Renzo Piano & the Centro Botín

In March this year, the Victorian Government unveiled the winning concept design for the NGV Contemporary, a new centre for art and design, forming part of the planned revamp of the Arts Precinct on Melbourne’s Southbank. Due to open in 2028, The Fox: NGV Contemporary (to give it’s full name, thanks to the benevolence of trucking magnate and close acquaintance of Premier Daniel Andrews, Lindsay Fox) is being heralded as an iconic, nation-defining statement in support of Melbourne’s claim to be the cultural centre of Australia. So far, so good – but I can’t help feeling the design competition has been conducted with some undue haste: Expressions of Interest were sought in March 2021, with a one-week registration deadline. The competition for Stage One of the project closed in August 2021, and Stage Two in November 2021, with the winning team announced in March 2022, barely 12 months from the EOI. Why the hurry (especially as Melbourne was in lockdown for much of that time), and up to now, there does not appear to have been any public consultation in the design process.

The Centro Botín, Santander, designed by Renzo Piano (image sourced from Wikimedia)

Contrast this with the design of the Centro Botín in Santander, Spain, by Italian architect Renzo Piano, whose story is told in an absorbing documentary, “Renzo Piano: The Architect of Light”. First, neither the architect nor the sponsoring Botín Foundation had any aspirations of creating an “iconic building”; instead, the goal was to have as minimal physical impact as possible, while reclaiming an area of land and returning it to public use. Second, there was a public consultation process, to overcome concerns expressed by some nearby residents. Third, while the documentary has no doubt been artfully edited, it does provide extensive “behind the scenes” access to the design and construction process over its 7-year development, which included a 3-year delay in completion. The fact that this was a private commission rather than a competition may account for this approach, but there was still a great deal of negotiation with municipal and community stakeholders.

The documentary itself is notable not only for the degree of transparency (we observe meetings between architect, client and project managers throughout the process), but also for the simplicity of its narrative, and the wise decision to dispense with any voiceover commentary – the subjects are allowed to speak for themselves. There are also references to cultural icons such as novelist Italo Calvino and film-maker Roberto Rossellini. The use of Mahler’s ‘Symphony No. 5’ in the soundtrack underlines Renzo Piano’s fascination with light as a construction material, as important to him as glass, concrete and steel – the music is most famously associated with the film of ‘Death in Venice’, a city renowned for its light.

If the primary inspiration for the design of the Centro Botín is light (and lightness of construction), I’m struggling, based on the available evidence, to see what the inspiration is for the NGV Contemporary. Despite being a statement about “art and design”, I fear that this project is as much about political statements and lasting personal legacies. Much has been made about the potential job creation during its construction, but much less about the design principles and aesthetic objectives. I hope this project does not turn into a municipal white elephant.

The original NGV (now referred to as NGV International) is a landmark building and one of the most popular destinations in Melbourne. I have known it most of my life, having first visited it aged 10, when it left an indelible impression on me. Having lived in Melbourne the past 20 years, I have been a regular visitor since it was extensively refurbished in 2003. As part of the Arts Precinct, the NGV is a focal point for the city’s cultural activities, and is a major draw card for local and international visitors. Any enhancement of the NGV and the surrounding facilities is generally to be welcomed, and certainly there are parts of the precinct that could do with upgrading. However, I’m not sure the design for the NGV Contemporary is the right decision.

Aside from the hastiness shown by the NGV Contemporary’s design phase, I’m surprised that the winning design team, Angelo Candalepas and Associates, do not appear to have built any comparable projects, despite winning multiple awards for their past work. The Candalepas studio has designed many residential buildings (and I lived very happily in one of their first competition successes, ‘The Point’ in Sydney’s inner city suburb of Pyrmont), but as far as I can see, nothing on the scale, significance or importance as NGV Contemporary. The proposed design looks very “blocky”, notwithstanding the internal “spherical hall”, which is highly reminiscent of New York’s Guggenheim Museum. It’s also not clear what the spacial relationship will be with the existing NGV and other neighbouring buildings, nor whether any of them will need to be remodelled or demolished to make way for this latest addition. I’ve tried, without success, to find a map or ground plan of the proposed development, or any details on how the NGV Contemporary will be accessed from adjacent streets, other than via a new garden that appears to envelop the NGV International – so what existing land will this garden occupy, and what current facilities might be lost in the process?

In conclusion, since its opening in 2017, the Centro Botín appears to have been enthusiastically embraced by the residents of Santander, and manages to be both utterly modern and easily accessible, unlike so many other examples of “statement” architecture. I hope we will see a similar outcome for NGV Contemporary.

Next week: Mopping up after the LNP

“What Should We Build?”

