Monday, 21 August 2017

Components of Place

Saving Melbourne’s Skyline

The building boom in Melbourne is yielding a number of new buildings designed by well known international architects and scheduled for completion over the next few years. Aarticle published in the local Melbourne newspaper ‘The Age’ by columnist Ray Edgar explored what effect these projects might have on Melbourne- would these designs, as the headline to his article questioned, ‘save Melbourne’s skyline?’.  The article interviewed a number of prominent local architects and urban planners in search of some kind of answer, and listed the projects considered ‘hits’ and ‘misses’ in the current generation of buildings.

The responses from architects were varied, but there were also some assumptions worth contesting.  These include the definition of ‘good’ architecture (and by implication, who meets the criteria of being a ‘good’ architect), the idea that ‘exemplary’ buildings are critical to improving the city, the idea that ‘good’ work will emerge through local designers capable of ‘interpreting’ local culture, that the city is damaged by developers favouring ‘cheap’ architects, and the idea that planning policy is failing the city due to a lack of championing of ‘good design’.

However to work out how to improve the quality of city requires a solid definition of what makes one city ‘good’ and another forgettable.  To simply seek after ‘good design’ without analysing what that really means in the context of city building is surely quite pointless.  Yet this very confusion is revealing.  From the evidence of the last 70 years, it seems clear that a significant majority of architects have lost an understanding of how good cities are made, or even an understanding of the metrics of a ‘good’ city.

Architecture and the City

The core misunderstanding is of the relationship between architecture and the city.  Most architects regard the city as a kind of canvas upon which they can impose expressions of their creativity.  They regard their role as one of object maker.  If they are ‘good architects’ they will create ‘good objects’ and these will enliven and enrich the city.

Melbourne architect John Denton’s comments in the Edgar article exemplify this attitude.  Commenting on what makes a good city, he refers to a recently approved design for a building in Melbourne by international architecture firm Zaha Hadid and Associates:

"The essence of making the city better is to get as many of those that are in the good to very good to excellent to fantastic range, rather than the beige mediocrity, which is the bulk of what we get. While not a great building by Zaha, [600 Collins Street] is another good example of a piece of architecture by a good architect."

Denton’s view makes the city sound like a kind of aggregation or collection of objects, the more interesting objects you have, the better the city.  It’s an attitude explicitly contradicted by prominent Melbourne architectural academic Leon Van Schaik and the City of Melbourne’s Director of City Design, Rob Adams:

To blindly collect "baubles of international architecture", as Adams calls it, risks looking like everywhere else. "The city becomes a zoo, where you have one of everything," says van Schaik. "It does nothing to differentiate the city from another one."

The reality is even more complex, since in the great cities of the world, and even the great parts of lesser cities, the quality is not defined by architectural objects.  It is defined by the creation of great urban rooms- the streets, squares (and lanes) of the city- and the skilful activation and enrichment of those rooms.  The architecture of those places is a faithful servant to this objective, the buildings become the walls of those urban rooms.  By following the rules that make these urban spaces visually coherent and functionally vibrant, even quite ordinary pieces of architecture can add to the quality of the whole.

Memorable urban spaces are defined less by striking architectural objects and more by the considered aggregation of simple, compatible, component based design

Melbourne architect Kerstin Thompson hints at this possibility:

"Not every building can be an icon and not every building needs to be a tower," says Kerstin Thompson. "You need other buildings that are happy to be background, or happy to be the more low-key thing in between."

Leon Van Schaik also identifies the extraordinary in the ordinary:

"There's a whole area behind the old Mint between Little Lonsdale and Latrobe which is packed with grungy little cafes and restaurants and it's just extraordinary," says van Schaik. "But if every one of these low-rent buildings gets knocked down, then everything will homogenise. There should be whole corridors where there are extreme height limits to stop the complete homogenisation of the inner city."

Guildford Lane near the Mint precinct- small scale buildings support cafes and restaurants that give a distinct local character (left).  Attempts to superimpose similar uses on the street interfaces of nearby contemporary  buildings feel artificial and vacuous (right), with carparking podiums above deadening the street interface and failing to give a sense of habitability

Component Based Urbanism: The Case of Melbourne's Lanes

Melbourne is probably best known in Australia for its dense, gridded matrix of streets and in particular its creative use of small service lanes.  These lanes were established during the nineteenth and early twentieth century in an ‘ad hoc’ manner- they were not part of the initial city layout.  The original grid layout consisted of alternating wide and narrow streets, but the allotments formed seem to have been conceived as large residential sites, with the narrow streets functioning as service lanes.  

