Design Activism: Architects need to be a-holes and it’s time to stop being nice.

Architects need to be a-holes, and it’s time to stop being nice. We need to be more like sea urchins: prickly.

A few things this week have made me think that the lack of advocacy skills amongst architects is really putting our domain of knowledge, agency and economic sustainability at risk. But there are more ominous and insidious signs about the state of architecture in a way these signs may seem subtle, but they point to a continuing malaise that architects should try and reverse.

Firstly, there is the drama over the departure of the CEO of the AIA; and it seems to me that the AIA is caught between wanting to advocate for architecture and wanting to provide its members with actual services. Does the AIA actually effectively lobby government?

Secondly, and seemingly unrelated, is the move by the banks and the Housing Industry Association to cut architects out of the mix when it comes to building contracts. Warwick Mihaly of Architeam writing at the ACA about this here.

Thirdly, of course, there was the win for the anti-Apple people, many of whom are architects, regarding Federation Square and its Heritage protection. Of course, Heritage “protection” in my neo-liberal city can often mean very little, and I wondered if wins like this actually mean anything. Perhaps not if the 19thC as well as the mid 20th C city has been, and continues to be lost. Architects do not have the organisational and industry infrastructure in place to effectively advocate on a range of issues.

Meanwhile, the chosen few, those architects who manage to win the golden casket lottery of fame, tell us that all we have to do is say to our clients how well-meaning we are and that we are dedicated to “Authenticity, Generosity, Civicness and Beauty”, and everything will be ok. Niceness is too often a mask for the social systems that imprison architects. For me, this is a bit like taking a Bex or a Panadol, or smoking a bong-pipe when your house is burning down.

Sure, I am yet to go down to this year’s pavilion and check it out. But, I am sure it will be better than last year’s Pavilion (strange that REM had such a real disconnect with theory when he spoke about it). But again, I think we are smoking the crack-pipe of Read more

What are we to make of the Apple Flagship Store at Federation Square?

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Earlier in the year I went to an exhibition at the Design Museum in London about the influence of Californian design on the whole world. One of the original Apples built by Steve and the Woz was in the exhibition. It was great to see how primitive it seemed, then I kind of forgot about Apple for a bit. Even though, I was surgically attached to my my iPhone 7 plus. Apple design is so clever and I was living the Apple dream without even noticing.

But, then a few days ago there was an eruption of outrage in my social media feeds. OMG!!! Apple were knocking down a big chunk of Federation Square to replace it with an Apple store and the Koorie Heritage Trust (will the new Apple building acknowledge country?) has to move. Apple are building a flagship store on that most loved of Melbourne sites Federation Square. Thankfully, the Koorie Heritage trust, or at least that is what we are told, is moving across the way, to the Alfred Deakin Building, on the other side of Federation Square.

So Apple is going to take over Federation Square. Another bit of creeping and insidious privatisation of public space in the city. The outrage on Twitter was incessant.

So, what about all of the other moments in the history and memory of the city when public space has been eroded and privatised in the city? As the Melbourne architect Stuart Harrison famously once said: try riding your skateboard down the so-called lanes of the QV development. It’s not long before the low paid security guard tells you it is private land and turfs you out.

Of course, it would be easy for me to say horror, outrage and sacrilege and jump onto Twitter etc. But then again Professor Donald Bates, whom readers should note that I work with at the Melbourne School of Design, one of the original designers of Federation square, is in support of the Apple proposal. Donald Bates stated:

The design of Apple Fed Square is necessarily of a different and distinct architectural vocabulary. We would abhor a faux-LAB Architecture design, replete with triangles and shifted geometries. The Foster Associates design is simple, pure and of its own aesthetic. Its success will lie in how it maximises the civic nature of Fed Square to form a tight connection with events and activities, bringing an engaging program of debates and discussions, as well as offering a new vista onto the Yarra River.

So given this argument, perhaps we need to think through the issues and fault lines at play here. So, let’s not jump onto the Trumpian cycle of social media Outrage vs. Outrage. Evil Apple versus People who love Fed Square (now).  So, without taking an immediate position of media Outrage here are a few questions to consider:

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Q: Why are the political hacks suddenly interested in Architecture and Urbanism ? 

Suddenly all the politicians got interested in Architecture, Apple and Federation Square. The collision of place branding and technology tends to get them out of the woodwork. It was an unlikely cohort, Adam Bandt (the Greens), Jeff Kennett (neoliberal liberal) and even Senator Derryn Hinch (independent centrist crusader) had something to say about it.

James Norman in the Guardian wrote as if the store was going to destroy Fed Square as we know it. His bio states the he is “a Melbourne-based writer and author of the book, Bob Brown: Gentle Revolutionary.” Obviously someone with a deep and abiding interest and knowledge in architecture and urbanism.

The Sun Herald was probably the worst. 

I just wish these people would be more interested in architecture and urbanism when it matters. I don’t see this motley bunch saying much about the lack of affordable housing or the crap towers now adorning our city. Nor do this group seem to do much every time a bit of our 1960s or 70s modernist or brutalist heritage gets knocked over in the name of development.

