How cool is this?

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

http://blogs.crikey.com.au/theurbanist/2012/01/29/how-cool-is-this/


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.

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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 »