Urban projects: Our experimental city

As a current architecture student I think there is something deeply liberating about testing new ideas in hypothetical urban projects. Masters studio classes allow, and indeed encourage, students to challenge existing attitudes to urbanism, through an often radical rethinking of spatial organisation – projecting and consequently analysing ideas of how we could be living in the future.

They are inherently messy and imperfect processes, and often require significant research and experimentation in a cross-disciplinary manner. Many of the best practicing architects around the world are those also engaged in research, and from a practitioner’s perspective, student studio classes offer one such way for the testing of research-oriented design processes.

There are many talented, young architecture students and graduates in Adelaide whose experimental works have won significant prizes. They are gaining national recognition for their efforts in the pursuit of design excellence, and I hope that there will be opportunities for them in the future to be able to contribute to the design of our own ever-evolving city.

Two such designers are recent Master of Architecture graduates Adrian Kenyon (UniSA) and Will Morris (University of Adelaide). Adrian was the winner of the 2012 Colorbond Steel Student Biennale, one of the most prestigious national prizes awarded by the Australian Institute of Architects in conjunction with SONA Australia, whilst Will’s final project – which is in many ways equally interesting – was the highest achieving project in his school for 2011.

Firstly, Adrian’s Masters project, Barangaroo Crematorium, offers a contemplative if not solemn architectural insertion within Sydney’s politically fraught Barangaroo development. The proposed design is sited in a deep cavity below ground level, with a steep entrance staircase leading toward the depths of a dark, almost cave-like interior. A winding internal organisation, diffuse, dappled light and somewhat minimalist use of sandstones, concretes and timbers produces a highly atmospheric and textured interior. Adrian’s project is a mournful architectural proposition, composing a series of slow, ethereal spaces that prompt us to reflect on the transient nature of life and what it means to reorganise our urban landscape.

Will’s project is very different, promoting an unashamedly bold city architecture that celebrates the prosperity of South Australia’s mining industries. His major project design, for a hypothetical National Mining Museum on North Terrace, wholeheartedly embraces contemporary computer technology by transforming statistical algorithms into expressive architectural form. Will explains: “The algorithms were generated using statistics based on the average number of workers in the mine, number of open-ground shafts, the amount of ore extracted over the mine’s lifetime, and the lifetime of the mine itself.” This is a project that attempts to re-present mining data in sculpted form, in addition to satisfying the spatial organisational constraints of the contemporary museum typology. The sculpted nature of the façade, in this sense, becomes a simultaneously expressive and informational design feature.

These are two speculative projects with very different approaches to architectural design – projects that may never in fact be built. Architecture of this quality and scale is a very expensive exercise, which inherently requires the widespread support of its community to get off the ground. Yet, what these projects do illustrate is the variety of approaches to design in Adelaide’s architecture schools at the current point in time, and a particularly strong talent pool pursuing these. These designers are keen to contribute to, and challenge, our own expectations of city design. They care about improving our experience of city life through thought-provoking, sensationally stimulating design strategies, and I hope that in their future work they are able to continue this culture of experimentation.

Danny Brookes is the president of SONA Australia.

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