The value of everyday design ….

Architecture has always lent itself to the conviction that a better world is possible; it goes with the optimistic territory of designing things.  Architects have always been influenced by the idealism of progressive political views and the possibilities inherent in technological change, allied perhaps with a too naïve faith in progress.  Architects believed they were capable of playing a major role in constructing a better world.

 Some people assert that the decline of this view corresponded with the publication of Charles Jencks ' book 'The Language of Post Modern Architecture'  in 1977.  Jencks heralded the end of a period of post war hope for improvement in the human condition with its emphasis on town planning and social housing, ideas that stemmed back to the birth of the modern movement around the start of the century.  

 Modernism, where everything is permitted and free choice has become the norm, has gradually taken over since the Eighties.  Rather than holding out hope for the future, architecture is increasingly being seen as part of the problem, aiding and abetting what's wrong with the world.  Striving for something better now often reads rather as striving for something that simply looks different.

 As part of this competitive free-for-all, it's common for architects to make unrealistic claims about solving the problems of the whole world through better design…if they are the designers of course!   I've written before of my impatience with these attitudes; see 'I can do anything better than you' on my web site.

 If they're so clever why don't they knock off a few of the many everyday problems that abound in our cities and suburbs?  And let me hasten to say that architects don't have an exclusive lien on design and problem solving, and having good ideas doesn't always require complex drawings or technical knowledge, anyone can have good ideas to improve things!  It's the second step, what you do with the idea, that's important, and architects usually have the capacity to move to the second stage!

 George Orwell once commented that,'To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle,' and I suspect that those making claims for architectural pre-eminence in designing everything, might perhaps see some of the more simple everyday things in front of their noses as beneath their too important consideration!  Not all architects are going to be building professionals but the potential impact of all of them on improving their cities could never-the-less be considerable. 

So rather than just talking about the design of cities in an impractical macro sense, architects should rather adopt a responsible advocacy role and be free-wheeling agents of achievable changes to improve their cities in all sorts of ways, to be the grit in the oyster that makes the pearl, so to speak!

 Suggestions for quite simple small changes can some times lead to considerable long-term improvements.  A forty year old example; the very first, in what became a deliberate movement in Sydney, was the corner where narrow one-way Roslyn Street joins Darlinghurst Road in Kings Cross. 

 Sydney's up and down topography and erratic street pattern had left a corner where a narrow street splayed out at the intersection.  The footpaths were narrow and there was more road area than necessary.  Maintaining the street at its narrow one-way width and adding the excess road area onto the north-facing footpath created more space for people and room to plant a tree. 

 Last time I was there couple of tables outside a coffee shop and a barrow selling fruit had also colonised this space.  This was so obviously a sensible and low cost suggestion that there was no discussion and nothing more was required.  The councillors simply sent my sketch to the Engineering Department to add to its 'To do' list and in short order it was done.

 This way of amplifying and improving city space for people has since become so old hat as to be automatic, even forty years ago it was hardly rocket science but it made a real difference in congested Kings Cross at low cost. 

 A similar configuration was found in the city on the corner of Bligh Street and Hunter Street where a monument to the Reverend Richard Johnson, first chaplain in the colony, stood isolated on a traffic island surrounded by roadway.  It didn't take much design input, soon went ahead and as the Before and After photographs show, a sensible low key improvement for city walkers resulted.


Richard Johnson Place, AFTER

 A few more tongue-in-cheek suggestions and we were commissioned by the City Council to find more.  Dozens of places were found in the CBD where increased room for people could be provided at modest cost without the legal and traffic hassles of completely closing streets to cars. These suggestions were low cost and were implemented forthwith, and more importantly, we soon found we weren't needed as the council engineers started to find and make improvements like this themselves without any help once they 'got' the so simple idea of maximising pedestrian space.

And Port Phillip residents should note that there were no 'vision statements' or phony consultations to find out 'what the public wanted', the councillors had the courage to make decisions and act quickly in the public interest.

