How cool is this?

You can read the new post from The Melbourne Urbanist, How cool is this?, here:

What is it with architects?

You can read the new post, What is it with architects?, at my new home at Crikey.

Please bookmark the new site. I’m looking at ways to bring existing e-mail subscribers across (hopefully) with as little pain as possible. All comments on posts should now be made at the new site.

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. Read the rest of this entry »

Is this building offensive?

"The Cloud" - Proposed building in South Korea by MVRDV Architects

The exhibit shows a proposed residential development in South Korea by Dutch architects MVRDV. The architects call it The Cloud because they want to create a sense of buildings rising through “the clouds”.

Critics however reckon they look like the twin towers exploding. I see what they mean, but I’m not certain that would’ve been my first thought. Had I not had the WTC meme inserted in my brain from the outset, I might’ve interpreted it first as some form of cancerous growth – a sarcoma – growing out of the façade of an otherwise benign host.

This guy calls it “Safde/Habitat on uppers”. It certainly reminds me of Moshe Safde’s famous Habitat 67 housing project in Montreal. It’s like an enthusiastic gardener grafted Safde’s DNA on to Mies van der Rohe’s and this is the result. Maybe it should be interpreted as the architectural equivalent of sampling in music!

Still, it’s hard to believe the architects didn’t see the twin towers connection themselves (this observer reckons they did but aren’t owning up to it). The way observers have reacted isn’t surprising really: there’s a picture in MVRDV’s PR material of two cloud-wrapped, generic looking towers – the inspiration for the idea – that look remarkably reminiscent of the WTC.

I’m not convinced emulating clouds is a compelling way to go about designing buildings that are literally tall enough to be in the clouds. Seems a bit like double counting. Still, clouds is a less pretentious explanation than the ludicrous guff offered by the architects of this similar-looking building.

Nor do I think the design does well on its own terms. As an expression of cloud-wreathed towers, MVRDV’s design is an unmitigated flop. There’s nothing in that heavy, concrete “growth” that comes even close to evoking the wispy, ethereal sense of clouds. They’re delicate, light, insubstantial and wraithlike – this proposal isn’t. It’s no wonder many people think of the twin towers.

But unlike some others, I don’t accept the design is in any way immoral, insulting to the USA, or a free ride for Al Qaeda. The human mind seems to have a special talent for projecting associations onto the slightest suggestion or stimulus. I accept the architect’s explanation that the 9/11 interpretation wasn’t intended – it’s something we’re projecting from our experience. It wouldn’t get past first base in the US, but I suspect the vast bulk of the world’s population wouldn’t see it in terms of 9/11, or care.


Book giveaway: follow this link to be in the running for one of two copies of Jarrett’s Walker’s new book, Human Transit

Why don’t architects use colour more?

Not much power anymore in North Korea

About a month ago I was asked by a reporter for The Age, Susy Freeman-Green, why architects are so tentative with colour on the exteriors of buildings.

She’d observed many small apartment buildings going up in the inner city were made of grey slabs of concrete. On an overcast day, Melbourne could seem awfully leaden. “What is it with the colour grey?” she asked,”and why is it so popular with architects?”

My initial conjecture was it had a lot to do with the capital and maintenance costs of buildings. The common use of concrete is the obvious example. It’s a relatively economical material and maintenance costs are lower if it’s left unfinished (“off-form”) or with a stone aggregate finish.

However I added that this was likely to be only a partial explanation. If architects as a group were minded to dress their buildings in bigger, brighter and bolder colours, then over time they’d have convinced their clients accordingly. My best guess is they don’t for one or more of the following reasons:

Most architects see form, space and texture as the key elements of design; they think in 3D – strong colour could distract from the visual message (of course if used judiciously it could also reinforce the message!)

Strong colour used creatively can be dangerous – it can date easily and go out of fashion; clients might find it too confronting; and local government authorities and neighbours might find it too dominating

The modernist ideology stresses truth in materials – show them as they are. The contemporary stress on sustainability as a driving force of design reinforces this view

Many architects aren’t confident with colour – it seems to be a specialist talent (could that be why so many architects wear black?)

