Architecture as a social art

Volume 7 Number 2 February 14 - March 13 2011

Edward Couper in India, July 2010, where he worked with Annat Raj, one of the biggest construction firms in Delhi. He is the only Australian in the semi-finals of the 2011 Berkley Prize, competing with students from 11 other countries to take the top prize to be announced in April.
Edward Couper in India, July 2010, where he worked with Annat Raj, one of the biggest construction firms in Delhi. He is the only Australian in the semi-finals of the 2011 Berkley Prize, competing with students from 11 other countries to take the top prize to be announced in April.

The smallest act of building can have global implications, says Edward Couper, the only Australian in the semi-finals of the 2011 Berkley Prize. By David Scott.

Very often architecture is perceived as something physical or tangible, be it the shape of a house or the type of glass used in an office high-rise. However as third year Bachelor of Environments student Edward Couper points out, this simplistic view overlooks just how complex the design of the built environment actually is.

“I am slightly concerned for the current recognition of architects and the necessary role they play in our built environment.  With only five per cent of buildings now built by architects – those who are trained to deal with the livability of our cities, towns and social spaces, the essential transdisciplinarity of design and sustainable practices – I think we need to question the relevance of the typical current output of building and its suitability to both our lives and the environment.”

The broader role architects can play beyond constructions of mere bricks and mortar is a theme Edward is exploring in the 13th Annual Berkley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence. Centered on the role design can play in the social, cultural and psychological life of individuals and society at large, the competition this year encouraged students to consider the value of what is sacred in our built environment and how we can preserve it.

For Edward, that meant examining Victoria’s historic Point Nepean area. “Within the site there lies such a rich natural history of our country. From the ancient rocky shores, to the aboriginal birthing grounds, and the recent defense barracks and quarantine station, with over a hundred brilliantly preserved buildings.

“It’s the place where the early ships would pass one of the most treacherous stretches of water to reach what was once the capital of the country, and the location where a Prime Minister disappeared without a trace.”

“It seems that Point Nepean has always been associated with power or the struggle for power; power over the natural elements, the coming of the early white settlers, the practice ground for soldiers, a place for new arrivals or the ill and more recently the power struggle between the government, environmentalists and locals over plans to sell off parts of the site.

“It stands as a beacon of our past, and its accessibility to all as well as its preservation is vital as our city expands.”

The only Australian in the semi-finals of the competition, Edward is competing with students from 11 other countries to take the top prize announced in April. Before then there’s another essay to write, building on feedback from the competition assessors, on how Point Nepean can be preserved through greater use and accessibility. While acknowledging it’s a challenge to describe designs and their relevance with minimal sketches and drawing, Edward says the essay format has allowed him a degree of freedom to explore other themes.

“Words can enable us to reach a deeper meaning and share the different kinds of knowing – be it that of the aboriginal people, the bureaucracies, or that of the environmentalists, scientists or local residents – that lies beneath the social fabric of architecture.   Such conversations, active participation and engagement of stakeholders can only lead to a better understanding and improved reasoning all round, and enable us to make better decisions in the design process.

 “It’s exciting and I’ll do my best – for the site.”

http://www.berkeleyprize.org/