Over the past week, the Leader of the Federal Opposition has been asking a series of questions on Twitter and elsewhere, about “what should Australia be building?”. As well as building the foundations of Labor’s Federal Election policy platform for boosting jobs in the manufacturing sector, it also provides lots of photo ops for pollies in hard hats and hi-viz clothing. (I do wonder why the potential Prime Minister hasn’t thought of this idea before, or why he appears to not know the answer – isn’t that his job? It also makes me wonder whether we need Parliament anymore, since our elected representatives prefer to conduct their “debates” via Social Media and Press Conferences…. it would save a lot of time and money!)

By this time next year, Albo could be PM (Photo sourced from Twitter)

There has been no shortage of suggestions from the Twitterati, which fall into the following main categories:

  • Renewable energy
  • Trains
  • Trams
  • Ferries
  • High-end engineering

But there has also been commentary around Labor’s ambivalence on the coal and gas sector (especially in the key state of Queensland), and the irony that we export cheap raw materials and import expensive finished goods. Then there is debate on the amount of local manufacturing content that already exists in Australia’s state-based trains and urban trams/light rail systems (skewed by the question of local vs foreign ownership). Plus, there’s the thorny issue of high-speed inter-city trains…

As I commented recently, the manufacturing sector accounts for fewer than 1m local jobs (less than 10% of the working population), and 6% of GDP. It has been declining steadily as a contributor to GDP since the 1960s, and more rapidly in recent years since we abandoned key subsidies to the car industry. I don’t think anyone is suggesting we return to the days of metal bashing and white goods. And while we’ve got to be selective about the type of manufacturing base we want to to develop, we also have to be realistic about the manufacturing capabilities we want to encourage and enhance.

The latter involves developing transferable skills, creating interoperable production lines, deploying modular designs and inter-changeable components, and recycling/repurposing. All of which should mean we don’t need to make every part of every item domestically, but we know how to assemble, service, maintain, repair and replace goods locally, and we can focus on adding value that can be fed back into the supply chain, which in turn can be exported (via know-how and services). Australia has some decent research and development capabilities, but we are not always very good at raising domestic investment, or commerciliasing our IP (so this value ends up being transferred overseas, with little to no return accruing locally).

I’m not a huge fan of simplistic “buy local goods/support local jobs” campaigns, or local content quotas. The former can degenerate into trade protectionism and economic nationalism; while the latter tend to favour inefficient incumbents within cozy duopolies (see the broadcasting and media sector). The current debate has also raised questions about procurement policies, and I for one would welcome a total revamp of government IT purchasing and deployment at Federal, State and LGA levels.

There’s also the consumer angle: Australians are notoriously “cost conscious”, so will they be prepared to pay more for locally-made goods, even if they are better designed, well-made and energy efficient, compared to cheaper, less-sustainable imports? (This is also linked to the question of wage growth and restrictive trade practices.)

The recent pandemic has highlighted some challenges for the structure of the local economy:

  • Disruption to distribution networks and supply chain logistics
  • Food security
  • Energy self-sufficiency
  • Inability to service equipment locally or source spare parts
  • Different standards across the States
  • Medicine and vaccine manufacture, sourcing and distribution

For an up-to-date perspective on where Australian manufacturing policy needs to be heading, I recommend taking a look at the Productivity Commission’s latest submission to a current Senate enquiry. (Am I alone in thinking that the PC, along with the ACCC, is doing more to develop and advance economic policy than our elected representatives?)

The PC’s submission addresses a number of key points:

  • R&D incentives are hampered by complex tax treatment
  • Policies (and subsidies) favouring one industry create uncertainty for others
  • Need for IP reform (especially “fair use” of copyright)
  • The National Interest test needs clarifying
  • More effort on up-skilling through more relevant education and training
  • The role of manufacturing capabilities in supporting supply chain infrastructure

Finally, while I agree that there needs to be some focus on renewable energy and public transport, we should not ignore food and agriculture, bio-tech, IT, automation, robotics, materials science and other high-end capabilities in specialist design, engineering and recycling (including reclaiming precious minerals from obsolete equipment).

(And did I mention the “Innovation Agenda” and the revolving door at the Federal Ministry?)

Next week: Dead Pop Stars

No-code product development

Anyone familiar with product development should recognise the image below. It’s a schematic for a start-up idea I was working on several years ago – for an employee engagement, reward and recognition app. It was the result of a number of workshops with a digital agency covering problem statements, user scenarios, workflow solutions, personas, UX/UI design and back-end architecture frameworks.

At the time, the cost quoted to build the MVP was easily 5-6 figures – and even to get to that point still required a load of work on story boards, wire frames and clickable prototypes….