Strong and bold colours might be seen as too crass for the refined sensibilities of architects. The over-use of colour by advertisers and popular media has made it distinctly unfashionable.

I don’t know if there’s any objective data to support this contention, but it seems to me strong colour is used more extensively in warm climates where the light is brighter. Colour may look more vibrant on Mediterranean islands, but it surprises me there isn’t a greater demand for it in colder, overcast places like Melbourne where it might have a psychological bonus.

I also have a hypothesis (again, untested) that strong colours are more likely to be used in Melbourne if the building is cost-constrained to a simple form like a plain rectangular solid. Examples that spring to mind are the Macleod Netball Centre and the A’Beckett Tower. Even the NAB building in Docklands is a relatively simple form. This would be an interesting project for a student to test – if the hypothesis is true it suggests architects, on average, see colour as a residual medium.

While I think there’s room for architects to use colour more boldly than they seem to want to, I also think excessive colour is the last thing most of us want to see in our streetscapes. There could be visual cacophony if the great bulk of the urban landscape isn’t coloured in a relatively neutral way. There’s a straightforward analogy here with the look of the natural landscape, most of which tends to be in a limited, often muted, palette (I think it’s plausible we’ve evolved to prefer a subdued background).

So maybe architects are instinctively reflecting a human preference for what the outside world should look like. If so, good exterior colour design doesn’t have to be confined to the ubiquitous grey, but it needs to be relatively neutral – to form a background. Read the rest of this entry »

Some thoughts on the Myer Bourke St redevelopment

Photos by Dianna Snape

I had an interesting chat the other day with Roger Nelson, the architect whose firm, NH Architecture, designed the Myer renovation and the QV building, among others. My interest was sparked by a seminar Roger is slated to give later this month at Furnitex, the annual furniture and interiors industry expo, on the relationship between retail design, investment and commercial outcomes.

The role of architects in delivering on the triumvirate of needs – client’s, user’s and the community’s – is something I’m interested in and have written about before e.g. Is architectural criticism critical? Our main topic of discussion was the Myer Bourke St redevelopment, but this is not a review ( I’ve only spent five minutes in the new building!). Rather, I want to mention a few points that arose in our discussion I found particularly interesting. One is about the complexities of this particular project, one is about formulating the role of the building and another is about the need for more sophisticated understanding when we talk about meeting (or not) budgets.

You probably couldn’t get a better example of a commercially driven project than the Myer city store. The key players are the investors – Colonial First State and its partners – and the Myer retail chain, who’ve signed a 30 year lease on the new building. The business imperatives are straightforward: the Colonial consortium is looking for a return on the risk it’s taken on and Myer has to get and keep retail customers.

This was never going to be an easy project. For starters, Myer wanted to continue trading on site, so construction had to proceed without significantly impeding the operation of the retail business. This was also in large part a renovation, with all the attendant difficulties that working with an existing building rather than in a ‘new build’ environment implies. Successive renovations over the years have clad over the top of earlier upgrades and face lifts.

Perhaps the most daunting task was the immense responsibility of protecting and revitalising a Melbourne institution. The Myer Bourke St store is as important and visible a part of Melbourne as the footy – well maybe not that important, but it’s up there. It figures in almost everyone’s personal history in some way. It’s just part of what Melbourne is. Melburnians take a proprietorial interest in what happens to it and heaven help anyone who threatens the millions of individual biographies that include the Myer Bourke St store and all those personal ideas about what it is and should be.

