I was invited to write a 700-word opinion article for ar (Architectural Review Asia Pacific), expanding on the concept of ‘Community Economy’ I wrote about in a 200-word letter to the editor of The Age, in October last year, and which I subsequently posted on this blog site. The article for ar is published in the current issue (issue 129, Autumn 2013, pictured) and on-line at AustralianDesignReview.com in the OPINION section. It can be read, direct, here.
I was invited to write a 700-word opinion article for ar (Architectural Review Asia Pacific), expanding on the concept of ‘Community Economy’ I wrote about in a 200-word letter to the editor of The Age, in October last year, and which I subsequently posted on this blog site. The article for ar is published in the current issue (issue 129, Autumn 2013, pictured) and on-line at AustralianDesignReview.com in the OPINION section. It can be read, direct, here.
The pairing of urban design and architecture, in a blog entitled EnvisagedCity, would almost certainly suggest that the architecture in question is that of…what, exactly? And here is the dilemma. How do you define something that in its traditional meaning refers to the design of buildings, and by another definition — the one prevalent in contemporary usage by other disciplines and the media — refers to the structure, or to the arrangement of something, anything: the ‘architecture’ of the carbon pricing scheme, the ‘architecture of problems’,2 the ‘architecture’ of the web? And if we were to acknowledge the growing concern to broaden the meaning of architecture — the discipline — beyond the design of buildings, to entail, in fact, the essence of the abstract meaning of the word (i.e. structure) and its application to cities, then what structure of the city are we referring — political, economic, spatial, or all three? Moreover, to what degree does architecture, of anything, penetrate beyond structure, or address the meta-structure? Did the architect of the carbon pricing scheme devise the idea of a scheme, or just devise the workings of the scheme? And if the architecture of problems gets to the essence of problems through an understanding of the structure and context of the problem, suggesting architecture is strategic, what then for ill-defined areas of concern that cannot be defined as ‘problems’, such as community futures? Can architecture — the discipline — cope with this or is it outside its scope?
Regardless of which meaning of architecture is adopted for the discipline, there is an apparent conflation of architecture and urban design today. The distinction made between them in academia and practice — usually within the one school or practice — and the adoption of the two disciplines by individual architects who are either ‘architects’ or ‘urban designers’, or both, is confusing and certainly limiting to the advancement and application of design expertise in the making of our cities. And if ‘transdisciplinary’ practice is apparently a breakthrough in traditional ‘siloed’ forms of education for ‘designers’ of the ‘built environment’, what is the discipline, exactly? Why not just ‘design’, or ‘urban design’, or, if architecture is to be more than buildings, then ‘architecture’?
Defining urban design
In a recent post, I defined through the comparison of planning and design, the meaning of urban design as essentially what the term attests to, i.e. the design of the urban. I defined design as an activity that begins with desire, and transforms or re-imagines existing conditions and circumstances toward an intention; and the urban as the basis of why cities exist and how they do so, which is through the exchange of culture and commerce for the generation and sharing of broad forms of wealth. So there isn’t a need to say too much more about urban design, except for the purpose of outlining how it differs to architecture — the discipline — which, in itself, first requires some exploration (and for the first time, specifically, on this blog).
Defining architecture — the discipline
Despite the generic nature of the term with which the discipline architecture now shares, architecture has been practiced for centuries, and has been synonymous with the design of buildings. In fact, architecture is considered to be a discipline of the ‘built environment’. But is it the ‘buildings’ and the ‘built environment’ that is to be designed?
Recently, an Architect friend ‘tweeted’ a photo of a large ocean liner moored in Circular Quay, in Sydney. He remarked that it would be fun to design one of those “buildings”.3 Having already begun to sketch this post at the time of receiving his tweet, and knowing my colleague’s keen interest in society and culture, I replied, via twitter: “If naval architects design boats, what do architects design?”
Unlike naval architecture or landscape architecture, architecture — the discipline — remains as just ‘architecture’. This raises questions to do with the discipline as well as those other disciplines which adopt the term architecture within their title. Is naval architecture termed as such simply to differentiate boats from buildings? Or is it so termed to capture the design of maritime infrastructure, and not just boats? Is landscape architecture the ‘architecture’ of landscape, or is ‘landscape’ a component of architecture? What if the ‘landscape’ in landscape architecture were to mean the abstract sense of the term? What ‘architecture’ would that imply: extensive? And would this ‘landscape’ be green? Where does this leave the architecture and landscape architecture disciplines?
