How can we produce quality housing at higher densities to meet our growing sustainability challenges? It’s a complex question that demands a complex approach. The Housing Project at Pin-up Project Space re-positioned architecture’s capacity to respond by adding tangible, generative layers to its design thinking. Co-curated by Pin-up and Greyspace, the exhibition comprised an installation, performances, a publication, a housing design debate to a capacity crowd and a cinematic account of contemporary Melbourne architecture practices, each presenting its own set of truths among fraught standpoints.

Inviting you to compose your own city by playing with beautiful ceramic houses, trees and factories, The Housing Project installation performed a soundscape of your own composition, recalling hundreds of voices and sounds as triggered by a sophisticated bar code system at the base of each little sculpture. Having masterplanned on the tabletop, your preconceptions about Australian housing were then ready to be challenged by a dozen architectural practices; their projection into the space was accompanied by a manifesto-like handbook. Building a sustainable future responsibly can be done, and indeed it is being done. Projects such as Jackson Clements Burrows’ Circa Apartments in Coburg strike a balance between density and quality, in an inner-city suburb undergoing profound change; Kerstin Thompson Architects’ approach to short-term crisis accommodation in the suburbs negotiates important communal program among private space; BKK Architects’ Tower Turnaround proposes adaptations of existing social housing, improving living conditions to achieve a seven-star energy rating.

In each exhibition element, a key Pin-up question is addressed: How can architecture make a difference to the quality of people’s lives? For Pin-up director/curator Fleur Watson, this is something of a mission statement. “It’s important that architecture learn to communicate, and have a forum to communicate, in a less institutional way,” she says. A playful means for engaging with ideas was essential: a bold centrepiece, the installation was at once a game, a musical instrument and a tactile interface for analysis and interpretation.

The result of years of conceptual development and hands-on workshops, the work was created by Sue McCauley and Keith Deverell’s studio, Greyspace, in collaboration with ceramicist Ann Ferguson, sound designer Chris Knowles, and industrial designers Angus Durkin and Gordon Tait, with additional sound recordings by Dave Lane. Following such critically prized work asRear Window, a City of Melbourne 2009 Laneway Commission, and The Hawker’s Song, presented in the 2010 Melbourne International Arts Festival, The Housing Project installation is the third project in a Greyspace trilogy of works addressing community displacement due to urban development.

“One of the hugely appealing things about this work was that the objects were non-architectural,” says Fleur. “The housing types and the tree types were not little architectural models. They were clay; there was a real sense of the organic and a naive, playful, open, generous quality about them.” Appropriately, the work originated in the home, as Sue played with earlier versions of Ann’s ceramics over housework. “Every time I did the dishes I reorganized the city,” Sue says. “Wouldn’t it be great if I could make those houses talk?”

And make them talk she did. Recording ceramic workshop discussions and interviews with housing professionals, the installation spoke from a diversity of perspectives and communities of interest. “You can’t negate personal experience,” says Chris. “You can’t just say ‘That’s not true.’ There’s no questioning it.” Homeless people, newly arrived refugees, children and their parents could be heard alongside planners and developers – a striking array of voices expressing their passions, frustrations, strategies and hopes. An ambitious and complex proposition, The Housing Project succeeded in giving architecture a compelling voice on contemporary residential development.

The Housing Project was first held at Melbourne’s Pin-up Project Space and later atfortyfivedownstairs in September 2012.