Steel Profile 100

Twenty-eight years ago I had a familiar dilemma of deadline. But this one was different. It was the launch issue of a magazine for architects and engineers. The good news was that it didn’t have an obvious precedent and could make its own way. The bad news, for exactly the same reasons, was that it could just as easily lose its way. How to do it smarter and better? Corporate and institutional publications are notorious for employing brute force to gate-crash their audience and failing to understand that a key can work wonders.

Our first issue was nothing if not diverse. There was a story on an emerging architect, the design of a deep water mini-submarine and a touring exhibition of 14th-20th century Chinese art. At least it promised cultural variety. It was an important toe in the water that soon became immersion in architecture.

The proposal in 1980 was for a magazine to showcase Australian architecture and design. BHP Steel, the forerunner to BlueScope Steel, supported the idea and committed to a year’s budget. There were though, some reservations. One challenge was to calm certain forces that demanded the magazine spring to life with a suitable title. It was proposed that it be christened  ‘Surprising Steel’ or ‘Dynamic Steel’. Readers were not to be left in any doubt. Fortunately another view prevailed and ‘Steel Profile’ it was.

But while there was pressure to be overt, there was also a sophistication that understood readers deserved better. This needed to be a journal as a legitimate showcase for architects rather than product catalogue. What began life as a small fortnightly business press newsletter named Steel-Link suddenly morphed into something much larger and more influential. It quickly became clear that despite local architecture being in the doldrums, there was only one direction for it to travel.

As founding editor and photographer, the magazine was small enough to keep an eye on all aspects of its development and growth. It was a job to be enjoyed. Even though Australian architecture was stagnant, there was the opportunity to craft a magazine that was driven by something other than the obvious – that somewhere we might better connect with an audience if we displayed a genuine altruism and shared in the problems, solutions and ideas generated by our readership.

Circulation quickly climbed 20,000 copies per issue giving it the biggest industry reach of any vaguely comparable magazine - including those on the news-stand.  Surveys provided plenty of reassurance that we were filling a void. And we have always aimed to do better.

Since that first issue in March 1981, Steel Profile has provided a distinctive voice for many Australian architects. Our timing was perfect. The period 1980-2000 was easily the most productive and inventive era of Australian architecture.

At the outset only a handful of architects were creating work of note. Glenn Murcutt was one and he was the subject of the lead story of our first issue. He was every bit the title ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’. Restless and relentless he challenged suburban councils at every twist and turn over outdated planning regulations. He was, and remains passionate about steel.

He led its revival with an approach to consider architecture as part of a much larger, inter-connected natural world. The opening in the lead story of our first issue was his: “Simplicity,” says the Sydney architect Glenn Murcutt, “is the art of resolving the given; the known, problems, beautifully.” And with that distilled idea Steel Profile was on its way.

Far from a household name and working resolutely outside the brick and tile square, it was a portent of things to come. For the magazine’s 10th anniversary issue in 1991 a panel comprising University of Melbourne Professor Peter McIntyre, author, historian and critic Phillip Drew and myself awarded Murcutt the highest honour we could and one we created for the occasion - Architect of The Decade.

It was a forerunner of much wider, bigger recognition for him with world architecture’s two highest honours. I covered the presentation of both awards – the Alvar Aalto medal ceremony in Helsinki (1992) and Pritzker Prize at the Campadoglio in Rome (2002).  Almost every other world architecture award of note would follow.

This sense of perspective and history has remained a constant for the magazine. There has been a strong commitment to the idea that the publication could benefit those architects on the way up, as much as those who had arrived.

In the decade from 1980 to 1990 many others were searching for and discovering ways to pursue an architecture of integrity and vigour. Steel steadily became associated with a conscious search for building appropriate to place. Philip Cox championed the cause of steel’s structural and decorative athleticism with soaring and evocative forms as varied as sports stadia and tourist resorts.

If the 1970s was the decade of design deception with curtains of mirrored glass as playful trick of reflected reflection, the ’80s celebrated the lurid embrace of Post Modernism and high-camp.  It was an era with a largely counterfeit, worthless design currency that led to a craving for form and space that had authenticity. One that actually felt right. A new wave of Australian architecture was filling this need.

In Europe the tide had already swung back to a heroic, uplifting version of machine-age modernism supported by a skilled fabrication industry capable of translating the epic vision using astonishing, crafted detail. Richard Rogers ‘Lloyds’ Insurance headquarters, London and Norman Foster’s exquisite Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank produced two of the century’s standout towers. Similarly the suitably named and London-based Future Systems explored alternative materials, forms and possibilities and these were covered with a keen eye by Steel Profile.