Conflation of architecture and art
Despite architecture being linked so interdependently with buildings, there is a common understanding, founded by the Greeks, that Architecture is the master art, the ruling art: archi (ruling or principal) and technê (art or craft).4 But this is both ambiguous and inconsistent. For instance, did the Greeks refer to architecture as the principal or ruling art because the Greeks considered architecture itself to be art, and the preeminent one, no less? Or did they consider it the principal or ruling art as in the principal housing structure within which art is displayed or performed; that architecture itself was not art, but above it — in the same way that the ‘creator’ made the earth and made the Greeks but the creator isn’t Greek nor the Greeks the creator? And in the context of the buildings for which the Greek architecon was responsible for delivering, it isn’t clear, at least lexically, whether the Greeks referred to the art or craft of the physical making of the building, or to the conception of the building, or both? Regardless, a builder/mason isn’t necessarily an artist, so the chief builder is hardly the greatest of all artists. And even if he were, art is not architecture, and architecture is not art.
I have never subscribed to the notion that architecture is art, because I maintain that architecture is design. Art and design are two very different subjects and processes. How is this important? In comparing architecture to art, we can eradicate common erroneous interpretations of what architecture is and get a little closer to comparing it with urban design.
Just as architecture is a generic term, applying to an abstract construct, not a specific application, there are many forms of art: visual art, fine art, performing art, to name a few. And we refer to many practices as ‘art’: the ‘art of writing’; the ‘art of bicycle maintenance’, the ‘art of public speaking’. We also use the term to describe cunning ways: the ‘Artful Dodger’, or peculiar difference: ‘arty’, even beauty in the human execution of a skill: the ‘artistry’ of Roger Federer.
Essentially architecture is not art because architecture is required to be something — related to human need. Art can be any thing — for anybody. That’s the fundamental difference between art and design. But they do share common characteristics. Both pursue truth, and both rely on spatiality to do so. The difference is in how they go about it.
If, as Picasso said, “art is a lie that makes us realise the truth”5 (think the cubist space-realism stemming from the distorted face of the Weeping Woman), architecture is, or should be, proof to truth. Where the artist works with a spatiality, e.g. visual (images and objects) and performance (dancer, sound, stage), to declare a truth that they have found, the architect’s very work — their responsibility — is to perceive from others their truth, and to enable, through a spatiality, that truth to become a lived reality.
The architect Timothy Hill refers to the process of architecture as being deductive, and not creative;6 design, not art. We could say that the process of architecture manifests as a spatiality of and for a truth deduced from what is observed and told — most of the time as a ‘lie’: the architect seeks to deduce the truth from the ‘lies’ that keep us beholden to the very realities that cause us to be in need of design: that which as people we all inherently know, even understand, but cannot identify or express. In architecture, the process of determining space, therefore, is not creative; the spatiality only exists by and for a truth that is deduced; we could say the spatiality is true to the truth. Art, on the other hand, manifests as a spatiality created — as a lie — in response to a truth that has been found; the lie made-up is essential to illicit the truth, just as darkness is necessary for the pureness of light to be perceived. The defining quality in each, therefore, is not defined by spatiality per se, but where that spatiality comes from. For where the spatiality is derived determines the meaning afforded. In architecture, the spatiality is derived from the deduction of truth from lie; in art it is derived through the creation of lie to reveal truth. No wonder artists Brian Eno (musician) and Peter Schmidt (painter) advocate the idea of “[g]ardening, not architecture” as a way to overcome blockages in creative work.7
What, then, of application, for architecture? What is the nature and scope of the truth to be deduced and lived? Herein is the defining question for architecture.
If architecture’s focus is on people and living, as is urban design’s, the critical question for architecture is not what scale or scope of spatiality it should address (building, neighbourhood, district), but to what truth, in people and in living, does it seek to address, and to what degree? This is, ultimately, what would distinguish architecture from urban design.