Within a few years of establishment, both the wide and narrow streets were serving as primary building frontages for zero lot line development, and the lack of a proper network of service access became apparent..  The lanes formed to address this problem are so narrow that regular vehicular circulation is impractical, so they have combined with Melbourne’s network of cross block covered arcades to create an intricate pedestrian network that connects the south edge of the city on Flinders Street and the Yarra River, to the northern boundary containing a range of education and civic functions.  This is an exemplary demonstration of urban theorist Jane Jacob’s ideas about the need for connectivity within large gridded blocks, and supports her explanations of why some city blocks are active and others become dormant- connectivity is key.
These lanes have become a fulcrum of activity for a range of small hospitality offerings- cafes, bars, restaurants- and small retailers, attracted by the highly activated, small scale, intimate and above all, pedestrian friendly quality of these spaces.
In analysing Melbourne’s lanes, the defining architecture typically meets a few key rules:

  • Coherent definition of the street edge
  • Activation of the lane frontage with change every 6 metres or so, to maintain visual interest.  In this case, the prescriptions of another urban theorist, Jan Gehl, are demonstrated- the need for frequent street edge activation.
  • Permeable but defined interface between the lane and the interiors
  • Simple tenancies adaptable to personalization internally and through signage and detail, through to the lane edge
  • Some access to daylight, or effective use of other forms of light
  • A strong sense of habitability- a projection of an invitation to occupy
  • A location on a path from ‘somewhere’ to ‘somewhere’, not a dead end

The defining architecture in most cases is ‘ordinary’ by the sort of definition typically adopted by many architects today, but extraordinary in terms of properly serving something far more important- the urban objective.

Why is the urban objective more important than the constituent architecture?  Because it expresses a successful civility.  Simple buildings aggregating into great and coherent cities with great public spaces act as a metaphor for collaboration between ordinary human beings in achieving something greater than they can achieve individually.  The more successful the city from the point of view of urban coherence, the more successful we sense the originating civilization to be.

Objects and Components

Once there is an understanding that architecture is the servant of the city, the sort of architecture required to achieve this can be considered.  Why, for instance, has the architecture of the last 70 or so years been so unsuccessful in creating or maintaining urban coherence?

Since the second world war, the dominant form of architecture has been modernism.  This is an architecture of the oil age- design informed and defined by a perception that there were plentiful supplies of non-renewable resources and that there were no adverse consequences in using them.  This resulted in unprecedented levels of mobility.  The capacity to move swiftly from one part of a city to the next encouraged zoning of cities into functional monocultures (the large office building, the shopping mall, the residential suburb) linked by transit.  Where premodern cities were defined by the limited distances that could be covered by walking, the modern city allowed functions to be dispersed.  The sort of expressions of civility that we continue to associate with a high quality street level environment were sacrificed- to the carpark around a shopping mall, to the vacuous glass fronted office foyer and associated plaza, to the carparking podium of a commercial tower, to the lifeless low density streets of suburbia, devoid of the corner shops or diversity of function apparent in pre-modern residential areas.

Modernist architect Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin for Paris envisaged an urban structure informed by mechanized mobility, where the pedestrian scale of street interfaces became entirely irrelevant

The architecture that grew up to support oil age mobility, modernism, is the architecture of the object.  These are buildings conceptualized to be seen at a distance and at speed.  They don’t need to offer anything to the street level, since the assumption is inherent that no-one will walk past them- the footpath interface is irrelevant.  In fact, to enhance the reading of the building as object it is typically considered advantageous to set off the form with a recessed shadowline void at street level, or a barrier that extends the simplified expression of the superstructure.

Object Oriented design often results in an urban interface that forms a deactivated barrier or void

The architecture cited in Ray Edgar’s article as the ‘hits’ of recent Melbourne development largely follows this pattern- a striking object often quite assertively superimposed on the street.  This is not, in fact, the sort of architecture that builds great cities.  Ironically, it becomes shallow, precisely because so much potential for collective expression is sacrificed in the name of a rather limited range of individual expression.

Component Based Design in Melbourne's Collins Street, and in Melbourne's Lanes

Premodern architecture, in contrast, is component based.  Conceived as servants and ‘ornaments to the city’, these buildings reflect an understanding of the importance of the street edge.  Once you build from this interface upwards, you end up with a very different way of making buildings, one that requires a composition of human scaled components.

This is why the comment of Melbourne’s Director of City Design, Rob Adams, that "I'd rather they (the architects) would spend their time thinking about their impact down at the street level, than worrying what it looks like 190 metres above the ground" is such an important observation.

The problem is that, in object oriented modernism, what is happening 190 metres above the ground is fundamentally related to the street level, and actually inhibits architects from creating good street interfaces.  If you conceptualize a building as a singular object, like a vase on a table, rather than a composition of human scaled components with a sequence of composition that starts at street level, you are inevitably going to end up with a banal street interface.  There actually has to be a fundamental shift in design approach, and possibly a rejection or at least a rethink of object oriented design, to achieve Adams’ wish.

Proposed building by Zaha Hadid Architects, Collins Street, Melbourne, overall form and street interface

This seems quite timely: as we move towards the post oil age, tenets of oil age design seem increasingly anachronistic.  Apart from urban problems created by object oriented design, including loss of street activation and walkability, modernism is also associated with classic ‘gas guzzling’ architecture with low thermal resistance exemplified by the ‘glass box’.  In an age defined by denser urbanism, resource shortages, a need to reinforce human collaboration and civility, and a need to recover low energy, mixed use and walkable urbanism, a rethink is certainly needed.

