• David Carlin et al


The associated ibook (i.e. Apple only)  is available for download at:


How might the affordances of the essay as a writing practice be brought to bear within a workshop framework of collaborative improvisation, in response to an urban architectural model structure? This is the question that motivated this experiment, which took place in 2014 in Melbourne, in and around an innovative architectural design artefact, the Fabpod (RMIT 2012).

The Fabpod is a hyperboloid architectural structure designed as a prototype for a meeting room, inspired by the forms and accoustics of Gaudi's Sagrada Familia cathedral (Burry 2014). It was designed by a team from RMIT University’s Spatial Information Architecture Laboratory (SIAL). The Fabpod sits on the ninth floor of the multi-award winning Shaun Godsell-designed RMIT Design Hub, itself an architectural wonder, as its featured status in the architecture gallery of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum attests.

The experimental workshop was a collaboration between artist/researchers at the nonfictionLab and Design + Ethnography + Futures, the results of which have been assembled here in digital book form. The workshop brought together an interdisciplinary and international group of writers, designers and scholars to collectively 'essay' the fabpod as a novel and utopian/dystopian structure — to respond to the experience of this quintessentially urban structure, to speculate as to its possible futures, to catalogue its cultural associations.

Design + Ethnography + Futures (http://d-e-futures.com/) is a programme of research, that took as its starting point the proposition of a new meeting of design and ethnography through a focus on futures. Through D+E+F researchers explore how the future orientation of combining design + ethnography invites new forms of change­-making, where uncertainty and the ‘not-­yet-­made’ are at the centre of the inquiry. Through their workshops and projects the D+E+F researchers bring the improvisory, playful, imaginative, sensorial and somewhat contested edges of both fields to create an opening to experiment with what might emerge out of an assembly of ideas, people, feelings, things and processes. In doing so, Design + Ethnography + Futures deliberately steps out of established disciplinary methodologies and moves into the future with people and challenges what we habitually do and think about. It questions the taken-­for-­granted, triggers genuine surprise, plays with the edges of boundaries and reconfigures ways knowledge is produced. Along with a series of D+E+F guest-led workshops in 2014 a core D+E+F activity was the wider Fab Pod Futures project, which included a sensory video ethnography and inspired the workshop discussed here.

For the Essaying the fabpod workshop, Yoko Akama and Sarah Pink proposed using the Fabpod as a material provocation within the Design + Ethnography + Futures framework. The Fabpod sits in the middle of a common workspace at the Design Hub, where it forms an intriguing presence for those removed from its original conception. It functions as an unusual meeting room for researchers and visitors, but there is much informal debate as to whether it ‘works’ as a productive collaborative space. Its lighting, acoustic properties, furniture and ambience are all often discussed. It is clearly a singular and ‘futuristic’ architectural space, but what will be its future, now that it is no longer a visionary speculation but an anything-but-concrete reality?

Akama and Pink invited David Carlin to begin a dialogue about how theories and methods of nonfiction practice (Carlin and Rendle-Short 2013) could be brought to bear upon this problem space. In particular, the essay, in the long and ragged tradition established by Montaigne (see Bakewell 2010) and now flourishing with widespread practice in the lyric essay, personal essay and ‘anti-memoir’ forms (D’Agata and Tall 1997, Lopate 1995, Monson 2007), promises lateral trajectories for knowledge production. The essay foregrounds the embodied filter through which the essayist describes and reflects upon the complexity of his or her chosen object, transfiguring immediate experience with threads of received learning. To quote Adorno: ‘the desire of the essay is not to seek and filter the eternal out of the transitory; it wants, rather, to make the transitory eternal… The essay freely associates what can be found associated in the freely chosen object… All levels of the mediated are immediate to the essay, before its reflection begins.’ (Adorno 1984: 159)

For Essaying the fabpod, a collaborative ‘flash nonfiction’ approach was taken to the essay. Ten writers, designers and social scientists gathered for half a day, accompanied by a film-maker, an acoustical engineer and for a short time, one of the progenitors of the Fabpod, Dr Jane Burry. To begin with the group met in the Design Hub’s Level 9 Long Room, out of sight of the Fabpod itself. The participants brought a diversity of knowledge and experience of the Fabpod. Some had known it intimately since it had been created; others had never seen it and had no idea, in fact, what it might be. This range was both deliberate and essential to our purpose, since it was uncertainty and speculation as well as settled understandings that we were interested in to investigate. In a familiar theatre game, the group was asked to arrange themselves in a line, in order according to who knew more or less about the Fabpod. We then sat in a circle and shared our knowledge, starting with the person who knew least. Immediately afterwards, without further discussion, we sat down and wrote short individual essays for a period of 25 minutes, responding in whichever way we chose to the object – the Fabpod - we were, metaphorically if not literally, faced with.

Next the group went inside and shared morning tea in and around the Fabpod. We conducted several informal acoustic experiments, generally explored the structure and hung out. Finally we wrote again, for another 25 minutes, having personally experienced the Fabpod and shared stories and observations. The essays themselves were uploaded to a shared site, deposited there without further editing as improvised fragments, evidence in the form of essays.

The results of the experiment can speak for themselves. The social scientists and designers commented that they found the invitation interesting in that they were given license to write in modes outside their normal practice: more playful, without the pretense of authority. Some of the ‘essays’ move in the direction of science fiction; many pick up the voices of stories and feelings expressed by others in the group, in a kind of musical ‘round’. At the very least, a dynamic collaborative energy was engendered, and a space created in which a precise prismatic reading of an urban object could be mapped. We look forward to further such experiments.



Works cited: 

Adorno, Theodor 1984 ‘The Essay as Form’, New German Critique 32 (Spring-Summer), 151-171

Akama, Yoko 2014  ‘DESIGN + ETHNOGRAPHY + FUTURES’ at http://www.designfutureslab.org/design-ethnography-futures/ (accessed October 12, 2014)

Bakewell, Sarah 2010  How to Live, or, a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, London: Random House

Burry, Jane 2014  ‘The Construction of a Problem: Architecture modelling after Descartes,’ The Journal of Space Syntax 5: 1, 15-34

Carlin, David and Francesca Rendle-Short 2013 ‘Nonfiction Now: A (non)introduction’, TEXT  Special Issue No. 18 at: http://www.textjournal.com.au/speciss/issue18/Carlin&RendleShort.pdf, (accessed October 30, 2014)

D’Agata, John and Deborah Tall 1997  ‘The Lyric Essay’, Seneca Review: Fall  at: http://www.hws.edu/academics/senecareview/lyricessay.aspx  (accessed August 18, 2012)

Lopate, Philip, 1995 The Art of the Personal Essay: An anthology from the classical era to the present, New York City: Anchor

Monson, Ander, 2007. Neck Deep and Other Predicaments, Minneapolis: Graywolf Press

RMIT Spatial Information Architecture Laboratory 2012 ‘Fabpod’ at http://www.sial.rmit.edu.au/portfolio/fabpod-sial/ (accessed October 12, 2014)