Ken Woolley – six decades of architectural innovation

The speech given by Ken Woolley AM (BArch (Hons) ’55) one of Australia’s most distinguished architects and three-time University medallist, on the occasion of the award of Doctor of Science in Architecture (honouris causa) on April 16, 2010, in the Great Hall.

I would like us to think about this room, this great Hall. I doubt that anyone present is not moved by it. This is real architecture and as such it represents our culture – the many layers and expressions of culture over time – from its medieval origin, its revival in the 18th and 19th centuries and now our heritage conservationist attitude to the Gothic style. It is no more beautiful and depending on your values, arguably less so, than some other great secular buildings of history. But it is a great piece of architecture because it was - and is, purposeful. While stimulating our sense of history and treating our senses with the beauty of materials, craftsmanship, sculpture and decoration – subtly lit, insinuatingly tactile and spacious of sound – it is actually securing all of us from the physical distractions of the world outside. It is a place in which a ceremony with hundreds of people can be conducted. If it couldn’t do that well – perform its purpose – it would be diminished as architecture. That is what distinguishes architecture as an art from all the others. It is a balance between performing its purpose and being a powerful, creative art that defines the spaces of civilisation, at whatever quality it is produced.

Ken Woolley

It is 60 years since I sat my first examination in this room, at the age of 17. This University transformed my life completely. I was so entranced by finding something I could do – in a place that embodied it with the buildings of Blacket, Vernon and Wilkinson – that it is a wonder I ever left. But what might have been expected of me as an academic career was thwarted by my willing seduction into the life of designing and building things myself; an ambition that is rarely gratified with such early effect.

The great thing about youth is that you can believe you will eventually get a go at everything. The eventuality is that you may at least get to say something about your beliefs. So, in the spirit of Jean Jacques Rousseau (“You do not need to know this but I need to tell you”) I offer the following …

It is a caution that the words “design” and “architecture” are not synonymous. Despite all the technology, social service, scientific design and sustainability, architecture is an art and is distinguished by its concern with aesthetics. The others are tools – techniques – the medium in which the art is practised.

People care about how our cities, our buildings and spaces look, and feel. Generally expressing disapproval. Quite rightly they think those other practical things ought to be taken care of within the process. Architecture is the aesthetics of shelter, the sense of purpose. Architecture employs design techniques, like a number of other activities in which aesthetics have a part. But all design outcomes in buildings, good or bad, are not necessarily part of its architecture. Design is a process, often involving depiction, drawings and prescriptions.

Buildings are erected by processes. Judged in the balancing act between performance and art, architecture is the intention for buildings and their interacting spaces that they be measured aesthetically. And while one should be cautious about describing all buildings as architecture, it is rare that no attempt, however feeble, has been made to decide how a building is to impart its sense of purpose, in addition to how it will work. But more attention should be given to the higher ground, where mediocre, pretentious architecture is made to meet short-term, commercial fashion.

Nevertheless, the creation of architectural concepts is commonly called design. A design is an idea developed through a series of decisions about alternative courses of progress. Most are made from ranking the various design alternatives in importance for the requirements of the project and selecting each step in balance with the enhancement of the original creative idea and its descendents. There is a serious dilemma present in these decisions, whenever the advancement of the artistic aspect involves detracting from the purpose of the project.

Architects are almost never engaged on the basis that they are to achieve a supreme work of art, on the understanding that the use of the building is of lesser importance and is to be the variable factor. Quite the contrary, the expectation of the architecture is that it should accompany the production of a building for a well-defined purpose – that justifies the cost of building it. The architecture is to transcend the pragmatic limitations, to achieve an artistic vision without loss of its raison d’être.

Artists in other fields take the same steps except that, by definition, their work is not intended for use; performance perhaps, which is interpretation, but not use. Artworks are for provoking thoughtful admiration and are accompanied by an opportunity to trade in their possession. It is often convenient for the interested, but non-paying, onlookers of any artistic enterprise to prioritise the forward looking, inspirational, culturally progressive values. But meanwhile scorning respect for any practical, pragmatic and functional issues, which they see as conservative and backward looking. The assumption is that the latter should always give way to the former. The great irony is that the foundation philosophy of modern architecture – albeit simplistic, rarely achieved and probably impossible – was that form follows function. That is not to argue for functional determinism, but it is incontestable that a building should perform the activity for which it is intended.

Any architect with ideas recognises the dilemma. To follow the path of the autonomous artist, indifferent to the restraint of duty and obligations, should not be an alternative. The nature of architecture is to build for other people. The duties come with the job. The pursuit of the art of architecture requires transcending the limitations of duty, not ignoring them. Yet, so often, the rationale offered by architects, while deluding themselves, is that all their decisions are being made on functional grounds.

Ultimately you must accept the principle that the end should never justify the means. Undeniably, the aim of any project is to avoid that when it is in prospect, but in hindsight any failure to have kept to the principle undermines the achievement. Those shortcomings usually seek justification by claiming that a novel style, a technical innovation or a so-called icon has been achieved, although that had not been the intention.

When I see this new generation going out to give contest, or staying in to give thought dedicated to the complexities of our art and to teach it, I wonder whether it is harder or easier than it was 55 years ago? I do know that it is different in detail, and proportions, but is a similar endeavour. We are still trying to build well – so as to meet the purpose of those who pay for the buildings, to provide for their needs – and we strive to control this process, such that the result embodies our art.

I suppose one of the differences now is that this more complex society, its diverse technology and hyper-production, all demand more individual specialisation. I hope that those who go into the avenues of technology, science, law and management as related to architecture, will maintain the understanding that it is all part of the performance of buildings for which the expectation of our community is that they be beautiful. We must not lose sight of that obligation and should remain aware that it is not automatic. No technique is intrinsically aesthetic. Science is not art.

These are human judgments of serious contemplation, deeply interlocked with, and dependent on, cultural values.