Significantly, little of the work arose on US soil and this was a huge cultural shift away from North American form making just as Detroit was slipping from pre-eminence as the world’s automotive colossus. Innovation was coming from other quarters, other parts of the world and Australia was a part of the mood to dispense with prescription, dogma and infatuation.

A small number of Australian architects were well advanced in their investigations based on an expansive, holistic view, rather than glib fashion. Some were searching for and making their personal discoveries. Local architects wrestled with ways to absorb ideas into bespoke responses rather than the transplanted type and steel was a common denominator in much of this creation. Some commentators and architects such as Neville Gruzman agitated about the mediocrity of commercial development.

A relationship between an Australian idiom and steel was once again evident. By the early 1990s steel had acquired an altogether more optimistic, creative status and was no longer regarded simply as ‘industrial’, ‘vernacular’ and ‘utilitarian’. It had indeed acquired a more magical quality, although suburban councils still hadn’t quite caught on, preferring the commonplace comfort of brick, concrete and tile.

In 1980, steel structures of any type were virtually non-existent. But the landscape had changed. If steel had been viewed as somehow tainted and olde world, it quickly became obvious that this was no longer the case. This was reflected in the national architecture awards program where steel based designs had arrived and continue to dominate across so many categories.

Steel was also to emerge from the wilderness during the 1980s. Architects had a desire to express an expanded vocabulary. Glenn Murcutt, Alex Popov, Richard LePlastrier and Gabriel Poole were all architects on a mission with little interest in drab masonry forms.

Their resolve was for subtraction rather than addition - a major difference between most architects and builders. These architects produced elegant, lighter, climate and site responsive structures that paid far more regard to the authentic response to place than to trappings of status and comfort of imitation. Many architects have acknowledged Steel Profile’s role that recognised an Australian architecture that speaks of an originality and authenticity. This included better information and greater knowledge of the component parts of a building, assembly and the inspiration for better testing of ideas.

Longevity is one thing, quality is another and this is reflected in the range and diversity of projects Profile reported. In the early years the architect interviewed rarely made reference to sustainability. This wasn’t that they were ignorant of the issue, but rather most of this work was climate and site responsive before the topic became a best seller. Profile championed architecture that was calibrated to climate and place.

We promoted talented young architects throughout the 1980s and ’90s and post 2000.  Many continued on to become industry leaders - Max Pritchard, Lindsay and Kerry Clare, James Grose, Peter Elliot, Glenn Murcutt, Alex Tzannes, Bud Brannigan, Paul Frischnecht, Wood Marsh and Dale Jones Evans, John Mainwaring, Ian Moore, Gabriel Poole, Troppo, Denton, Corker Marshall, Ed Lippman, Sean Godsell and Bark Design.

Our contributing writers brought their knowledge and style to further broaden the horizon. Philip Drew and Professor Emery Balint were instrumental, sharing their knowledge and adding to the magazine’s credibility.

Profile also kept a roving eye on international architecture. We travelled to Japan, Asia and North America to bring readers iconoclastic, steel-based designs that were so often
spurned by local and international design press. In the process we covered architecture that drew praise and admiration. Japanese architect Kengo Kuma combined water, glass and steel in his astonishing villa at Atami high on the Pacific coast south of Tokyo. And there was of course Murcutt’s Kempsey Farmhouse and Binji Point residence recognised in the elite of 20th century residential architecture.

No less spectacular, but for different reasons, projects from North America deserved all of the attention Profile could provide. Largely ignored by an archly conservative local architecture media, the Los Angeles based Ed Niles used bridge building technology for a truly space-age, stainless-steel clad house on Malibu hilltops. Recalling London’s Crystal Palace from almost one and a half centuries earlier, Niles added some hi-tech grunt to refine a house of Boy’s Own fantasy. Even more audacious that it was constructed in a high-risk, geologically unstable area near the San Andreas fault line. Designed much less as earthquake ‘fortress’, the engineering brilliance of the Sidley residence provided a whole new aesthetic in a neighbourhood better known for obese, drab, derivative houses that gave a whole new meaning to the term ‘fabrication’.

