Do we want to follow London and Dubai?

 This short video, warning that London is in danger of becoming like multi-tower Dubai, hit a sensitive nerve in Britain where it attracted 2500 Facebook responses.  It's also relevant to what could well happen here if we don't watch out!

 The author and speaker, Alain de Botton, is a philosopher who has set himself the task of explaining complex ideas in plain language; his book, 'The Architecture of Happiness', is recommended. 

 De Botton rightly opposes the proposed development of over two hundred and fifty very tall towers in London, and thinks the necessary increase in density should be contained instead within a height limit of six to eight storeys. 

 His video reinforces my rrecent plea for the adoption of a similar height limit in Melbourne. 

 Whether Melbourne's Fishermans Bend can recover from the deliberate idiocy of the previous government's announcement of the redevelopment of this 450 hectare area before any of the planning parameters had been settled, remains to be seen.  Their premature announcement stimulated a spate of speculative 'ambit' development applications for tall towers in the Montague precinct adjacent to South Melbourne that have inflated land values.  

 The expectations of all landowners have now been raised by these high land prices, and in turn, they are creating political pressure for tall towers to be approved to absorb and justify such high prices.  And so on in a nasty self-fulfilling spiral where some developers are going to make a motza.

 While the CBD and Fishermans Bend both have other, separate planning issues, Melbourne's suburbs also have to increase in density to accommodate growth. An 8 storey height limit should be fixed in most of the metropolitan area, and this height should be defined as not exceeding a dimension of 25 metres from natural ground level to the slabs of what I hope will be mandatory green roof gardens. 

This height control should be allied with a Floor Space Ratio of 5: 1 defined as the ratio of the gross building area to the site area.  This density control will stop developers building on small sites that force them to go tall in order to reach the maximum developmentā€¦ read, to get the maximum profit!  Limiting the height will force the amalgamation of smaller sites in order to achieve the maximum development, and land prices will be forced to adjust accordingly.

Some people get worried at the idea of higher densities in traditional low rise suburban areas, but as de Botton shows there are many examples of sensible 8 storey buildings that fit in well with existing low rise shopping and residential areas; Bay Street in Port Melbourne is one good local example. 

Denser suburbs mean more people, better shops and more lively suburbsā€¦and the growth of Melbourne being contained within its current boundaries and not straggling halfway to Wangaratta! 

As our economy is based on continuous growth, the only alternative to more 8 storey buildings are more very tall towers on small sites as proposed for London and the Montague precinct. This latter option will only create more areas like Docklands with a public domain that is demonstrably the antithesis of civilized, active street life.

These height and density controls are clearly not nearly enough, and great improvement in the detail design of apartments has been shown to be necessary.  The Apartment Design Guide below, allied with advisory committees, has made a big difference in Sydney.

The likely outcome of the current, 'Better Apartments' enquiry by the Victorian Department of Planning is a similar document.  It's all boring stuff perhaps, but we have to grapple with all these details, big and small, if we want to make a real difference. 

These missing details highlight the indifference most people feel towards what architects pretentiously call the 'built environment'.  Another dull new building, the public thinks, while architects are too busy giving themselves awards to be concerned about this broad indifference from what should be their natural electorate.  Who do we design apartments for, if not for the people who live in them?

As Sydney critic Elizabeth Farrelly points out, 'There is more to this habitual resentment than simple Luddite conservatism.  A half-century or so of bitter experience tells us that what comes is generally worse than what goes: new development is usually out of scale, out of character and almost always ugly.'

De Botton's description of the quality of the current crop of London towers is equally scathing, and equally applicable here. 

Architects are servants, dependant on developers, planners and politicians for their employment, so although they have failed us, we can't blame them entirely, as all of those involved are in thrall to the bottom line values of a society based on money, profit and growth.

I'm afraid our senses have been blunted by our mediocre surroundings.  Ask yourself how long is it since you have been so impressed by the elegance and beauty of some new building that you couldn't resist sharing your pleasure with other people?

New residential buildings should be well designed, good looking 'background' buildings rather than 'look at me' buildings designed to win self-referential, in-house awards, and architects would do better to emulate the anonymous, functional 'gravitas' of our best vernacular buildings.  

The values embodied in our buildings, values that support family life and a democratic community, are more important than playing visual games manipulating building facades!

We have no choice. Whether we like it or not, the population of our cities is going to double by 2050, and this will create the opportunity to improve the design quality of all the new 8 storey buildings that will be required; the profession is on notice!

Hopefully this issue will become the catalyst for good men and women to influence this change rather than complaining about it afterwards!  Do you want Melbourne and Sydney to be like Dubai?

Don Gazzard   LFAIA:  August 2015