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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 18-Jul-2002

Edition: Late

Section: News And Features


Page: 11

Wordcount: 491

…if you call that pretty

Elizabeth Farrelly. Elizabeth Farrelly is an urban consultant and writer.

But you can’t legislate for taste, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.

WELL, that’s it then. No more ugly. Gorn, just like a train. Next they’ll ban unhappiness. Any palpable form of despond will be not only unfashionable but positively unlawful. That’ll show ’em. Meanwhile Sydney’s so-familiar ugly-blocka-flats, the six-pack and its descendants, will slowly disappear from our streets, thus acquiring scarcity value and becoming … what? Beautiful?

The new regime, enshrined in SEPP (State Environmental Planning Policy) 65 and launched by Planning Minister Refshauge on Tuesday, confirms what many have long suspected. They just don’t get it. The obvious fact is that laws are for moral issues, issues of right and wrong that regulate interpersonal behaviour and allow societal consensus.

Aesthetic issues are fish of an entirely different feather. Self-evident truth 1a: aesthetic judgements are subjective. Taxi drivers know this. You can’t legislate for something whose base definition varies from person to person, culture to culture, week to week. But politicians are sustained by the belief that if they can just legislate enough, no-one will be able to build ugly any more.

A time-honoured principle of sane development control is that you legislate for public health and benefit issues, especially those you can measure (ventilation, say, or ceiling height) and you leave the aesthetic stuff where it belongs, with personal

taste. Occasionally, though, governments get bored with the easy stuff and gird their loins instead for the Really Big Issues, like whether the local apartments should be face-brick or stucco.

SEPP 65 has two main planks: requiring all significant buildings to be designed or certified by a registered architect, and requiring all master-plans and consents to be stamped by non-council “design review panels” (of up to five architects or other design professionals).

The SEPP makes a brave attempt to erect this shaky edifice on a founding definition of “good design”, but all it can find to fill the formwork is a lot of empty syllables: appropriate innovation, internal amenity, appropriate room dimensions, sustainable density, quality aesthetics. Junk verbiage, vitiated by the drive to define the indefinable.

This is what happens if you get 200-odd architectural types in a room and ask them to fix the system. It’s a variation on the old management-consultant rort whereby your findings deliver more power and money to precisely the cost-centre that pays you.

Tribalism like this should surprise no-one. What is a profession, after all, but a club premised on exclusivity? The irony is that having talked up their involvement, both as designers and as design review panellists, architects have simultaneously relinquished individual control mandating detailed peer review down to such intimacies as colour, material and finish. Terrific, as long as you like camels.

So, can it work? Will requiring architects to design everything make big, bad and ugly go away? From a range of possible answers, the simplest is: Blues Point Tower. I rest my case.


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