August 2023

Noted

Aaron Peters and Stuart Vokes’ ‘Migrations from Memory’

By David Neustein
Cover of ‘Migrations from Memory’
A slender and witty volume from Brisbane architects presents ways to combat the city’s supersized houses and disconnection from the streets

“Learning from the existing landscape is a way of being revolutionary for an architect,” wrote Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi (with Steven Izenour) in their seminal 1972 book Learning from Las Vegas. While other American architects had their eyes set on the exotic piazzas and palazzos of Europe, Scott Brown and Venturi chose to sift through the kitsch of the Vegas Strip for ideas relevant to an era of billboards, highways and urban sprawl.

It’s easy to go elsewhere for inspiration; much harder to look at your own backyard and see the landscape amid the weeds. Stuart Vokes and Aaron Peters, of Brisbane architectural practice Vokes and Peters, are diligent and insightful observers of their local context. Their small and slender volume Migrations from Memory (Canalside Press) records these observations in a series of short essays and conversations, with contributions by its publisher, London architect Patrick Lynch, and fellow Brisbane architect Brit Andresen.

“In Brisbane’s historical inner suburbs,” writes Peters, “collective space pools loosely between inconstant, shifting frontages, leaks in the margins beneath buildings and spills freely into driveways between unit blocks. Distant vistas slip in and out of view over pointy tin roofs and open up at street intersections where ridge roads fall away across undulating terrain.” Rambling, low rise and predominantly suburban, Brisbane frustrates the architects’ search for civic decorum but also generates a greater appreciation for the qualities of informality, openness and ambiguity.

In one essay, Peters writes evocatively about a tiny and spare street-front space he recalls from a visit to Jodhpur, India (a city with about seven times the population density of his own). “Brisbane doesn’t allow us to replicate this room,” he laments. Vokes and Peters describe an ongoing struggle against local planning codes that push dwellings away from the road, and the trend towards supersized new houses equipped with media rooms and trophy kitchens, double-car garages and tall boundary fences. To counter the inwardness and atomisation of the suburbs, the pair have been honing an extensive repertoire of architectural elements that foster connection with the street, neighbours and surroundings: expressive verandahs, porticos, colonnades, pergolas, bay windows, screens and lattices, garden walls, front steps, outdoor lamps and arbours.

“Stu and I have found ourselves drawn to the edges, the territories between the room and the broader setting, including the street, the garden, and neighbouring houses,” writes Peters. In these collected essays there is a definite sense that the (built) world is not actually getting better with time, and that architecture’s role is to repair the rift between an outmoded age of manners and modesty, found in old Queenslander houses, and the vulgarities of the present.

At times, Migrations from Memory may come across as slightly defensive in tone, an attempt by two overqualified architects to justify pouring so much thought and energy into house alteration and addition projects for rich suburbanites. Yet the trajectory of Vokes and Peters’ practice shows that the intensity of this effort has not been misplaced. In progressively larger and more commercial projects undertaken recently, such as veterinary clinics, a neighbourhood centre and a library, the tactics of address, composition and framing honed in their residential work have been effectively redeployed to make publicly accessible buildings that contribute to the life of the city around them.

It is unusual for contemporary Australian architects to produce books that are not either promotional monographs or repackaged academic essays, and brave for Vokes and Peters to write so sincerely about architecture in the permanence of print. The book evinces a professional and creative commitment that transcends the desire to be cool, detached or ironic. The language employed is precise in its architectural terminology, although admittedly it is sometimes difficult, with limited illustrations, to visualise exactly what is being described. This is not to suggest that the book is ponderous or humourless – far from it. Both architects are adept at colloquialisms, colourful imagery and dry wit. A transcribed discussion between the pair, staged at a student congress last year, is self-deprecating, informal and honest, and reveals how important the back-and-forth flow of ideas is to their collective practice. In general, their writing here is coherent, accessible and interesting, and worthy of wider attention.

David Neustein

David Neustein is The Monthly’s architecture critic.

@dneus

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