Now, I would expect the developers to use something like a combination of open-source and low-cost software applications to manage the middle-ware functions, dial-up a basic cloud server to host the database and connect to external APIs, and commission a web designer to build a dedicated front-end. (I’m not a developer, programmer or coder, so apologies for any glaring errors in my assumptions…)

The growth in self-serve SaaS platforms, public APIs and low-cost hosting solutions (plus the plethora of design marketplaces) should mean that a developer can build an MVP for a tenth of the cost we were quoted.

Hence the interest in “low-code/no-code” product development, and the use of modular components or stack to build a range of repetitive, automated and small scale applications. (For a dev’s perspective check out Martin Slaney’s article, and for a list of useful resources see Ellen Merryweather’s post from earlier this year.)

There are obvious limitations to this approach: anything too complex, too custom, or which needs to scale quickly may break the model. Equally, stringing together a set of black boxes/off-the-shelf solutions might not work, if there are unforeseen incompatibilities or programming conflicts – especially if one component is upgraded, and there are unknown inter-dependencies that impact the other links in the chain. Which means the product development process will need to ensure a layer of code audits and test environments before deploying into production.

I was reflecting on the benefits and challenges of hermetically sealed operating systems and software programs over the weekend. In trying to downgrade my operating system (so that I could run some legacy third-party applications that no longer work thanks to some recent systems and software “upgrades”), I encountered various challenges, and it took several attempts and a couple of workarounds. The biggest problem was the lack of anything to guide me in advance – that by making certain changes to the system settings, or configuring the software a certain way, either this app or that function wouldn’t work. Also, because each component (the operating system, the software program and the third party applications) wants to defend its own turf within my device, they don’t always play nicely together in a way that the end user wants to deploy them in a single environment.

App interoperability is something that continues to frustrate when it comes to so-called systems or software upgrades. It feels like there needs to be a specialist area of product development that can better identify, mitigate and resolve potential tech debt, as well as navigate the product development maintenance schedule in anticipation of future upgrades and their likely impact, or understand the opportunities for retrofitting and keeping legacy apps current. I see too many app developers abandoning their projects because it’s just too hard to reconfigure for the latest system changes.

Next week: Telstar!

 

 

 

NGV Triennial

As Melbourne and Victoria continue to emerge from lock-down, it was great to see that the NGV International has re-opened for the summer with the latest edition of its Triennial show. And while we should all be grateful to have the opportunity to visit this exhibition in person (rather than on-line), it’s not without some shortcomings.

Refik Anadol: Quantum Memories (image sourced from NGV website)

First, the good news: no doubt it was a logistical headache to co-ordinate this exhibition while Melbourne was in strict lock-down for much of the past 10 months. Making admission free is also a wonderful public gesture given that the local population was starved of art exhibitions for most of last year – in particular, we missed out on the NGV’s winter blockbuster season.

The curators are also to be commended on assembling a diversity of artists, work and media; and for placing a great number of these new pieces among the NGV’s permanent collections, which forces visitors to assess these contemporary exhibits within the context of historic work.

But that’s probably where the positive ends.

A major drawback of this exhibition is the lack of anything truly ground-breaking, innovative or even challenging. It all felt very safe – but maybe that’s just what we needed after our extended social isolation: work that is comforting, familiar, cozy, cuddly, soothing, and certainly bright (lots of lively colours).

As a result, however, there seemed to be an emphasis of form over substance, technique over content, and scale over context. Much of the three-dimensional work felt flat and one-dimensional. Even the opening centrepiece, Refik Anadol’s “Quantum Memories” that dominates the entrance lobby, is a classic example of the “medium is the message”. Comprising a giant digital screen (incorporating a clever trompe-l’œil 3-D effect) to stream animated, computer-programmed images, ultimately gave the impression that this was all about the technology and the scale of the work. It was difficult to identify any meaning beyond mere decoration.

And unfortunately, “decorative” was a recurring theme, alongside some rather kitsch and lazy imagery – especially the digital and animated wallpaper that featured in several of the permanent galleries. These “displays” reminded me of cheesy son et lumière or pedestrian CGI effects – it may be technically adept, and even stylish to some degree, but that’s as far as it goes. Perhaps “deep” and “complex” are out of favour at the moment, as we make way for “shallow” and “simple”.

While some work might attempt to convey a more profound response, when shorn of its original context, the message is lost and the result is a void. I wasn’t necessarily looking for “deep and meaningful”, but I was hoping to be provoked or inspired. Or at least have my curiosity piqued.

Triennial? Could try harder.

Next week: Expats vs Ingrates?