 JFK famously proclaimed, 'Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.'  Quite, and although my smart arse suggestions didn't start with such idealistic pretensions, they not only improved one of the cities I love but also rebounded to my benefit.  Above all courage was gained from these small beginnings, and we learnt that there's nothing to stop you making suggestions and it can be a lot of fun! The closure of five blocks of Martin Place into a pedestrian space took a bit more talking but happened in the same way.

 Melbourne's formal grid and wide streets may not lend themselves to opportunistic suggestions exactly like those above, but I'm convinced there are equivalent opportunities if good designers start looking and thinking and making suggestions.  Suggestions for new uses to revitalise old buildings and provide a sustainable economic return are needed, and we also  need more transformed spaces like Hardware Lane that would add to our city good life.  

 They don't necessarily have to be physical or urban suggestions either.  I have a strong concern about helping the homeless for example, and I've made a number of suggestions that need further development; some of them don't require any new buildings at all.  Read' To Sin By Silence' also on my website.

 Sean Godsell, the architect of the Design Hub in Swanston Street is one well-known architect who has volunteered a clever solution for the homeless by designing a hinged park bench that could also provide temporary shelter.  In the absence of civic action, we need more unsolicited design suggestions like this from more designers. 

 One thing architects and artists have in common is a good nose for seeking out neglected parts of cities that have good urban qualities, often it's because it's all they can afford.  You only have to look at the role a few architects played in the conservation and renewal of the old inner city slum areas in Sydney and Melbourne, or the role played by designers and artists in making the SOHO area in New York's Lower East Side so sought after. And the conversion of an abandoned elevated railway line in Lower Manhatten into the highly desirable urban space called the High Line has led to the improvement of a whole run down part of New York City. 

 At the time of the Australian Bicentennial some countries sent sailing ships to commemorate the arrival of the First Fleet in Sydney Harbour.  But not the pragmatic Dutch, who said that we would soon be facing the impact of a rapidly ageing population in the same way that they had, so they sent a few experts to give us the benefit of their experience and advice!

Not as sexy as sailing ships but eminently more useful, so I was interested to read in the Open Journal about a young firm of architects in Rotterdam, who started a practice called ZUS (Zones Urbaines Sensibles),'not only with a desire to practice architecture but also as a reaction to the scores of monetary incentives that have driven the inner-city of Rotterdam to desolation'.

By 'monetary incentives' they were referring to the actions of a neo-liberal, free market government who sold public land that in turn encouraged the building of over two billion square metres of office buildings across the Netherlands.  Most of this space remained unoccupied, there were empty buildings everywhere and architects had no work. 

I find it interesting that even the clever Dutch were not immune to the development hysteria that affected Iceland, Ireland, Portugal and other countries as part of the Global Financial Crisis, so we should watch Abbott and Costello carefully; it could happen here. 

 As a result of this debacle, Kristian Koreman and Elma Van Boxel, the young Dutch founders of ZUS, said they wanted 'to show how architecture could be involved with the community structure and work for the people, rather than the organisation'.

Highly critical of architects who were only concerned about the aesthetic design of their buildings, ZUS occupied an empty seven storey building in a run down area that was scheduled for demolition and replacement by a bigger building and  'offered an unsolicited plan to the owner and to city officials to populate the building with various initiatives'. 

 The Press were very supportive so the initially reluctant owner finally let them proceed.  The building ended up housing a multiplicity of cultural and community organisations and activities, with over 80% of the space being occupied in the space of four weeks.  This in turn had a roll on effect that spurred other urban actions and helped enliven a run down neighbourhood. 

 It's an inspiring story but next year I'd like to be able to describe an equivalent happening in Sunshine, Deer Park or Blacktown.  Come on all you young designers, write a brief for unknown clients and create solutions to problems without being asked and see what happens.  And there's a special prize for the best solution for crowd control at next year's Nuit Blanche in Melbourne. 

 Architecture is not an art and its survival as more than a technical trade with aesthetic pretensions requires real social and political awareness about the design of everything.  Architects should take their role seriously and demonstrate the value of everyday design and their potential role in it, by acting rather than talking.  It might even bring them more work!

 Don Gazzard
April 2o14.