Architects versus the barbarians: Saving Sirius in the housing policy dead zone.

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?

London 

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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.

Saving Sirius 

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. 

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“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.

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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.

 

 

 

Architects and the branding of the new Ecocity: The need to dismantle the greenwash

We have just had the Ecocity 2017 world summit or conference in my city. Al Gore came to speak about his work and he received an honorary doctorate from my university. I didn’t attend the conference but the spin round it prompted me to think a bit about what an Ecocity might be. It made me think how architects and urbanists should respond or think about the Ecocity concept.

Since 1990 the ECOCITY World brand has claimed to address “the way humanity builds its home — its  cities, towns and villages.” Interestingly, the Ecocity brand is promoted as a series as if it was some kind of global franchise:

“The series focuses on key actions cities and citizens can take to rebuild our human habitat in balance with living systems, and, in the process, slow down and even reverse global heating, biodiversity collapse, loss of wilderness habitat, agricultural lands and open space, and social and environmental injustices.”

I worry that the Ecocity brand nexus of neoliberal policies, big property linked to the markets, and what I would call the “smart” and “sustainable” city industry is only leading us down the Business As Usual path to climate catastrophe. For some of your reading this, in mentioning the C word (catastrophe), I am going to sound uncool and alarmist. But maybe that is the reality and maybe since  Nicolas Stern’s The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review neoliberal and oh-so-nice, left of centre policy makers, have really been compromised.

 It’s always great to talk about cities as ecosystems or as places full of so-called smart sustainable infrastructure. There is a lot of that talk in my architecture school about this. But, is this enough? Do we really need cities; and in the Anthropocene, is it wise to conceive of cities as ecosystems. Doesn’t this conceptual act place our own species with a role at the center of the natural world. Are we really at the center?

A recent book by Derek Jensen the radical environmentalist also raises the above questions. He argues that sustainability is now a devalued term. He writes about what he calls the conservation-industrial complex:

“big green organizations, huge “environmental” foundations, neo-environmentalists, some academics–which has co-opted too much of the movement into “sustainability,” with that word being devalued to mean “keeping this culture going as long as possible.” Instead of fighting to protect our one and only home, they are trying to “sustain” the very culture that is killing the planet. And they are often quite explicit about their priorities.”

Jensen, argues for, and imagines, an end to “technologized, industrialized civilization and a return to agrarian communal life.” Of course to the well-heeled policy urbanists this is a seemingly extreme view. But nonetheless, it is a view, that at this point in time, I am drawn drawn to. It reminds me a bit of the urban efforts and gestures of the architects Leon and Rob Krier to return us to a pre-industrial urbanism. So what exactly would be wrong with such a return? 

Another author of interest to me in this debate is late Australian philosopher Val Plumwood. Plumwood questions what she denoted as hyperseperation. Hyperseparation gives rise to the dominant structures that drive binaries such as, nature-culture, matter-mind and savage-civilised. In the context of the Ecocities debate we run the risk of simply arrogating all mind to our own species and seeing everything else as mindless matter. Matter, as exemplified by the cities formed in our own image. These Ecotopias, Ecopositive cities and Ecocities are now crowding out our social media feeds, and these imagined cities are too often image-cities emptied of, and destructive of, real ecologies.

A real debate around cities needs to merge that examines how cities might be dismantled and decolonized and how we might see them less as machines of innovation and capital. At the conference the academic program looked like more of the same old pap: Densification, greening the cities or “Bringing Nature Back In”, resilience, healthy cities, new forms of co-operation and sustainable food production. Certainly there was some good stuff in the conference around the First Nations and those other real cities, the organic informal cities full of inequalities.

But, in the face of climate change and the loss of actual and real ecosystems, habitats and species, outside of our existing cities there is only so much of this pap I can take. A few papers held glimmer of hope about new research agendas and questioning of this prevailing, and increasingly branded paradigm. I guess the image that headlined the conference (ably devised by Simon Cookes) of chucking plants onto concrete buildings and rooftops kind of says it all for me.

As architects and urbanists we need to explore the dynamics and effectiveness of architecture in relation to the real and deeper ecologies than just greening up the cities in Photoshop. This also means having a debate around how we might dismantle the cities and explore new forms of settlement. We need to dismantle the greenwash.

Mr. Turnbull all I want for Christmas is a Cities Policy.

For those of you tired of Christmas day gluttony and Hannukah frivolities this blog post from earlier in 2016  is worth reposting. Not much has happened since its publication in the policy arena. Of course the absence of policy only reinforces the idea that the The Australian city is a rhetorical singularity. A discursive construct which is a open and malleable site for the forces that have a vested interest in shaping it. A neoliberal imaginary.

The word on the street is that Australia’s Prime Minister is about to ramp up Cities policy. Not only that, but both sides of politics in Australia are keen to showcase cities policy. Not since the ill fated Multi-Function Polis has urban policy been on the agenda in a Federal election year. Now that the price of Iron Ore has bottomed out  it is the city that has become the hope for the future. In a country beset by booms and busts it is the city that is, and will be the next boom. This boom will be presaged by and indistinguishable from a boom in city orientated policy.

But this current fashion for arguing that the best and most sustainable way to develop is via continual city growth needs to be seriously questioned. In Australia I think these questions are crucial. How big should Australian cities be and where should they be? How should populations, and resources, across the continent be dispersed? Australian cities are obviously cities of the new world and the developed world. In some ways Australian cities don’t have the same problem’s characteristic of larger older cities built on mediaeval or ancient foundations in the developing world. Perhaps this is why it is easy to conceive of Australian cities as greenfield sites engines of a new boom; a primary means to leverage and improve productivity (whatever that might mean). Much of the architectural, urban and policy discourse around Australian cities presumes that their continual survival and growth is the most efficient and sustainable way forward. But in its current formulations cities policy in Australia does not ask the fundamental and basic questions related to cities. Cities concerning distribution, size, structure, social governance and relation to country all need to be addressed before the cities boom becomes the next bust.

