January 2018.

Emergency Relief

Note: This text formed part of a dossier on exhibitions on the subject of ‘Home’ and focuses on an exhibition held at RMIT Design Hub in 2016 titled ‘Occupied’. Download the original document here.

Image 1 — Before the Grenfell Tower fire, Melbourne experienced a rash of events attributed to a lack of responsibility state government in dealing with apartment developers, including the Lacrosse Building fire in 2014. Photo: Wayne Taylor.




Introduction

Occupied arrived at a time of political change and sensitivity around the types of dwellings being developed within the City of Melbourne and the surrounding municipalities. Concerns centred around the reshaping of inner city communities along economic lines, particularly in reference to The Australian Dream—a notion ingrained within Australian society since the 1950s, centred around home ownership as an ideal.

These freshly defined concerns were easily applicable to other cities where property speculation was rife and housing increasingly commodified. This is key to what Occupied hoped to communicate—that the urgencies experienced in Melbourne were becoming familiar concerns in cities around the globe and that collaboration beyond jurisdictions could provide, if not solutions, then ‘ways forward’.


Provocation

In 2007, London’s Tate Modern held an exhibition entitled Global Cities to help mark the tipping point at which more than half of the world’s population were living in urban rather than rural areas. At the same time the first rumblings of what came to be known as the Global Financial Crisis (G.F.C.) were starting to make themselves felt a short walk across Millennium Bridge from the exhibition. The effects in of the G.F.C. in the U.K. and the U.S. would cause irreparable damage to these and similar economic centres around the world. In Australia however, the effect would be startlingly different.

With a relatively static economy, Australia only felt the tiniest of ripples of these dramatic economic events emanating from overseas. International investors and members of the financial services industry looking for ‘safe havens’ suddenly took notice of Australia’s risk averse and un-dynamic financial sector, identifying the country as an attractive place to stash their cash. Bricks and mortar became the stable investment of choice for new comers and citizens alike. Barely a year out from the G.F.C., in 2009, the Australian Bureau of Statistics would announce that the floor space of the average Australian home had grown to be the largest in the world, out McMansion-ing even the United States.

That was the scene out in the ‘burbs. In inner cities, there was the space, and antiquated planning laws, to allow developers to build high and cram as many ‘living spaces’ into their new skyscrapers as possible, creating clusters of monolithic apartment buildings that incidentally highlighted areas of the city where planning laws were most lax. Melbourne’s Southbank area became a prime example of the types of unthinking housing edifices inflicted upon the city during this time, and have been increasingly criticised for creating a spate of luxury housing enclaves across the city.

Segue

Back in the U.S. and U.K. the repercussions from the G.F.C. were being disproportionately felt by the general populace who had formed a picture of a banking sector happy to siphon money from the public coffers to continue to prop themselves up via government bail outs. At the same time buildings around financial districts were emptying out as staff continued to be made redundant across financial and connected industries. 2011 saw the Occupy movement rise out of this environment, seeking to address these imbalances and inadvertently highlighting the wholesale commodification of inner city space that might otherwise be used as housing. As the Occupied curators note in their introduction: “Economic disparities may have mobilised the Occupy movement, but the focus of its protests was inarguably spatial.”

Air Rights

Meanwhile, back in Melbourne former state planning minister, Matthew Guy, would introduce a regime that allowed developers hungry to include more apartments within property boundaries to bypass city council planning laws, as long as they promised to build high. The effect observers began to notice was the reverse of outer suburban McMansion-ing. Inner city buildings were getting taller but apartment sizes were starting to shrink.

Better Apartments

It would take the ousting of the previous state government and the launch of a discussion paper released by current state planning minister, Richard Wynne, in 2015 to begin to address the issue of living space within the state’s over heated high rise development market. The Better Apartments paper was the first stake in the sand in wrestling back control of the shape of the city from developers who had found ways to manipulate existing planning regulations, some of which had not been updated for over a decade.

Also by this time, Melbourne had been identified as Australia’s fastest growing city by the Australia Bureau of Statistics. Previous estimates of 8 million residents (almost double what it is now) by 2050 have been increased to 10 million after the release of recent census results. This has made the city a test-bed for the effect of accelerated development on urban spaces, the repercussions for living standards and the shape of cities experiencing similar population surges, in line with Global Cities’ observation that more people were now living in cities than any other types of areas.

Image 2 — Diagram titled ‘Good Qualities for an Apartment Building’ from ‘Better Apartments: Buyers and Renters Guide’ released in 2017 by State of Victoria Department of Environment, Land, Water & Planning in response to a perceived lack of guidance for developers on ‘good quality’ inner city living.