To illustrate, I’ll refer to the renown, Pritzker Architecture Prize-winning Japanese architect, Fumihiko Maki, who said a house should be designed like a city, and a city like a house.8 After hearing the architect speak these words at a conference, and watching him break down with humility as he spoke of the responsibility of being charged with designing a school for children displaced and suffering from the horrific 2011 Tohoku earthquake, it seems almost sacrilegious to counter the respected man. But alas, I only offer this in critical review.
I do not concur with Maki on this idea, not only because, as Alexander Cuthbert said, buildings enclose and cities are open,9 or, as Richard Sennett reveals, because of the distinction between private and public life,10 but because a house, indeed any building, is part of the evidence of what makes the city — what Henri Lefebvre said was the “projection of society on the ground”.11 Any design for the city needs to deal with the decisions made by people who determine the building forms, not the other way round.
Cedric Price may have been close to this when he told his client that maybe they needed a divorce, not a new house.12 Architects can assist the lives of their clients, but architects for the building-client take-as-given their client’s physical and socio-economic conditions because they are operating within a component of the city. The service of this client’s architect is to the client, principally, with implication to a broader public; their service is not to or for a populous.
The essential difference, then, between this architecture and urban design, is that the former seeks to enable improvement in a client’s living, or in the lives of people for whom their client represents, through the client’s or the people represented by the client’s established means, whereas the latter seeks to establish the means of living, for a community.
Returning to my Sydney friend who tweeted the image of the boat he thought would be a fun building to design, he replied to my question that asked what architects designed, by saying “[w]as buildings then built environment. Now systems? Reshaping the flow of matter, energy and ideas to a more productive state.”13
My answer was that that was a “nice” response. But still, it seems a long, long way from the design of buildings derived from a client’s established means of living. The answer penetrates beyond appearances and forms, and deals with simple truths, although if I were to take the answer definitively, and ignore the limitations of writing within the maximum 140-characters required of tweets, then the response would seem to leave out people from the core of the definition, somewhat.14 After all, systems are a human construct devised to make sense of what humans’ sense. As such, they aren’t the focus of design; they are not themselves something to be designed. They are a tool or method used in the process of design; the process of enabling transformation of the human state, ultimately. And this is precisely why I refer to urban design as process, not product, and the urban designer as change agent, not producer of ‘designs’.
The difference between the discipline architecture, and urban design
So the difference between architecture — the discipline — and urban design is really a question relating to the application of architecture. If architecture refers root causes for living, core truths relating to life, to community, and to society, then it really refers the architecture of the urban. If it doesn’t, then it’s the architecture of something else.
Regardless of terminology, we can say that the vital urban project of generating broad forms of wealth that can be shared, is one that has to be enabled through spatial political economy — the very basis of society and, therefore, cities. This is both structure and phenomenon through, and by which, cities exist. And it is the means by which transformation of the human state — for many — may occur. Of critical importance is addressing how decisions are made, and the transformation that is needed in the values of the individuals who control politics, economy, and spatiality, and in the emergent cultures of the organisations of those individuals. This is an ‘honest’ meaning of the urban, and the vital challenge for an urban designer.
The critical issue facing cities, of course, is not one that is to do with distinguishing architects from urban designers, so much, but one concerning what architects and urban designers are doing — and can be doing — about cities. Importantly, understanding the difference between architecture and urban design may help us understand how a meaningful lived reality is an urban project that is multivalent, and one of great complexity that is in need of the transformational process of design — and the agents for this transformation. This is a challenge that is cultural. It is enacted through politics, enabled through economy, and is manifested spatially. It requires so much more than the design of buildings made with hands.
2. The Helsinki Design Lab refer to this as ‘strategic design’; refer HDL Blog: http://helsinkidesignlab.org/ Note: the HDL’s strategic design capability is to be closed in June 2013, as explained on the blog.
3. John Choi, tweet via @johnwchoi, 2013.
4. Robert Nelson, “Nightmare on Main Street”, Visual Arts in The Age, 2011.
5. Pablo Picasso, http://www.pablopicasso.org/index.jsp
6. Timothy Hill, “Side project with Timothy Hill”, State Library of Queensland, APDL lecture series, (Brisbane), 2012.
7. Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt, Obliques Strategies.
