Stuart Harrison: Make it useful

What makes for effective advocacy? How do you step beyond your disciplinary boundaries to make compelling new connections? How can the tools and techniques of the various media platforms train us in becoming better advocates? Stuart Harrison and I recently spent a long afternoon discussing all of this as part of my Artistic Leadership adventures.

Stuart is an architect, broadcaster and writer who works both academically and creatively. He has written several books, taught and consulted extensively, and is a sought-after facilitator and provocateur. Perhaps best known for the decade he collaborated on The Architects on 3RRR – as well as its incarnations in public spaces, at the 2012 Venice Biennale of Architecture and on ABC TV – Stuart is one of the nation’s leading advocates for architecture and design. For as long as I’ve been planning my Artistic Leadership journey, I had wanted to speak at length with Stuart, and learn from someone I have long admired. The more we spoke, however, the more we recognised that this is a space in which we’re both still learning, still feeling our way – and, frustratingly, still lacking a critical mass of fellow advocates to champion the creative disciplines across the land.

We started off defining the scope of our advocacy – and indeed, what we even mean by advocacy. For Stuart, it’s about working within your discipline while making the case for it beyond that discipline. For me, it’s about conversations that compel someone who may not necessarily share your passions to have that conversation again, emanating and distributing into a critical mass. We spoke of discussions that posit constructive things about artistic practice or architecture, given that architecture has what Stuart called “a perception problem and a value problem.” We speculated on the connection between advocacy and agency, advocacy and activism, advocacy and lobbying. We wondered how advocacy, awareness and action were related, and unpacked that causality throughout our conversation.

With each of us having broad experience across all media platforms, we found a strong shared interest in using those platforms to find modes of clarity in communication. The medium is more than the message: it structures the message, it sets the tone and expectation, it gives the message form before it has meaning, with that form very much shaping the meaning – thus the need to understand exactly how this happens. Every mode of communication does this, but if we engage in only a narrow range of communication modes, we risk developing a mistaken confidence in the clarity of our communications – and then, once faced with the need to reach beyond our discipline, we are lost. The most accomplished of artists and architects can be rendered entirely inarticulate when faced with a general public audience. Some grow to resent this incapacity, resenting advocates who they see as popularisers, and resenting the profile that such advocates are able to attract to the discipline. This, of course, is entirely counter-productive, depriving the discipline of much-needed advocates who could expand its field of engagement and ultimately lead to better policy decisions, better outcomes for the build environment, better opportunities for artists and audiences.

There are known forms in radio and television that are widely recognised and easily understood. Panels, podcasts and documentaries each draw heavily on interview techniques and other practices of eliciting brief, explicative answers from experts unaccustomed to public speaking. The ability to facilitate a discussion is core to effective advocacy, as is the ability to engage in one. Stuart described his on-the-job experience of learning what made for great radio or great tv by coming to an understanding of their fundamentals. Clarity, not jargon. Don’t dumb down; explain. Briefly summarise an interviewee’s lengthy answers as a segue to the next question to add clarity and promote flow. Listen to shows outside of your disciplinary area – such as RRR’s science show Einstein-A-Go-Go – to develop an ear for form rather than content. (Back in my Express Media days, I used to encourage emerging editors to go get a job on a trade mag for exactly that reason.)

In studying the form and then the content of media engagement, a focus on personal style emerges. Listening to Stuart describe the ways he had overcome a lack of confidence to develop that style, I was even more impressed by what comes across as an effortlessly natural style in the ways that he communicates. Anxieties about public speaking can be debilitating, preventing people from even considering their public impacts as public practitioners. Social media can be helpful here, offering its own array of constraints in image formats and character limits, as well as targeted ways of developing public spaces for public discussions. (“Write the way you tweet!” an editor once advised me.)

Ultimately however, advocacy succeeds or fails depending on how carefully it is nurtured as a civic duty. This is very important to Stuart:

When architects get taught – and I was taught like this, and I taught like this – there’s this idea of responsibility to the city. The idea that the city is your client. For any project, you’ve always got a couple of clients. You’ve got your actual client, you know, the person who’s paying you money, and then there’s the city as a client… So there is a civic responsibility felt by architects, and whether they successfully deal with it or not is another question, but it is limited to the methods that they have to hand, the media that they use – which is the media of drawing, essentially, and building. So the idea that you could make a case through other means – there’s an uncomfortableness for a lot of architects around that, I think…

Just this week I’ve been following the Facebook discussion of artists about to present to the Senate Inquiry’s Western Sydney hearing, anxious about what to say, joking that they’d need to fake their expertise and maybe even fake their passion. Even people who are recognised professionals in performance struggle with that public responsibility, questioning their authority to speak from what others value highly as their own unique perspective. “It’s up to each of us as individuals to speak out,” Stuart said at one culminating point during our discussion of the world we are each making and constantly remaking together.

Localised discussions start small movements that can cross vast distances to transform a culture. As a practitioner with a responsibility towards the city, Stuart’s outlook remains both practical and strategic – very important for an architect. We end our discussion on how to encourage others to become those public-minded individuals, and we do this by reflecting on our own beginnings as advocates. We each left our home towns to come to Melbourne, specifically to be part of a larger conversation. As a starting premise then, this move came with the understanding that we would actively make a contribution to that conversation. By feeling our way, by learning through dialogue, we wanted to make a difference, and for our contributions to be of good use. For Stuart, this mode of engaging with the world must be constructive – again, very important for any practitioner who creates public space. “I use the word ‘useful’ a lot, and I like it because for a lot of people it’s kind of a modest form of compliment, but for me it’s the highest form of compliment. ‘Useful to what?’ is the natural question: Useful to the broader conversation.”

Architects construct the built environment, but the creation of public space is everyone’s responsibility – not just within our various communities, but also as individuals. For Stuart: “There’s no higher compliment than useful – so that’s how I’d like to be: just useful.”