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Testing Grounds

Testing Grounds

The Pyramid

Testing Grounds
26.02.18 - 02.06.18
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A Pyramid made of 4317 bricks landed one late February afternoon in the middle of Testing Grounds.

A major installation as part of Melbourne Design Week (15-25 March 2018), it was raised to be both a platform and a provocation to (re)consider design, construction, public art and public space.

The Pyramid landed

What was it?

Built for Melbourne Design Week with the help of Interior Design at RMIT and generous support from Brickworks, the Pyramid was a playful place for talks, gatherings, installations, and performances, while also standing alone as a public artwork and design object.

Over the course of Melbourne Design Week we invited designers, artists, and architects to take on the Pyramid: to use it to spark conversations around the materials, processes, and meanings of design, and to actively re-design, re-shape, and re-make it. They brought with them groups of design, art, communication, performing arts, and architecture students from across Melbourne to run classes and workshops, to wonder what it could be for, and to just sit on something cool and solid and appreciate the rhythm of the city for a while.

Beyond MDW, the Pyramid continued to provide a stage and seating for a whole host of projects happening at Testing Grounds, becoming a key part of the creative infrastructure.

The 4317 bricks of the Pyramid were a combination of 200mm full- and half-length GB concrete masonry blocks in standard pewter and honed porcelain finish.

The bricks arrived to Testing Grounds on 31 pallets.

The build involved 130 students, 6 tutors, 5 RMIT staff, and 4 Testing Grounds staff.

It was built from the bottom layer in 3 hours and 26 minutes of collective effort.

It stood 2.52 meters high, with a 36.6 meter square footprint.

It held space in the middle of the site; a monumental central axis around which all events and performances, comings and goings revolved.

And after it was built, countless people stared at it, sat on it, played with it, re-designed it, drew on it, talked to it, danced around it, shouted from it, and dreamed with it.

Porcelain honed blocks, image by Emma Byrnes

Why was it?

In the middle of the site, cutting through the superstructure grid, the Pyramid sat. It waited while we filled it with meaning. An answer in search of a question; a monumental form with no fundamental meaning; a blank canvas, a surface to be written on, a shell, a starting point. Except, of course, that’s not entirely true…

The form of the pyramid is loaded with history and cultural significance around the world. From Ancient Egypt to North America, to China and Europe, the pyramid structure, in all its myriad forms, is an important and revered design. It has been used for ceremonies, gathering, shelter, wayfinding, and watching. The Testing Grounds Pyramid was a nod to the historical and cultural significance of this multi-functional design, while exploring the possibility of it having new significance in contemporary public space. We wanted it to provoke responses and create meanings, but what those responses and those meanings might be we didn’t know.

Can be climbed

The idea to build a pyramid came, as design ideas often do, from the collision of different lines of thinking.

At Testing Grounds, we’d been playing with ways to make the site more inviting as public space — making places to sit or recline or rest and ponder. On that list was the concept of bleacher-style seating — an elevated movable scaffold for watching performances or watching the world go by. But we never quite settled with the idea that bleachers will always have a back, either excluding something, or needing to be pressed up against one edge of site as though sitting in the naughty corner. The back of bleachers also need a balustrade for safety, so people don’t relax too hard and fall right off. Railings and barriers just aren’t really our thing. But four sets of steps nestled against each other? In the round? That offered a light skip through the building code. That offered potential.

Then the call came out to partner in Melbourne Design Week 2018, around the theme ‘Design Effects’. The expression of interest explicitly mentioned design being both physical and “creation of experiences” and we got to wondering what kind of experiences we would want to add to Testing Grounds through (new) design. What were we missing? What were we wishing?

Around the time of the expression of interest callout, Timothy John Moore of Melbourne Design Week asked if we were interested in doing another large scale installation for MDW2018, along the lines of the SPEAK UP graphic design exhibition that utilised the hanging frames throughout the site in 2017. That project was fantastic use of the existing site infrastructure and a wonderful political statement about gender politics in design, but as a team we wanted to push ourselves and our site further.