8. Fumihiko Maki, presentation at the RAIA’s National Conference, Natural Artifice, (Melbourne), 2011.
9. Alexander Cuthbert, The Form of Cities: Political Economy and Urban Design, Blackwell Publishing (Carlton, Victoria), 2006.
10. Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man, Faber, 1977.
11. Henri Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution, University of Minnesota Press, (Minneapolis), 2003, as quoted by Martin Kornberger in “Governing the City: From Planning to Urban Strategy”, Theory, Culture & Society 2012 (SAGE, Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, and Singapore), Vol. 0(0): 1-23.
12. Cedric Price, unsourced.
13. John Choi, tweet via @johnwchoi, op cit.
14. John subsequently kindly provided me with a copy of a lecture he gives, which provided context to his tweet. The lecture material provides provocative thought and historical context, and certainly is founded on a ‘productive state’ being about the ‘needs and desires of people’ within earth’s ‘closed loop system’.
Last Tuesday evening I had the privilege of being on Melbourne Triple R radio station’s regular Tuesday night program, The Architects, speaking about cities. Rory Hyde, who is a specialist co-host of the program, kindly invited me to join him and regular host Christine Phillips.
It was good fun, and some great questions were asked, covering the role of an urban designer, Melbourne’s award as “The World’s Most Liveable City”, strategic design, and governance.
So thanks to Rory for inviting me on the show. He has recently written an excellent book entitled Future Practice: Conversations from the Edge of Architecture, in which he records interviews he conducted with some great thinkers and doers in design. It’s a truly inspiring book that I can recommend highly to anyone interested in making effectual change in the city.
A relative of mine asked me recently what the difference was between a planner and designer. My immediate response was that it was a “good question”. But the problem with generic labels and titles, like planner, designer, architect, engineer, is that they assume every practitioner of that discipline is the same. And that’s clearly not the case. What is absolute in the case of a planner and designer, however, irrespective of their particular application, is the concepts upon which the disciplines are defined and named by. To plan and to design are two very clearly defined and different activities. So to address the question it is best to define and explain the difference between planning and design. The question didn’t require me to define the difference between (urban) planning and (urban) design, so I didn’t lead my response with this. But by focusing on the concepts underpinning the two, a better understanding of their application to the city can be made (which I couldn’t help myself making).
Having received this question via email on the first day back to work from a holiday, I answered it with an example that was top-of-mind. Here is the first part of what I wrote in reply:
Good question. I had a holiday yesterday. If you plan your holidays, you tend to take-as-given a known or chosen destination, and map out how to best get there. If you design your holidays, you will question what it is you are really seeking. You may even discover that a holiday is not the best outcome for this. In city terms, planning tends to take-as-given existing circumstances, and at best re-configures them for the future. Design thinking re-imagines that future.1
And there you have it, at least as a fundamental distinction between the two activities.2 And as Paddy Harrington from Bruce Mau Design rightly declares, design “start[s] with desire”3 and is about addressing intentions, with imagination; planning, on the other hand, is about organisation within the known and the understood. Planning is accommodating; design is strategic.
Applying this theory to the making of the city, the difference between ‘urban planning’ and ‘urban design’ becomes clear. But is it?
Problems with nomenclature
The urban planning and urban design disciplines both make claim to the making of the city. The former has a longer history of recognition, and is a professional discipline with statutory entitlement. Urban design, on the other hand, has a much shorter history as a discipline, having only recently become a branch of academic study in its own right. But unlike urban planning it has no real professional representative body or professional recognition to date. In fact, the term urban design is inconsistently referred to. Is one an ‘urban designer’, or is one involved in an urban design process? Does one practice urban design, or does one produce urban designs as product? These questions reflect the current ambiguous nature and practice of the discipline, and its absence of a critical theoretical basis.4
Nevertheless, ‘urban designer’ has been taken as title. Despite a clear difference in the concepts by which each discipline is named (i.e. ‘planning’ and ‘design’), urban planners will have it that they are most formative in making cities, assuming a position that one must plan before one designs. ‘Urban designers’ will have it that they are able to create the best cities, combining the knowledge of what to make with how to make it. To add to the ambiguity, most ‘urban designers’ have backgrounds in another discipline and are also either planners, architects, landscape architects, or combinations thereof. Architects, for example, either claim they are best suited to ‘urban design’ or make the best ‘urban designers’, with a belief that other disciplines merely follow or support their lead. And then there is the counter-opinion of landscape architects who attest to the same claim based on their perceived superior capability to design at scale. The conservative consensus, however, being that everyone is a designer, and that urban design, indeed city making, is a collaborative process that needs to involve many disciplines! These, of course, are huge generalisations, as framed earlier.
