Modelling Extremes: John Doyle, head of RMIT Architecture’s Masters program

Designers like constraints. John Doyle likes constrictions. Tightness he calls it. Whether it’s the pressure of ‘tight’ budgets or people finding a place to sell their wares in a ‘tight’ Vietnamese laneway, the “condensed and congested leads to productive and creative conditions of urban life”, he says.

Supertight, the 2019 exhibition he co-curated at RMIT Design Hub, recreated those congested conditions. Designed like a Vietnamese ‘hem’, or laneway, the cardboard structure undulated through the hub’s two gallery spaces. Stills and video projections from eight Asian cities – including Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing and Hong Kong – flashed across the tight spaces, animating both the gallery and hem’s walls. Hemmed in the corner of the main gallery, a compact, elevated bar and cinema hosted performances and debates.

“Supertight, or ‘tight’, differs from density,” Doyle explains. “If density is people per square metre, tightness is about a design quality, or a qualitative measure of cities and architecture both in terms of physical tightness and social and cultural cohesion.”

Ordinary citizens, not just designers, contribute to the city’s dynamism.

“Tightness is about a bottom-up, or ground, experience,” he says. “You can't separate form from activity. Yet almost all of these responses [in the exhibition] resist that idea of architecture as being a stand alone object.”

It confirms a belief Doyle has held since he first visited Japan by accident. A stopover in Tokyo led to a lifelong fascination with the region. But after a scholarship to complete his masters in Tokyo and four years work with Lab Architecture, building towers in China and the Middle East, he came to the conclusion that “architecture was in some ways incidental”.

“Japan has some staggeringly beautiful moments that architecture contributes, but for the most part a lot of the city is without design,” he explains. “Tokyo is a lot of bad, with moments of exquisite good.”

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He describes the Japanese capital as a “saturated condition”, “so monumental in scale you can't take it in. There's always something at the corner of your periphery that is changing. It's constantly in flux.”

The focus of Doyle’s research became “how good urbanism leads to good architecture”.

“One reason I'm interested in urbanism is that you don't need to worry about detail in some ways. You can do a dense city and you can cut the carbon usage. You can effect big change with that, and yet the buildings don’t necessarily have to be good.”

As head of the masters program Doyle likes to work at the extremes. The more intense the scenario, the more instructive it is, he believes. “Training with weights on,” he calls it.

For Doyle, Asia offers the rest of the world a lesson in heavy lifting.

“Rapid change is what I'm interested in,” says Doyle. “There is an absolute urgency to dealing with rapid urbanization. Over the next 30 years China is going to move 300 million people into cities.”

The impending climate catastrophe has become increasingly a focus of Doyle’s research over the past two years. Compounding the problem is another big issue that every expanding city faces: encroaching arable land and consuming its own food bowl. 

“As such there’s an implicit ethical agenda to living closely,” he says. “As urbanists and designers we want to make the case for retaining density, closeness.”

“We've been looking at modelling scenarios that double the population in certain cities while reducing the footprint,” says Doyle. “How do you shrink a city? What are the techniques or mechanisms by which you might actually start to do that? How do you organize cities in such a way as to allow that absorption of population while not sprawling and sucking up all of the arable land?”

Doyle describes his research approach as providing an “irritation” or an “unintended antagonism”. “It gives you a toolset to deal with places where they might not be evolving as rapidly, but change is inevitable.”

If Doyle’s RMIT research investigates solutions to rapid urbanisation across Asia’s metropolises, paradoxically his practice work with Mártires Doyle, and as a partner in the public architecture and urban design practice NAAU Studio, operates at the small and incremental.

In the Knuckle house in Northcote a flexible system of folded shells shift ups and down allowing direct sunlight to bathe the interior spaces. For the refit of the Latrobe Regional Gallery in Morwell sightlines were cleared from one end of the gallery to the other. A small entrance door and series of gallery chambers was stripped out and opened up.

“We inserted a complex timber ceiling designed so that no two parts of the space were the same,” Doyle explains. “We were trying to create an open space that had pockets of difference and specificity, that covered up all of the services in the ceiling, creating a sense of depth. In other parts it would thin out.”

Rather than demarcating spaces and indicating ‘this is the café’, ‘this is the gathering space’, the entire space is open and public. “Yet each area is tuned to perform in a different way,” he says.

A similarly subtle approach was taken with the redesign for Vision Australia. Doyle created an open workplace for people with low vision. Such an interior seems counterintuitive to typical vision-impaired workplaces that rely on partitions for navigation. But in a bid to emulate the flexibility and density of the popular hotdesk open-plan office, Doyle set about redesigning Vision Australia’s workplace.

Discovering that people with low vision navigate through echolocation, Doyle used surfaces that reflect sound and (once again) changed ceiling heights. High contrasting surfaces and textures in particular areas also aids navigation.

“We need to understand what is absolutely essential for a workplace to function,” says Doyle. “What could we do away with and how we could do it better? The lessons learned from Vision Australia are applicable into broader workplace design.”  

The idea behind the three projects – the Knuckle house, Latrobe gallery and Vision Australia - was to create openness and continuity, but spatial difference, says Doyle. ‘Tightness’ operates in a similar way. Different spatial types allow different social aggregation.

“This argument for 'the tight' is also about trying to make palatable something which would potentially make a big difference,” he says.

Can a city perform better if you squeeze it to four or six blocks wide and put green space on the side? He asks in a proposal for a site outside Shanghai. Meanwhile in the historical town of Suzhou, Doyle speculates what might happen if you preserve the historical core and pour all the density and growth into a ring of high density that lives around it?

“The value of being at RMIT is the ability to act or to participate in blue sky approaches,” says Doyle. “What are the levers that design can pull out at large scale to effect some form of change? While there is less agency to actually effect change, we have the opportunity to model change.”

Meanwhile Doyle ponders the possibility of a future studio; one that inserts the world's population into just one city, and models the implications. Not exactly a blue-sky scenario. But, as Doyle says: “extreme responses bring into sharp relief the scale of the issue.”

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Acknowledgement of country

RMIT University acknowledges the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin Nation on whose unceded lands we conduct the business of the University. RMIT University respectfully acknowledges their Ancestors and Elders, past and present. RMIT also acknowledges the Traditional Custodians and their Ancestors of the lands and waters across Australia where we conduct our business. - Artwork created by Louisa Bloomer