In urban discourse across the globe their has been a lot of talk around the notion of the anthropocene. The idea as it is defined is that the “earth’s most recent geologic time period as being human-influenced, or anthropogenic, based on overwhelming global evidence that atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric and other earth system processes are now altered by humans.” We are all in the Anthropocene discourse nowadays. The vibrant and energetic discourse around the anthropocene appears to be inextricably linked to the idea of the city and the urban.  As the sponsors of a forthcoming seminar at University  of Westminster put it:

The discursive rise of the anthropocene has been accompanied by the normalisation of the idea of the ‘urban age’. The city has come to constitute a powerful imaginary, simultaneously the locus of all manner of contemporary crises – ecological and otherwise – and the focus for our hopes of their resolution. While earlier visions of urban sustainability disrupted the nature/culture divide, the goal remained one of ‘balance’, to be achieved through intentional agency.  Such aspirations are increasingly augmented, or framed, by notions of ‘resilience’ and ‘smartness’, in which human agency becomes at best reactive, or even dissolves within a process of recursive co-adaptation.

As they argue:

But where does this leave our ability to ‘plan’ our (urban) future? And is this imagined ‘city’ in fact a multiple construct? Might its rhetorical singularity across different discourses be holding us back from reimagining the future in more productive ways?

This pretty much sums up the urban policy debate in Australia. The Australian city is also now a rhetorical singularity. A discursive construct which is a open and malleable site for the forces that have a vested interest in shaping it. A neoliberal imaginary. The Whitlam agenda of focusing on cities, but also suburbs and regions, was an aberration quickly extinguished. But Australians have been witness to the cities rise over the past 25 years which perhaps started with Hawke’s Building Better Cities program. The cities rise over this time frame is easily discerned in a number of developments: in the discourse of architects, who have abandoned the house, and social housing, as a object of intellectual pursuit, in the rise of the urban design profession, and the emergence of landscape urbanism. Fuelling this rise and impending boom, young hipsters flock to see Jan Gehl and his particular brand of cities for people spin. An entire industry has grown up around state government and local councils fostering green cities, resilient cities and so called smart cities.

A boom focused on the discourse of the urban now exists, and also includes developers, all levels of government, the consulting class, policy specialists, academics, architects and urban designers. There are a number of key groups with different agendas and views which circulate around the cities policy pond. A few of these are worth mentioning. These include: Infrastructure Australia an independent statutory body poorly funded and yet somehow still beholden to whoever is in power in Canberra. Alongside sits lobby groups like the Property Council of Australia and quasi-lobby groups like the Green Building Council of Australia  which has made a virtue of legitimising , and marketing, mediocre green initiatives and passing them off as radical. Even the conservative think tank the IPA  is on the case with housing in cities.

There has also been recent work from the Grattan Institute with its City Limits: Why Australia’s cities are broken and how we can fix them. A report, which identifies issues but elides notions of design and community perhaps because its research is rooted in the corporatist methods of the Boston Consulting Group. More admirably groups like AHURI struggle on limited funds to gather data and produce research around cities. At our architecture school at MSD great groups like VEIL offer unique bottom up insights into community and distributed infrastructure systems. AURIN offers insight into the data throw up and produced by urban agglomerations.

For many of these actors the city is seen as the integrative platform through which various wicked problems can be solved. This integration, both imagined and real, drives the new boom in cities and city policy.  This boom is based on the idea that problems are economic and the city is seen as a place where economic functions can be integrated. It is not about addressing ecological damage or income equality. It is about place and productivity. For example, the  Deloitte Economist Professor Ian Harper has recently espoused the centrality of place in economic theory. It is surprising for someone trained in architecture and urban design to see the mantras of place, innovation, creativity, knowledge capital as these have long been discussed in architecture. As Harper proclaims “crowd’s accelerate” the process of value creation in a services economy moving from manufacturing towards the digital utopia.

Of course transforming place in cities will require the most advanced modelling: Urban research datasets (so called big data), combined spatial and statistical modelling, VR simulation and digital visualisation, as well as Carbon accounting and heat sink modelling. Alongside these tools new urban methodologies will also be needed and employed including AI, complex adaptive urbanism, digital ethnography, systems dynamics and agent based modelling. All of the above is supported by the hardware of mobile computing, the internet of things, wireless and sensor networks and drones.

This theatre of actors and set of technologies associated with this boom will accelerate , once the political apparatchiks, fresh faced ministerial advisers and pedigreed policy mavens accelerate city policy. Events, media releases, showcases of excellence and the ever tightening noose between the discourses of design and innovation will be a part of it. Complicating this is the fact that Australians forgot to establish  a sovereign wealth fund during the commodity boom years. As a result there will be always be a mismatch between the boom in policy needs and the volatility of global financial markets. Policy mavens will always try and catch up and explain away market volatility or alternatively align policy with the markets. But, as the proponents of the Westminster  Centre for the Study of Democracy suggest, the idea of setting policy around cities, without radically rethinking settlement patterns, political governance, technology futures, infrastructure, procurement pathways and community participation in development may only lead to the further degradation and implosion of Australian cities. Isolating any one of these factors for example technology futures or procurement (via new methods of financing) will only lead to further disfunction.

Even a simple dialectal or dichotomous approach is better than seeing cities and place as a localised, simplistic, unified, all encompassing, holistic singularity or imaginary. I suspect a whole-of-continent approach is preferable. The problems of the Murray Darling Basin and the remote communities in the West would suggest that.

Before we think about cities we need to defetishise the way we think about them. Let’s hope its not too late to forestall the next boom.

Cowboys vs. Aliens: Planners vs. Architects, the NRZ’s and the apartment apocalypse.

In a recent blog here I opined on the antipathy between planners and architects. I was surprised to get quite a few anonymous responses from both architects and planners. The very best response I received, perhaps from a statutory planner, simply said:

“I am a planner and I hate you.”

Another respondent proposed that the antipathy between architects and planners had an economic basis arguing that:

“A planner makes money from the same share of a project that an architect does and naturally in a free market way, seek to cut their share.”