The reality is that every problem situation or situation of unease, concern, need or desire, is a design opportunity, not a planning challenge. And herein lies the essential need for a recognition of the difference between design and planning; the important distinction between the designer (leader or change agent) and the design process (collaboration among many interested parties), and the meaning of the urban content in question, as distinct from its material evidence, the city.
Defining the urban
Despite urban planning and urban design having clearly different conceptual foundations, both declare the same content, i.e. the ‘urban’, at least in name. And here is where the meaning and application of both is misleading and limited. As indicated in the About section of this website, and as readers of this blog’s posts will know, I advocate that cities are defined by people. And cities exist as people come together to produce broad forms of wealth that can be shared. The production of this wealth is through exchange of commerce and culture, principally. I refer to this exchange among citizens, as the ‘urban’. And I make distinction between the urban and its material evidence, the ‘city’.
The problem with appearances
Contemporary (urban) planning and (urban) design practice, paradoxically, prioritises the ‘city’ and its spatiality over any political and economic process and capacity that may be vital to enabling the production of community wealth. In this application, planning and design are more concerned with the effects of the urban — the outputs of exchange in the form of roads, houses, open spaces, social infrastructure, and accommodation of growth — that is to say, the ‘city’, than the causes for exchange — that which defines living and that which living is to be defined by, which is to say, human needs and values, the economic basis to survival, and the generation and sharing of broad forms of wealth in harmony with the rhythms of our living planet.
As Stephen Buckle points out, interpreting the work of David Hume, “the causes of events we observe in our daily lives are not themselves observed: that we generate causal explanations on the basis of the patterns we discern in experience.” He goes on to say “the best explanation of any experience or set of experiences depends on investigation into all the relevant patterns of human experience, not just into those that are most readily to hand.” And that “mixing up causes and effects is an easy thing to do”.5 Planning and designing a city based on what we see everyday in our lives (landuse, building forms, roads, open space) is not attending to the causes responsible for what we see (respective commercial interests), and certainly not in relation to the essential cause of cities (to produce and share broad forms of wealth).
Planning for, or designing the effects of, exchange rather than causes, misses the objective of the urban project. In so doing, this type of (urban) planning and (urban) ‘design’ falls short of addressing the urban it is named by. As a consequence, what is referred to as urban planning and urban design, in practice, simply does not address the urban; it does not address the reasons for which the city exists or the very basis by which it does. And since both planning and design are purposeful activities that are both real-world based and intended, it follows that any urban planning or urban design that isn’t about the urban is simply not planning or design; for it to be so, it would have to start with, address and deliver on the urban.
The difference between urban planning and urban design
The essential difference between urban planning and urban design is simply that the former makes provision for known spatial arrangements of known forms (land use, transport, open space, infrastructure) that are reliant upon the effects (outputs) of known forms of exchange (particular industries, e.g. property development, housing, infrastructure, social and government services), and the latter makes imagined spatial arrangements (e.g. ‘village hearts’, ‘green lungs’, quay-sides, urban boulevards, housing typologies, single-loaded dwellings), the realisation of which are reliant upon the effects (outputs) of the very same known forms of exchange. Both do not enquire into intentions for living, or enquire into existing or imagined forms of exchange for living. Both promote effects over causes. Planning focuses on land use, rather than the use of living; on housing provision rather than a concept of home. Urban design focuses on how land is to be used, with little regard to who it may be for; on housing typologies with little enquiry into how housing is or could be delivered. Both promote ‘mixed use’ almost exclusively over mixing people, ideas, interests, resources. Both ignore the content they are named by. Both deny the cause of cities. In recalling the distinction in the underlying conceptual basis of planning and design made earlier, the fact that this planning deals only with the known and the given, and that this design imagines only formal outcomes of the city, and both are without relation to urban intention, means they could be more accurately described as ‘city engineering’.
