Finalist 2021

House of the Victorian Government Architect

Alessandro Castiglioni / Michael Spooner, RMIT University

What if governance was in the hands of architects and designers instead of lawyers and economists?

The ‘House of the Victorian Government Architect’ is a thought experiment exploring the consequences of a perversion of the relationship between architecture and governance. It uses worldbuilding techniques to frame an unreality where architecture and politics merge into a fictional government body in charge of legislative architecture.

A technocratic architects’ government finds legitimacy through a holistic redevelopment of the parliamentary precinct in Melbourne. Oblique axes are pulled from the colliding urban grids and the surrounding architectures to sculpt Parliament Hill, giving form to a geological architecture where infrastructure, landscape, interior and heritage collapse into one.

Design Brief

The design brief was developed independently in the context of RMIT University's Major Project framework. In consultation with a supervisor, the student is expected to put forward a research question to be investigated through a design proposition.

The brief established by the 'House of the Victorian Government Architect' was to challenge the design disciplines' traditional boundaries and provoke debate around how governance is currently structured.

By offering a window into an alternative reality where politics is a subject matter of design and critique, the project advocates for design and architecture to contribute more significantly to the realm of decision-making.

Whereas the architectural outcome is specific to the Parliamentary Precinct in Melbourne, the fictocritical framework of the project was designed to offer a commentary independent of the context, allowing a formally specific, however, universally applicable work of design.

This project was developed by:

Design Process

The research question of the established brief is explored through a design proposition that includes both a restructuring of the parliamentary system and an architectural project.

A sequence of genealogical maps, inspired by the mapping of Dante's 'Divine Comedy', and a counter-historical timeline, are used as tools to redraw the Victorian parliamentary directory. Then, through a series of escalations of power, the relationship between architects and government is perverted by establishing a third apolitical house.

Sitting between the Upper House and the Lower House, the House of the Victorian Government Architect (HVGA) is set up as a leading government authority in charge of legislative architecture, the architecture of decision-making.

The architectural project emerges to legitimize the shift from a bicameral, oppositional and bipartisan parliamentary system to a tricameral, technocratic and apolitical architecture of governance. In the same way that the new parliamentary directory tilts the balance of power towards a non-binary middle ground, the oblique is adopted as a tool to define a non-cartesian architectural language.

The masterplan draws in the city's axes of power and redirects them towards the new architecture of governance. Parliament Hill is sculpted through oblique axial gestures, which carve out a geological architecture where the building is both landscape and infrastructure. The city is captured into the hill and finds its way from the urban to the interior. The hill is the building, and the building is the hill.

Design Excellence

The design of the ‘House of the Victorian Government Architect’ argues for the responsibility of architects towards the city to stitch together rather than fragment the urban fabric.

The axial geological approach and the oblique create a solid and singular design language that allows the resolution of the project at all scales, from landscape to the interiors. The sculpting gestures stitch together the different systems of the city and provoke a reconciliation between Parliament House, Parliament Hill, and the surrounding architectures of power, such as St Patrick’s Cathedral, the Treasury Precinct, and ICI House.

This act of formal and spatial reconciliation becomes essential to define the civic quality of the project. The relationship between the city and the citizen is formalized through an architecture that recycles and renews the urban fabric. While the formal composition results from a projection of existing and familiar urban axes, the oblique language draws attention to the architecture, making the citizen aware of the shift in governance hierarchies.

In the context of an institutional civic project such as the ‘House of the Victorian Government Architect’, design excellence is framed as the ability of space and form to always exist in relation to the surrounding context while providing unusual qualities that may cause heightened spatial awareness to the citizen.

Design Innovation

The main contribution of the ‘House of the Victorian Government Architect’ towards the design field consists of its hybrid framework.

Academic architectural projects have previously inhabited the field of speculative design fiction; however, the project introduces themes and infrastructures typical of worldbuilding practices in film, literature, and video games.

As a fictocritical work of speculative design and socio-political satire, the project situates itself within a blurred genre where both design and storytelling acquire a primary role. Maps, timelines, and genealogy are used to build the narrative framework and imagine a critical unreality. Consequently, design becomes the vessel through which that narrative manifests itself formally, visually, and physically into the imagined world.

The hybrid framework of the project is also what allows the design process to emerge. Critical contextualism and axial urban planning have always existed in the realm of architecture. However, the design innovation lies in how these ideas have been exaggerated in their impact on the site.

The projection of every surrounding urban axis meticulously cuts through the site and is instrumentalized to create the formal outcome, generating an architecture that could not have been preconceived nor devised prior to establishing the project site and infrastructure.

Through an oblique and manual, however almost algorithmic, carving process, a geological architecture reminiscent of ancient infrastructure is presented as the aesthetic for a new apolitical institution.

Design Impact

The 'House of the Victorian Government Architect' presents ideas from different architectural schools of thought, and it plays with genres from other disciplines. However, the project's core message is about designers' contribution to the realm of governance.

The creation of a Parliamentary House for a Victorian Government Architect takes to the extreme the idea of Victoria as a Design State. It speculates on what a government could look like if politicians had to respond to critique processes similar to the ones of design reviews.

The building of the House of the Victorian Government Architect sits on the powerful Bourke Street axis, mediating between the architecture of Parliament House and St Patrick's Cathedral. The positioning of the building presents architects as mediators, and its architecture reminds of their ability to synthesize disparate inputs into a coherent and singular output. Thus, design is finally recognized as synthesis and not only aesthetics.

Rather than a proposition for the future, the 'House of the Victorian Government Architect' is a thought experiment putting forward a critical reality that allows a review of our present reality. The question remains: is the world presented here a utopia or a dystopia?

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