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.


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.


A New Fortress for Art: Herzog and de Meuron’s Switch House at the Tate Modern

The new Switch House extension at the Tate Modern museum attests to Herzog and de Meuron’s ability to propose a public architecture that need not be a mish mash of white walls and fully glazed open vistas. As the Observer art critic Laura Cumming noted the Switch House seems to go against the “dominant piety of modern public buildings that democracy = transparency = glass.” This dominant and simplistic piety seems to have infected much of contemporary architecture. As I have written elsewhere the house seems to have suffered the most from this kind of architectural pornography. In the public realm this dominant piety is certainly the public and civic architectural language most beloved by the neoliberal state. Everything is Richard Meier like these days. In some ways it is the final triumph of the architecture of the New York Five.

The new Switch House as an addition to the Tate Modern adds more gallery spaces, education and events facilities, staff facilities, a restaurant, members rooms and best of all a viewing deck across London. All of this sounds like a lot of extra space and prior to visiting the building I naively expected to see it organised around clever vertical circulation with large open and flexible floor plans. I naively expected a similar regime to that evident in the existing Tate Modern previously refurbished by the Swiss pair. The new extension is more intricate than this and its public spaces, and circulation routes exhibit a finer grain of detail that is not common in contemporary architecture. The internal circulation and public spaces are generously scaled and inflected by strange warp and weft of the concrete frame that supports the exterior brickwork.

IMG_0359Stairs are always a place of apprehension and darkness; often the back stairs are where the budget ran out or where the fire services are fully revealed or where you may never encounter others. In the Switch House stair system this a generosity of space, attention to material detail, views to the exterior, as well as view lines along and across the vertical circulation spaces to other adjoining spaces. There are a series of different promenades within the building, through the undercrofted old tank spaces, the heroic helical stair, vertical stairs, and outside the lifts and along the perimeter walls with glimpses of the outside world. This is a hollowed out pyramid with a palimpsest of interior spaces. In this theatre of spaces the silhouettes of both individuals and small groups seem momentarily freeze framed before they move on.

IMG_0196In some ways the antithesis of the Tate Modern’s turbine hall and galleries. In these one is subsumed by the monumental spaces of a now archaic industrial technology of Giles Gilbert Scott’s power station desperately designed not to overshadow Wren’s dome at St Paul’s. Where the 2000 Tate Modern is vast and cavernous and the surreal glimpses and dissonances of conceptual art can be taken at distance. Walking up and down this building one becomes enveloped in its spaces as a flaneur both of the architecture but also of the other people one can see and may encounter within the building. In other words Herzog and De Meuron have created a city within a city. The complexity of the circulation spaces seem like a version of Loos’s raumplan; the building is certainly more raumplan than free plan. The Switch House circulation reminds me of the vertical stair circulation at the back of the Muller House. The grain of the concrete in the Switch House also seems strangely like the interior cladding stone of Muller.

IMG_0194The Switch House is certainly more claustrophobic than the spaces of the turbine hall and there is a dissonance in the architecture with its odd juxtaposition of concrete columns, brick lattice grill work, and seemingly adhoc spaces which come into much closer confines with ones body. This is not a public palace that one can walk through easily as a god-like citizen of Rome or Athens, ala Richard Meier at the LA Getty, with the ease of knowing that the space itself is open and rich and luxurious and supported by a network of philanthropy. Herzog and de Meuron have created a series of spaces that are variegated in their lighting effects, a bit dingy in some ways, and perhaps more like being in the underworld of the enslaved Nibelung dwarves in Wagner’s Das Rheingold than being on the mountaintop. The Switch House is an fortress that has, through its sparse material treatments, had a kind of melancholy folded into it.

IMG_0198 My own biases makes me think that the extension points to the architecture of Loos, the paintings of De Chirico or the subtle yet weird surrealism of Corbusier’s houses of the 1920s. Perhaps Herzog and De Meuron’s work is related to the Swiss artist Urs Fischer. In any case, this is an architecture that evokes notions of estrangement and the grotesque in minimalist forms. The geometric kink in the exterior of the building is both gargoyle and pyramid. After all, and despite its Renaissance pretensions, London is essentially a Gothic city.

IMG_0193There is a real treat on the viewing deck. The viewing deck is great because you get a 360 degree view of the City. The sense that you are in a public building is further emphasised by the fact that you can see directly into the neighbours houses in the unfortunate Neo Bankside development. It’s actually funny as these are the neighbours that happen to be part of Richistan, the nation where money is made, accumulated and distributed to the Caymans. It is this contrast that highlights the fact that the Switch House is to some degree a fortress of public space in a city where public and civic space, the space of encounter and possibility and freedom, has been largely destroyed by the bankers and more recently the celebrity politicians of the City.


But by some miracle of circumstance and patronage Herzog and de Meuron have created a public building that is both fitting to the radical art that it might house and suggestive of a civic spatiality that is not the result of  a simplistic formula of the neoliberal palaces. There are no sunfilled spaces, open planned white minimalism with a bit of glazing desperately trying to frame or invent a serene view. Of course, the bankers and the celebrity politicians have no need for the poetics of the grotesque and estrangement which underpins so much radical art. The new extension is great because it suggests that for some at least, the techniques related to the grotesque and estrangement, and indeed architecture itself still matters.



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.




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.