studio reached its politicised peak a few years ago, thanks in part to the presence of a core group of committed students, as well as an impetus in the form of a proposal to sell the architecture school building and move to Kelburn. Sargent reports that there was significant discussion of the architecture school’s failings, and how the students might improve the quality of their education. Not to imply that it was inherently serious in nature – what equipped many of the Ctrl Shift organisers with the know-how and tenacity to pull off the conference were the now legendary design balls during the 2001-2005 period. Learning how to party in an outrageous fashion was clearly instrumental.

To the congress. The press release in the aftermath sums it up quite nicely. There were: 88 presentations in 6 rainy days, 157 attendees, 20 mentors, 33 speakers, 2 powhiri, 18 crew, 20 bottle openers, 11 musical performances, 1 elephant, 40 sponsors, 15 international speakers. 48 international visitors, 800 bottles of Foxton Fizz, 10 missing wine glasses, 73,000 hits on the website, 2000 visitors to our Second Life island, and the whole congress was broadcast live and direct on the web with over 300 people a day watching proceedings.

Over those six rainy days in July, the 157 attendees turned their finely tuned minds to the relevant questions facing the architects of the future. Structuring their approach under three broad areas of Concerns, Strategies and Designs, the idea was to identify various issues, work on how these issues would be addressed, specifically in what the role of design would play in these solutions. The ‘concerns’ were grouped into the areas of: Architectural Education, The Role of the Architect and Future Environments. Sources tell me there were concerns about the concerns raised – as if this time would better be spent engaging with the design process. To paraphrase Brisbane architect Timothy Hill: “we don’t go to school to feel good about ourselves, we go to school to learn to be part of the discipline of architecture.” To me however, this seems to be the conference’s most crucial contribution. The most common and least flattering adjective that accompanies ‘architect’ is something like ‘smug’ – out of touch, superlicious, filled with grand ideas but little concern for their applicability in a crumbling world. Addressing this perceived detachment is an excellent place to start. The next step would be to direct the naysayers to Jamie Lerner, ex-mayor of a town called Curitbita in Brazil. His town was emblematic of many in Brazil, buckling under the weight of congested traffic, high unemployment rates and a disenchanted public. When elected as mayor in 1971, he used his architectural methods to unprecendented ends – transforming the cityscape by creating pedestrian only zones, and rendering the public transport system so popular people actually stopped using their cars. 30 years on Curibita is still used as a model for affordable and effective strategies to make city life more bearable and more sustainable. And all of us from a self proclaimed ‘upstart architect’.

The Ctrl Shift panel seem to have identified the most terrifying of contemporary social issues as their personal architectural challenge. To quote outrageously and at length from their initial press release:

As humans working in and around the discipline of architecture it is proving difficult to know how to act in this globalized multi-cultured world. Very difficult. The situation is almost serious enough to stop us dancing and having fun. (Almost) As designers we are presently wedged between two great self imposed hindrances. The first is external; we currently face humanity’s greatest moment of crisis; our entire global system of life is threatening to destroy itself. The other is internal, the all too obvious scar’s from our previous proud attempts to save ourselves from speculated ‘unknowns’ or others, the self proclaimed battles against our ‘common’ enemies, be they communism, drugs, terrorism, SARS, or Y2K.

We exist in thin space between fear and desperation.

A fear borne from the repetition of mistakes and of compounding our chronology of broken utopian dreams: of class warfare, of colonisation, of global wars, of suburban neurosis, and more lately of corporate hegemony. Designers and architects have been present and complicit with all these functions throughout history. For now humanity and the planet have a burning need for design. The issue of sustainability is clear; our population consumes more resources than the Earth has to offer, two billion people live in slums and there seems little anyone can do about it, and our cities range from the spiritual murder of suburbia to the corporeal pressures of dense inner-city life.

Bear with me on a literary tangent. The phantasmagorical novelist Tom Robbins has a finely articulated theory on what separates human beings from the “so called lower animals”, and consequently what separates the “more evolved” humans from the rabble. The most pertinent attributes he lists are as follows: Humour, Imagination, Rebelliousness and Aesthetics – an appreciation of beauty for its own sake. I wouldn’t suggest that the dispersion of these qualities has favoured architecture students over everyone else, merely that they have channelled them better than some. These are the virtues that should be encouraged through tertiary education and the culture that surrounds it. I don’t think it’s outrageously negative to concede that currently, this is not the case.

This begs the question why? It doesn’t compute that the answer lies in some intangible, mystified explanation about the superiority of certain disciplines. The organisers of Ctrl Shift that I talked to suggested that a lot of the strategies of architectural education are in part responsible. Students are taught methods of dealing with multi-faceted problems in environments of constant change. Kinnard also points out that the body of knowledge required to work effectively as an architect is in a state of constant flux, and thus requires a conscious engagement in the contemporary realities.

“[It’s about] being alert of forces that drive production of architecture in a contemporary environment and how they change … dramatically affects what architecture can be and what people think about. The discipline has to respond to the knowledge base but also respond to the particularities of the environment.”

Ideally what non-architecture students would take from this is a renewed interest in the potential of their own position as shapers of future spaces: be they physical, scientific, social or political. Towers of philosophical ideas. arches of molecular physics. flying buttresses of sociology. You get the idea. Without getting too motivational on you (it is Tom, not Tony, I was quoting) what this group of graduates and students achieved is pretty fucking incredible, even if architecture doesn’t strike you as intrinsically revolutionary. When you consider that the structure of our future cities will determine the shape and quality of our lives, perhaps more than ever in an increasingly hostile natural environment, it might be worth paying attention.


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Comments (3)

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  1. Kerry says:

    Great story. Makes me wish I’d caught the conference on the net, at the time. Is there a link available to the proceeds?

    ‘superlicious’- adj: supercilious, but so damn good looking s/he gets away with it.

    nice one Tan’s, that’ll balance the Jacksonisms column .


  2. Tania says:

    Ha! I like it. I should pretend I made it up on purpose. Architects are often so well presented, it kind of makes sense. . .

    You could check out for more information. . . Not sure what exactly is on there.

  3. Nina says:

    Thanks Tania
    If the shape and quality of our lives has the potential to be so affected by the structure of our cities is there a case for bringing this out into a more public arena… those physical factors that breed/ create calm and creatvity and minimise aggression.
    All too often such knowledge is not shared well enough and we need to be considering getting children to be thinking about such isses?

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