Do great buildings make great cities?

Utzon's competition-winning entry for the Sydney Opera House - fortunately, he liked oranges! (from SMH 30 Jan 1957)

I wish I could’ve been in Sydney on the 17th to attend UTS’s 10th Anniversary Special Zunz Lecture on the rather silly proposition that ‘Great buildings make great cities’. It would’ve been a giggle to see Nick Greiner, Elizabeth Farrelly, Graeme Jahn and Stuart White taking this pompous idea ever so seriously.

It’s true there are some great buildings in great cities. But there are some cities that have great buildings but aren’t themselves great. There are great cities that don’t have great buildings. Some great buildings aren’t even in cities. In fact some great buildings – like Mies’ Barcelona Pavilion and Rossi’s Teatro del Mondo – weren’t even intended to be permanent! And even in those cities with one or more great buildings, the best that could be said about most of the other 99.99% is they aren’t great.

I think it should be obvious Rome wasn’t a great city because of the Pantheon, but because it was a key centre of trade and political power over many centuries. Likewise London. But they’re European cities with millennia of history to draw on. New-world cities are a better reference for Sydney.

Few would argue that New York is one of the world’s great cities. It has some great structures too e.g. its rail stations, the Chrysler building, the Empire State building, the Brooklyn Bridge, and more lately the Highline.

But even the briefest glance at the magnificent book by Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: a history of New York city to 1898, shows the overwhelming importance of complex social and economic forces in making Gotham one of the world’s great cities. With reputedly half of everything that ever entered the USA, including people, passing through New York, it would be a ridiculous conceit to argue the city is great because of its buildings.

It’s far more plausible that any line of causation runs the other way – New York has some great buildings because the city is great. Athens has the Parthenon because it was a great city, not the other way around. Bilbao doubtless has many virtues, but I haven’t heard it described too often as one of the world’s great cities just because its got a Guggenheim.

Sydneysiders suffer from Opera House Syndrome (OHS), so it’s no wonder they default to “starchitecture”. This unfortunate condition, which is characterised by blind hope and delusions of grandeur-on-the-cheap, is a direct consequence of the extraordinary good fortune of having not one but two internationally iconic structures – the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. Like cargo cultists, they think they can make Sydney even greater through more starchitecture.

OHS is a terrible and merciless condition. Sufferers think their cherished international emblems are the reward for their city’s intrinsic qualities, like the vision, risk-taking and marketing savvy of its residents.  The reality is that, like much in life, international icons are almost entirely the result of good luck – in fact extraordinary good luck.

We should all know by now that the Sydney Opera House was created in spite of Sydneysiders, not because of them. If it hadn’t been for Finnish architect, Eero Saarinen, it wouldn’t even have got a start.

The odds of a new-world city like Sydney having even one internationally iconic structure are astonishingly long (just ask Melbourne), but two is stratospheric. The odds of having more than two……and the likelihood Sydney could create yet another by intent…..well, we’re in the realm of metaphysics now.

I like to think that in Melbourne a debate like the Zunz lecture would be couched in different terms. At the very least, the proposition might be something like “great urban design makes great cities” or, preferably, “great urban design makes a better city”. They both recognise that it’s not individual buildings that make a difference but the overall feel of the city. The latter also acknowledges that the physical environment is only one factor that contributes to making a city great.

Sydneysiders would be wise to note that what makes Melbourne’s centre so enviable is the whole box and dice – the buildings, the laneways, the streets, the river, the trams, the parks and plazas, and so on. They should also note that simply replicating Melbourne’s famous laneways is not a guaranteed recipe for success.

The forces that created the vitality of Melbourne’s inner city run far deeper than planning policy. The planners, to their great credit, removed the planning obstacles, but they didn’t create the underlying demand. The liquor licensing reforms of the 1980s is one example of those deeper forces – in 1986 there were 571 restaurant liquor licences in the State; by 2004 there were 5,136.

Postscript 1: I hadn’t realised before looking at the exhibit how much better the exterior of the Opera House turned out than Utzon originally envisaged. It seems we have the practicality of spheres (apparently he was inspired by an orange) to thank for that.

Postscript 2: I know I didn’t define “great architecture” or “great cities”, but it’s just too hard for current purposes.

11 Comments on “Do great buildings make great cities?”

  1. rohan says:

    Correct, great buildings dont guarantee great cities (Bilbao still struggling I believe), but great cities usually have great buildings. Possibly what the conference was about, or revealed by default, is that there is an international we’ve-got-the-most-interesting-building-by-the-most-famous-architect race going on world wide, at least in Europe and China and a bit in the Emirates. Many cities whether great or not really seem to believe that any new gallery or arts centre or even ‘iconic’ office block should be a striking as possible, to put them on the map. Ive signed up to a few on-line architectural mags, and the number of such projects seems enormous (though dropped off recently of course) – Ive been amazed how many wild sometimes wacky prestige projects are being built in various Chinese and European cities – strangely not so much in the US, perhaps less money for cultural projects, or just more conservative. Its a version of the tallest building syndrome – alive and well in the arabian peninsula.

