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urban design

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 27-Jul-1994

Edition: Late

Section: News and Features


Page: 19

Wordcount: 1364



SUDDENLY architecture is the flavour on everyone’s lips. Nowadays urban design, at the very least, is positively expected with the sorbet. Prime ministers promote it, princes flagellate with it, premiers deny it. To what do we owe this pleasure, and will it do the trick? Will our built world – the stuff we live and die in, on the ground – benefit from all this talk?

The short answer is, nobody knows. Nobody knows under what conditions societies come to produce good, even tolerable, urban architecture as a matter of course.

Democracy is part of the problem. Easy enough if you’re a despot. All you need is money, a smidgeon – a smear – of cultivation and enough nous to know good advice from bad. Heaven knows you don’t have to be decent; Hitler, Napoleon, Pericles … Signs are decentness doesn’t figure in this game.

What does figure is power, or control. Design is a question of control and urban design, beyond the detached barristerial manor which we’ve always been so good at, depends on societal control. That is, government.

It’s important to distinguish here between architecture, even urban architecture, and urban design. You can have good architecture which is not good urban design – some of Harry Seidler’s works spring to mind – and you can have good polite urban design which is by no means top of the architecture class – Ken Woolley’s Campbells Cove Hyatt, for instance. Others might cite East Circular Quay.

Urban design is about structuring the city and shaping its architecture. Whereas architects design buildings from the inside, as it were, urban design designs the rules, shaping buildings from without. Some, like Philip Cox, believe that this shaping must be done according to a single coherent”vision”. Others argue that cities are messy and pluralistic by nature, regarding the modern era, from Corbusier on, as one long casebook of reasons for not entrusting cities to those nice gentlemen from the design professions

Either way, urban design conditions private space to the public interest, providing the armature to which architecture gives flesh. It designs the infrastructure, too – roads, services and transport.

At the other end of the scale, much of what passes for urban design -street furniture, lighting, paving design and so on – is really civic design. Not much in a name, agreed; but it is important that the sexy wee ooh-ahs do not divert attention from the less demonstrable big-issue stuff.

There are no votes in anything underground or farsighted, whereas street-lamp (or indeed casino) design makes easy controversy. Trouble is, once the debate is havable, in accordance with the rules of both politics and the press – that is, once there’s something to show and shout about – it’s already too late. The real decisions have been made. Which is why democracy makes urban design so much harder to achieve.

The architecture show has three main parts: the profession, the populace and the pollies. The populace plays chorus, watching, suffering, lamenting. Passive perhaps, but its presence and understanding are essential. It is the populace, in the end, which judges.

The populace is fed by the press and other media, as are the politicians, whose core role here is to take hard decisions – building height, casino siting, that sort of thing. To some extent, of course, politicians dance on the strings of the populace, whose opinions are thought to be mirrored in the press. But a much shorter string connects those who stand to win or lose by the hard political decision. How far does one constrain the funders of campaigns?

As for the profession, it educates itself, sells itself, and most importantly produces the goods. In all these it strives, we are told, to do its best by the populace – upon whom it is, after all, dependent for tenderness and succour.

The story, in theory, is simple. Politicians consult the populace and are elected to do its bidding in city building as in all things. Sagely balancing competing interests, they frame a few elegant rules which protect community values (sunshine, trees, public spaces, heritage) and preclude abomination while nurturing creativity. The press monitors progress, keeping the populace informed and pollies apprised of the response. This debate is self-stimulating; over time patrons emerge who, understanding that urban quality is good for everyone in the long term, commission architects to further the spirit, as well as the letter, of the code. The press applauds. Politicians and architects bask. Developers bathe in gold and Pangloss looks like a prophet, after all.

Why then, in the real world, is there so little joy? Why are our towns and cities still so undistinguished, architecturally, and indeed so undistinguishable from each other? Why do architects still weep that nobody understands, and that those who do don’t approve?

The answer, simply, is that we are still doing it the same old way, with the lights and our imaginations turned off, and we don’t talk about it enough. True, we didn’t talk about it at all until about last week, so perhaps we should forgive ourselves if the conversation is still at the “wham bam whadja do that for?” evolutionary level.

Perhaps by next week we’ll have it sorted. Who knows? But because, as the astute reader will have noticed, the conversation is essential to all the main relationships and therefore to the production of architecture itself, it may behove us to dwell for an instant on why the debate is so rudimentary.

Litigation, in a word. Surprisingly more delicate than their American or European counterparts, Sydney’s architectural notables are markedly quick on the writ reflex. This bespeaks lacks of confidence; that much is obvious. More surprising is the failure to recognise another patent fact: that the best answer to criticism is not retaliation with all guns but, by nurturing debate, to sharpen critical skills among patrons and pollies alike – who knows, even a few architects may learn something – thereby increasing all our chances of doing it better later.

The current situation, where only toadying goes unpunished, fools nobody and short-changes us all. The public understandably comes to regard architecture as a joke in a bow-tie. Developers, unmotivated to change their bottom-dollar habits, treat the architect as a luxury, some sort of dilettante-lapdog cross. Meanwhile, the architect continues to weep, blinded to the fact that the writ reflex has been his own undoing – the architectural equivalent of faking it.

It may be, as architects are wont to aver, that society gets the architecture it deserves. It may be true, but it isn’t enough. Visiting chieftain Robert Stern argued recently that even big bad Manhattan is more civilised in this regard than feral Sydney – more under control, more protected, more carefully governed, the streets less dingy, the choices exponentially wider, the

debate more sophisticated, the architecture leagues ahead.

Excuses bristled, naturally. But on the last points at least, there was no dispute. In the US, and to a lesser extent in Britain, the critics of urban architecture are many, respected and unafraid, the public passionate and vociferous, architecture and urbanism the better for it. Eventually perhaps we too will stop quizzing every hapless visitor as to whether the earth moved for them in Sydney and learn instead to appraise our own performance – out loud, like grown-ups, and in clear-eyed recognition of the fact that pretending it was okay is no way of making it better next time.


DRAWING: By Simon Letch


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