Another planner stated in response to my assertion that few planners understand urban aesthetics argued that architects are just as much to blame:

“Says someone from a profession where a smooth featureless 50 metre-long glass facade is seen as totally acceptable at ground level in a densely populated area. Urban aesthetics indeed. Architects would inflict a rash of dead lobby space on this city if allowed, and frequently do in less powerful LGAs (local Government Authorities).”

It would be harsh to say that the above response underscores the critique that planners do not really understand architecture or urban design. Nonetheless, the same correspondent noted that planners are also pretty angry about the planning system:

“Politicians write the legislation, under immense pressure from developers and banks. Planners bring as much pressure to bear as we can but ultimately we’re not a wealthy cohort, and are mostly public servants so we couldn’t give money as political donations even if we had it to give.”

Of course I also received a number of comments from architects bemoaning the idiocy of the planning system and their experiences with it. As one architect noted:

“As architects we despondently watch planners merrily approving the work of drafting services and developers because they tick all the boxes of the planners ‘design-by-guideline’ approach. The reality we face is that planners actually have no idea what design really is. They want applications to comply to regulatory frameworks and think that architects waste their time as we usually challenge the frankly moronic and ill-conceived mathematics of site coverage, articulation, FSR and whatever their rulebook happens to say that day of the week.”

These comments indicate the quagmire that we are now in. It is a quagmire where the lines a blurred between who are the so called Cowboys and those who are the Aliens. Arguably the real problem may not lie with the conflict with the professions of architecture and planning but the alliances formed between small minded small business, councillors, provincial politicians and developers out for a buck. These are the real Cowboys. Two recent, and in some ways contradictory developments, in the planning quagmire in Melbourne appear to underscore this.

Development 1: Non Residential Zones or NRZ’s

The first development is a little in the past but it seems to contradict, and in some ways fuel the things which the second development seeks to alleviate.  It is to do with the Non Residential Zones or NRZ’s. This was a Matthew Guy ministerial initiative that you can read about these here and here. Under NRZ zoning a lot is restricted to the development of only two dwellings. This sets a maximum building height of 8.0 metres and enables local councils to set minimum lots sizes. I was alerted to the NRZ when I was invited to attend and found myself (and my De Niro style mohawk haircut) on a panel-speak at an Architeam CPD event entitled Planning Better Suburbs. Funnily enough, I was a bit nervous in finding myself as the only architect amongst the planners invited the panel. I was waiting to be killed by the planners as the only Alien on the panel  but fortunately it did not eventuate.

Colleen Peterson from Ratio Consultants (yes, I am actually citing a planner) creditably argues that these zones, by limiting more than two developments per allotment or site, prevent higher density urban housing form being developed. For example in August 2013, in the City of Glen Eira, Minister Guy approved a zone regime that placed 84% of that municipality’s residential land into the NRZ. This effectively shuts down the supply of medium-density housing in most of that municipality.

In some ways Glen Eira set a benchmark for other municipalities. Following hot on the trail of Glen Eira were other local government areas seeking to, and locking in, between 70% and 90% of their residential land into the NRZ’s. Hence in these zones anything over 2 units will be prohibited regardless of the surrounding urban fabric.

Development 2: Draft Apartment Guidelines  

The second development is the announcement of the recent draft apartment guidelines. Or as they are titled in policy spin world “Better Apartments Draft Design Standards.” This blogger is not really sure these standards actually have anything to do with design. Despite the fact that the proclaimed aim of these guidelines is to approve the design amenity of high rise inner city apartments. The planning minister seems to reinforce this by stating that:

“We are plugging a hole in the planning rules which allowed dog boxes to be built because we want future apartments to be constructed for long-term living,”

Richard Wynne is an ok guy. But maybe he should sack his spin advisers. I love the spin words on this especially “Plugging a hole” and “dog boxes” and of course “long-term living”.  In a nutshell the guidelines, plug the holes of the dog boxes for long term living, by addressing room depth, windows, cross ventilation, storage minimum room sizes, and communal open spaces. Nothing in any of this is suggested about the complex nexus between housing design, urban design and well being.

The draft guidelines appear to have a number of sensible measures but as Vanessa Bird the President of the Victorian AIA notes they do not go far enough and they seem to be more about regulating a kind of existenzminimum approach to apartment design: As she states:

“Minimum metric standards are really about weeding out the worst of the worst,” she said. “It’s like all regulation, it’s about weeding out what’s at the bottom and you balance that with allowing some flexibility and innovation though a parallel process that allows design excellence. That’s always been our position.”

In other words the guidelines are minimum requirements that do not involve the mandating or use of architects in the process. This is not surprising given that the project reference group for the guidelines, amongst others, consisted of the cowboys: Building Designers Association of Victoria, Housing Industry Association, Master Builders Association of Victoria, Property Council of Australia, Real Estate Institute of Victoria, Urban Development Institute of Australia and the Victorian Planning & Environmental Law Association. These are all groups or lobbyists not really known for their design acumen or expertise. Of course, the Office of the Victorian Government Architect was involved in the mix somewhere in the process and perhaps they should have been the only reference group involved.

Even with the recent changes to heights and plot ratios the draft guidelines do nothing much to avert the apartment apocalypse that we will be witness to in Melbourne’s future.

Development 1 x Development 2 

Taken alongside the NRZ’s the apartment guidelines seem to push us into an ever downward spiral of the diminishment of design in our city. The new apartment guidelines do nothing to encourage typological diversity and only really set minimum standards.  In fact whenever I hear the words “performance standards” attached to a policy I just think of toothless regulations and policies that maximise developer outcomes rather than urban design, real housing and architectural outcomes that are enduring.

The NRZ’s prevent the development of new architectural typologies; in other words, they prevent a broader range of housing types. The draft apartment guidelines effectively promote the idea that “tick the box” and BCA like regulations and minimum standards are the way to go: Fuck design value and fuck architecture say the Cowboys.

