RMIT university in Melbourne embraces the richness of cultures of its students, choosing to focus on the topic of the Asian city in its final-year studio
Melbourne, the cultural capital Of Australia, is celebrated for its ‘European’ character: for its theatres and monuments, emblematic of a picturesque Victorian heritage that harks back to the days of empire. Though many who live and work here revel in this old world charm, others feel it to be out of step with how a modern city should present itself. They argue that for a major city to compete, even one as highly regarded as their own − currently the world’s ‘most livable city’, according to The Economist − it must conjure up a forward-looking vision of its place in today’s shifting global order.
For RMIT University (formerly known as the Royal Melbourne nstitute of Technology), imagining an alternative urban future is linked to the challenge of defining its own role − as a knowledge hub for the Asia-Pacific Time Zone rather than just a national institution. Mel Dodd, director of the RMIT architecture programme, declares an interest: ‘For us it is strategic… we can speculate on Australia’s positioning in the geopolitical region. This is especially relevant for our graduates, who often return to work in the context of the Asian metropolis.
’ Nearly half of those enrolled on the programme are offshore students, drawn primarily from mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan and Korea. Melbourne itself, home to generations of South-East Asian migrant families, has an ethnically diverse population, with Chinese being the second most commonly spoken language.
In response to these dynamics, Dodd and colleagues Sand Helsel, Anna Johnson and Richard Black have chosen to anchor the final-year studio that they collectively teach to the topic of the Asian city. International students are attracted by the studio’s engagement with diverse home cultures as well as wider urban trends. While the interminable Westernisation of cities the world over may be taken as given, a less widely acknowledged tendency is that the cities of the future − certainly those growing most rapidly − are developing along different lines.
These sprawling, teeming, apparently uncontrollable cities of the ‘Global South’ − what we used to call the Third World − are characterised by bottom-up urbanism, micro-enterprises and ephemeral architecture. Such urbanities are sidelined by mainstream pedagogy, which typically relies on a vocabulary of Western cities. By contrast, as Helsel argues: ‘The Asian city defies conventional analysis. Our concern for an alternative model for speculation is based on an intimate connection to the material of the city.’
Accordingly, the studio kicks off with a suite of exercises designed to sharpen students’ interpretive skills: observing everyday life, mapping street activities, testing vernacular technologies, in preparation for a city-scale ‘thesis’ project. The lesson is that before attempting to make the city anew, the architect must first see it for what it really is. ‘Designing in the urban context is more of a curation of existing qualities found at street level than the imposition of a formalist overlay from above,’ says Helsel.
A photograph of housing in Hong Kong taken by student Chris Chan while mapping spatial use and circulation in the dense Yau Ma Tei district
Recent graduate Chris Chan’s proposal for a cultural museum in Hong Kong’s dense Yau Ma Tei district takes its cue from the prevalent typology of narrow lots. While cataloguing patterns of spatial use and circulation, he noticed how the urban grain supports intensive local street life. By breaking the bulk of his proposal into parts and redistributing them across the site, he challenged the assumption that the small-scale texture of the district precludes major public development. In a game of urban snakes and ladders, the museum fragments are reconnected through existing stairwells, rooftops, and service lanes.
Yoon Sheng Lee chose a site in Melbourne’s Chinatown for a restaurant wholesale market. His mapping of the area, which entailed looking at everything from Chinese newspapers to rubbish disposal, gave him insights into foodstuff manufacture and distribution networks. It also alerted him to the havoc that impending pedestrianisation would wreak on the neighbourhood’s fragile balance of conviviality and congestion. Inserting a deceptively vast warehouse into the middle of the district, he deployed ‘just-in-time’ technologies to ease local traffic. This strategy freed up restaurant storage facilities in the back alleyways, releasing additional frontage for small traders.
Cities everywhere are caught between globalisation’s implacable atomisation of identity and localism’s tendency towards parochialism. As national borders are increasingly blurred by today’s economies − especially the economy of education − the transcontinental scale of the region offers a vehicle for mediating this tension. By embracing the richness of its wider Asian context, RMIT has invested in a truly cosmopolitan future for Australia.
Hong Kong’s street life is typical of the bottom-up urbanism often overlooked by mainstream academies but embraced by RMIT’s teaching strategy
This article is part of a series examining the state of architectural education across the world. More discussions of academies and schools from other nations can be found in Pedagogy