The Exhibition

With this backdrop, the curators sought to position Occupied on a more universal plain, outside of direct criticism of localised political and administrative systems. Instead, the exhibition collected visions of speculative future scenarios produced by “architects, artists, academics, filmmakers and dancers” interested in the devolution of domestic space, irrespective of geographical borders. The introduction to the exhibition states: “You will find no ideological certainties or universal solutions on display. The transformative ideas of our time will not be sweeping, grandiose visions. Today’s creative thinkers must find space for an ever-growing populace within a finite urban fabric. The ideas that thrive in this context will be small-scale, contingent and combinatory, operating at the margins or the in-between.”

A key aspect of the show was the design of an active space that directly referenced the transformation taking place within the city. A programme of events in collaboration with Open House Melbourne was produced that ranged from lunch-time table discussions to dance performances based on imagined future scenarios, to an open invitation to occupy an elevated space within the exhibition, referred to as Supershared, which was bookable online via social sharing services.

The name of the exhibition itself was asserted in bold letters across the glass entry door, suggesting the project rooms (as RMIT Design Hub refers to them) themselves had been co-opted in favour of an emergent space that intermingled the personal and collaborative, the domestic and the worker-day, the public and the private, the local and the universal.

Describing the space

Otherothers, the research based off-shoot of architectural practice Other Architects, (and co-curators of the show) designed a space that was split diagonally down the middle with exhibits falling into two camps, interior and exterior.

More traditional forms of exhibition displays were featured in the exterior section (such as works on plinths or displayed flat on walls), clearly visible from the exhibition entrance. A mixture of this and less passive, sometimes programmable displays inhabited the interior section, accessible through a series of apertures that punctured the wall in between them. 

 In addition to this main space there was also a third space titled In-motion which was darker with a much lower ceiling, positioned at the end of the exhibition, where video works were displayed. Supershared made up a fourth space, positioned like a type of ‘crow’s nest’ above the interior and exterior spaces.

Exterior

The material aesthetic used within Project room 1 was deliberately left raw and malleable. The dividing wall running diagonally across the space making a connection with typical suburban house buildings by use of exposed wall studs, plasterboard backing and untreated timber. This pivoted neatly with the two architectural models situated in the centre of the space that also included exposed stud walls used as framing devices (see Key exhibit #1 below). The use of these materials also provided a deliberate sense of the exhibition being captured mid-evolution or being ‘under development’. A too stringent or complete an aesthetic might have been seen as stifling discussion or dissuading participation.

[Key exhibit #1] Offset House, a stand-alone exhibit by Other Architects was originally created for the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial. The work consists of a series of architectural models, two of which were on display as part of Occupied. The first model represents a typical suburban block of houses, in a style common to Australia’s outer suburbs, not dissimilar to the idea of the ‘McMansion’. Other Architects have then increased the population density within this block using figures at scale, the same time eroding the building’s outer shells in order to give occupants a wider variety of spaces to utilise. The resulting rise in communal activity within the frames of the houses also spills out into the spaces surrounding them.
The result being that fences demarcating ownership were removed in favour of shared playground facilities and exterior cladding was removed to create buffer zones, via balconies and outdoor areas, between newly compacted domestic zones. This approach also exposed the diminished and freshly divided spaces made visible within these larger shells. A second model isolates a single home, but at a larger scale, with similar alterations enacted upon it.

Image 6 — A diagram of an Offset House , designed by Other Architects, originally exhibited as part of the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial.

Interior

The ‘interior’ sections within Project room 1 were hidden behind the dividing wall on initial approach, reflecting a particularly Australian ideal where domestic activity is generally placed at the back of a house or property, away from the prying eyes of passers-by. The exhibits and programmed events behind this wall were then separated into a series of rooms of varying shapes and sizes. The door shaped apertures becoming invitations cross their collective thresholds and venture further in.

Once through there were a range of projects displayed in a variety of ways. There were passive re-inactions such as Andres Jaque’s Rolling House for the Rolling Society, a speculative work from 2009 which took an EU-centric look shared living spaces and how they might evolve. There was Spacemarket, the presentation of a social media feed and app initiated by Perth-based architectural firm Many Projects, as a way to open up disused space within the city to it’s residents. There were 4 other projects in this section, each with their own ‘room’. The last exhibit, at the back of the room was ‘dressed’ to resemble an incidental, slightly drab and lived-in domestic interior which was occupied by a resident spasmodically throughout the show (see Key exhibit #2).