Helping the cowboys feel warm and fuzzy 

But, really ? A city cant be regulated like the dimensions in a disabled access or an emergency egress code. We seem to be stuck in a machine that is creating more housing junk; more frustration and conflict between architects and statutory planners. The NRZ’s will only force developers to build more high density apartments in some places in order to meet the demand created by NRZ driven affordability and land supply issues in other places. The minimum standard guidelines will do nothing to alleviate the boom of inappropriate and badly designed high density apartments. Worse still the guidelines will give the Cowboys a warm fuzzy feeling that they are law abiding citizens in this anarchy.

I am an architect not an Alien

It would be great if more planners, politicians and policy makers aligned themselves with design and design thinking. Planners involved in policy need to recognise and understand the value of design in more complex ways. What cities need are comprehensive policy approaches and systematic urban governance rather than regulation contradiction and fragmentation. Because after after all isn’t it the job of politicians and strategic planners to make wise policy. Moreover, these players have to stop treating architects like Aliens in their battles against the actual Cowboys. And we all know who they are they.

 

 

 

The Horror of Barangaroo: Lousy bastard architecture as industrial design.

Having time away from home often helps one to see things in a new light. The grind of normal routine falls away and more reflective demeanour takes its place. For the academic such reflection helps to fuel ideas and suggest further things that can be written about in venues such as this. Hence, I am a bit later in doing this weekly post.

In my city the media in certain instances has all too easily attacked large infrastructure projects and urban design projects. Federation Square in Melbourne and also Southern Cross Station have both been the victim of campaigns that have sought to know better than the architects who have designed these projects. Federation square is now one of the most successful urban and public spaces in Australia. Southern Cross Station works pretty well. However at the time of their design and construction they were excoriated in the tabloid media.

As I tell the practice students it’s always easy to blame the bloody architect.

Maybe this is why sentiments against architectural expertise, opinion and knowledge are easy to drum up in the tabloid media. Sometimes these sentiments are used to promote inappropriate development as much as they are used to attack fine architecture. A case in point is the design of the Crown Resorts Barangaroo tower development in Sydney which in many ways exemplifies the relationship of architecture to the mainstream media.  Arguably, this tower, and I am loathe to condemn something until it is actually built, represents the whole catastrophe and horror of the current state of public procurement in Australian cities.

The whole saga of Barangaroo started in 2003 and in 2005 an international urban design competition was won by Hills Thalis with a winning concept plan that divide the site up in a way that would, in theory at least, encourage diversity of development. As set out in this  article by my colleague at MSD Dr. Jillian Walliss the concept of the original competition entry for the headland park has been butchered. The Lend Lease development along and behind this headland park has, as documented by numerous critics, been a site of controversy and debate since at least 2010 as exemplified in this article by Elizabeth Farrelly.

354937-barangaroo

The current design for the Barangaroo tower has been supported by an adhoc alliance of the media, developer, gambling interests and no less a personage than the former prime minster Paul Keating. In the past Keating has been a friend of architecture supporting projects such as Federation Square and providing AusAid money to help plan and maintain the heritage of values as old Hanoi. Noble stuff. How an acolyte of the hard old men of the Labour Party such as Jack Lang and Rex Conner became an aesthete I have no idea. But, I do know that politicians, no matter how esteemed, should be wary of employing their dark arts in a fluid and as a contestable territory as architecture.

There is not a lot that can be said about the “pinnacle tower” in the quay  designed by the English firm Wilkinson Eyre (a firm with 9 male directors). Maybe this is why the tower is the worst kind of big dick sculptural architecture you can imagine. Reportedly, the new tower was described by Keating as Constantin Brancusi’s sculpture Bird in Space (L’Oiseau dans l’espace) created in 1923.

The tower is also described like this:

The concept takes its inspiration from nature, composed of an elegant, curved geometry. The tower’s form emanates from three petals that twist and rise together, and its sculptural shape maximises the opportunity for accommodation to make the most of the views of Sydney’s famous bridge and harbour.

A sketch of the the curtain wall facade of the tower adorns the cover of a book of Chris Wilkinson’s recently published sketchbooks. In the sketchbooks the conceptual and annotated sketches for the tower suggest a concept around the idea of petals. It’s the whole catastrophe of making architecture seemingly natural and organic: “sculptural forms”, “leaves and petals”, “spiral geometry” which is all meant to contrast with the towers oh so boring and ugly “rectangular surroundings.” I am not sure if Sydney and its waterfront edge was ever that rectangular.

Stab me in the eye with a biro mate; the crude simplicity and the final form of this concept is astounding. This is nothing like the complex initial sketches of Utzon’s Opera house with it’s shifting and ambiguous shells and its podium related to Chinese temple architecture. Utzon’s original sketches are more frenetic, chaotic and ambiguous. This is part of their power and this is perhaps why Utzon got into trouble with the parochial naysayers and bean counters of the time as he developed them into architecture.

A sketch is something you work from towards a constructed and designed reality. Modernist superstars such as Le Corbusier, Kahn and Mies Van der Rohe all understood this. The Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza understands this. Frank Gehry understands this. A sketch is not something that should be oh-so-easily translated to the digital and parametric realm as the case with the Barangaroo tower. Sadly, many of Wilkinson’s public sketches are like this. There is no sense of searching for any emergent ideas in these sketches. They are overdetermined and over annotated attempts to depict and translate an idea to a final reality rather than exploring that reality. You end up asking if these sketches represent architecture or are they more about industrial design? They seem to be all about control of the final product. Product being the operative word in this equation.

Whilst on holiday, as the revelations about the torture of indigenous children in the NT came out, I was reading Xavier Herbert’s Poor Fellow My Country. It won the Miles Franklin award in 1975 and was reprinted in a new edition in to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its publication. In part the novel inspired Baz Luhrman’s unfortunate film Australia. Intensely anti-colonial and anti-British the novel depicts Australia as a community of kowtowers, thieves, drunks, and lousy bastards. I suppose a lack of generosity has always been a theme in Australian public life and in the design of our cities. At Barangaroo the transfer of public land to private interests and the tower development seems to exemplify these underlying cultural torrents. We deserve more than billion dollar developments built on a couple of quick sketches. I think the original Cammeraygal inhabitants of these harbour headlands certainly deserve more as well.

