Building with Bits

The Futures Technology Centre Elizabeth College, cnr of Warwick & Murray Sts, Hobart Design team: Paul Ian (architect), Ian Friend (artist), Sarah Lindsay (artist), Kevin Todd (artist).

BUILDING WITH BITS

The Futures Technology Centre Elizabeth College,
cnr of Warwick & Murray Streets, Hobart
Design team: Paul Ian (architect), Ian Friend (artist), Sarah Lindsay (artist), Kevin Todd (artist)

Reviewed by Ian McLean


Tasmania's State government has an art-for-buildings scheme: budgets for buildings constructed from the public purse are obliged to commit an amount towards the purchase of art works. This usually results in the commissioning of a sculpture, or the purchase of other art works to adorn the building. In these projects the relationship between the architect(s) and artist(s) have not always been easy or necessary. However, for the recently completed Futures Technology Centre, a state government project and part of a secondary college in Hobart, artists and architects formed a collaborative team; a new order of design was conceived in which artist and architect were not competing for the same territory.

The Futures Technology Centre has received more bad press in its short life than any other building in Tasmania. I have found it difficult to find any person, any architect or artist who is not shocked by the building's inelegance. This is clearly a building with 'meaning'.

The design team agreed that they should interpret the pedagogical function of the building in architectural terms, deciding that the necessary construction elements of the building would be its embellishment and form. If this sounds like form would follow function, in fact function followed frame. The aesthetic strategy was to re-engage the design precedents set by early modernism within a postmodern frame. While the Centre would be a zoo of formalist quotations, these quotations would be arranged in a narrative rather than self-referential fashion; it would picture an ideology of technology.

The evidence of this is plainly discerned from the street, the vantage point of most of the building's critics. The formalism is evident in the constructivist-like articulation of the building's structure. The Centre is literally inside out, deconstructing the basic architectural notion of the building as a private space, a body. Except for the ground level, the exterior southern wall is located inside, behind the transparent facade which, in fact, is both the supporting structure and decorative embellishment of the building. This structure also penetrates the interior and spills out into the courtyard on the northern side of the building, as if the frame, building fabric and space have been collapsed. This Centre is a building without a skin, its anatomy fully visible, form following form, outside running inside, inside running outside.

The decorative and sculptural perambulations of the design are the frame for various narratives. Within, the interior space unfolds onto a de Chirico-esque courtyard where mock sculptures parody the traditional role of public art. Reduced to mysterious columns which punctuate the space, they return the courtyard to the building. Glimpses of the world are made an essential part of the picture (architecture), sky and beams, hills and columns, wall cavities and massive concrete junctions join in narcissistic embrace. The binary separation of nature and culture become a perpetual intercourse, a semiology. Hence it might be said that this building takes an ideological position which optimistically embraces the future's technology.

Mussolini described fascism as like a house of glass, the mechanisms of the state fully visible to those outside. Fascism is a type of modernism in that it proposes a rationalist order; but it ideologically engages this order in strong narratives which exceed reason. Fascism might be defined as a political system imagined as art or at least as opera. Perhaps this is why postmodernists, such as Virilio, have been fascinated by futurist/fascist architecture. It certainly is part of Friend's interest in fascist architects such as Terragni, and part of his, though not the other designers' ambitions for this project.

Fascism's transparency is ideological, mythical; its light conceals an unbound desire to stage life as art, as an idea, and in a way in which the conundrum between life and art, outside and inside, is foreclosed rather than left in suspense. And this perhaps is why people do not warm to the beauty of the Centre. Like art it is staged by its frame, rather than by life or the drama unfolding within it. The building fails because it is perfect. Everything is reasoned, crystalline, simulacrum upon simulacrum, and, like successful fascism, (eg after Adorno, Hollywood), there is sufficient drama created for reason to be unnecessary. Seduced by their own aesthetic ambitions, the design team believed too much in the game of art, as if life was a stage. In the imperfect world of everyday homes and a mortal life, good design exists when all that slips away, and some new form emerges which, for the moment, transcends the diagram. But this is a building unable to disappear.


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