    My concern is that often the new structures give nothing to the city other than a hope for more tourists; usually they are self referential designs that have nothing to do with the city around them, though the best actually are set in carefully considered contexts and are intended to lead the regeneration (or gentrification) of an area, or create or are part of an attractive new precinct.

    • Don’t forget that most (if not all) of these landmark buildings only work becauses they sit infront of a background of plainer structures. Imagine a street where ever building by Frank Gehry (et al) is lined up in a row.

      These landmark buildings are bit like the one piece of flash furnitue restaurants use to set the tone of a room: they nice to look at and it’s nice to know that they are nearby, but they add little to liveability of the space they are situated in.

  2. Dudley Horscroft says:

    Certainly the OHS is alive and well in Sydney. But the OH itself is only good from the outside. I recall that the design was originally canned because it didn’t conform to the requirements, and it was only when an outsider was asked to look over the shortlisted designs, and he asked to see some of the losers, that it was given the go ahead.

    For my opinion, Fort Macquarie was a better building: it looked good, and while one can quibble about the military-style decoration, it was fit for purpose. What more can one want from a building?

  3. Jim Wright says:

    There is another problem with “great buildings” and that is the battle between dramatic appearance and functionality. I actually prefer Utzon’s original sketch for the Opera House, because it was very fluid and based on the profile of the lateen sail. Unfortunately, the structural engineers (Ove Arup) were determined that the building should also exemplify clever engineering design and asserted that a shell roof as suggested by Utzon’s design could not be built, because the shape was not computable. (Of course, these days, a computer would knock it off in half an hour, using finite element analysis). I concede that the solution to use T-beams shaped like the segments of an orange was brilliant. Unfortunately, the structural thickness was so great that it took away a large amount of the interior space intended for the scenery flies. This detracted substantially from the flexibility of stage management and the potential for dramatic scenic design. Fortunately, the main hall (originally intended for opera performances) was hi-jacked for a concert hall, and management has been able to use the more restricted dimensions of the second hall to excuse themselves for providing (usually) a more limited visual experience. They might have had the best of both worlds if they had simply built a non-structural shell roof over a steel frame.

    • Dudley Horscroft says:

      As I recall it, when Utzon tried to turn his original sketch into solid building, he found that it was impossible (at any reasonable expense). As a result, he had to pitch the shells at a much steeper angle, giving them, from memory, about 50% greater height. And even then, costs were rapidly increasing, causing the State Government eventually to step in. My recollection may be wrong of course, and if so, no doubt I will be corrected.

  4. Glen Frost says:

    Yes, love the comment about OHS amongst Sydneysiders. Another example of design failure is the Barangaroo development.

    Barangaroo lacks an outstanding icon or monument for the headland park. This is a serious lost opportunity. Barangaroo is a “once in a lifetime” opportunity for Sydney, and an iconic statue on the headland would put Sydney back on the (international) tourist map.

    I have proposed an iconic statue for the headland park; sadly, I haven’t had any response from the BDA.

    Briefly, the statue is of Barangaroo (standing) and her daughter (kneeling): the public can touch the hand of Barangaroo’s daughter in a personal act of reconciliation

    Glen Frost

  5. […] Do great buildings make great cities? – link […]

  6. Fred Kent says:

    There is a deeper question and that is what is a good or great building? Today the design critics look at the building as an object and use language that describes the building’s features. It does not discuss the context or if it creates a sense of place. We at Project for Public Spaces look at a four qualities…comfort, access and linkage, uses and activities and sociability. Our research has validated those qualities many times. They are intuitive qualities and reflect not just how people feel, but where they go and spend time and have pleasure.
    Today that does not seem to be on the radar screen of designers of all types and critics. For us it is sad to see each new building in the many cities we travel to seems to be the worst. In NYC Gehry’s IOC building has no base and it is impossible to find the door. The Morphosis building in Cooper Square is disaster at the ground level and casts an angry gesture to an historic district that is recognized the world over as a exciting and unique destination… The East Village. In a discussion with some friends who are “New Urbanists”, Victor Dover and John Massengale, we came up with some possible names. Green Brutalism and Eco Brutalism. The Green Building syndrome is the third leg in what could be a potential new era of design. Placemaking, green design and iconic features/qualities put together to create great destinations could be a goal that would benefit everyone.
    We are advancing an idea we call, “Toward an Architecture of Place” Follow our tweets, emails, and facebook as we discuss and shape it

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