City follows urban
Once it is apparent that this type of planning and design deals with effects over causes, it becomes clear that the way our cities are conceived and developed is less about “the people” than we may think. Moreover, not only is the essential cause of cities overlooked, but in prioritising the city’s form by focusing on the formal outputs of particular industries (e.g. property development, retail, infrastructure, government services) which constitute the city’s form, urban planning and design are prioritising those industries that produce those forms. And in so doing, they are supporting interests that are exclusive, not collective; causes that do not relate to the essential cause of cities. As revealed in a previous post, this planning and ‘design’ relies on, supports and defines the city by the business of industries, rather than being a process that devises strategic investments which would constitute the business of and for the citizens of community.
As cities are about, and for, ways of life, for citizens, collectively, it is the collective ‘means’ by which they live (i.e. their economic capacity), for the collective ‘ends’ (their desired modes of living), which is important. It’s not that a city’s spatiality is of no importance, nor that the industries producing that spatiality are insignificant; it’s that industries need to be orchestrated to deliver on the shared objectives of community in ways that are resilient to change, that the resultant city spatiality will support the desired modes of living. For “city follows urban like form follows function”, as Ingo Kumic has succinctly identified.6
If we accept intention as the essential essence of design, then we could imagine better ways to live and better ways through which to live. If we were to take this urban as content, then it would follow that we would need to understand peoples’ values and needs, set performance targets for living, and creatively devise strategies to deliver on how people could live, both in terms of the ideal and the practical. This is an urban project that requires the questioning, imagining and testing of design. In this scenario, an urban designer would be a change agent; the urban design process inclusive and participatory. And if we designed this urban process, if we created these urban conditions for and by which to live, for real citizens, then we would have a clear picture of what must be planned accordingly. And perhaps instead of (urban) planning prioritising the management of the physical form of the city as a way of ‘making the city’ (through designation of land uses, activity centres, building heights, transport corridors and open spaces made by some form of (non designed and unplanned) exchange), it may more usefully support the urban design process and the urban conditions designed — that which would enable people to maintain the networks essential for exchange of commerce and culture — the planning of resource use and allocation for a community’s ability to ensure its own sustenance, shelter, mobility, exchange, learning. Planning that could lead to the production and sharing of broadly defined forms of wealth — physical and psychic health, access, choice, equality, democracy, prosperity, community, clean air and water, and contact with nature.
I haven’t attempted to address the particular forms of planning in city-making as we know them (‘strategic planning’ and ‘statutory planning’); that would be a topic for another day, perhaps. My main point here is that it is less meaningful to invest in planning until one knows what it is one must plan. And before we make plans, we must make sure of our intentions. Design explores, tests and delivers on intentions, and for this reason should be formative in shaping community futures.
The vital and unacknowledged opportunity in city-making is the urban, yet the urban planning and urban design disciplines neglect it. Moreover, the missing planning in the making of the city is the planning which supports the design of the urban. Yet the design of the urban is the missing design in the making of the city. It is also the missing design in urban design. Urban design, however, is the perfect name with which to identify this challenge. If only it were true to the content and process it describes. And that’s a challenge that could define the meaning of an urban designer.
1. Of course, design is a much layered subject that I won’t attempt to cover here, but for more on defining aspects of design, see previous posts: “First post and the (strategic) nature of starting (in design)“, and “What’s in a name? The city research we need“.
2. I generally dislike the popular use of ‘design thinking’ on the basis it is tautological; it is impossible to conduct design without thinking. Nevertheless, I use it here to emphasis the design process. It could well prove to be a necessary term to elevate what is an undervalued process that humans have practiced ever since they existed.
3. Paddy Harrington, lecture, Arts + Technology = Magic, Or Does It?, “Creative Mornings Toronto”, June, 2012. http://creativemorningstoronto.tumblr.com/post/33089433027/arts-technology-magic-or-does-it (To see the part referenced, watch 10 mins in.)
