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 »

Would we build another Opera House?

The other 'Melbourne Opera House' - Powlett St East Melbourne

An argument I see frequently in relation to massive infrastructure projects like High Speed Rail (HSR) is that we should simply get on and build them because they’re ‘visionary’ and ‘nation building’. For example, a commenter recently likened investment in HSR to the decision to build the Sydney Opera House. If cost-benefit analysis had been done on the Opera House, he argued, it would’ve been still-born. Thus we would’ve been denied the enormous tourism revenue and the boost to national pride provided by this magnificent building.

I expect he’s right. Formal cost-benefit analysis would probably be hard-pressed finding that the benefits of any opera house exceed the costs, either then or now. There’s therefore always a chance if you look too hard at the costs and the risks you could end up missing out on some whopping future benefits. However the problem with this sort of argument is that it’s based on hindsight. We know for a fact from the perspective of 2011 that the Opera House is a grand success. But cost-benefit analysis isn’t retrospective, it’s prospective – it helps us to evaluate projects before we commit to building them.

Here’s a “thought experiment”. Consider a contemporary proposal to spend a fantastic sum of money on (say) The Melbourne Opera House (insert your city of choice). Imagine an architect of Frank Gehry’s stature (but please not Frank himself!) was asked to ignore the cost and come up with a design that would create an “international icon”. The promise is the building would “put Melbourne on the map” and more than repay the preposterous cost over the years in tourism revenue and civic pride. Of course while it would nominally function as an opera house, what we’d really be building is a piece of architecture so powerful, distinctive and attractive, that it would be as iconic as……well, the Sydney Opera House.

The trouble is the probability of achieving this vision is close to zero. No one knows what the recipe for international icons is. We can look back and more or less pick out the vital decisions and factors that made the Sydney Opera House the symbol it is today, but doing it prospectively is close to impossible. We’d almost certainly end up with a Melbourne Opera House that was functionally compromised and cost billions more than it needed to, but which nobody outside Victoria gave a second glance.

Actually even if the Sydney Opera House planners knew with certainty in the late 1950s what we know now, I’m not sure building it would’ve been the “right” decision to take at the time. The Sydney Opera House didn’t instantly become an international symbol so most of the tourism and “icon” benefits, which probably didn’t kick in seriously until at least the 1980s, would’ve been heavily discounted back to the time the decision was taken to proceed. The net present value of the benefits might not have exceeded the cost of construction which, let’s not forget, was very high. Read the rest of this entry »