A crucial idea underpinning the project teams conception of the project is that Myer is more than a store. The team saw it as a continuation of the public realm – as a place where people would go for multiple reasons, not just to shop. This vision is consistent with the project’s commercial objectives and a key way of creating it was to extend the functions of the building – for example, by restoring the heritage-listed Mural Hall and managing it for events and meetings mostly unrelated to its retail role. Another was to put windows in the top floor so that rather than the traditional department store approach of enclosure, visitors could see out across Melbourne’s rooftop landscape – a touch of Paris. And unusually for this type of building, the escalator takes visitors to the perimeter of the building on the top floor.

Then there are the smaller-scale design, layout and retail management decisions aimed at creating an attractive and generous environment. The key organising principle is the atrium, which inclines and widens as it ascends in order to gather in northern light. It offers many vantage points – visual connections and orientations – as visitors proceed upward through the changing retail offers.

A key commercial issue is how the build went against the budget. Roger isn’t hesitant in conceding the project went over the initial budget, but as always there’s much more to this sort of issue than meets the eye. One of the key questions is: which budget? Initial or final? No one really knows at the outset what a project is ultimately going to cost, especially when it involves complex unknowns like the condition of an existing building. Initial budgets are framed without perfect information and often with excessive optimism. I think an illustrative case is Fed Square – we all know it went well ‘over budget’ but what isn’t ever mentioned is how new and expensive requirements were progressively imposed on the project by the client. Read the rest of this entry »

Where are architects going with housing?

A'Beckett Tower - Winner 2011 Victorian Architect's Institute Award for multiple residential (two bed unit)

Victoria’s architects had their annual awards ceremony last Friday, handing out gongs in a range of categories. Curiously, the official AIA site shows the happy faces of the winning architects, but no pictures of the winning buildings. It should have both! Nevertheless, I finally succeeded in locating a file showing pictures of all the winning buildings in all categories – see Award Winners 2011.

Given the pressing housing issues facing our cities – like declining affordability and the need for higher densities in established suburbs – I was curious to see what the best architects in the State were doing in housing design, so I took a look at the winners in the New Residential Architecture category.

The premier honour for residential architecture in Victoria – The Harold Desbrowe-Annear Award – was won by NMBW Architecture Studio for a house in Sorrento. This is a detached house on a relatively large lot. In fact it could be is an up-market beach house.

There were three other winners in the New Residential category. Two of them – Beached House, by BKK Architects, and Westernport House, by Sally Draper Architects – are also detached houses in relatively remote (from Melbourne) locations, seemingly on even larger lots.

The only winner located in a metropolitan setting is the Law Street house, built for their own use by husband and wife architects, Amy Muir and Bruno Mendes. I like it, but architect’s own houses don’t generally provide a template for addressing the wider task of housing the population at large.

In contrast, there were only two awards for higher density housing. The premier Best Overend Award for Multiple Residential went to architects Elenberg Fraser for the A’Beckett Tower (see exhibits) and the other to Hayball architects for a three storey development in John Street, Doncaster. Read the rest of this entry »

Why are new buildings so…..modern?

Railways administration building, Spencer St

Many Australians admire old buildings like the Windsor and Parliament House, so I’m a little surprised there’re so few new commercial and public buildings with the elaborate decoration and classical references common in nineteenth century buildings. I was schooled in the modernist tradition so I don’t personally regret this absence all that much, but that doesn’t mean I’m not intrigued why there’s so little of it. Here are a couple of conjectures:

The first and probably obvious reason is that high labour costs mean highly wrought decoration simply isn’t affordable anymore. Modernism had to be invented after WW1 because historical styles were simply getting too expensive to emulate. Nowadays, workers with the requisite skills and artistic talent can get better pay and/or status in other areas. Artisans have been crowded out of the building industry by “new” industries like film, theatre, commercial design, media, advertising and, more lately, the web.

But with contemporary technology like CNC machines and the ability to import prefabricated components from low labour cost countries, this isn’t such a convincing explanation anymore. If there’s demand for greater visual complexity, a country like China – which has plenty of flamboyant modernist buildings – could be using its low cost base to construct buildings rich in decoration. These wouldn’t necessarily need to hark back to earlier periods, they might simply celebrate ornamentation and embellishment.