We’d always imagined some kind of monumental installation as fitting — a large-scale structure that was could be used and utilised as part of the infrastructure of the site, and also playfully questioned why we build structures for spectacle. Why are we drawn to monuments? What do they do for us? How do they fit within the pace of contemporary networked life?

What better structure to explore those questions than a pyramid — an icon of past civilisations that feels just a little bit out of place in the middle of a modern city…?

What do you do with a Pyramid?

Who got involved?

Once we had decided to make a pyramid and started playing with different design options, it became clear that blocks would be the best option for the build. This took us to a meeting with Natalie Colussa at Brickworks. Natalie studied in the design program at RMIT and had been involved in organising Brickworks sponsorship for the annual Interior Design Graduate Exhibition INDEX, which had been previously held at both Testing Grounds and Siteworks. Presented with the idea of the Pyramid, the Brickworks team were just as excited about a design project that included education, collective action, and featured in the biggest annual festival of design in Australia.

With the material and logistical support of Brickworks behind the project, we were then in a position to approach RMIT with the idea of a mass live-build event. Olivia Hamilton, coordinator of First Year in the Interior Design program, saw the opportunity for a unique, hands-on initiation into the design world. Olivia took the idea and ran with it, coordinating almost 140 tutors, staff, and students to find the site, get fed, glove up, and build the structure in less than four hours, all while keeping the educational benefit front-of-mind.

As part of the Melbourne Design Week program, we also received support from the NGV for programming in and around the Pyramid. That support allowed us host a bunch of workshops out of usual opening hours, and add more commissioned cross-programming to make exhibition openings and other events bigger, better, and more monumental.

The start of something…

Design and testing

The design phase started with paper sketches and quick SketchUp models exploring different footprints, step scale, and brick configuration. With 10 different design options developed, we arranged delivery of a couple of pallets of masonry bricks delivered to Siteworks in Brunswick where we could physically model stacks and slopes and tessellation. The design team of Joseph Norster, Millie Cattlin, and Isabel Holloway literally played around with with blocks.

Designs ranged from 1000 bricks to 65000, but the size that felt best was a footprint roughly the size of the Testing Grounds grid, rising into the superstructure. Something properly monumental, big enough to become a focal point and big enough to hold focus as a stage, but still a welcoming, come-and-sit-and-watch-from scale.

When the final size and structure was settled on, 3D computer modelling was used to plan each layer and make it structurally sound. The final design called for standard masonry blocks at the centre (where the bricks wouldn’t be seen from the outside) and porcelain-finish bricks as the outer layer. Over 4000 bricks across 7 levels and 21 layers.

Once we knew how all those bricks would come together, planning for the build began in earnest.

Building the Pyramid

The build itself began with Brickworks delivering 31 pallets of bricks to site before sunrise on Monday 25th February. Each pallet was unloaded by forklift and stacked around the spot the Pyramid would take shape. Later that morning, Joe and Isabel set up the base layer, measuring and marking to get the footprint exactly right. With the bottom edges in place, we had a proper idea of how big this thing was going to be, and a scale base template to give the students (who had no idea what they’d be doing on their first day of uni) something to work off and build on.

Mapping the build

The build on the 26th was both slow and frenetic. 130 first year students stacking bricks around each other is a lot of movement, but the pace was also measured and deliberate, to make sure each layer was properly fitted on the one below. The sun was out and the work was hard, but under the guidance of Joe and Isabel, first-year coordinator Olivia Hamilton, and the cast of tutors on hand, it was a seamless machine of collective effort.

About half way through the build, Joe and Isabel saw that there was a group of students who had taken the lead and understood the design, and took a step back to let those students choreograph the build. As Isabel put it, “there was a momentum growing as the pyramid got taller and closer to a pinnacle, and the students had this kind of autonomous system happening amongst themselves that we could observe and guide from a distance and see how it all turned out.”

In the end, the build stopped on the sixth level. Not for time pressure or design problems, but that was the size that felt the best for a platform. On the sixth level, it felt done.

