Two of How Soon Is Now’s creative directors, Sam Spurr and Ben Hewett, joined us at Parsec Cafe for a long chat to discuss Morrissey and Bowie — before engaging in what role the conference can have in forming questions and provocations on the transformative power of architecture.
We begin the interview in the midst of a discussion on a newly revealed fact; the creative directors will be introducing speakers to the conference stage with songs sourced from a curated playlist. It’s a kernel of a thesis that develops into something more revealing…
The interview begins in mid-conversation.
Ben: Originally we wanted to call the conference Where Are We Now? Because it’s a David Bowie Song (and we are obsessed with David Bowie). But then we felt that the song was a little depressing.
Athanasios: But Where Are We Now? is a song about place, isn’t it?
Sam: It is.
Ben: And we thought “that’s okay, we’ll still use that.”
Athanasios: But the conference title arrived on How Soon Is Now, which is referencing Morrissey.
Ben: It’s not about Morrissey — I mean, it is, but it’s not — it’s Morrissey and the Smiths, but the Smith’s first.
That song is nothing without Johnny Marr’s guitar right?
Athanasios: I know where I stand in that argument.
Ben: Oh come on It’s all about the guitar riff. That guitar riff is amazing!
HNIS: It’s about how Morrissey dances when he sings it!
Athanasios: That is important. He’s working off that riff though, and without that riff you couldn’t dance like that.
Ben: At this stage the conference was still titled “Where Are We Now?”, and that’s a more literal question. However we still thought “that’s a depressing song, let’s go with an upbeat song; an amazing song in How Soon Is Now and it would get everyone in the mood.”
When we were on stage at last year’s conference, Risk, to be announced as the Creative Directors and to announce the conference itself, it felt right to be introduced with that song.
Sam: But It’s also about the future condition.
Ben: How Soon Is Now is a bit looser in its theme, yet more precise. It’s saying “actually, let’s not just talk about where we are now, let’s talk about the future, and how we are dealing with it now, and how soon is now is now!”
The intent is to not talk about the future as something that we are never going to arrive at.
Athanasios: Isn’t the premise of How Soon Is Now a type of departure point for a process?
Sam: The complexity of the idea of time is what is key. Going back briefly to the music for a moment, we can think of the Bowie song as about memory and place. Where Are We Now? is about the shifting relation between a contemporary condition and a past condition (as you can see in the Tony Oursler video), and what we wanted and what we realised as we went on in that kind of nostalgic notion of place — which has been interesting — is that it has been utilised by architects ad-nauseam.
We are instead interested in something that looks to the future and understands the way an architect can speculate and envision future conditions — and how that is understood in terms of its own contemporaneity. We were more interested in that type of complex scenario.
Athanasios: For me that is a question about action. Within these conferences there is always a debate who and what are they for. Are they for Architects and about the profession (and gaining CPD points in the process), or are they more broadly about architecture without a specified audience. I take it if you are referencing Bowie and The Smiths and the ways the songs reference distinctively architectural notions such as place and time, I’m assuming this conference is intended for a broader audience beyond the profession?
Ben: In an ideal world, maybe, but we couldn’t do this unless we understood it was for a particular kind of audience. This is Australian Institute of Architect members paying for the Institute to host a conference for them to be challenged and inspired. In terms of who the audience could be we wanted to make it broader than just Architects, but to get non-architects along to an architecture conference is actually quite a hard thing to do. Instead, I think what we were able to do, hopefully, was to make the conversation relevant beyond the discipline. And in turn this would help the discipline position itself in a broader reach.
Sam: What’s important for us is that we don’t see it simply as just the conference. We are trying to explore a set of ideas. In many ways we have a set of ambitions that is no less than the transformation of the profession on a global and national context. The conference is a way to start that conversation with an incredible wealth of intelligence that is both international and national, from which we can set up some arguments and questions and provocations which continue beyond that. It’s the opportunity of the conference that lets us do that.
Ben: It’s a moment in time where we can bring people together in a way that you can’t do otherwise. It’s about making sure we capture the moving of discussions onward, and that it doesn’t just exist and then finish. That there is something else beyond the event itself.
Athanasios: You’re trying to take the discourse somewhere?
Ben: That’s why it’s a question as a title. We don’t know the answer. Our role is to bring people together and to set up a text, an environment, a framework or a structure or whatever you want to call it, to allow that group of amazing people to have a conversation and to engage with that question — and for it to be emergent rather than constrained or preconceived.