 

Beyond the Australian Dream: Australia’s future housing and the failure of the political classes.

Last week I presented a paper at a great conference at Swinburne University in Melbourne. Future Housing Global Issues and Regional Problems Conference. Its was organised under the auspices of MPS. For me the conference reinforced the view that housing design, housing research and housing policy is a critical issue in the context of Australian policy debates. It reinforced for me that architects and urban designers are at the forefront of this issue and that it requires policy responses that are not left to the property markets.

Any approach to infrastructure policy, cities policy and urban sustainability must address housing design, housing policy and housing issues. Sadly, for numerous reasons policy makers, developers, contractors and the political classes housing policy has arguably been a casualty of neoliberal policy that in effect ignores the needs of different demographic strata and groups in Australian society. As the Grattan Institute pointed out in its 2013 report Renovating Housing Policy housing policy in Australia is in need of “renovating” (full marks for the pun) as well as a number of prior reports including The Housing We Choose, Getting The Housing We Want and a report called Productive Cities. 

Housing or cities have not really been a central feature of Australia’s current election campaign. The taxation arrangements around negative gearing have had a bit of a run. The real estate agents have squawked a bit. But generally the politically classes and the media don’t really see it. Its ok for the investment bankers, lawyers and union apparatchiks to talk about smart infrastructure, and so called smart cities, and city sustainability but it is housing that is the key policy element in all of these efforts. Yes, the Coalition will invest up to $100 million in a Smart Cities Policy renewable energy and energy efficient technologies in cities, if re-elected. But, the policy lacks real vision and looks like it is specifically targeted at Western Sydney with a whole lot of give aways like “better lighting, it could include better traffic management, it could include better water management,” I wonder why that is? So much for the rest of us. Why not devote the money to R&D in alternative housing financing, ownership, typologies and housing design. Why not fund ARC research that explores urban densification that isn’t simply about building apartments being developed developers who contribute to political parties. What about regional housing issues?

In contrast a recent Australian Senate Committee published a report on affordable housing in May 2015. The report containing over 200 submissions from different stakeholders in Australia’s housing sector.

The Senate report concluded that concluded that:housing affordability was also exacerbated by policy fragmentation. The report concluded that Australia’s housing system needed to be considered as a interlinked system which had both public private and the numerous local, state and federal jurisdictions. Policy was needed to give “coherence to the numerous local, state and national incentives and schemes intended to contribute to the provision of affordable housing.”

Organised by the Centre of Design Innovation at Swinburne University, and under the Auspices of MPS, the conference covered a number of diverse topics. A survey of the topics presented at the conference indicates the degree to which housing is a complex issue that requires more than property marketing, think-tanking and political spin. It is a policy area that requires alternative propositions through design research and experiment.

The conference covered the full gamut of this area of research and for me it underscored that housing policy cannot be boiled down to any singular catch cry. For example academics at the conference presented papers and research on affordable housing and issues in other cities and countries such as Iran, Sweden, the UK, South Korea, Mumbai and Vietnam. Researchers presented who examined alternative housing typologies in Australian cities as well as work regarding remote, rural and regional housing. Indigenous housing got a guernsey; as well as research into Australian social housing, rental affordability, housing finance and Australia’s urban poor; there were also papers on ageing, disability and housing design.

One intriguing paper investigated the notion of neighbour hoods and neighbouring patterns in Australian cities. Not a topic that is often discussed in the context of housing policy. Mostly, these days all the talk of neighbourhoods is in the glossy marketing materials. One of the more innovative papers, based on a MSD design studio explored proposals for the redevelopment of the Prahran housing estate. This paper reminded me that design research is an essential component in terms of housing policy and housing futures. Call me cynical, but the lawyer trained political apparatchiks and marketing minded developers really don’t care that much about design or design research.

Yet, architecture schools and architects themselves have been at the forefront, for the many years if not decades, by producing and proposing alternative typologies to the housing question. Architects are well placed to understand the interdependencies and intricacies of housing. Yet, as a profession and within the graduate studios of architecture school this work has had little impact on Australian policy debates. It has been largely for no avail and mostly ignored. If I had a dollar for every time I heard a politician  talk about the “Australian Dream” we would all be extremely wealthy. But for some reason Australia seems to be stuck in a limited number of market driven approaches to the housing question. The Australian dream of universal and egalitarian home ownership has gone now. It has slipped away. To keep talking about this dream only masks the stratified, and as I muse increasingly extreme, demographics that is the real nature of Australian society.

As many architects already know housing brings together interdisciplinary perspectives across economics, finance, planning, architecture and urban design. Creating new knowledge across this area requires a bottom up approach involving both community participation, nuanced data analytics and concerted design research. Meanwhile, the global marketing machine that spins a lifestyle of, minimalist danish modern designer homeware bright breakfast morning margarine advertisement living, just rolls along.

The Australian dream is of home ownership is now just another phantasm in the spectacle.

Planning Anarchy: Why architects hate urban planners in my city.

Architects are a contradictory profession. Prone to political activism and yet also deeply conservative. Seemingly agile, radical and innovative yet unable to move quickly in the face of gender inequality in the profession. Forward thinking and future driven yet bound by the traditions of the canon.

But if there is one thing I think many architects in my small global city of 4 million people can agree on it is this: Statutory Urban Planners are the lowest form of life.

I am not the only one in Australia to actually think this. A recent article by Elizabeth Farrelly in the SMH also points to the crisis in the planning profession in Sydney. However, I think many of Farrelly’s observations may also apply to Melbourne. The only problem is the planners themselves are not aware of the crisis. Architects, to their credit, on the other hand always seem conflicted by professional guilt and riven by internal debates of one kind or another.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a big fan of urban planning and its associated discourse. I was in partnership with a planner who also did architecture. But, many small architectural practitioners I know are angry. They are angry about the idiocy of a planning system that permits the wholesale destruction of our cities fabric and memory and yet binds up small projects in the most torturous regulations and processes.