The tumbly brick-filled crack at the back of the Pyramid was the creative solution to an interesting design problem that arose as the build progressed. Without the usual 5mm fill of mortar between each brick left very little tolerance for variations in individual bricks and how they fitted flush against each other. Those variations were amplified by the slight undulation of the ground underneath the Pyramid, and a gap began to open up around the third level. It was a real-life design problem that needed to be solved in real time.

The two options: either unstack the levels and meticulously measure a 5mm gap between every single brick, or see what happened when the bricks continued to be butted against each other. When the final layer was set and there was a brick-sized split running top to bottom of the Pyramid, we decided to emphasise the flaw with a tumble of broken bricks. To imagine the Pyramid breaking out of itself…

The day after the bricks were laid, steel fabricator Dale Holden came to site and fixed stainless steel strapping around each level to tie the whole structure down.

The Build Team: Testing Grounds and RMIT Interior Design, First Year, Semester 1 2018

The Projects / Testing Grounds team

Millie Cattlin
Isabel Holloway
Joseph Norster
Arie Rain Glorie
Trent Griffiths
Molly Braddon

RMIT Staff

Olivia Hamilton
Andrew Miller
Dave Smith
Liz Lambrou
Jess Wood

RMIT Tutors

Ellena Flahvin
Shehani Perera
Sivana Markas
Beatriz Chamsay
Jacqui Miller
Lauren Gostin

RMIT Students

Joohyun Julie An
Milan Arandara
Isabella Ardley
Sarah Arnott
Gianna Atienza
Madeleine Barr
Amber Bessell-Browne
Alicia Braid
Jayde Briggs
Emily-Rose Brims
Samantha Callahan
Tiffanie Calleja,
Lance Casimiro,
Francesca Catalano
Natalie Cerda-Lizama
I Lam Chan
Yanzhu Che,
Chen, Ling
Jia Ying Chua
Si Ying Chye
Evan Clezy
Holly Corrigan
Jessica Cozzo
Courtney Daniels
Shilian Ding
Kathryn Dowling
Natalie Fewster
Charlotte Finnis
Chloe Gleeson
Danielle Goodwin
Joanna Gray
Georgia Greene
Sarah Gulli
Merve Gun
Shengjie He
Aaron Henderson
Xin Yi Heng
Ma Andrea Hipolito
Joanna Ho
Kathleen Hoo
Imogen Brooke Hoyle
Yihan Hu
Jiamin Huang
Ashvika Jayetileke
Jaimee Jiang
Zhaowei Jiang
Felicja Jordan
James Kang
Sinead Kennedy
Wen Wen Khaw
Hyeryeon Kim
Peter Kostopoulos
Sophia Koundouris
Mia Kroopin
Kwan, Kar Yan Rhonda
Xuanling Li
Stephanie Le Sueur
Ruilin Li
Yimeng Li
Liwen Lian
Giulia Licastro
Xiaojun Lin
Georgina Loughnan
Effemy Louloudakis
Chenming Lu
Chantelle Mandaglio
Deborah Margules Cedeno
Julian Marrone
Madeleine Marschall
Julia McKenzie
Jessie Milhe
Lisa Miyagi
Tristan Moloney
Yanah Montero
Jade Morris
Nabilla Musbandi
Victoria Narduzzo
Ching Siu Ng
Nathan Ng
Stefanie Olivetti
Emi Palfreyman
Lily Minton Paterson
Alexandra Pestrivas
Imogen Prior
Chao Qu
Nazdaneh Rezaie
Anna Richards
Jessica Said
Anousack Savankham
Georgia Sawicz
Breeanna Segafredo
Rushmi Seneviratne
Jasper Sharp
Dan Shen
Qiwen Shen
Huiwen Shi
Sajida Sina
Tilda Somers
Brianna Souter
Ivan Staric-Brown
Jinru Sun
Yiwei Sun
Hoi Hung Sze
Li Yen Teng
Celline Than
Danielle Ting
Ingrid Tsang
Asterope Varagiannis
Trevina Vimala
Kanghui Wen
Kexin Wang
Shixian Wang
Anneliese Webber
Hongjia Wen
Kangqi Wen
Annabelle Williams
You Wu
Bin Xie
Fengyu Yang
Emma Yates
Linrong Yu
Ziwan Zhang
Xitong Zeng
Haoting Zhang
Jiaer Carrie Zhang
Shutong Zhang
Tianyu Zhang
Yuner Zhang
Jingru Zheng
Xueying Zhou
Yuan Zhuang