Athanasios: How important is the physical hub for a collective conversation. How is Adelaide going to influence the discourse in any particular manner?
Sam: Absolutely. It was a really important part of our original premise for the conference and it has continued as a key factor both in how we talk about ideas and contextualise those ideas within the local context.
Ben: And the way we have conceived of it, which is a more open platform for discussion. Certainly the experience I had in Adelaide was quite extraordinary in terms of being able to have open ended conversations about fundamentally social policy. I think that’s kind of extraordinary. We pitched that to the institute — building on Adelaide’s tradition of this outlook — and how we can leverage that seemed obvious as an approach.
And to the original question, how important is a physical hub to a collective conversation, that was the other fundamental premise, we said ‘what is a contemporary conference?’. If you go to the web and look up anybody speaking, or a website and see images, then you kind of don’t really need to go to see a lecture of people presenting their buildings. But what you don’t get from the web is people in a room talking and working off each other with a degree of performance — because they are in front of other people — an audience, and a sense of participation about it. And ideas formed out of those moments. We really wanted to create that, hence the structure of the conference.
Athanasios: And that program structure contains a lot of verbs like ‘transforming populations’ and ‘advocating futures’ — and advocacy in architecture is very prominent this year with Aravena directing the Venice Biennale — and also in light of that, the speaker mix is an interesting mix of thinkers, practitioners and policy professionals. What motivated the framing of the topics against the speakers?
Sam: The original idea we had was to try to think about the core idea of architectural agency. We wanted to try to understand how architects are participating in global transformations. In order to do that, we thought about what are the kind of key, global transformations around the world. What are the key forces that are at play, and then how are architects participating in real and active ways. The response to the complaint that architects are continually being marginalized in the profession is continually being pushed aside, is in some ways untrue. I think there are many architects working in productive ways throughout the world across different scales and practices.
We came up with quite a few of these different transformations; cultural, social, economic — and then it was really important in terms of developing those based on who was coming to speak. We had a wealth of different conversations, some with people who are coming to the conference and some with others who were never going to come, but whom were very happy to have engaging conversations with us in order to develop what those thematics or starting points could be.
Athanasios: In particular, those four themes [building resilience, advocating futures, transforming populations, creating equity] emerged out of conversations. We started off saying to people, when they said to us “what do you mean by how soon is now?” we literally said “we want to know how the discipline of architecture is dealing with tomorrows problems today.” For the reasons that Sam just elaborated on, we are sick of the profession complaining about with the complex, lets just talk about what we are doing with some confidence. We know what those big things are which are happening in the world that we constantly hold off as future problems and which we don’t actually address, like aging populations. We know that rate is changing particularly in Australia where it’s going to cause problems and the proportion of the health budget as it is will soon overtake the rest of government budgets. Where housing and living is becoming more affordable, and cities are becoming less equitable. These kinds of things that we all commonly know, that’s what we mean and what we are saying to our potential speakers and the people that we were having these conversations with. And out of that we kind of realised that we had some fairly clear themes that we need to frame this bigger question with to have some more targeted conversations.
The other parts are trying to give a launch pad, such as Sustainability and Innovation, Culture and Development.
Athanasios: I’ll end with a question on Adelaide, which lately has been going through a very public design transformation. A mix of both prominent developments such as Adelaide Oval, the Riverbank precinct and Tonsley, offset by new policy in allowing small bars to open which activated a lot of the laneways. Now that you have arrived in Adelaide for the conference, what projects do you think best represent the city?
Ben: I think you have actually just hit on them. All the projects that you mentioned, were first starting to be discussed in 2009/2010. It shows you how long things take, how many people need to be involved, and how many disciplines need to be involved in bringing these things to life. I find it really exciting knowing some of those from the inside and then seeing what it means now. One of the things I remember, the civic conversations we had, these 5000+ forums, so many of the ideas that we are seeing take shape now came up in those forums. And I’m not saying that the integrated Design Commission owned those ideas, I’m saying the commission hosted the conversations where Adelaide people — from government, from industry, from academia, form practice, from NGO’s and from the community — came up with these ideas together, saw a need and opportunity and described how they might take effect. For me it’s really exciting to see those ideas now, in place, and the difference it makes to the city.