From the perspective of many architects in Melbourne planning governance is broken and this impedes the governance and development of the city. It is an anarchic system.

Lesson 1: The built environment would be better if planners actually learnt about architectural and urban design

In 2011 we organised a protest against the unsanctimonious and ill considered renovation of a so-called brutalist building. One of the most important examples of this movement from the 70s.   You can read about it here. As a result of our protest, the council undertook to renovate an important element of that building. It is still yet to be refurbished. Despite a heritage assessment report and its significance the planners at the council in question said and did nothing.

Clearly in this instance the planners had no sense of responsibility to or appreciation of Australian modernist architecture.

Perhaps the study of Australian architectural history should be mandatory for statutory planners. The curriculum of most planning courses have a kind of pseudo legal aspect to them. This is matched with a altruistic, if not condescending, interest in community participation. Chuck a bit of sustainability into the syllabus and what more could you want? How about planners study architectural history, visual arts or urban design as a core component of their tertiary courses. How about planners learn about design, design research rather than exclusively focusing on social science research?

Lesson 2:  Planners will tie you up in processes that are disproportionate to the size of the project at hand

In the process of doing an internal renovation of a commercially zoned building in a middle ring suburb the building surveyor insisted an external facing shutter be removed and replaced with a gate in order to facilitate emergency egress. Makes sense doesn’t it ? Sure, it makes sense but not to the planners. They insisted that the new gate be subject to a planning permit including advertising. Maybe 3 months, maybe 6 months maybe a year to get through this process if you are lucky. Providing no one objects during the advertising period. But, maybe someone will object and you will go to VCAT. Of course if any one objects the planners will agree with them.

The architect friend of mine responsible for this project bemoans the fact that, a junior planner is employed at the council on the project and is just following the rules; that way they don’t have to think. She says, perhaps with the benefit of prior experience,  if you complain the planners put you at the bottom of the list and go slow.

Planners are not independent, mostly they are employees of councils, who will simply follow the dictates of their line managers in their organisation.

I am keen to document examples of situations where architects have been bogged down in planning red tape on small inner city projects. Send them to me and I will de-identify these cases and then discuss them in a later blog ! Email me if you are interested. 

Lesson 3: Planners have no control or interest in questioning large scale developments

One of of the last remaining buildings associated with the coach industry. Who cares ??? Not the planners. This facade is about to be completely demolished for a, perhaps tawdry, laneway and curtain wall. Maybe the laneway will have a barista outpost in it.

The upshot is almost nothing is actually governed by the planners. Small projects get locked up in red tape and as Elizabeth Farrelly points out the interests of big developers remain paramount.

Lesson 4: Planners love to meddle in architectural design 

So what’s worse than the planners not planning or not governing the planning system? It is when the planners actually start to see things in the urban environment; or think they actually know about design. Planners love to add design value. But they often get this wrong. Why is that? Urban Planners are not trained in visual or spatial thinking. Sure they can argue and talk about the politics of community participation and the rights to the city. But they by and large have no idea about urban aesthetics, architectural value, or design processes. Their understanding of the issues is extremely simplistic.  Consequently,  since the demise of high modernism and the birth of the building conservation and renovation movement in the 1970s our city is littered with the most simplistic and naive examples of facadism. Rohan Story has all done us a favour by documenting many of these as a part of Melbourne Heritage Action group (thanks to MHA for the images in this blog).

You can always tell when the stat planners have a had a go at a building in the planning process. They love to tweak a corner or add a bit of value to a streetscape. They are excellent mimics especially when it comes to imitating, the facades of Victorian and Edwardian housing stock. Their favourite delight is slapping on the heritage colours out of the paint bucket. Fragmented and “broken down” facades, setbacks on setbacks, screening in myriad materials, different materials and colours; beige, pink, rust and that beloved of all colours for the planner wanting to evoke Melbourne’s historic past: terracotta. Oh, and I forgot to mention that the planners love a balcony.

Future Melbourne Committee meeting 17 May 2016, Agenda item 6.2:

These pathetic efforts are usually touted as a win-win and as a result our city is full of the results of this kind of urban streetscape slop.

In reply to Farrelly’s article the PIA the Planning Institute of Australia responded by stating:

Planning policy provides the checks and balances to put the densities where they best fit and ensure infrastructure is appropriate. There will always be differing public, professional and political opinions and reactions to any rapidly changing city. 

Planning is inherently focused on facilitation and balance where both the public and many differing private interests are accommodated. This should occur without compromising good design, creation of place, amenity and liveability – this is known as the public interest.

As far as I can tell urban planners in Melbourne are powerless and do none of the above. The planners are always good at writing stuff to make it sound nice.  After all that is what they are trained to do. But they need to be visually and spatially literate.

Yes, some of my best friends are planners, many of my more admirably and politically orientated colleagues are planners, but I am sorry we really need to have this debate.

What rankles is how easily the punters find it in themselves to hate architects. In actual fact it is the urban planners the punters should be hating. Yes, architects are kinda guilty as well. Both professions are involved in and witness to the current and ongoing contemporary destruction of Melbourne.

But at least the architects as a profession will argue about it and lose sleep over it. Which is more than I can say for the urban planners.

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The Apartment Apocalypse: “Peak Apartment” and the trashing of brand Melbourne.

In my city of Melbourne the apartments are coming. This has also is happened in other cities around the world but at the moment Melbourne is just about to reach “peak apartment.” It is an unprecedented development onslaught that will change the face and the character of the central city and the broader city of 4 million people. But will this onslaught of lowest common denominator design destroy Melbourne’s image as a great place to experience, do business and learn in? Will the apartment apocalypse destroy the image of the student friendly city?

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Data Sources

The first problem that exists in approaching this question the lack of comprehensive, easily accessible and independent data. No one government institution or organisation independently collects and communicates aggregate data on these developments. Hence, the data describing the real situation needs to pieced together, compared and substantiated from a range different sources (A task obviously too much for this blogger).