An open invitation to participate

In the lead-up to Melbourne Design Week, we contacted architecture, design, art, communication, and performing arts courses from across Melbourne and invited them to bring classes of students to use the Pyramid. To devise a workshop responding to it, or stage a creative intervention on it. We were particularly interested in proposals that would reverse engineer the design process — starting with the object and working back to propose what ‘problem’ it might address.

Alongside invitations to student groups, we also issued an open call through the website and social media for anyone and everyone to come and play with the Pyramid. We invited all creative practitioners using the site to likewise make use of our monumental friend. We made banners hung facing the street openly inviting people to sit on it, shout at it, kick it, sleep on it, redesign it, and on and on and on…

How did people use it?

We built it, and they did come. People took to it as an exhibition space, a stage, a place to recline, a photo opportunity, and a presence to be reckoned with. It became a talking point and statement about design itself. And it became a chance to realise an exciting brand of large-scale public installation at Testing Grounds — an engaged public art used for education, exhibition, performance, and play.

During Melbourne Design Week, twelve different student groups used the Pyramid for design studios, classes, workshops, and creative play. They made new edges, covered it up, made it a shelter, proposed new plans, decorated it, photographed it, filmed it, wrote notes to it, and performed on it.

Some of these classes were structured in advance, some unfolded on the spot, but in all of them students got to touch and climb and move the materials, bringing a crucial active element to the process of design education.

In addition to educational uses, any project booked in for the period the Pyramid was on site was invited to use it however they wanted. People took to that invitation in wonderfully creative ways.

Nine projects incorporated it as a key part of their work, projecting onto it, setting work up to display from it, dancing around and up it, or shouting from it. One performance as part of the Art Party program filled each level with candles and the top platform with a flame that was snuffed out by a cascade of water from a hose hidden in the steel frame.

Eighteen other projects involving more than 30 individual artists, designers, and educators used the Pyramid as a dramatic backdrop, a tier of seating for viewing their performance work, or as a really big plinth. These included the launch of Issue 2 of Caliper Journal (an independent, student-led design and architecture journal based in Melbourne), the launch of the latest Assemble Papers issue, Parlour’s Autumn Salon, the end point of Blindside Gallery’s Space Walk: Encountering Art in Re-inhabited Spaces, and a spectacular instalment of Deep Soulful Sweats.

Across all these projects, the Pyramid was treated as part of the adaptable site infrastructure; something that could be used and utilised in the development and delivery of their work. It became central of the cycle of works and working at Testing Grounds. And beyond being used, people got used to living with it. We even came to love it.

[Side note: That embrace is an interesting development considering the idea started with it being a monument. Do all spectacular structures become part of the everyday furniture until they are lit up and pointed out again? Do people living next to the Giza or Teotihuacan pyramids notice their scale any more? Do they see them as spectacular, or do they see them as part of the daily landscape? Or both, sometimes at once? Does it tell us anything about how design stitches into life?]

The use of the steps as a public gathering point also became fundamental to how the Pyramid lived within Testing Grounds. Many moments were whiled away and many debates passionately held on the cool bricks. Countless people sat on it and waited for their coffee, or ate lunch on it, or just had a rest on their walk.

A permanent change

Because the tag line for the project included “What do you do with a pyramid?”, the possibility for reimagining its purpose was built into the concept from the start. We had a desire to see it transform and evolve, to concretely change its aboutness.

We wondered what someone would do when given full license to change the Pyramid; an explicit green light for reinvention. We also secretly hoped for a punch-line to the very serious joke that it never had a planned function to begin with.

