An exhibition about the design and development of Testing Grounds for Open House Melbourne
Text and photographs by Trent Griffiths
For Open House 2018, Testing Grounds takes you on a staccato tour of our conceptual back-of-house.
Development sketches, abandoned designs, first impressions, and structural details that show how infrastructure meets architecture in the hot creative mess that is Testing Grounds.
We pull back the curtain on how the site came into being and why it looks the way it does. Why this design, in this place, with these materials? Why the big barn doors and a steel grid overhead? Why no literal back-of-house? And why so many damn magnets?
Everything in the design of this version of Testing Grounds is born of the experience of almost three years of living with the site — living in the site — and staging countless exhibitions, performances, festivals, and residencies.
What is architecture if it’s not building, and instead it’s a methodology? How does architecture learn from that in a very immediate way? The feedback loop from Testing Grounds Phase I to Testing Grounds Phase II is that we sat in the container for three years, watched all these people using the site, were asked a million questions like, “Can I borrow a hammer? Do you have any wire to hang things? Can I move this platform?” This design came from that experience. So the design feedback loop is over years. The feedback amplitude is three years.
— Millie Cattlin, Testing Grounds architect
The power outlets are all overhead, in the middle of spans of cable tray, because we got sick of tangles of extension cords. In Testing Grounds Phase I, all the power outlets were up against the Ballet Centre wall. If someone needed a bank of lights or a cup of tea on the city side of site, it meant running a really long extension cord. Big events — a festival or gig or exhibition opening — meant hours of running cords around and under and away from stomping feet.
So now we have lots of outlets. All overhead. Drop the cord down where you need it. Sweet as.
That's both a literal example and a good metaphor for the design of the place. Practical design decisions based on two years of living on the site. Knowing how the square meters filled; how people moved through the site, where they congregated, where they wanted to hang things, how high they needed the roofs and how big they needed the walls.
We need things to make other things with.
We need structures to support exhibition and performance and display and testing. We need on-site structures to move, adapt, reconfigure.
We need a kit of parts.
We need tables and chairs and benches and frames that hang and frames that stand and plinths of lots of different heights.
We don’t know why we need them yet, but we know that we need them.
Magnets are very handy things to have in a steel house.
Having no back-of-house is a statement; a kind of advocacy for operations. We didn’t forget to build in a storage area, a place to hide the things not in use. We chose to leave them on show. We wanted to be honest.
We are forced to show the workings, to acknowledge the labour behind staging and installing and deinstalling. There is no magic to putting creative work on show. There are just a lot of materials and a lot of hours.
Making art is work. We lose nothing by seeing that work. We might even be able to love it a little bit more.