Rethinking the Past

That rethink also requires an open minded approach.  Apart from its detrimental effect on urbanism, the philosophy of modernism also entrenched another fallacy perpetuated for nearly 100 years by the architectural profession: that for architecture to be ‘relevant’ to its age, then by implication it needs to reflect a narrow range of contemporary design languages, that all premodern design languages back to antiquity were somehow irrelevant and worse, that learning from those languages was to imitate, or engage in design ‘pastiche’.

Yet now those component based languages- the languages that help frame the urban rooms we now value- seem very relevant indeed.  From antiquity to today, learning and refining earlier styles over generations has delivered these coherent places.  The breaking down of the obsession with novelty at the expense of urban quality is critical.

On the other hand, modernism has underpinned innovations in planning and construction of buildings including wide span flexible spaces, and partnered with developments in materials and engineering offers the promise for worthwhile improvements in key areas such as energy efficiency.  Premodern architecture offers valuable lessons in how, with the use archaic technologies, simple strategies such as thick walls, sheltering roofs, shading and planning for natural ventilation could create habitable environments.  By merging these streams of knowledge a constructive and deeper understanding could be achieved that would lead to better places.

Relearning Humane Urbanism

Another area requiring a degree of professional reconstruction is knowledge of how good urban environments are created.  The design profession’s adherence to essentially anti-urban object oriented design has resulted in a loss of basic knowledge of how successful urban environments actually work.  This leads to some rather surprising ideas, such as the concept that faulty urban design will somehow fix itself given time.  John Denton’s comments in the Edgar article in relation to urban wastelands such as Docklands are fairly typical of prevailing professional attitudes:

"Docklands will be OK in 10 years," Denton reassures. "But we've got to suffer for another 10 years to get there."

Jan Gehl's analysis of the early stages of Melbourne's Docklands development identified that the design of 70% of the street and lane interfaces were either passive or inactive, a basic structural issue difficult to address with urban retrofits

Sadly, this is not the case.  Leading urbanist Jan Gehl analysed the area in detail, and identified that the size of buildings, percentage of street frontages that were activated, the organization of the blocks and the nature of the architecture were all seriously deficient.  These are fundamental, structural problems that time will not heal without large scale restructuring of an architecture and urban form that is quite resistant to change.  And given that the premodern urbanism of Melbourne’s main city grid offers such strong lessons in how to set up a workable urban framework and the sort of architecture required to serve that framework, it is particularly disappointing that these lessons were ignored.  Here again, the deliberate rejection of premodern precedents that infects so much of the design professions must play a part.  But there are also clearly failings of policy, failings that are, regrettably, set to be repeated.

Reconnecting with the Community

Also critical is a re-engagement with public sentiment.  Architects have tended, in the face of public disquiet over the impact of ‘object’ architecture, to become both disengaged and defensive in relation to planning policy debates.  This friction between the design professions and the public is played out in town planning approval processes, and in increasing regulation to protect premodern urban environments through heritage overlays and urban character zones.  The recent oscillations in residential zoning regulations, including the introduction of mandatory height and density controls, is part of the same process of trying to manage the generally negative public perception of the design interventions occurring in their local environments.

Yet many older and well loved urban environments demonstrate the sorts of densities that  are now generating concern elsewhere.  The key seems to be a loss of skill in designing higher density developments that integrate seamlessly into existing settings and embody the sort characteristics that enable older high density developments to work.  This sort of sensitivity to place clearly needs to be revived to build confidence that density increases can be achieved without detriment to existing environments.  As demonstrated in these older areas, this does not require particularly elaborate architecture: a simple component based vernacular with attention to detail, human scale, provision of protected outdoor space and street activation will suffice.

Carlton terraces and corner shops.  A density of 26 dwellings per hectare with sensitivity to the shared environment, habitability and adaptability compares to around 12 dwellings per hectare typical in suburbia

Hits and Misses

So what of Edgar’s list of ‘hits’ and ‘misses’?  In a sense, the very terminology hints at the idea of buildings as self contained objects considered autonomous examples of ‘good’ architecture in isolation from context.  Many of these are award winning buildings, and they may well be ‘hits’ for functional or other reasons.  But these buildings tend to suffer from the typical contemporary design problems at street level, particularly when compared to the quality of street interface offered by the be best premodern buildings around Melbourne, or even the more humble but active street interfaces that exist along the best lanes.  To reference Rob Adam’s observations, it could be said that they’ve been designed from the top down, not from the street level upwards.

Melbourne’s ‘hit’ buildings at street level- William Barak Portrait building by ARM, Upper House by JCB, QV2 by McBride Charles Ryan

Learning to place architecture in a more considered relationship with the broader urban environment starts with an understanding that architecture can’t be considered ‘good design’ if it exists at the expense of the public realm.  It might also lead to the realization that with an open mind, education and goodwill, even ‘ordinary’ architects (and let’s face it, that’s 99.9% of the profession) can produce architecture that’s ‘good’ for the city, just as they collectively managed to do in making memorable, habitable, responsive and humane urban environments prior to the advent of modernism.

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