Good design is about more than just appearances.

This is the time of the year for architectural awards, seemingly dozens of them, and this year's crop reinforce the point that the external appearance of buildings is increasingly being treated as a separate design exercise.  There are few owners or building mangers on juries to correct the balance towards more holistic design.

For the four hundred years after the death of Andrea Palladio in 1580 the style he developed based on classical Roman models dominated the appearances of buildings everywhere in the world, and nowhere more so than in the great country houses of 18th century England.

But Palladio never had to design an airport terminal!  And the increasing number of new building types, ranging from science laboratories, sports stadia and mass housing, made the application of the visual rules for the Palladian style increasingly inappropriate to the early 19th century pioneers of the modern movement in architecture.  Modernists took the concept of 'design' further than just appearances, by embracing the use of contemporary materials and progressive social attitudes, accepting the influences of visual ideas inspired by modern art, and even how well the plan worked in all sorts of practical ways for the users.  

Le Corbusier simplified this attitude by declaring that 'the plan and the section are the generators', claiming (almost) that if you got the plan and cross-section right, the appropriate 'right' appearance was fore-ordained.  While this is almost true, every designer knows it's not automatic, the elevations of the building often need a little canny massage, and different designers could produce alternative appearances for the same building with different materials and fenestration. 

All architects try to be different in the hope of attracting another job!  They think the best way of doing this is to stand out from the ruck in the way the so-called starchitects like Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry have.  But it's not that easy to develop an easily recognizable style, and all Zaha's buildings look best suited to be large span, open space buildings such as sports stadia, and Gehry's great roofs are ideally cut out to cover art museums.  Gehry simply leaves the spaces created below his roofs for the curators to work out how to best to display the artworks.  It's a far cry from those great art museums in Milano, Verona and Palermo designed by Carlo Scarpa, where the location and display of the individual artworks was considered part of the design problem and not just an afterthought.

And their preference for special, non-specific building types is made clearer when these stars attempt something more mundane in the way Gehry has with his faculty building on the UTS Broadway campus in Sydney.  This isn't the place for a detailed critique as I haven't visited it yet but it clearly isn't half as successful as his recent more open-ended Fondation Louis Vuitton art museum in Paris.

The disparity between recent buildings and their external skins is even more emphasized by the burgeoning development seen across the river from the Bund in Shanghai.  Designed by a wide cross section of well known world architects, these mostly office buildings are basically more or less the same, with each valiantly trying to have some point of difference, and all of them failing. Can you tell which is the Australian one?  Is this the best urban development we can do?

 Bund in Shanghai Mark Sheldon

 Bund in Shanghai Mark Sheldon

Photos from the Bund in Shanghai taken by Mark Sheldon

 The arbitrary way in which the building plans and facades have been manipulated in order to look different illustrates how pointless this is, and makes a mockery of the idea of regionalism in architecture.  These buildings would be no different if they were in Melbourne, Manchester or Manhattan.

I was therefore pleased when my old firm, now called Group GSA and still led by my old partner Mark Sheldon, recently won a design award for the Sheffield apartment buildings at Penrith NSW.  There are 204 apartments in two almost identical buildings 35 metres in height.

 Sheffield apartments Penrith

What pleased me is that they made it clear that their prime design concern was for the residents of the building, by proudly declaring that 70% of the apartments had natural cross ventilation and solar access.

 Making buildings more sustainable in all sorts of ways also has as yet unexplored visual possibilities for the development of a vernacular architectural style for background buildings like apartment and office buildings, buildings that are basically all the same with minor differences.  I suspect that purchasers of apartments pay more attention to the performance of their car and the view from the apartment than they do about things like cross ventilation.  This makes holistic design incorporating sustainability and environmental factors even more important.  In this rush to be different at all cost we ignore the clear examples of from the past with vernacular buildings and the residential squares of Georgian London.

Don Gazzard LFAIA
December 2015

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