Thursday, October 01, 2009

2009 Wilkinson Lecture at University of Sydney

Greetings from Law Lecture Theatre 101 at The University of Sydney where Richard Francis-Jones, Design Director of Francis-Jones Morehen Thorp (fjmt) is about to deliver the 2009 Wilkinson Lecture. The topic is "Identity Crisis: Dilution of public domain & the rise of the art museum as urban panacea of our time". This seems to be about museums becoming more commercial, but that should become clear as we go along. There will be a podcast available after the talk and I will provide a link to it.

The Wilkinson Lecture is named in honour of Professor Leslie Wilkinson the architect who was responsible for many of the early campus buildings. Richard Francis-Jones is architect of the new law building at University of Sydney, were the talk is being held.

Mr. Francis-Jones started with a grim monochrome view of the Sydney skyline. He argued that we should not see the commercialisation of the modern city as entirely negative. He then argued that virtual public spaces, such as Iranian Internet protests, were positive. He related this to the boulevards of Paris, which were part design to control protest.

Shopping centres and airports are, argues Mr. Francis-Jones, pseudo public spaces, having the appearance of public but being design for turbo-consumerism. He argues that architects have become enamoured of designing such spaces, which like Dubai, which has no social answer to spiritual needs and becomes a city of consumer junkies in a consumer monoculture.

Mr. Francis-Jones sees the public library and art museum as a bulwarks against the advance of the shopping centre. He used the example of the Blacktown Public Library. He argues that the art museum is the temple of the 21st century city, but while becoming a public brand for the city with a landmark building by a well known architect.

The example used was the "Bilbao Effect" named for the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao by architect Frank Gehry. This one building is credited with boosting the economy of the city and region around it. The Sydney Opera House is a global brand now for Sydney.

Mr. Francis-Jones then attempted to draw a distinction between the artistic integrity of the Sydney Opera House and Bilbao as architecture as sculpture. Is the art building just a "decorated shed"? I think he is on very shaky ground here: the Sydney opera house is not a very functional building and far from just a shed to put art in. Also he seems to forget that a museum building is not a museum, it is a building for some of the artefact's and functions.

The discussion became even more shaky by comparison of buildings with Uluru (Ayers Rock). Uluru is a sacred and supernaturally constructed object to the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara people. To compare this with architecture might be too much like seeing architects as gods.

Mr. Francis-Jones then got onto firmer ground by showing his designs for the extensions to the Auckland Art Gallery (Toi o Tamaki). This will have a floating canopy of kauri. The design has received positive, if sometimes grudging, comments.

One questioner asked if the law library in this new building should be so noisy. The architect argued the library should have different spaces with different acoustic qualities. There are "live " spaces designed for silence and other softer spaces for conversation.

I asked if the western idea of an art museum was too pure. In 2005 I spent a week in Samoa teaching web design to museum staff from across the pacific for a UNESCO project. One aspect of this was that many of the museums represented were commercial and craft workshops. They did not just display old objects and high art, there were contemporary items on display. These museums also held cultural events, with dance and music as well as provided facilities for works to be produced and sold. Mr. Francis-Jones pointed out this was a complex issue and that he illustrated his talks with many art works which were in public spaces, not isolated in galleries.

The host ended the evening by pointing out it was brave for an architect to give a talk in his own building. This was a useful reminder that whatever architects might say, it is by the buildings they build they must be judged. The extensions to the Auckland Art Gallery look interesting, but I am not so sure about the new University of Sydney Law building. Perhaps this is what the client wanted, but it is a huge imposing structure, not on a human scale. From the outside it is not clear how to get into the building, or if there are actually any people in there. Inside the corridors outside the lecture theatres reminded me of a modern railway station, with vast expanses of very wide corridors. I feel very small and isolated, wandering along looking for a toilet.

Lecture theatre 101 was well designed and equipped. I found the pull out table on each seat was just the right size for my netbook, but there were no power points (I had to plug my 3G wireless station into the podium at the front of the room, which the average student could not do). However, it is not clear to me what exactly is supposed to happen in these big rooms: surely the University is not expecting to provide education here?

The University of Sydney Law building reminds me of a 19th century factory building where rows of workers used to labour. New methods of production have been developed which have rendered these buildings obsolete. In the same way new methods of university education have arrived which have rendered large lecture theatres full of rows of students obsolete. It is handy to have a large room for the occasional public oration, but in educational terms this is an obsolete facility.

The university would have been better off with a more human scale (and cheaper) multi purpose building with a flexible learning centre. Rooms with flat floors are adaptable to multiple uses and refurbishment. It is going to be very difficult and expensive to refit the University of Sydney Law building to be used for modern education. It would be a shame to have to demolish a new building, but that might be the most economic option.

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Art museum as urban panacea

Richard Francis-Jones, Design Director of Francis-Jones Morehen Thorp (fjmt) will speak on "Identity Crisis: Dilution of public domain & the rise of the art museum as urban panacea of our time", 1 October 2009, University of Sydney. It is a little had to work out exactly what he will be talked about from the description give, but it seems to be about museums being more commercial.