Another reason could be that large organisations are simply not as prepared to invest in the public domain – provide a positive externality – as they were a century ago. Expectations of proper civic behaviour might be much lower now than they were then. As mentioned here by Ajay Shah, companies and governments now have many other ways of signalling their wealth, power and prestige and accordingly don’t have to rely so much on buildings as a key form of communication.

Yet that argument isn’t entirely convincing either. Major buildings are more spectacular in form and scale than they’ve probably ever been (not least in China) – there seem to be an infinite supply of new architectural feats that apparently defy the laws of physics and mechanics (‘feat-urism’?). There still seems to be plenty of demand for buildings that put a lot of effort into how they look to outside observers — it seems like every city in the world wants a gleaming new art musuem designed by Frank Gehry. Read the rest of this entry »

Why do we love old buildings so much?

Demolished! - Melbourne Town Hall Chambers, 1968, cnr Swanston and Little Collins (picture by K.J. Halla, State Library). H/T Melbourne Curious

In The Land Boomers, Michael Cannon reports how the ‘era of extravagance’ was climaxed in 1890 by the construction of a brand new edifice for railway officials in Spencer Street at a cost of £130,000. Writing in 1966, Cannon says this “remarkably ugly building….still houses civil servants…..within its dun-coloured walls”.

There’s little doubting the historical value of the building (now a hotel), but it’s surprising to hear any building more than a hundred years old described as ugly or lacking in architectural merit. People are quick to criticise new buildings but seem far more forgiving of old ones.

Even architects are soft on old buildings. For example, The Age conducted a survey last month of 140 architects to find Melbourne’s “best” buildings and its “ugliest” ones (not available online). You might think architects would be loath to criticise their colleagues, but in fact all of the ten “ugliest” buildings were constructed post 1990 and five were built in the noughties.

I don’t think the reason we find old buildings attractive is because only the very best have survived. While some buildings of great historical importance are still around, unfortunately demolition was driven primarily by development potential, not lack of architectural merit. Like Cannon, I think some of what we now value so highly was probably ordinary in its day.

One of the reasons old buildings are attractive to us might simply be that they’re old and irreplaceable. We like old things – hence ‘antiques’ – and buildings are probably no exception. They’re also historical. They speak to us of another time, of particular events, of old crafts, and even of particular historical characters. Perhaps they’re the product of a nostalgia for an idealised past.

People will often say they admire the ornate detail of old buildings, particularly pre modern ones. They like decoration, especially if it’s elaborate and complex. Perhaps we value it more because so many modern buildings have largely abandoned any designed surface intricacy and elaboration.

Older buildings are visually distinctive, not so much because they shout out but rather because they’re different, often in a way that’s restrained and formal by contemporary standards. Few new buildings look anything like, for example, the former Melbourne Town Hall Chambers (pictured), Treasury Place or Parliament House. There’re very few buildings if any being built today in (say) the renaissance or gothic styles.

There’s also a romantic dimension to old buildings. Some traditional architectural styles evoke literary and emotional associations, probably based on what we’ve read or seen. Some also have decoration and relief sculpture based on, or drawn from, life. Figurative and non-abstract imagery isn’t common in modern buildings but resonates with us more easily and in more complex ways than abstract images. Read the rest of this entry »

What makes great architecture?

House of Mukesh Ambani, richest person in India

I’ve written the odd bit about architecture and design before (see here) but I always intended to write more. I’d especially like to review buildings, but it’s hard to get any hard information on how buildings perform for their owners and users – that’s one reason why so much architectural writing is either self-serving or vacuous.

So this interesting piece by Indian economist, Ajay Shah, offers another way to approach the subject of architecture. He poses the question: “when and where do great feats of architecture come about?…… Why do some places achieve great feats of architecture, while others routinely opt for merely functional structures?”.

