Transcending the star system: acknowledging the shared authorship of architecture.

We experience spaces through our bodies, according to those phenomenologists Pierre Bourdieu and Martin Heidegger. Therefore, ‘place’ does not belong to a building or a piece of pavement, not even to a lovely tree in a park. Instead, it resides within each of our bodies informed by our experiences and memories. Meaning that when an architect, planner, bureaucrat or designer discusses ‘place’ through their work, they must be able to hand over the authorship of that place to every individual body that interacts with it; understanding that it is each of these bodies that write the story of this place. In Rachel Neeson’s recent lecture, as part of the UQ Architecture lecture series In-terre-vention hosted by the Asia Pacific Design Library, her appreciation for this definition of place was discernible.

Neeson confidently presented a select survey of her impressive practice that included four public buildings, two unbuilt works, and two houses. For each project, Neeson openly and skilfully described the design intent and processes that led to the built outcome. Most striking, to me, was that she premised her description for each project with the collective pronoun, we. She recounted conversations with clients, consultants, engineers, builders, artists, and architects within her office and how each of these collaborators contributed to design decisions.

It was this acknowledgement of shared authorship in the design process that was a distinguishing insight to Neeson’s work throughout her lecture.

Not only did this elicit an honest and humble account of Neeson’s approach to architecture, but also, by acknowledging that many hands play a role in delivering architecture, her presentation subverted the star-system of architects. Denise Scott Brown famously critiqued the star system in her essay “Room at the Top? Sexism and the Star System in Architecture” (1989). She described in her essay that ‘the star system, which sees the firm as a pyramid with a designer on top, has little to do with today’s complex relations in architecture and construction.’ Scott Brown defines the star system as a method for aspiring architects to identify individual stars who can illuminate a path through the often obscure and difficult-to-navigate design process. As such, it is a system that perpetuates ‘King-making.’ As Scott Brown writes, ‘the star system, which is unfair to many architects, is doubly hard on women.’

I felt that Neeson’s reflections transcended the star system by not only acknowledging all the architects involved with the project but by also extending the authorship of these projects to clients, and the work of collaborators outside of the discipline of architecture.

Neeson’s contribution to the profession through this lecture was so much more than a presentation of an architect’s built works; she intelligently explicated the complexities and negotiations that are inherent to architectural practice, and yet rarely discussed. The title of her lecture, ‘Sense and Sensibility,’ aptly describes her approach as being both of good judgement and considerate to the needs of others. Her capacity to recall the many people involved and the numerous interactions between each party attached a meaningful and thoughtful narrative to each project. Undoubtedley, this has underpined the success of her award winning practice.

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