In Australia most architects design housing. In some ways, it is the last bastion of architectural control. But only just. Since the 70s housing has increasingly come under the control of developers, project managers and builders. Single interest groups, none of whom have the slightest interest in design, who see policy as being about their own profits, have dominated housing policy and as a result government’s have done little to develop housing policies.
Since abandoning the Public Work Departments in the 1980s state and bureaucratic actors have left it up to the market. The last gasp of the Victorian Public Works Department can be seen in my own suburb which is littered with small well-designed houses by architects. You can read about it here. These buildings still stand, fit into their streetscapes, and despite impoverished State Government maintenance regimes they still look great.
The Privatisation Experiment
So where has housing privatisation actually got us? There answer is this: homelessness for the vulnerable, a casino type mentality in our property markets, inner cities turning into swamps of unsustainable cheap curtain wall ugliness and intergenerational inequity. The Australian dream of home ownership has gone.
Let me repeat that: The Australian dream of home ownership has gone. It no longer exists, but Australians still cling to it. Because we are still clinging to the dream, this is exploited by a consortium and class of people who do not give a shit. The real dream is that Australia has always been a property developers paradise. Let’s hear it for the beautiful tower products of Central Equity.
So now our cities are a ticking time bomb as climate change and two degree warming, or more, kicks in. Alongside this failure of policy, housing in our cities, has lapsed into a miasma of deteriorating public assets, a new ageing and impoverished demographic, and a generation of young home buyers locked out of housing markets. Capital flows have led to the housing being valued more as an asset class, and hence subject to speculation, rather than as a right. Is it too little to ask for a actual policy: given the newly minted crap towers in our inner cities and the “cheap as chips” suburbs, where builders are too mean to build houses with no eaves, because a bit of extra framing is expensive?
This situation is, not just an Australian problem but a global problem. Arguably, London is a city where we can begin to see what will happen to Australian cities, and suburbs, if we persist with our current dead zone policies. In London the Grenfell tower fire has perhaps focused the debate around these issues and what some call the colonial politics of space. Three new books on housing suggest the range of approaches, and type of research advocacy, that is missing here in Australia.
In Sydney the battle over the Sirius building is a case in point. For architects the brutalist aesthetic in architecture came at a time when architects still had control over projects. Sirius exemplifies this, housing containing, and allowing for a range of family demographics along with the inclusion of collective functions. Housing made through participation. A building designed to engender a sense of, wait for it, community. A housing development that was actually designed and its delivery controlled by an actual architect instead of few corporate marketing types aligned with the UDIA.
“A drab relic of union power”
Meet the Barbarian
Sadly for Sirius, this last week, the Land and Environment Court in NSW denied it heritage status. This was probably helped along by NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet who unleashed a vitriolic diatribe via the Daily Telegraph on 28 July, dismissing the Sirius building as “a boxy blight on The Rocks,” made from “towering slabs of grimy concrete,” that stands as a “drab relic of union power.” He went on to say:
“Sirius represents the destructive, dehumanizing vandalism of the modernist movement; the legacy of the likes of architect Le Corbusier, high priest of the cult of ugliness, who was determined to demolish the stunning heritage of downtown Paris in favour of utilitarian concrete skyscrapers,” he proclaimed. “You might say it’s brutal: the epitome of the out of touch left, putting ideology before people.”
Oh yeah Paris in 1925 is so so so like the Rocks in Sydney. Maybe Dominic should tell the late President Nehru or the proud Punjabis that the pride they take in Chandigarh is misplaced because Corbusier designed it. Not sure Sirius is actually a skyscraper and maybe Dominic P should look out the window and notice the “utilitarian concrete skyscrapers” mostly apartments, now emerging on our skylines, but I guess they are ok, because whilst being made of concrete, they are covered in shiny shiny glass. Lets shout it out. Dominic: they too are made of concrete. Is he proposing that Sirius should be chopped down a few stories and covered in glass to make it all ok? He definitely needs a Bex.
There is not a lot more I can say about his diatribe. It’s just plain wrong and completely ignorant of 20th Century architectural history. Maybe a staffer wrote it. How do people like this get into our parliaments?
All this says to me that Dominic is a true Barbarian. Mate, FFS dont take take the name of Corbu in vain. Calling , long dead architects names, only coarsens our political culture. Yet, Dominc is not alone, another of the political class, another lawyer who has had no architectural training in either architectural history or visual arts training. I am not sure if he, or others like him, are then qualified to talk about aesthetic ugliness and I don’t see why, as architects, we have to put up with these ignorant barbarians who want to inflict their own personal tastes onto the public. The Korean guy does that as well. Remember when Joe Hockey said wind turbines were ugly?
You can read Dominic’s maiden speech here especially the bit where he says:
“My second ideal is generosity”, but there is nothing generous in his comments about Sirius with their tinge of vindictiveness towards Corbusier (WTF?). Also, there is nothing like holding a grudge against the unions after a few thousand years since the BLF green bans. He is a really generous guy.
As he also stated in his maiden speech:
I strongly support the principles of free markets–we are the party of small business, of enterprise and of wealth creation. And I agree with Churchill when he calls the socialist model the equal distribution of poverty, not wealth. I oppose plans for more social engineering, more welfare handouts and the continual obsession with our rights at the expense of our responsibilities. These toxic ideas signal the death of the opportunity society.
Oh yeah, that’s right let’s not put out of touch ideology before people. This guy really hates architects now, and maybe any educated so-called elite, for that matter. Just like Trump. Only problem is, with a Law and Commerce degrees he is an elite as well, not to mention his Tom Ford City of London Chambers style glasses, or the fact that he is the Treasurer of NSW.
Calling out the Barbarians
When this happens architects need to call out this kind of talk out, draw a line in the sand, and assert our knowledge and expertise in the public domain. Thankfully, it appears they have indeed done this.
All I want for Christmas is for the political a class to craft some decent housing policies. Is it too much to ask? Is that too socialist and ideological?
At the MSD this semester there are about 9 different design studios exploring different aspects of housing all across the spectrum of housing. Architects have always been involved in and actively exploring housing, and housing policies, for other Australians. You can come and visit at our annual exhibition and see for yourself.
Maybe the political class types need to come see what architects actually do before they mouth off about Corbusier. Until then there is no reason why architects shouldn’t name and shame our politicians as the cultural and policy barbarians that some of them seem intent on being.
Phillip Room, photo by Barton Taylor. You can also help the Save our Sirius Campaign here. I might even go to the book launch which I would urge you to attend.