Graduation address given by Vince Sorrenti

Vince Sorrenti gave the occasional address at the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning and the Sydney College of the Arts graduation ceremony held at 11.30am on 30 November 2007.

Mr Sorrenti was introduced by the Chancellor, Her Excellency Professor Marie Bashir, as follows:

"Our speaker today is Vince Sorrenti, who I am sure is well known to many of you.

When asked, Mr Sorrenti described himself as ‘a comic and a speaker’, and when you look through the list of his engagements and creative output, you can not but agree. His versatility has seen him presiding at Eddie McGuire’s birthday party and commentating for Channel 7 at this year’s Rugby World Cup.

It is well said that humour is no laughing matter. Indeed Mr Sorrenti’s screenplay for the documentary ‘No Laughing Matter’ won a gold medal at the New York Film Festival. He starred in it, playing all seven characters. Humour is hard work and it is not too fanciful to maintain that he has been greatly assisted by the training and discipline that must have attached to one who graduated Bachelor of Science (Architecture) and Bachelor of Architecture in this University.

Mr Sorrenti, welcome back to your University. We are delighted that you can be here today and we are very much looking forward to your graduation address."

Vince Sorrenti

The above photo of Vince Sorrenti giving the occasional address is copyright Memento Photography.

Graduation address

I always wanted to be an Architect. It seemed like the logical and legitimate thing to do. As the son of Italian immigrants it seemed like it was the obvious profession for the next generation. Many of my dad’s generation worked in the building industry. Being a builder’s labourer was often the first job of new arrivals. Building was an abnormal pre occupation for most of the extended family. Most hands you shook were rough and hardened by plastering. Cement, bricks and sand were everywhere.

Almost everyone we knew was perpetually renovating and extending their homes. None of them it seemed was comfortable living in the good parts of their homes which remained spotlessly clean and off limits to all except a Papal delegation. Instead they would live in the extremities of their home. They would add on a verandah, then they would enclose that verandah, install a kitchen and dining room and spend most of their time there. Before too long they would add a verandah onto that part of the house. Some homes almost doubled in size.

The obsession with hard materials like brick, stone, and especially concrete has haunted me all my life. Hard materials were a measure of success in the new country. They were strong and permanent. One uncle of mine who had built himself a double brick and concrete fortress would boast that they could drop a “bomba atomica” on my house and I still be here! Most of these simple folks had rural backgrounds. They had been slaves to the land since birth. For them being able to concrete over the front lawn and backyard was a profound statement.

Yes I thought, architecture would be a good fit for me. I could acknowledge my cultural heritage and not get plaster on my hands and paint in my hair. But there was a lot more about studying Architecture that appealed to me. It seemed a good thing to do if you had no idea what you really wanted to do. It was probably the only creative thing one could study at University. Medicine didn’t offer too many creative ways to remove an appendix and Law seemed about as creative as chewing cud. I suppose writing and fine art were creative but Architecture also had the appeal of being six years long. Six years! I could stuff around until I was in my mid 20s before deciding what I wanted to do.

Architecture also had the huge advantage of having a famous Revue. Many talented people had started their showbiz careers in these revues. Maybe that was what I really wanted to do. My old school, Bankstown Boys High certainly didn’t present any opportunities for theatrical aspirants. The closest we came to a performance space at Bankstown Boys was a concrete and brick basketball court which was so austere that had it housed prisoners it would have come to the attention of the International Human Rights Convention.

Clearly, the appeal of studying Architecture for me was the range of possibilities that it offered. Even now 20 plus years after my own graduation ceremony I look back on my time on this campus as a great all round education. I fervently believe that graduates of Architecture can do almost anything such is the breadth and depth of their understanding. Where else do you learn to synthesise so much information from such a variety of fields and creatively produce solutions. I earnestly engage every graduate I meet from the faculty of architecture. I’m invigorated by their minds. We clearly perceive the world with uncommon clarity and intuition. Believe me, you guys are light years ahead of anyone who graduates from a tertiary institution. Have pity on the rest. They’ll never know what you know.

I am of course a spectacular failure as an Architect. I’ve often said to my audiences that they are a lot safer watching me on stage than living in one of my buildings. As many in this space would recall, I was not an even an outstanding student of architecture. In fact I was a bloody pest, a nuisance, and a torment to the staff of the faculty most of whom I’m sure fervently prayed I would find my niche in life elsewhere and leave the profession alone. I was a student with ADD. I couldn’t resist doing anything. In my six years here I played rugby, organised social events, participated heavily in the Revue, made short films, marched in student protests, and moonlighted as a stand-up comic. The fact that I graduated at all, came as an incredible shock to me and no doubt a great relief to the long suffering staff.

