Living Cities Forum 2019 Melbourne highlights

Held in Melbourne on 23 May at Federation Square, the 2019 edition of Living Cities Forum featured internationally-renowned speakers to address the theme of ‘Future Needs’. In myriad ways and from a range of unique cultural and professional perspectives, the day’s agenda certainly dismantled the realms of past, present and future while investigating how these forces have, do and will shape our lives.

The first and keynote speaker of the day was Glenn Murcutt AO (in conversation with Shelley Penn), whose reputation most definitely precedes him. Arguably the doyen of modern Australian architecture, the crowd listened intently as Glenn elaborated on his work, philosophy and vision for the future.

“One of the most important things to me in practice has always been to do ordinary things, extraordinarily well,” Glenn shared. Certainly, his work falls nothing short of the latter – Glenn’s projects are revered for their environmental-mindedness and distinctly Australian vernacular. Later summarising his architectural approach, Glenn adds: “You can’t have beauty without the rational.”

Citing his status as a sole practitioner as integral to his dynamism, Glenn went on to analyse the failures of urban design. “The most important aspect … is to understand place; to understand place making. For example, one of the great problems in our urban environment is that we’re not understanding the place that we’re working in, we don’t have respect; respect is one of the most important issues. Respect for nature, respect for the landscape, respect for the river, respect for the environment: the sky, the air, the wind, the smells, .. the ‘ings’: … the perceiving, the understanding.”

Where Glenn’s oft-quoted mantra is to ‘touch the earth lightly’, Thailand’s Rachaporn Choochuey of all(zone) ltd presented the concept of “living lightly”. Rachaporn’s work includes taking traditional, abandoned Thai ‘shophouses’ (multi-storey properties with a tenancy/ies above and a shopfront at ground level) and transforming them into thriving homes and workplaces to enact urban revitalisation in Bangkok.

“It [was] an experiment [to see] if you could make this very outdated typology reasonable to live [in],” Rachaporn summarised.

Next up, Christopher Hawthorne shed light on his role as chief design officer for the City of Los Angeles. Formerly the architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, Christopher explained that LA has gone through three architectural periods in recent centuries: now in the “third” phase, the task befalls him to identify “how to nurture civic memory and a sense of place” in the city.

New York-based designer and cultural historian Professor Mabel O. Wilson also alluded to how history informs design responses, noting: “Architects … conceptualise the future, but it’s always in the present and in relation to the past.” Mabel elaborated on her cross-disciplinary work to redress white colonialism, with particular focus on the slavery and oppression of African American people. “In the future, we will need to reckon with the past,” she poignantly concluded. 

Catherine Mosbach, founder of Paris-based design firm mosbach paysagiste, demonstrated how her work strikes relationships between the landscape and those who visit it through intimate understanding of local ecologies and cultures.

The last individual speaker for the day was Dr Adrian Lahoud, Dean of the School of Architecture at the Royal College of Art London. Adrian shared the remarkable story of curating the Sharjah Architecture Triennial and the Ngurrara Canvas – an Indigenous Australian artwork created as evidence of native title claim in Western Australia in the 1990s. The significance of this work as a map of Country, as well as a cultural and historical artefact cannot be captured in words alone. “It’s the embodiment of kin, and the home of ancestors,” Adrian shared. “It is the most unique, multivalent object, the likes of which I’ve never encountered.”

With a such a diverse range of speakers, observations and ideas, it’s safe to say all in attendance left with much to ponder.

Living Cities Forum 2019 will be held in Sydney on Tuesday, 28 May.

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