No less remarkable the story of another Los Angeles architect David Ming-Li Lowe, whose ingenuity set him on a collision course with regulators who rejected his base-isolator solution for dealing with seismic activity. Employing components as diverse as a steel panelling system developed for commercial refrigeration, translucent fibre-glass panelling and tailored industrial components, Ming Li-Lowe created a house that regulators could barely figure out and less readily accept.

Thus prepared, his isolators – devices roughly the size of twin-draw filing cabinets and designed to absorb ground movement – were located at each corner of his house. Lowe barely raised an eyebrow when the rest of the city was badly shaken by earthquakes in the early ‘90s. No less satisfying then for him when city officials came knocking to seek his advice on retro-fitting his base isolator design to their very own City Hall.

Other experiences resonate. BlueScope’s forerunner and Profile sponsor, BHP Steel, sponsored a visit to Australia by the great British modernists Sir Norman Foster and Richard Rogers (prior to his knighthood) as part of the International Architects series. A press conference was arranged by the RAIA for Rogers but this proved to be a mystifying flop. Not one member of the architecture, design or general media arrived. This led to many empty seats, clearing of throats and checking of watches to verify arrangements. Was it really possible that so many industry movers and shakers couldn’t find the time to attend?

This proved serendipitous because Steel Profile was the only ‘attendee’ and the result was a two-part magazine feature and an extended filmed interview that formed the basis of a half hour documentary program on Rogers. Profile spawned other similar programs I wrote and directed; one on Sir Norman Foster, another ‘Touch the Earth Lightly’ on Glenn Murcutt that now form part of a rich archive.

‘Lifestyle’, ‘sustainability’ and ‘Euro appliances’ had yet to make a fully blown appearance at the end of our first decade. No bad thing because while plenty of junk continued to flow, there was also the stirrings for an architecture that looked beyond air-conditioning for its answers.

Just as Australian architecture has emerged with a new confidence and prospects, so Profile found its own voice. We struck a balance of observation, interpretation and informed opinion. Conversations with many of these architects revealed patterns about hope, humility and humour.

Steel Profile has nurtured relationships with architects and this has proved to be reciprocal. Every architect featured in the magazine has contributed ideas and energy, qualities that are the lifeblood of great structures and good publishing.

In the December 1994 issue Profile noted: “Fifty issues later a lot of architecture which might have slipped through the cracks and disappeared without trace has been seen and heard. In the process architects, some working alone and with little support, have acquired a confidence in their own vision and voice.”

From its very first issue, the magazine has acquired a steady rhythm and confidence. It continues to work with an expanding list of architects who see possibilities outside the square. One hundred issues on we keep looking for, and encountering, people who use steel in the most remarkable ways.

Perhaps the greatest reward as founding editor for the first 20 years of the publication was the satisfaction of making such a quality fit with so many members of the profession. And it is one that has extended to another life producing numerous books, articles and architectural photography. During those first two decades I recorded much of the pivotal work and key moments in Australian architecture. Since then I’ve worked as a contributor and to writing and photographing books on Australian and world architecture.

The Sydney architect, President of the Architecture Association of Australia and Director of BVN James Grose has been a regular Profile ‘contributor’ by way of published work. For the magazine’s 60th issue he observed: “Of recent times an expression of architecture particular to Australia has emerged, one that is not stylistic but rather tectonic – the tectonic expression of steel, whether in its taught stretched profiles, or skeletal structural form. Peter Hyatt has been a prolific commentator, unrelenting in his support and enthusiasm for steel architecture. He has consequently made Profile a significant contributor to the marking of architecture in this country. The photography alone has been crafted with great perception and clarity and will make its own valuable contribution to the history of Australian architecture.”

While it is true that wine writers may revel in the largesse of the complimentary dozen, as a token of a wine-growers appreciation, architectural critique and photography might appear far more sober, at times even tedious. And yet the great art of architecture offers delight without hangover. This is the way it should be - as a life of immersion rather than of tentative experience. It’s also a way of life for so many of our readers who have discovered steel and generously shared their ideas, energy and confidence throughout our 100 issues.

Peter Hyatt was founding editor/photographer, 1981-2001
and is a contributor to Steel Profile.

ESSAYS

Journalism provides an entrée for many of my interviews and assignments.

I’ve interviewed some of the world’s most interesting and influential architects. I love meeting and working with this group. They are inevitably passionate and driven by strong ideas. There is an impetus about everything some people do and hopefully that carries through in my essays. The selected essays are mainly current. Some are simply favourites.