We put together a simple one page call out and sent it to universities and artists. We offered a commission for someone to re-make the Pyramid. The one restriction was that the bricks would still be reusable or recyclable at the end of the intervention. The quality of submissions was excellent, ranging from an ecological takeover to reconstruction as a maze.

But Nicole Breedon’s proposal to use the Pyramid as an elaborate plinth for a snow-person statue, complete with bronze engraved dedication plate, struck the right balance of playful and pointed. It spoke of the sacralising of objects in art spaces, the exposure of the Testing Grounds site, and a subversive joy in making public art.

Called Monument to the People, in the words of the artist the installation celebrated “the everyday […] community, fun, and family.” Like the Pyramid itself, it existed for us to project ourselves, our dreams, and our desires onto. Unlike the Pyramid, it wore it’s humour on the outside, right down to the metallic-painted carrot nose.

Decomissioning The Pyramid

After 3 months on site as part of the fabric of Testing Grounds, it was time to decommission the Pyramid. We didn’t want to stage the disassembly in the same way as the build — it is one thing to be part of a collective act of making a monument, it is quite another to pack it down. So the decommission was taken on by the Testing Grounds team.

We made a decision to do it slowly, and do it visibly. We have no back of house at Testing Grounds for a reason. It is a statement of advocacy for operations. Having no back-of-house forces us to show our workings, to acknowledge the labour behind staging and installing and deinstalling. It makes the work of art performative and celebrated.

Raising the Pyramid was an accelerated showing of how art is made. The deinstall would be a slowed down version of the same idea: on show, a visible activity of (un)making.

One stack at a time, the blocks were returned to the pallets they arrived on. One pallet at a time, snaking across the site, the Pyramid came apart.

The future of the Pyramid

The future of the Pyramid is one of reuse and recycling.

The blocks from the Pyramid have been generously donated by Brickworks for future use in the establishment of a material resource at The Projects Quarry — a site for experimental design, built form, art and education in The Otway Ranges town of Beech Forest.

The bricks will become a core resource to be used for on-site skilled trades and design student education at The Quarry.

The time spent designing for and working with masonry has also led to the development of a design studio at RMIT, run by The Projects, all about re-imagining and pushing the limits of building with bricks.

The Quarry

What did we learn?

The Pyramid was a unique design proposition that used the skills of the entire Testing Grounds team. It involved design, testing, construction and coordination, programming, education, communicating to the world, documenting, and deinstalling.

It also involved collaborating with industry, education, and creative practitioners. That collaboration went beyond bringing the Pyramid to life — it also included finding the potential the Pyramid had as a work of art, as as piece of infrastructure, and as an educational opportunity.

The process of translating design into built form reinforced the idea that you can design something on paper (or computer screen), but can never really know how it will be realised until you are standing in place, feeling the scale of the site, with the weight, size, and sense of material in your hands. It reminded us how important the experience of building things is to good design. Not just making models, but building structures on a 1:1 scale, using the actual materials of construction.

We learned that a lot of joy and creativity can flow from an instinctive idea, if it is nurtured properly. That if you give enough room for it to breathe, and you invite the right people to share in the idea, it can build it’s own complexity, and become so much bigger than imagined at the start.

We were reminded that art and design have so much in common, but also have distinct differences. Art needs design, both in its production and its consumption. The physical spaces and channels of communication through which art is framed are all designed. But design, as its own field or community of people, is very different from art. Design doesn’t need art. Design seeks to make the world more legible, and more inhabitable. Art seeks to complicate the world. It builds new language to communicate what can’t be communicated through any other modality. (Of course, that isn’t the whole picture; just thoughts we had through this project. And the Pyramid was interesting precisely because made us think. It raised tensions between art and design that we are still thinking through.)

We learned that people love a platform — to perform on or watch from.

We learned that collective action is a powerful form of education. It sets the terms of learning as a lean-forward experience. It is show, don’t tell. But it adds the extra dimensions of do, and do together. It makes study about material and collaboration and problem-solving and creation. It takes study back to its etymological roots; to apply painstakingly (Latin) or to push (Proto-Indo-European).