4. For a comprehensive review of western urban design theory and a critical review of urban design, see the remarkable text by Alexander Cuthbert, The Form of Cities: Political Economy and Urban Design, Blackwell Publishing (Carlton, Victoria), 2006.
5. Stephen Buckle, “The Myth of Misogyny”, Quadrant, No.493, (Balmain), Jan-Feb 2013.
6. Ingo Kumic, pers comm., 2011. I would add that in referring to this concept I use ‘function’ in the broadest sense, equivalent to intent, and inclusive of emotional identity, not merely in its utilitarian sense.
(Title matches that assigned to a letter to The Age, by the editor.)
Only five weeks ago I wrote that the debate about tall buildings in Melbourne usually surfaces every six months or so, but since then The Age has published at least two more articles dealing with this subject —“High Drama” (18/11), where the subtitle reads: “Tall buildings do a city a tower of good, some say, but do we really need to reach for the sky?”, and, “Fear of a second Docklands” (19/11).
The former article continues to discuss the same old obsession with what Alexander Cuthbert would call ‘physical determinism’ — dealing with the city as if it were sculpture, unrelated to the city’s production from social processes, political strategy and economic policy; the very real conditions by which the city exists.1 The latter article revealed how the Victorian State Government has been seeking foreign investors to realise what is being labelled “Australia’s largest ever urban renewal project” at Fishermans Bend. Again, concerns with this particular strategy of seeking foreign interest focused on what the development will look like, and, refreshingly, the social consequences of the specific commercial production arrangements being pursued, which is more critical.
My main concern with all this relates to the lack of any sense in our city planning as to what the city is, and what it is for. And so I sent a letter to the editor of The Age, in response to the Fishermans Bend article, which was published today, gratefully. (It’s the top letter, of the same name as this post, and unfortunately with an incorrect reference to the article I was referring to.) It has been edited, so below is my original “uncut” submission, all within the maximum 200 word count required of letters to the editor.
I wonder what’s “compromised” in chasing foreign investors for the redevelopment of Fishermans Bend. Was there ever a shared vision? A 90,000-resident suburb is a description of what the area is, not who it is for, exactly, or how it is to function and perform. And just what Melbourne are the big six “serious” about investing in?: Melbourne the place conceived to enable citizens to live together and generate a broad range of wealth for themselves, or Melbourne the piece of easy dirt to realise exclusive real estate?
Whether the housing delivered by overseas “investment” is expensive, high-rise, or “massed glass and concrete” doesn’t matter; housing is a component of cities. We don’t make cities to make housing. What matters is who the community are, what they seek, and how they are to deliver on what can be shared.
The strategic error of Fishermans Bend planning is in seeking the “broadest range of investment partners available” — in real estate — rather than seeking the broad range of investments required to deliver on a shared vision, and who is best to provide them. Real estate and property development should not be lead drivers of development, rather supportive components of something else.
1. Alexander Cuthbert, The Form of Cities: Political Economy and Urban Design, Blackwell Publishing (Carlton, Victoria), 2006.
Review of the State Government Victoria’s Metropolitan Planning Strategy Discussion Paper: “Melbourne, let’s talk about the future” (2012)*
I have nothing to critique and I’m saying it and that is critique as I need it.1
1. With apologies to John Cage, Lecture on nothing (1959). The discussion paper is so devoid of meaning in every aspect that it provides no sound basis with which to provide meaningful review. Any attempt at review would need to so painstakingly unpick the medley of gross assumptions, apparent outright predeterminations, wild misconceptions of what the city is, and the superficial and naive and rosy atmospheric and reductionist projections of what the city could be, in the paper, that the critique itself would be so exhaustive and overtly didactic it would be beyond critical endurance, and inconceivable to imagine. My imagination turned to Cage. I wonder, in fact, whether the paper’s superficiality and urban illiteracy is an intentional tactic to disengage the reader beyond comprehension and care. If this is the case, then its irreverence not only applies to its readership, but to Melbourne citizens at large. It is my intention that this post may lead to real conversations about the city in ways which penetrate just what cities are and are for. We may then be better placed to intelligently respond to globally influenced drivers of change, and positively shape citizen futures.