He says that he is instinctively unsatisfied with the claim that the USA lacks great architecture because Americans have poor taste. Instead, he offers the following five explanations for “great feats of architecture”:

Surplus — To go beyond merely functional structures requires resources to spare. At low levels of income, people are likely to merely try to get some land and brick and stone together. In these things, we have nonlinear Engel curves. Pratapgarh looks picayune because Shivaji lacked surplus

The desire to make a statement and to impress — Ozymandius wanted to make a point: He wanted ye Mighty to look at his works and despair. I have often felt this was one of the motivations for the structures on Raisina Hill or the Taj Mahal

Arms races — There may also be an element of an arms race in these things. Perhaps the chaps who built the Qutub Minar (1193-1368) in Delhi set off an arms race, where each new potentate who came along was keen to outdo the achievement of the predecessor. I used to think that the Taj Mahal (1632-1648) was so perfect, that it could not be matched, and thus it put an end to this arms race. But then I saw the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore (1671-1673), and I had to revise my opinion……

Transparency — You only need to impress someone when there is asymmetric information, where that someone does not know how great you are. Shah Jahan needed to build big because the targets of his attention did not know the GDP of his dominion and his tax/GDP ratio. In this age of Forbes league tables, Mukesh Ambani does not need to build a fabulous structure for you to know he’s the richest guy in India. A merely functional house suffices; a great feat of architecture is not undertaken

Accountability — The incremental expense of going from a merely functional structure to a great feat of architecture is generally hard to justify. Hence, one might expect to see more interesting architecture from autocratic places+periods, where decision makers wield discretionary power with weak checks and balances. As an example, I think that Britain had the greatest empire, but the architecture of the European continent is superior: this may have to do with the early flowering of democracy in the UK. Read the rest of this entry »

– When is a building worth protecting?

Growth of Costco, 1976 - 2010 (animation)

The planning Tribunal’s decision on the former AMPOL building highlights a couple of issues about preserving significant buildings. In reaching its decision that demolition could proceed, VCAT’s thinking was that ”a greater community benefit for present and future generations will ensue from the establishment of the Peter Doherty Institute than from retention of the former Ampol House”.

I think this highlights a couple of issues over and above what I discussed last time. It implicitly says that what a building is worth is a function of what’s planned to replace it. We now know VCAT doesn’t think the AMPOL building is worth preserving when the alternative use is an immunology and infectious diseases research centre, but what if the alternative were (say) an apartment or office building? Might VCAT have concluded under those circumstances that AMPOL house is in fact worth saving?

It seems to me that if a building truly is worth protecting (a broader ambit than ‘preserving’) on the basis of its architectural and/or historical significance then it is, by definition, worth saving. That value has nothing to do with alternative uses (they’re about the land it’s sitting on, not the building itself). A significant building isn’t any less valuable if the proposed alternative use is something worthy — like a park, social housing, a memorial, a shrine, a research centre — than it is if the alternative is something prosaic, like a car showroom, a shop or apartments.

If planning schemes weren’t muddled with so many “it depends”, there might be less money and time wasted on court battles. If there were a clear statement of what must be protected, councils would have to think a lot more rigorously about what is worth protecting and what isn’t. Developers, owners and the wider community might appreciate clearer guidance.

Another issue the VCAT decision highlights in my view is that understanding the social costs of preservation (or other regulations, like height limits) is too often overlooked. That’s not saying we shouldn’t protect appropriate buildings, but we should know what it’s costing and we should know who’s paying. Read the rest of this entry »

Should the old AMPOL building be demolished?

Elizabeth Tower Motor Lodge, Parkville (formerly AMPOL)

The key issue arising from the Elizabeth Tower Motor Lodge case isn’t that the building can now be demolished, but rather what’s proposed to replace it.

The former AMPOL headquarters building is noted for its dramatic circular staircase, but its claims to historical significance aren’t compelling. According to the National Trust:

Historically, it is of interest as a building that is designed in a style that appears to belong to the early modernist period of twenty years previously, and is by far the last major building designed in this tradition in Victoria. It is also of interest as the headquarters of one of the major petrol companies in Victoria, which were all undergoing great expansion at that time, and for originally incorporating a petrol station at the ground level.