In 2005 I spent a week in Samoa teaching web design to museum staff from across the pacific for a UNESCO project. One aspect of this was that many of the museums represented were commercial and craft workshops. They did not just display old objects and high art, there were contemporary items on display. These museums also held cultural events, with dance and music as well as provided facilities for works to be produced and sold. In this way they were far in advance of museums and art galleries in Australia, as well as being much more interesting. I ended up learning as much from my students, than they learnt from me.

ps: Francis-Jones Morehen Thorp (fjmt) appear to be having an identity crisis of their own, with a poorly designed web site. This home page depends on the use of Flash, making it of limited value. The web site doesn't appear to have provision for those with Flash to use the web site, nor for those with disabilities. The home page scored only 62/100 on the W3C mobileOK Checker. However, the page appears to consist mostly of a link to Flash content and would be difficult, if not impossible to use without it.

Identity Crisis: Dilution of public domain & the rise of the art museum as urban panacea of our time

1 October 2009

2009 Wilkinson Lectre
Identity Crisis: Dilution of the public domain and the rise of the art museum as urban panacea of our time
RICHARD FRANCIS-JONES, Design Director of francis-jones morehen thorp
Introduced by Professor Alan Peters, Chair of Urban & Regional Planning

Richard Francis-Jones will discuss the nature of the public building as a social representation and fundamental transformations of the public realm within a contemporary condition where identity is blurred with consumption. Within this blurred context he will present recent Francis-Jones Morehen Thorp investigations into the nature of the art museum and public building.

Brief Bio
Richard is the Design Director of francis-jones morehen thorp (fjmt), a practice noted for its commitment to the enhancement of the public domain. He has led the design of many international competition and award-winning projects. Commissions have won the highest Australian Institute of Architects awards: the Sir Zelman Cowen Award for Public Buildings; the Sir John Sulman Medallion; the Lloyd Rees Award for Excellence in Civic Design; the Lachlan Macquarie Award for Heritage; and the Greenway Award for Conservation.

Recent completed projects led by Richard include the University of Sydney Law School, the Surry Hills Library and Community Centre, and the Mint. Projects currently in construction include the Auckland Art Gallery, Chatswood Civic Place and the six GreenStar Darling Walk commercial campus.

Richard is a Visiting Professor at UNSW and has taught architecture at many universities in Australia and abroad. He is an editor of Content, a critical journal of architecture, has written theoretical papers for several journals, was President of the AIA (NSW Chapter) from 2001-2002, and was Creative Director of the 2008 AIA National Architecture Conference: Critical Visions.

He studied architecture at the University of Sydney, receiving the University Medal for Architecture upon graduation. He subsequently completed a masters degree in architectural design and theory at Columbia University in New York. He is a registered architect in all Australian states and New Zealand.

Time: 5.30pm drinks, 6.30-7.30pm lecture

Location: Faculty of Law Lecture Theatre 101, The University of Sydney

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Tsunami warning and response for Samoa

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre detected a magnitude 7.9 earthquake in the Samoa Islands region at 1748Z 29 September 2009. In response a Tsunami Warning and Watch was issued 16 minutes later at 1804Z (Bulletin 1). In all 11 messages were issued, the last being 0501Z 30 September 2009. The centre issued messages for both Hawaii and the Pacific.

Due to the closeness of the earthquake to Samoa and limitations in the technology available, the warning message was issued 5 minutes after the predicted arrival time of the Tsunami (1759Z) at the first population centre, Pago Pago in American Samoa.

The centre issues warnings to national authorities and there is then a delay while local authorities decide if, and how, to warn the public.
At best only 11 minutes warning could have been provided (assuming instantaneous detection, analysis and alert). Telecommunications systems can provide a warning within one minute.

The warning was also forwarded by email by UNESCO to the Interim Indian Ocean warning system mailing list. This message was dated Tue, 29 Sep 2009 18:04:43 GMT. It was received from UNESCO approximately three minutes later by the mail system and a summary by SMS via Vodafone Australia within one minute.

Samoa uses a system of sirens and church bells to the warn the population of Tsunami. The USA has a system of "NOAA Weather Radio" which issues automated warnings. There is a NOAA transmitter in American Samoa, located in Pago Pago.

During a visit to Samoa in 2005 to teach web design for UNESCO, I noticed that while a national digital telephone network had not yet been installed, there was a limited private GSM service (a similar service existed in Tonga). There were proposals for a GSM network in Samoa in 2007, but it is not clear how this has progressed. The significance of these networks is that they provide the SMS and SMS cell broadcast networks, which could be used to issue emergency warnings.

129/09/09 18:03Expanding Regional Warning
229/09/09 18:05Watch Statement
329/09/09 18:54Expanding Regional Warning Supplement
429/09/09 18:57Watch Supplement Statement
529/09/09 20:21Expanding Regional Warning Supplement
629/09/09 20:23Watch Cancellation Statement
729/09/09 21:34Expanding Regional Warning Cancellation
830/09/09 01:58Advisory Statement
930/09/09 03:03Advisory Supplement Statement
1030/09/09 03:57Advisory Supplement Statement
1130/09/09 05:01Final Advisory Statement

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