Is architectural criticism critical?

Reviews can sometimes be very scathing. Consider this reviewer’s reaction to a recently released philosophy book:

“Self-important, pompous, pretentious, solipsistic, often obscure, sometimes barely coherent, his book seems to address itself only to those in the know. The translation by Jane Marie Todd renders all these faults with exemplary accuracy”

Cutting! Architectural criticism however is customarily astonishingly polite. This review by Sarah Williams Goldhagen therefore caught my eye because it said something unusual in an architectural critique:

“This is a modest building, however, and it is not perfect. At 30,000 square feet, it cost $11.5 million, more than it should have to build. Owing to bad value-engineering rather than the architects’ miscalculations, some of the attempts at sustainability failed, including a green roof that was never installed (CRI is still raising the money), and a geothermal heating system that was cost-cut into irrelevance (only one well was dug, not enough to heat the building, so they use gas)”

This is only a minor part of her review – most of it is on the safe ground of aesthetic metaphor. But what’s striking is that Goldhagen is actually prepared to comment, in however limited a way, on topics that actually go directly to the interests of the owner and users of a building.

Think about any major new building. Right at the top of the client’s priorities is: does it meet its intended purpose? Has it delivered value for money? What is it completed on time? Did it come in on budget? Right at the top of the user’s priorities is: does it do what I expect it to? Read the rest of this entry »

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Is medium density housing on tram routes sustainable?

I like Melbourne City Council’s proposal for higher dwelling densities along tram lines but I think the claim that it would increase sustainability is exaggerated. There’s a whole ‘second half’ missing from this proposal.

The idea, which seems to be largely the brainchild of Council’s Rob Adams, is essentially that multi unit developments of up to 8 storeys should be encouraged along tram routes, leaving the suburban “hinterland” undeveloped (Rob refers to it as a new green wedge). This would reduce the need for fringe development and increase the mode share of public transport.

Nicholson Street - before

The major opportunities appear to be on tram routes in the inner suburbs, around 5-10 km from the CBD. While I think the assertion that 4-8 storey buildings can substitute for fringe development is fanciful and is based on a misinterpretation of other research, I accept that the proposal has the potential to increase the supply of dwellings of the type that are sought after by smaller households, especially those without dependents.

The key problem however is that nothing has been proposed to deal with car use by households occupying these new apartments. Without that, it won’t deliver. It just assumes that if households live cheek by jowl with good public transport they will necessarily use it. Read the rest of this entry »


Did good design make Federation Square a success?

Melbourne has had a long and sorry history in its search for a successful city square, but it eventually all came good when Federation Square was opened to instant acclaim and popularity in 2002.

So why do some places like Fed Square have “buzz” but others, like the previous attempt at a city square, seem lacklustre? And why is Docklands, for example, unable to attract visitors in large numbers or create a sense of excitement and vibrancy like Fed Square?

A common explanation is design and Fed Square is indeed a wonderful building with a grand sense of occasion. Good design can certainly make things work better and poor design can subvert the best of intentions. But design rarely “makes” a project successful. Buildings like Bilbao and the Sydney Opera House are the exception rather than the rule.

Let me advance a handful of alternative hypotheses for why Fed Square has been so successful in attracting users and establishing itself as an iconic Melbourne landmark. None of these by themselves is sufficient but combined they provide a compelling explanation. Read the rest of this entry »


Is the Very Fast Train all huff and no puff?

The idea of a very fast train (VFT) connecting Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne is gaining momentum (again). The CRC for Rail Innovation launched a pre-feasibility study earlier this year; veteran journalist Brain Toohey expressed his enthusiasm for the idea on Insiders on 11 April; and now the Greens are calling on the Federal Government to fund a $10 million study into a new scheme they are proposing.

The idea of a VFT has a long history in Australia, dating back to the first serious proposal put forward by the CSIRO in 1984. The key drivers of the current proposal are environmental and resource efficiency and support for expanded regional centres.

I don’t have access to whatever technical analysis the Green’s are relying on, but this seems an unlikely idea. The fact no project has yet been shown to be viable should be a warning to tread warily. I have some doubts. Read the rest of this entry »


Are smart meters always a smart idea?

You need to be careful with incentive programs that aim to change behaviour by providing consumers with feedback on, for example, their level of electricity consumption.

Husband and wife academics at UCLA, Matthew Kahn and Dora Costa, gave households information about their own consumption of energy and that of their peers (the paper is here – may be gated for some). They found that providing  feedback to green-minded households encourages them to reduce consumption, but it encourages conservative households to increase consumption. They conjecture that when conservatives see that their consumption is less than average, they respond by increasing it in order to be closer to the average.


Is commuting harder on women?

This study by three University of Sheffield researchers finds that commuting has a detrimental effect on the well-being of women, but not men. The authors explore possible explanations for this gender difference and find no evidence that it is due to women´s shorter working hours or weaker occupational position. Rather, the greater sensitivity of women to commuting time is a result of their greater responsibility for day-to-day household tasks, including childcare.

Roberts J, Hodgson R, Dolan P, It’s driving her mad: gender differences in the effects of commuting on psychological well-being, Department of Economics, University of Sheffield


Are older drivers a danger to others?

Radio National had a fascinating talk-back session yesterday on older drivers (audio download here; no transcript). This is a pressing issue because of the ageing of the Australian population – by around 2040 a quarter of the population is projected to be aged over 65 years.

However the good news is that elderly drivers, including those over 85, are just as safe as other age cohorts. In fact in Victoria there is no compulsory age-related retesting of drivers for this reason.  It seems older drivers actively self-regulate as they feel their capability diminish – they drive less, drive shorter trips, driver slower and in particular avoid driving at night or in wet conditions. Read the rest of this entry »