The transformative ideas of our time will not be sweeping and grandiose visions. Unlike the great architects of the 20th Century – who wishfully imagined the city as a tabula rasa or accepted exile on the urban fringe – today’s creative thinkers must find space for an ever-growing populace within a finite and decaying urban fabric. The ideas that thrive in this context will be small-scale, contingent and combinatory, operating at the margins or the in-between, within bureaucratic grey-zones or emerging economies.
Occupied was exhibited at Melbourne’s RMIT Design Hub from 29 July - 24 September 2016.
Anyone can design for the distant future. Train your gaze far enough ahead and virtually any imaginable technology, scenario or outcome seems plausible. Located at a safe remove from the present, the distant future provides a blank canvas on which to project our dreams, desires and delusions. The near future, by contrast, is a veritable minefield. This imminent reality is governed by all of the constraints that exist today, only with added problems and greater pressure. Familiar streets suddenly teem with strangers, far-flung suburbs seem to spring up overnight, and unpredictable weather scorches crops and batters coastlines. There’s no clean break or turning point between ‘now’ and ‘then.’ In fact, the near future is already unfolding, and we’ve already begun to complicate it with conflicting approaches and ideas.
By 2050, Melbourne is projected to overtake Sydney as Australia’s most populous city, with 8 million inhabitants to Sydney’s 7.5 million. If this near-doubling of the city’s population does not itself cause alarm, consider the associated impacts on infrastructure, social services and ecosystems over this short timeframe. Furthermore, according to the United Nations Environment Programme’s Sustainable Building and Climate Initiative, ‘the majority of buildings which will be standing in 2050 have already been built.’ Despite predictions that Melbourne is set to grow by 100,000 people per year, most of its buildings will remain unchanged. Moreover, many of the dwellings currently under construction provide little consideration for the needs of future occupants, while a further swathe of investment properties are deliberately left shuttered. Melbourne’s situation is by no means unique. Throughout the developed world, cities and towns face similar crises. To misquote William Gibson: the future is already here - and it’s one of uneven distribution. There is no political agreement on how to proceed, no all-encompassing plan or vision. If we are to accommodate this population influx and stave off disaster, we cannot wait hopefully for large-scale, decisive changes. It’s high time we got moving on a series of workarounds.
Occupied is an exhibition of diverse design propositions for the near future. While all of these projects are essentially architectural, the exhibition includes contributions by artists and academics, filmmakers and dancers. Melbourne is our subject and staging-ground, with exhibitors also hailing from Sydney, Perth, Brisbane, Bangkok, Santiago, New York, London, Paris, Milan, Barcelona and Madrid. As a collection, this set of proposals is necessarily partial and incomplete, providing not so much a world view as a productive sample. Taking the form of built and ongoing projects, installations and models, processes and performances, smartphone apps and collaborative platforms, the works range from the realised to the imaginary and from radical pragmatism to thoughtful speculation. Common to all of these projects is an acceptance of weighty realities buoyed by a sense of purpose. These are propositions that respond to, rather than resist, existing bureaucratic controls and economic systems. Combinatory, systematic, replicable and scaleable, they attest to the valency of the idea rather than the valour of the designer.
Of course, ‘Occupied’ is a loaded word. Its use invokes both the forcible occupation of territory by foreign powers and the recent Occupy movement. Economic disparities may have mobilised the Occupy movement, but the focus of its protests was inarguably spatial, hinging on the right to mass in - to occupy - open civic space. As the use of past-tense implies, this exhibition takes place in Occupy’s aftermath, with the question not being whether citizenry can retake the city, but how to house this citizenry within a restricted and privatised urban domain. Occupation also happens to be the term by which each of us is identified, with social status determined by our ‘primary occupation’ (what we do) and ‘place of occupation’ (where we live). As Home Economics, the current British Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale makes plain, changing domestic and labour conditions are rendering work and home life indistinguishable, collapsing the term ‘occupation’ into a single descriptor.
Occupying the picturesque emptiness of the Design Hub’s largest exhibition space is a massive, unfinished wall. The wall bisects this space, dividing it into two halves; Interior and Exterior. Carved from the depth of the wall, Interior’s sequenced rooms play host to projects that transform existing spaces by reprogramming activities, intensifying uses or re-negotiating access and ownership. The reverse side of the wall provides a backdrop to a series of Exterior projects. Parasitic, additive or interstitial, these projects modify or extend existing structures, or colonise the spaces in between. A third exhibition area, In-Motion, provides a curated glimpse into two significant, multi-authored Melbourne projects currently in progress, alongside a progression of films that transport us all the way from collective European housing complexes to placeless, dystopian cityscapes.
Is Occupied an exhibition about housing? Yes and no. While housing is certainly prevalent, the exhibition also encompasses adaptive reuse, environmental ethics, emerging economies, sci-fi nostalgia and time travel. You will find no ideological certainties or universal solutions on display. But whereas commentators such as Patrick Schumacher may question whether contemporary architecture has a social function, this exhibition presents a fairly unequivocal response. Architecture may be ‘too slow to solve problems,’ as Cedric Price once claimed, but the future is arriving too fast for us to wait.
RMIT Design Hub
29 July - 24 September 2016
5th Studio, all(zone), Jacqui Alexander and SIBLING Architecture, Baracco + Wright Architects, Peter Bennetts, BKK Architects, Peter Elliott Architecture and Urban Design, Taylor Cullity Lethlean, Robert Owen, Sense Architecture and M.A.P, The Blink Fish (Giacomo Boeri and Matteo Grimaldi) with Stefano Boeri, Breathe Architecture, Atlanta Eke, Fake Industries Architectural Agonism and MAIO, Flores & Prats Architects, Andrés Jaque Architects / Office for Political Innovation, Ash Keating, Lacaton & Vassal and Frédéric Druot Architecture, Lyons Architecture, NMBW Architecture Studio, MvS Architects, Maddison Architects, Harrison and White, MAPA (Moline Axelsen: Public Art / Participatory Architecture), Callum Morton and Toby Reed, Otherothers, Jack Self, Spacemarket, TOMA, Vokes and Peters, Liam Young.
Curated by Grace Mortlock, David Neustein and Fleur Watson
Exhibition design by Grace Mortlock and David Neustein (Other Architects / Otherothers)
Graphic design by Sean Hogan, Trampoline
Program partnered with Open House Melbourne
Supported by Boom Studios