Currently the sources about the apartment boom might include research and data available from: The ABS, the  Property Council , Melbourne City Council and of course the media including newspapers such as  The Age .

One reasonably reliable data source that appears to provide a good information is the the Urban Melbourne Project Database. This data gives a good overview of what is being currently being planned for and built. As of the date of this post Urban Melbourne states that within the Central City of Melbourne there are currently.

  • 18 projects under construction
  • 11 Projects with sales campaigns under way
  • 39 projects that are being assessed by the minister or already approved.

Urban Melbourne predicts that if only half of the projects in this pipeline are delivered this will in itself add 15,000 to 17,000 new CBD residents. The potential boost of all these projects is an extra 42,000 to 43,500 residents.

In contrast the Melbourne City Council states that there are 20,038 residents in Melbourne CBD represented which represents 21 per cent of the municipality’s overall population. Remember that the figures I am citing here are only for the central grid. They do not include the population or dwelling numbers for other zones or small areas in Melbourne City such as Southbank or Docklands. According to the MCC there were:

16,320 dwellings in Melbourne CBD representing around 28 per cent of the municipality, with residential apartments comprising 69% of all housing types in the small area Melbourne CBD’s population is forecast to reach around 52,000 by 2036; an increase of more than twice today’s population, living in around 27,500 households.

There are some disturbing trends in the demographics of the MCC statistics. Around two thirds of residents are in the 20 to 24 age group with a median personal weekly income of around $560. Median income is relatively low, median rents for individual properties are above these and the age demographic is under 30. Many of the residents are stduents and Mandarin speakers dominate. As this 2013 snapshot states “The most common workplace location for employed Melbourne CBD residents was within the Melbourne CBD small area (45%).” 

Given these statistics it is not hard to imagine a city comprising an  underclass of service workers, or worse still “guest workers”, pursuing education opportunities in the city and funding this through part-time work. It is like the entire central city is becoming one big  7-11 which is adjunct to and servicing a very large office that employs workers from the dormitory suburbs.

There is more that could be written about the economics of the situation. But I will save that for a later blog.

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Design Shockers  

As this process of densification takes place there are some notable design shockers both under construction and in the sales or planning pipeline.  But, there are some real shockers about to be built.Off the shelf curtain wall systems combined with a bit of branding are the worst offenders. A lack of consideration for wind effects and a disregard for urban scale and amenity at street level.I would be keen to see the fluid dynamics (wind) models for some of these new proposals.

All of this shabby development is obscured by the expert opinions, future technology, urban lifestyle, smart infrastructure chatfests and Ted talkie Linked-in Types (I should talk) types who grace out city. We are beset by gurus and a  week doesn’t go when there is a new guru trucked in proclaiming a bright new densified future for our city.  I think the first of the trucked-in-to-Melbourne Gurus Jan Gehl has a lot to answer for. Gehl’s slogans have been a mask to a city that is increasingly privatised and where civic and public space has been lost and is increasingly regulated and surveilled. Even Federation Square, with its compositional parti based on open field spatiality, in theory enabling a range of civic activities and “possibilities”, has easily facilitated, the capital flows through Melbourne’s machinic grid. The position of developers is evident in the debate over Fed Square East .

All of this suggest that we are witnessing a new phase of development and a property market driven largely by the Property Council advocates and developers. The housing market in the central city has been distorted at a number of levels. The debates over Negative gearing and the nature of capital inflows from elsewhere into the property market exemplify this. Inadequate planning governance in Victoria is another factor. It is appears easier to get a planning permit for a high rise building than a small internal renovation in the inner suburbs. Thirdly, a kind of “no policy” regime exists that always privileges the developer. You would think after the Docklands (and Fishermans bend) debacle that politicians and policy makers would exercise a greater rigour and toughness towards development.

Infrastructure also remains a real problem. At least the state government is building a new metro. But, where are the social services for the increase in central city population? Indeed, what services are needed ?

Being able to so easily characterise this current boom and its associated phenomena suggests that it is large scale property speculation and branding that is driving the boom in apartments in the central city. Where is the real vision for inner urban communities and affordable housing in all of this? Affordable housing that is social and sustainable and not 53 square meters on the 40th floor with an empty gym above a low ceiling carpark, some small biz retail, a coffee roasting  barista heaven; with a bit of wireless some bain-marie action and a sandwich toaster. The developers would say, what more could you want for in a city?

The “densification of the city”argument by sustainability academics has only led to unsustainable (replete with green star rated curtain walls)  and aesthetically horrific developments. In Australia, property markets are distorted and social housing reform is stuck. This is pretty much what happens when capitalist property development runs amok. As we all know after every boom there is a bust; Melbourne is now in that strange state just before the flow of capital seeks other markets.

We are entering a new, strange, surreal and distorted phase of city development in Melbourne. Despite the appearance of densification we are approaching, and driving, densification’s opposite condition: emptiness.  An emptiness epitomised by a city scrubbed clean with capital flows and the corresponding erasure of its history as a once great 19thC city.

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The Next Commodities Boom: Defetishising Australian cities policy.

The word on the street is that Australia’s Prime Minister is about to ramp up Cities policy. Not only that, but both sides of politics in Australia are keen to showcase cities policy. Not since the ill fated Multi-Function Polis has urban policy been on the agenda in a Federal election year. Now that the price of Iron Ore has bottomed out  it is the city that has become the hope for the future. In a country beset by booms and busts it is the city that is, and will be the next boom. This boom will be presaged by and indistinguishable from a boom in city orientated policy.

