Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Greatness cannot flourish while planners rule
Although the public dislikes many modern buildings, politicians should swallow hard and allow architects a freer hand, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
GLENN Murcutt’s speech to the National Trust this week raises a number of familiar complaints: the soul-lessness of our increasingly bloated new suburbs, the sad parody that passes for heritage conservation in this country and the old chestnut of council-enforced mediocrity.
It sounds like a broadish brush, but all the issues reduce in the end to one – control. Architecture, like any art form, hinges on control. In architecture, however, (unlike, say, painting) control is compromised not only by clients, engineers and bean-counters but also, and often most infuriatingly for the designers, by the blunt instruments of democracy.
You can just see Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon or Colin McCahon clambering through the eye of a municipal committee before being, as it were, hung. I don’t think so.
Murcutt, founding president of the new Australian Architecture Association, rages against aesthetic interference by councils. His association co-shaman, Harry Seidler, has long pushed the extreme version of this barrow, arguing that council regulations are necessary but, being drafted and administered by aesthetic morons, should not apply to him (or other designers of stature).
It’s a tempting view, but dangerous. Tempting because it caters to the architects’ righteous outrage at being judged by those who are not aesthetically trained. Dangerous in requiring one rule for the elite, one for the rest. And there is a further problem. Any such regime requires an accredited short-list and whose choice should it be? Government? The profession? Councils? Which leaves you with the same problem, just one layer further back.
Behind this there is a deeper question, and it goes to the heart of democratic culture. To what extent do the people have a right to modify their own environment? Or, conversely, to what extent do architects, even great architects of the Murcutt/Seidler persuasion, have a right to design untrammelled in the public realm? How far do we trust the experts, knowing that it is precisely that trust that gave us (for example) Blues Point Tower, and would have replicated it all over McMahons Point?
Does it really make any difference that, as architects tirelessly point out, the very Seidler, Murcutt, Tzannes or Popov houses that take years to get approved (often through the courts) end up winning awards? Bearing in mind that awards carry the profession’s, but not the public’s, stamp of approval, this could simply indicate that the chasm between the taste of architects and the public is as wide as ever.
Murcutt’s view, milder than Seidler’s, is that planning regulations frustrate the best but do not stop the worst. This is undeniable. The question is, what would be better? How can an aesthetic net be designed to prevent the worst but encourage the best, even if we could agree on what those terms mean? Which we can’t.
Assuming we reject the Seidler path, two options remain: to make aesthetic rules more flexible, or to abandon aesthetic control altogether, regulating only those basic health-and-safety parameters that can be easily agreed, defined, measured and enforced.
The fashion, left over from the ’60s, is the former, especially in NSW. It suits Sydney’s pragmatic mentality and, in maximising planning discretion, allows bad-cop planners to masquerade as good cops.
The trouble is, it doesn’t do the job, because, while appearing to loosen the net, it simply makes it less certain. Worse, in enhancing planners’ discretion it increases their vulnerability to political pressure – from their elected masters or their masters’ constituents. This means that schmuck developers are every bit as likely to succeed as haloed architects. Maybe more so.
One variation on this theme is the tendency to appoint architect-stacked boards to advise the planners, as the City of Sydney’s so-called Design Excellence regime has done. The danger here is the design reflex that architects keep tucked behind their ear, which makes them more inclined to redesign according to their own preferences than to advise on someone else’s.
Which is why Murcutt is absolutely right. The only viable solution is for governments at every level to relinquish aesthetic control and leave design to the designers. There are things that democracy can and should control. Height, bulk and density, for example. Also ceiling height, window size, privacy and access to the sun.
All these can and should be reduced to numbers and applied simply and equitably to all. Beyond that, though, the visual stuff should be out-of-bounds for gov-ernments.
For planners this is anathema, and for politicians it means taking some deep breaths, since it means we would have to be prepared to live with a few uglies in order to allow the other end of the spectrum to flourish.
Personally, I believe it’s worth it, not only as a fair price for creativity, but because a truly Australian built culture, if we are ever to achieve one, must be every bit as diverse as its denizens.
We may not like their taste, nor they ours, but we must defend to the death their right to exercise it.
Photo: Robert Pearce