Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Get the look or you don’t get a look-in
A pattern book dictates the designs for Sydney apartment buildings and that’s a recipe for dull architecture.
It is the central and sustaining delusion of people in power that they are, in fact, in power. That’s fine. Everyone has to believe something. But lately this delusion has begun to irrupt as a need to change not just the system, but the way reality looks.
It is understandable. Basic packaging theory, really. Napoleon knew that empire alone wasn’t enough; it had to be obvious, palpable and glittering. Palaces, boulevards, that sort of thing. Jeff Kennett ditto, with his mini grands projets (although absolute power might have helped, when it came to staying there long enough to reap the benefits).
NSW, by comparison, has tended to a cheaper (OK, be kind, call it policy-driven) approach. From Paul if-you’re-not-in-Sydney-you’re-camping-out Keating’s Urban Design Task Force, circa 1996, to Frank Sartor’s DIY design excellence rule book and competition system, overwrought and undermined as it is.
Bob Carr, not to be outdone, last year held his own architect-developer talkfest, amassing his own, even bigger, paste-ball of expert committees, dead-eyed reports, smug bureaucracies and gossamer design commandments. Eagerly he rolls it along to every design-clan gathering, however tenuously linked, as part of the pitch.
The Government’s big yellow Residential Flat Design Pattern Book is the paste-ball’s shiniest ingredient. It yearns to improve design, but really just makes it plain that design is not a recipe game; better to stick with model projects, like the thoughtful Victoria Square development at Green Park, than tangle with dogma.
Declaring itself a resource of ideas and precedents, the Pattern Book has two parts; the first offering 10 case studies as exemplars of best practice, while Part II distils this wisdom to produce three apartment-building archetypes urban, coastal and garden (read suburban), complete with colour palettes.
OK. The planet is an increasingly crowded picnic spot, so there’s an environmental imperative to make higher-density living desirable, and even fashionable. Assuming it matters that our grandchildren see nature in the present tense.
And it’s easy to see why a person living in Maroubra and visiting Europe each year should want to do something anything about our building habits. But is this the way to do it?
It’s not just that the good guys Carr’s exemplars are too hard to tell from the deplorable. Or that the principles pushed in the text are breached by all but a few. It’s not even the fact that the exemplars are designed by the current architectural in-crowd with good political acumen and access, or that virtually all of them are in fact two or three times higher than their neighbours. What’s a little extra height, after all, when you’re talking Architecture?
Behind all this are bigger issues, about democracy, taste, free-will and the nature of judgement. Can we impose taste? Should we? And if so, whose?
The urge to tyranny, too, is explicable. Many of us believe, deep down, that the world would be better off if we were in charge of it. (So can’t we shortcut all that trying cultural change stuff, and just make them do it properly?)
But, as has been said, democracy guarantees the right to write badly. You can’t enshrine the opportunity to succeed without guaranteeing the right to fail. We must be allowed to look dreadful, dress badly, sing tunelessly, and build trash, as long as it doesn’t trample the rights of others.
In architecture, this means defining and protecting the public good, as far as possible; governing measurables like height, heritage and overshadowing; and leaving the rest to taste. Even if it’s hideous.
Pattern books are nothing new. And they didn’t evolve in democracies. The earliest, more enduring than inspired, was by Roman architect Vitruvius in the first century AD. A clutch of Renaissance theorists followed including Alberti c. 1450, Serlio in 1537, Palladio in 1570 and Scamozzi in 1615 progressively updating Vitruvius and canonising the orders.
But the pattern-book genre really struck gold in Georgian London where, before architect was a protected title, the builder’s pattern book offered the craftsman-builder a crucial leg-up. And thence to Sydney; most of our terrace housing civic-minded and pretty, but also cold and damp having been built on commercial patterns.
The pattern book, naturally enough, standardises detail, material and composition. And there’s the rub, since gains in taste are matched by losses in ingenuity and creative freedom. Architectural sage John Summerson lamented, for example, the way this Palladian dictatorship (1730-1760) in Georgian London killed stylistic change for 30 years.
For such taste-tyranny to be assumed voluntarily by developer-builders for business reasons is one thing. To some extent this happens anyway. Current Sydney development shows how far the market high guardian of diversity has thrown a glassy pseudo-modern uniform across residential design. Wanna sell? Get the look.
But for it to be imposed from above, even on a nominally advisory basis, is menacing indeed.
Of course it is usually well meant. In Britain the Prince of Wales took time out from talking to flowers to commend thatch-and-picket villages to the socially outcast. He may genuinely have thought he was just voicing an opinion. It’s possible. But he failed to recognise as Bob Carr fails to recognise that an opinion from the pinnacle of power amounts to a dictate.
The implication is build thus, or you won’t be approved. Or even, in view of the case studies’ stark height differentials, “build thus, in these styles and colours, with these in-club architects, and you’ll get heaps like, heaps more floor space than expectation, equity and urban design might otherwise allow”. Design as commodity.
You and I might understand that taste is personal, changeable, capricious. That Bob Carr’s tastes matter as little as yours or mine. We might see that today’s heritage treasures were our parents’ betes noires.
But the Pattern Book says we’re wrong. The Pattern Book says it matters very much what Bob Carr and his henchpersonz like, and that Look A is simply better than Look B.
So what is this uniform they want us in? Well, that’s the other thing.
As if the built world weren’t dull enough already and ignoring the fact that Sydney’s vibrant energy, despite the ugliness, springs directly from its rampant diversity of form, the Pattern Book reduces the garden of residential delights to three variants on a single utilitarian theme.
The book’s three residential types urban, suburban and coastal are all drawn at five storeys. It’s cool pseudo-modern Corb-meets-Terragni egg-crate in the middle, but with clearly articulated base, middle and top, in the classical manner. This is said to emulate traditional town-centre architecture, though most towns around here are one- and two-storey jobs, shoved up hugger mugger to form a high street.
(There’s a double irony in the use of modernism as the Pattern Book Look. Not only would the real moderns have died to think they left nothing more lasting than a stick-on style (as opposed to grass-roots belief). But here it is in, of all things, a pattern book when the whole point of architecture’s modern revolution was to revile the 19th century’s cookie-cutter classicism and restore an architecture of first principles.
All the designs show a shared roof-terrace option as if 80 years of history hadn’t demonstrated the deathliness of such spaces and a narrower range of balconies and sun-screens than you get from playing the Sims.
The ground-floor retail component diminishes towards the sea, and there’s a clear city-to-surf gradient in material and colour too, with the buildings becoming glassier and colours paler near the edge. It goes like this. Urban = red (no, really, bright geranium red); suburban = brown; coastal = grey-white, with the bluegreen tinge of cheap glass. Otherwise, it’s all much the same.
So there you have it. Pretty simple. If they can just do the same for commercial buildings we’ll be able to close all those schools of architecture. Think of the money-and-aggravation that would save.
Better be quick, though. Before the architects work out that they’ve kicked an own goal here. They might think the market is crass and tasteless. They’d be right. But sooner or later they’ll see that government-imposed taste rules merely signify a further lapse into fash-ism.
THREE ILLUS: By the book …
a textbook example, the Kings Bay development at Five Dock.
They’ve got the look …
the Medina apartments in Surry Hills, above left, and Hudson at Alexandria.