I’ve probably spent my whole life trying things and failing at them. It’s a magnificent concept failure, and I ask you all here today to embrace it, hang on to it and love it because failure is your passport to success. I was ear marked for it at an early age. I grew up in a part of Sydney better known for it’s crime rate than anything else. My parents had primary school educations in another language and culture, I didn’t speak English when I started school. I was short sighted, un athletic, and astonishingly have never been offered a modelling contract. When I boil it all down, being a comic is the only thing I have NOT failed at. It is the only job I have had where someone has not tapped me on the shoulder and suggested that I move on. I’ve lost track of the number of ways I’ve proven myself to be mediocre or totally rubbish.

One of my favourite quotes from the world of showbiz is by Noel Coward, who once said “success is a measure of your ability to absorb failure.” If you can deal with having that door slammed in your face time after time and still come back for more, you will succeed. Succumbing to the fear of failure – that’s what will do you in. The fear of trying anything different or new. The fear of extending yourself, testing your ability, or challenging the perception that others have of you. That is what will guarantee you never amount to anything.

The fear of failure is my constant companion. I have to deal with it every day. Stand up comedy is the extreme deep end of showbiz. It’s different from being on TV or in a band, or in a big film or stage production. You are alone. When the audience doesn’t like you, They don’t like YOU. When I walk off stage I don’t remove the Dame Edna wig, or sign a different name in my cheque book. For good or bad I’m stuck with me wherever I go. It’s very confronting. It’s potentially horrible and it’s potentially absolutely bloody fantastic.

Architecture for different reasons is equally polarizing. You are building a big ridiculously expensive edifice that could stand there for hundreds of years. You can get it very right and you can get it very wrong. There is no more powerful manifestation of civilisation, no greater human imprint on our planet, than architecture. Baboons rub their scent on trees, we build skyscrapers. There’s not a lot of difference.

Author and critic Clive James once said, “Poetry is so important, you shouldn’t be allowed to make a living out of it.” I think we can extend that sentiment to Architecture. How can this ministry be at all governed or corrupted by greed. It should idealistically be the domain of the incredibly gifted who are then entitled to all the wealth they can muster. This is how it was in the Renaissance of course. When masters of art earned fabulous commissions from the church and the elite to produce great works of art and buildings. Today, however, too many of us have wealth, and not enough of us have taste. Harry Trigabof is not Lorenzo Di Medici. It puts people like you in a precarious position, and is no doubt the single most unsettling aspect of the profession.

Let me quote someone else on the matter, my father in law Mick Hornsby, a live stock auctioneer from Denniliquin. Mick reckons, and excuse the bad grammar, that if you had all good customers, you wouldn’t have many bloody customers. Do you put your life on hold for a dream commission? Do you raise a family in squalor because you refused to design a high rise steel and glass tower on Hamilton Island? If you were offered 30 pieces of silver to design a suburb of McMansions what would you do? You’d never have to look at them. You could build your beautiful home in Vaucluse, send your kids to good schools, cover your walls with indigenous art, and plant Wolombi Pines in your sculptured garden. You could have your solar panels, and hybrid car, and carbon neutral nose air clippers. Whilst out in the far flung wasteland of our suburbs the great unwashed live in 3 storey, air conditioned, full brick boxes with no eaves, no backyard, and no hope of ever paying it off. Modern society offers a strange definition of success.

It’s probably not what you want to hear today, but it’s something I feel I have to say. I say it as an insider and I say it as an objective outsider - Architecture, as a profession is in it’s death throws. There is not the respect for architects that they deserve. Other professions haven’t suffered like yours. You wouldn’t ask a butcher to take out your appendix, but the average has no problem asking draftsmen or land valuers to design their homes.

I don’t offer any solutions except to say that the only people who can change it are you. I would love to see respect return to the profession. In my opinion Architects are the best educated people in society. They should be regarded amongst the most important members of our society, not rated somewhere between real estate speculators and sex workers. Clients should defer to designers with reverence, and not just see you as a necessary evil or a mere compliance tool. The future holds great potential and opportunity for this profession and this generation of graduates are in the box seat. The world is changing, and in the not too distant future our sensibilities are going to be heavily confronted and challenged. We will need you. See you then. In the meantime, have someone to love, have something to do, and have something to look forward to you. Congratulations and thank you for having me here today.