Architects & Badass Clients: The perennial moral question?

There has always been a debate in architecture about patronage and politics. The central question of this debate, which I am sure many architects are familiar with, is should architects work for those with no morals? This becomes a dilemma and does it really matter who architects work for as long as they make good, or even great, architecture?

The bad and sometimes evil clients.

All architects have had clients we don’t like, or we don’t particularly want to work for, or we are worried that they will rip us off by not paying. We refused a client once because he looked like Catweazle. But what happens when the client is a demagogue or a war criminal?

Usually, when this debate gets going, the old hero icons of modern architecture get trotted out: Gropius and Mies and the Nazi and the Reichsbank competition. Le Corbusier and Vichy, and the break up with his Marxist cousin, Pierre Jeanneret. Phillip Johnson, that most subversive of architects and the actual Nazis. For a brief moment, in the late 20s the constructivist worker architects and artists had the same problem, should they work for Stalin? However, by 1932 it was too late for them and most were killed in the Terror or went to the Gulag’s.

Tessenow and Speer and Krier 


Inevitably this argument cycles around to Hitler’s architect Albert Speer, the gargantuan and ham fisted classicist and pioneer of modern managerialism. Speer was no Plecnik or Lutyens. As an architecture student Speer was reputedly thrown out of Poelzig’s studio and then ended up in Heinrich Tessenow’s studio. What would have happened to Speer if he had stayed with the early expressionistic Poelzig who later embraced New Objectivity rather than the classically orientated Tessenow.  As most know, Speer was later to be admired so much by Leon Krier, who published the monograph on Speer, once Krier himself escaped the clutches of James Stirling. In the 1980s as students we once interviewed Tadao Ando through a Japanese translator and asked him what he thought of Krier, the response in Japanese, was opaque, long winded and incomprehensible and surprisingly animated. However, in this perplexing outburst there was one word that we could discern through the rush of Japanese: Fascist. Yes, Ando thought Leon Krier was a fascist. As Paul Davies has noted Giorgio Grassi would rehabilitate Tessenow; and Leon Krier, Speer.

 Patrik Comes to Town


Hot on the heels of Rem Koolhaas, all of this history, came back to me when we had a new star architect visitor these weeks past. Yes, in my small city on the architectural periphery, it was none other than Patrik Schumacher. Suddenly, my Archienemy Instagram social media feeds were full of people I know doing selfies with Patrik. Rather than going all out I chose to get a photo of his ear. He even spoke at Rem and David G’s MPavilion, which I am yet to visit, with the Victorian State Government Architect.

Perhaps I was a little jealous, I asked myself, I was not invited to the Pavilion, nor was I invited to the jury sessions where Patrik appeared. Had I through some character flaw and self-sabotage avoided the great man and celebrity. Had they read all the bad stuff I had written in the obscure conference papers about Parametricism. I had already avoided the Remmy Koolhaas festival when he came. Should I have lurched into Patrik’s field of vision to get a selfie? I did at least manage to get a picture of his ear.


Patrik and the Mayfair Development

Regular readers of the blog will recall Patrik’s statements about Aravena winning the big Pritzker prize in an earlier blog.

“I respect was Alejandro Aravena is doing and his ‘half a good house’ developments are an intelligent response. However, this is not the frontier where architecture and urban design participate in advancing the next stage of our global high density urban civilisation.”

ZHA architecture, in  which Patrik is a partner leads, has also designed a “vase” shaped tower in my city intended to be housed by the Mandarin Oriental hotel. In Brisbane ZHA has also designed a  “champagne flute” tower development. Nothing like a metaphor to motivate the sales team.


Chin-chin in Brisvegas.

The Mayfair 


More interestingly, there is also the Mayfair sited on a prominent corner on St Kilda Road, for those not familiar with Melbourne this is the boulevard leading into the cities central grid. The developers UEM Sunrise are employing the ZHA brand to sell the apartments off. This one has the soft flowing curvy butterfly metaphor attached to it. Apparently, the design is based on the “Lorenz attractor – a mathematical set of equations that, when plotted, resemble a figure eight or butterfly.”

There is also great Zaha Hadid exhibition associated with the sale of units in the development and the website is pretty slick. All the apartments look great on the inside and are full of well designed and exquisitely fabricated ZHA designed wall finishes, furniture and fittings.


Amongst all the signature suite excitement of the interior there is the exterior. In contrast to the interior, the exterior does seem a bit, how shall I say it, Bris Vegas with its predominant horizontal blades and glazed balconies. Perhaps, the Mayfair, and other luxury apartment types in general, are more about the exquisite luxury interiors and less  to do with the exterior. I am not sure how the facade might contribute to a high density urban civilisation?

Perhaps this is the danger the architectural fascination with CNC fabrication and digitally enabled supply chains. Perhaps, all we will get to do as architects in the future, are the luxury interiors: the product marketing types and planners will design the exteriors.

Maybe we are already at the point where we are no longer architects but in fact strategic product designers and marketers. Architecture is a key element in the marketing material for Mayfair:

“Mayfair is unmistakably Zaha Hadid. A mastery of scientific precision and artistic integrity, its soft, organic form pays tribute to St Kilda Road’s leafy streetscape, and the context within which it exists.”

I don’t really know what to say about the “soft organic form” line.

The local connections

With such international collaborations there is always a local architectural connection.  With the apartments on St Kilda road, branded as the Mayfair, it is that notable firm of high rise apartment architects Elenberg Fraser.With the ZHA Mandarin Oriental tower it is Plus Architecture. On face value across the liveable city of Melbourne these two firms, Plus and Elenberg Fraser, seem to have cornered the market for apartments design. Interestingly Plus’s 4248 scheme looks a bit like the ZHA Mayfair. These are architects who seem happy to surf the real estate free market. No doubt  in doing so they are ensuring their fee for service regimes are commensurate with the excellent plan-façade combos they are producing.

Follow the money

Of course, in the modern age all architects immersed in the free market no longer need worry about the Nazis or Stalinists to work for or fight against. Arguably, it is the kleptocrats and big sovereign wealth funds, hedge funds and Panama Paper style investors who provide the juice for the luxury housing fragmenting our cities.

The Mayfair development is being developed by UEM Sunrise. UEM Sunrise is wholly-owned by Khazanah, an investment holding arm of the Malaysian Government. A few years back the sovereign wealth find of the Malaysian government was the subject of a financial investigation. You can follow this here and even search for Khazanah and UEM Sunrise at the Panama Papers. You can also read about some the advanced urban civilisation stuff Malaysia has done for Palm Oil and Penan people.

It would be monstrous to suggest that the architects, or anyone else associated with these current projects, are in any way implicated in illicit financial flows of capital. But the point is that we are all connected in this new digital age via 6 virtual degrees of separation. The landscape in this new global system no longer resembles the past.  The old empires and their classical icons have gone and it is the oscillations of distributed capital propelled through conduits of digital finance that now shape the monumental vistas.


Spare a thought for the other architects, more distant from luxury housing and the celebrity system of architetcure. The local architects who ponder the vicissitudes of the NDIS roll out, informal settlements and the possibilties of producing new housing types driving by financial structures that enable a range of demographics, typologies and ownership.

Perhaps it will always be a perennial question for architects: Does it matter who we work for and who our patrons are? Does it matter where the money comes from? But, maybe the even greater sin for architects is not so much where the money comes from, or the issues around patronage, but whether or not the project is simply trash for cash.

Lets hope that there is a subversive sentiment somewhere in that approach.

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.




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.

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?


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.


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.