Genevieve Lilley: Tarago Trials – on site at Kalkite

by Genevieve Lilley

One often wonders, in a murder trial, how juries actually work – how draining is the process, what happens if juries can’t agree? How does one cope with the responsibility of making such permanent decisions, which will profoundly affect the lives of those being assessed?

These are questions the 2009 NSW Awards Jury all asked on the first morning at [Australian Institute of Architects headquarters] Tusculum, meeting each other, mostly for the first time, discussing our unusually diverse professional experience. Assessing buildings, we consoled ourselves, is not quite as life-and-death as deciding on murder (though to read the press after the awards, and to hear the opinions of some of our peers, one might wonder…)

The jury this year was Sam Marshall (as head juror), Philip Pollard, Tina Perinotto, Mark Cashman, Richard Hassell and myself. Andrew Stanic was a juror for the first weekend’s presentations.

The head juror’s role is a clear and important one, and Sam managed the process with exceptional skill. He carried tales of his previous experience as a juror (with the failed motto ‘everyone only ever does it once’, mostly because of the huge time commitment involved). He had been briefed by 2008’s head juror, and gently made us aware of some of the perils and pitfalls in the process.

Off to work, Ballast Point

The process commenced with a weekend of assessing the full entry list, and for the first time, the huge number of entries meant that the jury was split over two rooms. Was is, we mused, because the previous year had generated exceptional quantities of exceptional work with extraordinary clients, or was it perhaps because architects, now in a recession, had more time to enter, or were more desperate for the new work an award might generate?

Yes and no, was the answer. The number of entries was fattened by an increasing tendency to enter one project in up to three categories and this was simply frustrating. If the work was not good enough in one category, it is equally poor in other categories, and entrants should perhaps take note of that (the flip side is that if we liked projects, but wanted to move them to another category, we did so, freely, resulting in one or two surprises on awards night).

Head Juror, Sam Marshall, deep in thought

The category of small projects had great potential, and is one area to watch in the next few years

The room split meant that three jurors waded through the entirety of the residential section (new and alts/adds), while another three waded through plenty of dross to identify stronger entries in other categories. As some had not seen the house presentations, subsequently reducing the shortlist in the single house categories to a tighter group was lonely and difficult for those to whom the presentations had been made.

We therefore commenced our week in the Tarago slightly nervous about time, armed with an itinerary that made a lawyer’s day look loose, and with a lot of ground to cover. The first morning was a timing disaster (apparently an annual ritual), though we recovered and learnt from the error of our early ways.

We were accompanied during our week’s intense roadtrip by Trish Croaker (the AIA’s national PR manager). At other times, we were joined by Dita Svelte of the RAIA (whose timetable for the week was masterful)

From all angles

For Trish, it was apparently illuminating to listen to architects talk about their own profession, to assess their peers, and to pick out what they liked and disliked about each project. For many of us, meeting Trish for the first time, we were amazed that her presence wasn’t an annual requisite at either a state or federal level. For PR to work, the agent actively working needs to know everybody, and be known to everybody in the profession, and therefore we would strongly endorse her presence in as many of these future jury processes and awards nights as possible.

Visiting the projects was, without exception, a privilege. Many entries are buildings that none of our peers or the public will ever see. The weather was spectacular, each project sparkled with affection and cleaning labours.

Projects very quickly shone out or left us unanimously unconvinced. Some, which we had put on the list as unlikely maybes, were really wonderful (Chenchow Little’s Ang House, for example). Others, especially those out of town, carried the ominous weight of expectations.

Visiting James Stockwell’s Kalkite House involved 5 hours drive after a day of visits, and was seen on a freezing winter morning with a wind chill factor to make all outlooks unpleasant. As we got out of the Tarago, there were several mutterings of ‘this better be good’. And it was. The addictive component of being on the jury is that there were many many times we all reacted like that. The unusual situation for this year’s jury was that we reacted this way to so many houses. This resulted in a residential awards list more like a Victorian AIA Awards night than a NSW Awards night.

As Sam said in the Jury report on the night, everyone enjoyed each other’s company and especially the opportunity to experience and debate what we are all love – architecture. In the end, it was the power of a good project to make us love it like a child that reinforced for time and time again that the week of time we were giving was worth it, just a small moment in the sum of the collective efforts by all involved – the architects, the clients, the contractors.

With architect Nick Turner at Kangaroo Valley House

Adversity often makes for better buildings. Vladimir Ivanov won two awards for projects that were beautifully crafted clever interventions into quite compromised existing buildings or sites.

Michael Dysart won the Small Projects category for knowing what to add and most importantly what to leave off, Welsh & Major won the Heritage Award for embracing the Burra Charter in a novel and interpretative way – knowing what to show, what to conceal, what to reuse, what to rework. The Ivy collected two awards for being such a tight complicated rigorous sophisticated complex under the cloak of a madly indulgent party house, unique in its type in Australia.

In these changing times, we are watching aspirations morph dramatically. Architects have a responsibility to ensure their clients embrace sustainability in every project, they must encourage them to build in a financially responsible manner, with a footprint they need.

Sustainable design can no longer be the decorative cloak or optional add-on it was several years. I doubt we will see a strong year for new-build domestic work for some years, as architects settle into teasing more project from leaner budgets, but the product which emerges will be better than some of the skilful but indulgent houses we have seen this year.

Richard Hassell

Given the weaknesses of the current building delivery system at a state level, it is unlikely we will see many government-commissioned projects of great worth in the near future.

It is worth touching on the issue of regional awards. The NSW awards have always had a named award, the Blacket, for a non-capital city project. Yet, unlike other states (notably the Queensland system, where a small regional awards system funnels into the state system and where out-of-capital projects won 45 per cent of the state’s awards this month), in NSW the regions hold their own awards independent of the AIA.

Despite some efforts in recent years, the regions do not dovetail into the state awards, as the two systems run several months out of sync.

I believe the NSW chapter needs the regional awards more than regional awards clearly need the NSW chapter. Buildings in rural and rural centre settings can teach Sydney architects a lot.

There was a lot of industry support for the decisions made in the awards – especially for recognition of the strength of the houses, and for the 25-year award to Bruce Rickard’s Curry 2 House, and for the Sulman being awarded to the small school in Belmore by Candelepas.

There was also some press that successfully aroused furious peer debate, but which wasn’t (and perhaps should have been) responded to quickly to correct the content or address some very idiosyncratic observations. I think [Sydney Morning Herald columnist] Elizabeth Farelly’s assumption that Neeson Murcutt won the Wilkinson (again) because Nick’s dad has won it a number of times, was particularly frustrating. It denies Nick his own destiny and certainly undermines the other brilliant half of the partnership, Rachel Neeson. One wonders quite what the pair has to do to escape this perpetually projected assumption of birthright.

A Nissen Heart, welded to the landscape – Snowy Mountains House (Kalkite House)

It was an honour to be asked to be a juror. It was a very large responsibility to execute the task, and it is a task that cannot be properly completed without full immersion – the complete donation of one’s time/consideration for all projects. One must be honest, and prepared to argue a case. The experience was rich but exhausting.

The awards system remains the public’s best way of engaging with the profession, whether it be by agreeing, disagreeing, debating and aspiring. This is why press or other architects criticising the jurors for their choices is unhelpful, and confusing for the public. We can only reassure the doubters that each project is considered, by all, in great detail, and argued until the jurors agree that it is award-worthy.

Perhaps when the critics have also spent a week seeing them all, then they too can come back for another, more informed, round of debate…

See Snowy Mountains House (Kalkite House)

and APRA, a sustainable commercial project in Sydney