Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
TERRACES ARE BRILLIANT FOR CITY LIVING
E. M. FARRELLY
SYDNEY, for all the cries about a housing crisis, is one of the least populous cities in the history of the world. It has an overall density of something less than 20 people a hectare, compared with Tokyo’s 163, Calcutta’s 303, ancient Rome’s estimated 500 and medieval Edinburgh’s 1,750.
Sydney, in fact, provides its citizens with an abundance of one of the world’s most fought-for luxuries: space. This is no accident; representing from the start a rejection of the slums and dereliction that blighted urban Europe, Sydney got the cure almost before it got the disease.
In 1790 Governor Phillip, making plans for the first European settlement in NSW, wrote that its streets should “be laid out in such a manner as to afford a free circulation of air; and when the houses are to be built … the land will be granted with a clause that will prevent more than one house being built on the allotment, which will be 60 feet in front, and 150 feet in depth…”
The Governor’s good intentions did not prevent the cramped and crazed conditions of early Sydney, but the ideal of a single house on a single plot of land has remained not only part of the Australian dream, but part of every Australian’s assumed birthright.
Until now. With house prices rising like helium balloons, urban infilling and consolidation are being called for, not only by architects and developers(whose motives may be mixed) but even by politicians who, in predicting fringe ghettos of disaffected suburban
poor, may be venturing on to electoral thin ice. It seems the golden euphoric years of lawnmowers and barbecues for all may be coming to an end.
Increased residential densities are becoming an economic, as well as an ecological, necessity but are unlikely to prove the unmitigated cultural catastrophe that many instinctively expect.
Popular mythology, extending the anti-urban sentiments of the Victorian philanthropic movement, has tended to link medium-density and high-density living with social degeneracy. In fact, no causality has been proved; and when other, non-architectural, factors such as poverty and ethnicity are removed, the correlation collapses completely.
The problem (and its solution) is political, not architectural. Identical buildings in Brixton and Berlin become slums and high-class apartments respectively.
Nor has the decline in sexual activity observed in overcrowded rats found any parallel in human behaviour, bringing the cities of Europe (with densities often 10 times that of Sydney) to a shuddering genetic halt. Against expectations, cities everywhere continue to thrive.
Not that even Europeans have crowded together by choice. Detached suburbia remains the world’s most desired mode of living, only most have never been able to afford it. In Sydney, with its New World blessings of space, mobility, democracy and wealth, things have been different. Suburbs have continued to spread.
Now, something has to change. But it’s not just a matter of lumping it; on the contrary, higher densities, wisely planned, can have major cultural payoffs.
The city may be defined by its capacity to sustain specialties – shops, for example, that sell only green marbles or blue cheese – that clearly depend on population density. Density promotes variety. Only the density of Venice or Rome can support those multifarious tiny enterprises that, as much as palaces and monuments, impel many people to regular pilgrimage. Only increased density can turn our cities from front rooms into living rooms.
The houses of which cities have traditionally been made are terrace houses, apartment terrace houses and apartment blocks. They are intrinsically urban, forming streets almost without trying. But the terrace is singularly versatile: it can provide gardens front and back, be anything from one to eight storeys and from four to 20 metres wide, and from studio flat to ducal palace in size. It can define streets or squares or crescents or blocks, but it always makes “urb”, not “suburb”.
The terrace house has further virtues. It sits gracefully on flat or sloping sites, is adaptable to 100 other uses (shops, restaurants, offices), encourages small-scale speculative development within a code of established urban decency and pre-empts privacy problems with an easy lack of equivocation that is rare in architecture.
It is a brilliant, perhaps unsurpassable, invention for urban living.
There are other ways of doing it, of course, without entirely reinventing the wheel; Ken Woolley’s The Penthouses, in Sydney’s Darling Point, provide a particularly handsome example. Designed and built in the now-so-reviled 1960s, they are modelled on that old architectural favourite, the Italian hill town, tumbling down the hill in a series of deep whitewashed terraces and overhanging terracotta roofs.
Cliche or not, and even without the succulent planting, it is an ingenious and still – 20 years on – seductive way of maximising views, privacy and civic amenity (even on-site car parking) for all. The density is considerable; so is the reward for the residents.
Drawing: Terrace houses