But this current fashion for arguing that the best and most sustainable way to develop is via continual city growth needs to be seriously questioned. In Australia I think these questions are crucial. How big should Australian cities be and where should they be? How should populations, and resources, across the continent be dispersed? Australian cities are obviously cities of the new world and the developed world. In some ways Australian cities don’t have the same problem’s characteristic of larger older cities built on mediaeval or ancient foundations in the developing world. Perhaps this is why it is easy to conceive of Australian cities as greenfield sites engines of a new boom; a primary means to leverage and improve productivity (whatever that might mean). Much of the architectural, urban and policy discourse around Australian cities presumes that their continual survival and growth is the most efficient and sustainable way forward. But in its current formulations cities policy in Australia does not ask the fundamental and basic questions related to cities. Cities concerning distribution, size, structure, social governance and relation to country all need to be addressed before the cities boom becomes the next bust.

In urban discourse across the globe their has been a lot of talk around the notion of the anthropocene. The idea as it is defined is that the “earth’s most recent geologic time period as being human-influenced, or anthropogenic, based on overwhelming global evidence that atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric and other earth system processes are now altered by humans.” We are all in the Anthropocene discourse nowadays. The vibrant and energetic discourse around the anthropocene appears to be inextricably linked to the idea of the city and the urban.  As the sponsors of a forthcoming seminar at University  of Westminster put it:

The discursive rise of the anthropocene has been accompanied by the normalisation of the idea of the ‘urban age’. The city has come to constitute a powerful imaginary, simultaneously the locus of all manner of contemporary crises – ecological and otherwise – and the focus for our hopes of their resolution. While earlier visions of urban sustainability disrupted the nature/culture divide, the goal remained one of ‘balance’, to be achieved through intentional agency.  Such aspirations are increasingly augmented, or framed, by notions of ‘resilience’ and ‘smartness’, in which human agency becomes at best reactive, or even dissolves within a process of recursive co-adaptation.

As they argue:

But where does this leave our ability to ‘plan’ our (urban) future? And is this imagined ‘city’ in fact a multiple construct? Might its rhetorical singularity across different discourses be holding us back from reimagining the future in more productive ways?

This pretty much sums up the urban policy debate in Australia. The Australian city is also now a rhetorical singularity. A discursive construct which is a open and malleable site for the forces that have a vested interest in shaping it. A neoliberal imaginary. The Whitlam agenda of focusing on cities, but also suburbs and regions, was an aberration quickly extinguished. But Australians have been witness to the cities rise over the past 25 years which perhaps started with Hawke’s Building Better Cities program. The cities rise over this time frame is easily discerned in a number of developments: in the discourse of architects, who have abandoned the house, and social housing, as a object of intellectual pursuit, in the rise of the urban design profession, and the emergence of landscape urbanism. Fuelling this rise and impending boom, young hipsters flock to see Jan Gehl and his particular brand of cities for people spin. An entire industry has grown up around state government and local councils fostering green cities, resilient cities and so called smart cities.

A boom focused on the discourse of the urban now exists, and also includes developers, all levels of government, the consulting class, policy specialists, academics, architects and urban designers. There are a number of key groups with different agendas and views which circulate around the cities policy pond. A few of these are worth mentioning. These include: Infrastructure Australia an independent statutory body poorly funded and yet somehow still beholden to whoever is in power in Canberra. Alongside sits lobby groups like the Property Council of Australia and quasi-lobby groups like the Green Building Council of Australia  which has made a virtue of legitimising , and marketing, mediocre green initiatives and passing them off as radical. Even the conservative think tank the IPA  is on the case with housing in cities.

There has also been recent work from the Grattan Institute with its City Limits: Why Australia’s cities are broken and how we can fix them. A report, which identifies issues but elides notions of design and community perhaps because its research is rooted in the corporatist methods of the Boston Consulting Group. More admirably groups like AHURI struggle on limited funds to gather data and produce research around cities. At our architecture school at MSD great groups like VEIL offer unique bottom up insights into community and distributed infrastructure systems. AURIN offers insight into the data throw up and produced by urban agglomerations.

For many of these actors the city is seen as the integrative platform through which various wicked problems can be solved. This integration, both imagined and real, drives the new boom in cities and city policy.  This boom is based on the idea that problems are economic and the city is seen as a place where economic functions can be integrated. It is not about addressing ecological damage or income equality. It is about place and productivity. For example, the  Deloitte Economist Professor Ian Harper has recently espoused the centrality of place in economic theory. It is suprising for someone trained in architecture and urban design to see the mantras of place, innovation, creativity, knowledge capital as these have long been discussed in architecture. As Harper proclaims “crowd’s accelerate” the process of value creation in a services economy moving from manufacturing towards the digital utopia.

Of course transforming place in cities will require the most advanced modelling: Urban research datasets (so called big data), combined spatial and statistical modelling, VR simulation and digital visualisation, as well as Carbon accounting and heat sink modelling. Alongside these tools new urban methodologies will also be needed and employed including AI, complex adaptive urbanism, digital ethnography, systems dynamics and agent based modelling. All of the above is supported by the hardware of mobile computing, the internet of things, wireless and sensor networks and drones.

This theatre of actors and set of technologies associated with this boom will accelerate , once the political apparatchiks, fresh faced minisiterial advisers and pedigreed policy mavens accelerate city policy. Events, media releases, showcases of excellence and the ever tightening noose between the discourses of design and innovation will be a part of it. Complicating this is the fact that Australians forgot to establish  a sovereign wealth fund during the commodity boom years. As a result there will be always be a mismatch between the boom in policy needs and the volatility of global financial markets. Policy mavens will always try and catch up and explain away market volatility or alternatively align policy with the markets. But, as the proponents of the Westminster  Centre for the Study of Democracy suggest, the idea of setting policy around cities, without radically rethinking settlement patterns, political governance, technology futures, infrastructure, procurement pathways and community participation in development may only lead to the further degradation and implosion of Australian cities. Isolating any one of these factors for example technology futures or procurement (via new methods of financing) will only lead to further disfunction.

Even a simple dialectal or dichotomous approach is better than seeing cities and place as a localised, simplistic, unified, all encompassing, wholisitic singularity or imaginary. I suspect a whole-of-continent approach is preferable. The problems of the Murray Darling Basin and the remote communities in the West would suggest that.

Before we think about cities we need to defetishise the way we think about them. Let’s hope its not too late to forestall the next boom.