[Key exhibit #2] For Never Discuss Politics at Home, Chilean architectural research collective TOMO, installed Leandro Cappetto, a member of their group, within a domestic scenario tasked with challenging the sanctity of the home as a place shielded from political and economic forces. Every afternoon from Wednesday to Friday for the duration of the show Cappetto treated this space as his home, abet a theatricised version of the idea of ‘home’. The space included a ratty old armchair, Formica table, milk crates for storage (a stable of many student houses) and a stud wall partition behind which was a rudimentary kitchen. Outside of Cappetto’s allotted habitation times visitors we invited to make themselves at home within the space where Cappetto would often leave notes and works-in-progress for visitors to look at.
This project also raised the question of participation within the exhibition context. With a scarcity of visible cultural institutions for the earnest study of art and design in the city, and indeed around Australia, performance is often seen as a tool for luring the general public into visiting cultural spaces. For Occupied, participation was framed as a particular type of activism that the speculative curation can provide a framework for. The question becomes one of usefulness. How useful is performance, or other forms of programming, in encouraging participation? What useful outcomes are produced by this and other forms of active (as opposed to passive) participation within the limits of curation? What is sustained?

The Curators

The curation team for Occupied was made up of two architects, Grace Mortlock and David Neustein, both from the firm Other Architects, along with lead curator at RMIT Design Hub, Fleur Watson. As a group the three curators chose to disperse their individual voices amongst the various themes and activities that make up the exhibition and accompanying programme.

They also sourced projects from similar speculative events such as architecture biennials, conferences and similar events. Choosing these distinct channels also allowed access to an international cast of contributors from a cast list of cities such as Sydney, Perth, Brisbane, Bangkok, Santiago, New York, London, Paris, Milan, Barcelona and Madrid. Tapping into this cycle of speculative works that have been referenced and reframed through multiple exhibitions and events also further dispersed the fingerprint of the curators.

Within the context of contemporary exhibition making in Australia, this approach is not unusual. There is often an unspecificity, which could be perceived as a lack of confidence, in presenting concrete outcomes. In these cases, the ideal would seem to be to have an exhibition transformed in unexpected ways over it’s duration. Visitors should then be imbued with a sense of having helped plot the exhibition’s course, to an extent.

Another common thread within contemporary Australian exhibition making that has really taken hold is the idea that to really engage with visitors projects should no longer be seen as static or merely capturing and archiving a moment of observed culture. For Occupied, projects were chosen from as far back as 2009 but were explicitly selected to provoke discussion about current events, rather than cataloguing the past. The historical context of each work deliberately obscured.

The curator’s address both these concerns in the exhibition catalogue’s introduction stating that: “The intent here is not simply to create spectacle or to activate benign participation, just as it is not to act as an expert or historian within the museological tradition. Rather, the position is one situated within an emergent form of curatorial advocacy and activism.”

Image 7 — An impromptu table discussion, led by co-curator Fleur Watson, outside TOMA’s Never Discuss Politics at Home installation including Happy Meals.

Afterimage

The impression left by the show was one of a state of urgency, a need for speed, on a universal plain. Ideas around home, housing, domesticity, accommodation and private space were shown to be in a state of flux with historical definitions now unpinned, although with a steady avoidance of dystopic scenarios. What you came away with was the idealistic notion that ideas are a currency that surpasses mere economic value.

What is also emphasised is that domestic spaces do not occur in nature. Ideas around the ‘home’ and ‘housing’ have always been created, designed and performed. If anything, during this recent era of societal dissonance, preconceived ideas around the ‘home’ have gone off-script. We now accept visions of a generation having to shrug off monetary concerns in adapting to privatised accommodation like the co-living initiatives set up by companies such London’s The Collective or The Student Hotel group in the Netherlands. Recent news articles have continued widening their focus on issues surrounding nationalism and immigration, moving on from discussing how to house refugees to definitions around the term ‘stateless’.

If anything, the sense of urgency elicited via the Occupied exhibition (and implied by the speedy simplicity of the exhibition graphics designed Sean Hogan) has only accelerated. As useful, current and as energetic as this show was, there is a vision whereby for this projects to become truly useful and provocative it would have to be restaged and updated on a regular basis, not just travelling but evolving over time.

Exhibition title: Occupied
Dates: 29th July – 24 September 2016
Venue: RMIT Design Hub, Melbourne, Australia
Curators: Grace Mortlock, David Neustein, Fleur Watson
Online reference: designhub.rmit.edu.au/exhibitions-programs/occupied



Submitted as part of the Design Curation & Writing MA at Design Academy Eindhoven
as part of an assignment for Justin McGuirk for the Design Museum, London.
Tutors: Tamar Shafrir & Alice Twemlow.