Some illuminating reflections from the coordinator of the RMIT student cohort, Olivia Hamilton, are below. From that coordinator perspective, it was a meaningful exercise not only in design thinking but also in forging a community of students and teachers.

It will, of course, take longer to understand the longer term effects of building the Pyramid pedagogical framing. Coming in the first week of first year for the students involved, we suspect it has set a course for how they will understand the discipline of design and their own education as active, collaborative, and materially driven, but we are still too close to know. What we do know is that for everyone involved — the Testing Grounds team included — it was a project that challenged and fired the imagination.

And finally, not insignificantly, we learned what to do with a Pyramid. Take it down.

A place to rest

Commoning With Bricks: reflections on building a Pyramid, by Olivia Hamilton

Beginning the first-year program by building the Pyramid on Testing Grounds acted to immediately shift the students away from any preconceptions of what interior design study — or even university — might entail. It proposed to them that interior design is a relational practice embedded in social connection.

I had emailed the students and asked them to gather at Testing Grounds on their first day. The students arrived, visibly confused they stood around staring at their phones. Separated from the affordances of a classroom or lecture hall and in the unfamiliar structures and qualities of the Testing Grounds site for the first time, there were no clear cues for them to follow.

We started with a quick introduction and then spent the morning in the adjacent National Gallery observing and drawing. We returned at noon to Testing Grounds to eat lunch prepared by the tutors. As the students ate, the director of Testing Grounds, Joe Norster, introduced the students to what the build required. Over the next 3 hours and 37 minutes, the students moved 4317 bricks together.

My teaching approach is informed by my own research into experiences of creative practice that facilitate attitudes of mutuality in those that work on them or encounter them. The Pyramid project was a way to produce in the students a lived awareness that they are active participants in their learning. This form of learning is not delivered by an authoritive teacher but emerges through combined and exploratory thinking and making and maintaining an openness to unfolding processes of their own making.

The educator and anthropologist Tim Ingold makes a correspondence between education and participatory creative practice. In his view, “the first place to find education is not in pedagogy but in participatory practice: not in the ways persons and things are symbolically represented in their absence, but in the ways they are made present, and above all answerable to one another, in the correspondences of social life” (Anthropology and/as Education, 2017, p. 17).

The giant pallets of bricks scattered around the site slowly receded as the Pyramid grew. Joe stood atop the pyramid with a microphone, directing the build and encouraging the builders, drawing back in the outliers and rotating the workers. The students would take turns passing the bricks up and placing them carefully in the growing Pyramid. When they rested they would gather in groups in the shade, chat and eat watermelon, forming a temporary audience for the unfolding event. Working hard together outside facilitated social contact on their first day in a way that would be difficult to instigate so quickly in a classroom.

The students gravitated to different roles. Some organising, some controlling the implementation, others were concerned with the details or preferred doing more of the lifting. It was astonishing for all of them to see what they could achieve working together in three hours. As the last brick was put in place the students cheered and then all climbed on to for a group photo. The sense of achievement is enhanced by being credited with the build on the Testing Ground website and the result of their work featured on the NGV website, as well as meaningfully participating in Melbourne Design Week on their first day of university.

Most significantly, the project at Testing Grounds established a precedent for active and participatory learning and demonstrated to the students the necessity and rewards of being engaged, socially and practically, with the community they were entering.

In the words of the students…

“In comparison to other first days I have had in high school or anywhere else — I’ve done nothing like this. It is imprinted on my brain! In terms of meeting people, it was great and really different to what would have happened in a classroom.”

“It was not what I expected from my first day; it was better because it gave us a reason to interact. It also showed me that this course is not just about sitting back — you need to get involved and put in.”

The Pyramid by Lee Ramseyer-Bache

With huge thanks to our sponsors and collaborators Brickworks, RMIT Interior Design, Melbourne Design Week, The NGV, and Creative Victoria


Words throughout by Trent Griffiths

Images by Trent Griffiths, Molly Braddon, and Isabel Holloway unless otherwise credited