So, it is the last building designed in a style that was already passé when it was constructed in 1958. And the fact that it was occupied by a major corporation – even a petrol company – shouldn’t be surprising for a building located in the city centre. That’s possibly fascinating, but it’s not the sort of history that justifies preservation when there are alternative uses for the site.

Appearance is always a very subjective topic, but to my eye and, it seems, many others, the staircase is interesting. It’s a sort of melange of Russian Constructivism meets Disney Tomorrowland. Some have labelled it (wrongly) as ‘iconic’. But as visually arresting as it is to the citizens of 2011, it’s neither architecturally nor historically an especially significant staircase.

In fact I suspect it’s much more attractive to contemporary sensibilities that it ever was in its day (would Robin Boyd have labelled the staircase Austerican featurism?). That however is not a compelling reason for preservation because ‘interesting’ looking buildings needn’t be in short supply – we can always build new ones, maybe even more interesting ones.

Stripped of the bunkum about ‘significance’, the streetscape would be no worse off if Elizabeth Tower were replaced by a building that is at least as visually interesting. And that brings us to the core issue – judging by the only picture I could find of it (see picture under fold), the appearance of the proposed replacement building is, to put it nicely, a little bland compared to that dramatic staircase. I’ve no reason to doubt the new building is a tour de force in all other respects and a credit to its designers, but it will inevitably be compared to its predecessor and on that score it appears somewhat underwhelming.

Read the rest of this entry »

Does the built environment determine our lives?

Where the most common languages are spoken

The American modernist architect, Richard Neutra, is supposed to have once claimed that if he were so minded, he could design a house for a happily married couple that would assure their divorce within six months. Or something like that.

While it’s possibly apocryphal, the story illustrates what many architects and urban designers think – design profoundly affects our behaviour and wellbeing.

It’s clear the built environment matters. It keeps out the rain, cold and unwanted visitors. And it’s equally obvious that some buildings, like churches, can move us in the same way a natural landscape can impress itself on us.

We know that some colours can affect our perceptions and possibly, in some circumstances, even our emotional state. And we know that all other things being equal, public spaces where there are “many eyes on the street” tend to have less crime and the “dark end of the street” can be a dangerous place. And you’re less likely to know your neighbours across the street if you live on a busy road.

We also know it’s a simple enough matter for designers to channel where people walk through urban places and where they are most likely to pause in the sunlight and take in the view or a latte.

But designers have a tendency to over-state the behavioural and social effects of the built environment. I don’t know what design strategies Neutra had in mind but it seems to me he would have failed miserably. Humans are remarkably resilient when it comes to adapting to different environments. Read the rest of this entry »

Is Docklands a dog?

Picture by Ozsoapbox

I like dogs so I’d say Docklands is more like a mangy, flea-bitten hyena. It’s ugly, it’s shrill and it’s very ill-mannered.

As a friend and I cycled down Latrobe Street and over the railway bridge a few Sundays ago, I thought for a moment I was entering one of those anonymous, soulless suburban business parks that abound in the US.

I’ve written recently on how successful Docklands is as a business park so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to see so much banal architecture in one place – not every building, but there’re far too few that aren’t tinted glass boxes.

The residential areas exude the very worst of the Gold Coast, even down to the vulgar attempts to “stand out” from the crowd. They’re as flash as a hyena with a gold tooth. If there’s such a thing as a “Melbourne architectural style” that draws on subtlety, wit, intellect, culture and life in a cold climate, then it’s turned its nose up at Docklands.

This was my first daytime leisure visit to Docklands in a while and it shocked me. I seriously don’t know how I ever imagined that one of Melbourne’s competitive advantages is its high standard of architecture. How could Melbourne produce this generic tripe? Read the rest of this entry »

Could this man rescue Docklands?