A: It’s like a brand collision, a car crash of the big brands:  Melbourne, Fed Square, Crazy Architecture, and the biggest brand of all APPLE. Thats enough to get the political opportunists, who I am sure hope, to build their own little brands by being a part of the ecology of outrage. 

Q. Why don’t we have politicians who can talk more with more nuance when it comes to issues concerning public space or new projects?

This question is, I admit a particular bugbear of mine, and of course a number of state politicians jumped in with the hyperbole in defense of the project:

“The tourism minister, John Eren, said the store would bring millions more visitors to Victoria and breathe new life into Federation Square.”

The trade minister, Philip Dalidakis, said the deal “reinforces Melbourne’s reputation as the undisputed tech capital of Australia and creates hundreds of ongoing jobs in the process.”

I draw your attention to some of the above phrases that were probably dreamed up by their junior advisors and spin doctors: “millions more visitors”,“breathe new life” (Fed Square wasn’t dead), “undisputed tech capital”, “hundreds of ongoing jobs” (all casual retail).

A: Because they are ignorant when it comes to architecture. 

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Q. We all live in the Apple economy now, so why be hypocritical?

Every now and then I ask my architecture students if they have Samsung or Apple phones. They all say Apple. So what is wrong with the Apple building given that most architects in town own Apple phones, perhaps we have turned a blind eye to Apples cross-border taxation arrangements or who makes actually makes the stuff. So given this blindness then what is now wrong with the having an Apple store at Federation Square. Is it any different to crafting your architectural or personal brand and career through Instagram on your iPhone ?

A. Apple’s success is its ubiquitous invisibility. Are we not, already as architects, totally embedded in the Apple economy? Do we not love Apple because of its design ethos?

Q: At what point, prior to its completion, do we judge the Foster and Partners design?

I am not sure about the Foster and Partners design. The design looks like one of those things old star architects, and their interns do, when they have run out of ideas. Just put together a bit of minimalist, and proportioned to an inch of its life, faux classicism with some smoochy and luxurious materials. Design it like a temple and make it “disappear” with transparency via glazing. A lawyer friend said it looked like a pagoda. Maybe, thats the easy way to build next to an already significant architectural building. There is an example of this type of thing here. It is not an unknown design strategy.

But maybe this design is actually a piss-take on Apple. Who knows? If Phillip Johnson was alive and had proposed it, that might be so. Also, and arguably, maybe Denton Corker Marshall could have done a better job than Foster and Partners. I am sceptical about the aesthetics of the building itself, the increased amenity seems likely, but lets wait and see how the thing actually pans out when it is built. I probably won’t be able to tell until it is built. It could be great, or pretty good, but I would prefer to wait and see in this instance.

A: Maybe when it is built. 

Q: Is urbanism just all about the brand now

It is unfortunate, if not outrageous, that we need an Apple Store to financially support a civic space like Federation Square. We need one of the biggest brands in the world to support the biggest and most important civic space in the city.

Architecture is a global system and brands circulate in that system, in Melbourne in many respects, Federation Square ushered in the idea of the iconic building as a global brand and nowadays, it’s all about the brand. The central Melbourne grid is now part of a property market, if it hadn’t always been, firmly embedded within the circuitry of global capital. This is evidenced by the privatisation of public assets, the commercialisation of public facilities, the private management of public spaces, developer driven regulatory frameworks and the product design of property assets.

A: Yes, and architects need to recognise and counter this. 

Q: Do Australian architects have the theoretical instruments and maturity to cope with global competition? 

Lord Foster and Partners is coming to town; and globalisation has always meant that architects like Foster would come to town. The winning design of Federation Square by Lab Studio Architects was announced in July 1997 and completed in 2002. It was a shock to the Melbourne system as Lab Architecture was not part of the Melbourne’s entrenched architectural networks of architecture schools and various tribal cliques.

Lab had a new way of practicing, that seemed to rankle with the entrenched networks, a way that seemed to say that architects were advocates, equal partners with policy and decision makers. The contractors hated this approach. Lab never got another job in the town again.

My worry is that architects and urbanists in Melbourne, or anywhere for that matter, have not developed the theoretical instruments, advocacy skills or research and industry infrastructure to contend with the worst excesses of branded architecture in the global system.

A: I don’t think they do. 

Q: What should have happened? 

A1: The better solution would have been to have given Donald Bates and Lab Architecture the job

At least that way Melbourne could have been absolutely sure we weren’t getting a ironic piss-take building or more than a techno temple for the international tourists. Maybe I would have liked more of that crazy triangle stuff and space frame stuff or something new  from Lab. Even the punters and the bogans love Fed Square now. Lab Architecture would have done a great job.

A2: A design competition would also have been a great idea.

If Apple’s, and all the Silicon Valley rhetoric about disruptive innovation is real, then a design competition would have been the way to go. I might have won that one. But that would have provoked even more outrage.

Architects and urbanists need to avoid the hypocrisies of piling outrage onto outrage. What we really need is better theoretical instruments to build our own capacities as advocates of architecture. Maybe then we can get better at theorising, recognising, and avoiding, the really schlocky outputs of corporate capitalism.

Have a great Christmas and New Year. Again, Thank you all for supporting the blog in 2017.

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.

 

 

 

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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