Click image to play (at Vimeo)

Blu is the Michaelangelo of graffiti. He makes Banksy look like a painter of miniatures. He could work wonders with Docklands, I reckon.

This extraordinary video was created by painting walls innumerable times, photographing each “painting” and combining the images in a stop-motion animation. It took months of work and hundreds of gallons of paint.

Big Bang, Big Boom tackles the big questions – where the universe and life started and where it all might end. From the Big Bang right through to the Big Boom.

The sheer scale of this exercise is overwhelming. I’ve never seen anything like it before. It’s brilliant.

Check out Blu’s other work too.

Is 13 storeys right for Coburg?

Whether you like the look of this building or not, I think the Panel has done a good job in recommending the rezoning and permit pretty much as proposed by the proponent. This is the kind of development Melbourne needs in order to increase densities in established areas (click image below; and here’s another one).

The proposal is for a mixed use development on the old Coburg High School site in Bell St near the intersection with Sydney Rd. It’s a large landmark site of around 1.2 hectares, fronting Bell St in the north, Bridges Reserve in the west and established housing on the other frontages.

It is within the Coburg Principal Activity Centre and will provide 520 residential units spread over 8-13 storeys along the non-residential frontages, stepping down to three storeys where it faces existing housing. It also includes some commercial uses on the Bell St frontage.

The units are very small and therefore relatively affordable (although that’s not the same as value for money!). Around three quarters are proposed to be studios and one bedroom apartments, with a minimum internal floor area of 40 sq m and 44 sq m respectively. The remainder are two bedroom units (minimum 65 sq m). These tiny sizes are around the average for inner suburban apartments – see here.

The project must provide at least 20% of the units for social housing under the planning scheme. However the proponent proposes around half of the units will be allocated to a recognised social housing provider under the National Rental Affordability Scheme.

The Panel’s reasons for supporting the project can be read here. While I endorse their overall direction, I have misgivings about some of their conclusions. Read the rest of this entry »

Spare infrastructure capacity – is it a tall story?

Here’s more evidence that claims of “spare” infrastructure capacity in inner city and inner suburban areas are a tall story. The Sunday Age reports that Port Melbourne Primary School, Malvern Primary and Middle Park Primary are the first schools to get double storey portable classrooms.

Two storey portables are a natural evolution – practically every State primary school in Melbourne within 10 km of the CBD already has single storey portables. However I’m not concerned with whether portables are better or worse than permanent buildings but rather with what additional classrooms say about spare capacity in schools.

As I argued previously in Why ‘spare infrastructure capacity’ is exaggerated, it is a mistake to think that there is necessarily spare infrastructure capacity just because an area historically had a higher population than it has at present. Read the rest of this entry »

Should Parliament move to Werribee?

Contrary to what seems to be a widely held belief, it is not an easy matter to make jobs simply materialise in places that have a shortage of employment. It is a difficult and complex business that involves much more than merely rezoning land for business use.

However here’s an outrageous shortcut for developing Melbourne’s west. Why not shift the seat of Government in Victoria – politicians, bureaucrats, departments, the whole kit and caboodle – out of the CBD to somewhere like, say, Werribee?

Parliament House as it was intended...

Such an action would give an enormous boost to the development of the west and reinforce the Government’s new policy of developing significant suburban activity centres. A location like the west makes sense because the weight of future metropolitan growth will have to be north of the Yarra due to environmental constraints in the south and east.

This is a shocking idea but it’s not as far-fetched as it sounds (although I don’t mean to suggest that it would be costless or easy, much less politically tempting).

The standard argument for retaining the seat of Government in the CBD is that high level strategic operations obtain external economies of scale from co-location. Thus the efficiency of government in Victoria is greatly enhanced by face-to-face contact between politicians and bureaucrats on the one hand, and captains of business on the other. Further, the CBD maximises access to high human capital workers because of its excellent accessibility, particularly by rail, from all parts of the metropolitan area. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

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 »