A 71-storey residential tower proposal, what would be the tallest of residential buildings in the central city of Melbourne, has re-sparked debate in the city over how high buildings should be. The same debate seems to surface around about every 6 months in Melbourne, usually due either to a new “vision” or, as in this case, a property developer’s eye-catching proposal. The Age reported the story last week: “The new tower that has tensions rising”. The report largely focused on the competing views of the proposed building’s architect and the local government authority. It pointed out that the tower is subject to the approval of the state government who, through the minister for planning, is the planning authority for any building development in the city that is over 25,000 square metres in gross floor area (which the proposed tower is).
Aside from the usual debate about the height of the building itself — the aspirational symbolic city-defining merits of its height versus the “blight” the height would cause — an op-ed by Robert Nelson published in The Saturday Age highlighted the direct relationship between low density in the inner city and the on-going expansion of low density car-dependent urban sprawl further out. Nelson wasn’t commenting on the proposed 71-storey residential tower, per se, rather pointing out the competing attitudes towards a city’s spatiality, and the influence of the views of a powerful elite in shaping the city — in his article, NIMBY-views resistant to a greater densification within the established city.
But despite the extension of the discussion from the mere height of one building in the city to city density, and the ecological and social implications of continuous urban sprawl, the entire debate, as per usual, has focused entirely on city form. Whether the architect, local government, state minister for planning, or anyone else are right or wrong in their determination of just how tall a building or how dense a city should be, height and density are incidental to how cities are made.
If we were to seek better cities, we would need to deal with the core drivers of how they exist. If we wanted a certain height or density we would need to look to the industries by which these are produced, and not regard them as if it they were arbitrary forms of an abstract and idealised city whose shape is at our discretion.
It was timely that I had recently posted a piece relating to this very subject, titled “Lessons from a child: Thinking about thinking — about cities — and the design cities need: The business of community”, as it helped me prepare a letter to The Age in response to the current debate. The letter focuses on the specific business within a city that determines height and density form, and introduces the idea that height and density could be appropriately determined through a business that represented community — what I referred to in my previous post as “the business of community”.
The letter was published yesterday and can be found on The Age’s website (see 4th letter down by the same name as this post); it has been slighted edited, so below is my original “uncut” version, all within the 200 maximum word count required of letters to the editor.
Robert Nelson is right in saying planning involves so much more than looks. But height is yield, not appearance.
Buildings are created by property developers investing in real estate, not community. Our cities are the aggregate of individual and disparate real estate investments. These have little collective intention and are unable to deliver on the broader forms of wealth a community requires. Whether a building scrapes the sky or hugs the ground doesn’t matter; it makes no difference to the community while community is a consequence of development, not a lead driver of it.
The essential cause of planning’s limitation in delivering on how cities need to perform, is that planning prioritises buildings as the lead driver of cities.
What if the planning minister had something to be guided by other than height?
What if we were to imagine a process whereby developers invest in what the community desires and needs and this was a healthy local community economy, not the economy of real estate? Building height could then be determined by community economy — an extension of, and contributor to, its function, not an exclusive economy itself.
We may then avoid the same debates over looks 100 years from now.
A review of the Grattan Institute’s report, Social Cities
You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, or so the saying goes. It depends, of course, on how you judge. Usually in any really good work, nothing is left to chance. In books, the cover is part of the package. If it is a badly produced book, chances are it won’t exhibit a good cover design. I don’t think I have read a bad book with a really great cover; can’t recall having a good wine with a really ugly label. Anyway, there are too many books to view, let alone read, and far too many bottles of wine than could be consumed to definitively prove the adage otherwise.
But what about the name of a book? Surely this is the element of the cover which most defines a book. “What’s in a name?”1 was Juliette’s rhetorical question; her heart-felt provocation of love for Romeo disregarding the Montague family name and family. But a family name identifies blood relations, not blood biology. Family names are arbitrary. So, too, common names of plants. Juliette’s rose would indeed smell as sweet by any other word, but as long as she is referring only to common names, and the rose’s smell, not what it is. Plant common names, like human family names, may be random, but their family names unlike those of their human counterparts are not. Rose — common name — is generalised; but the Rosaceae family — botanical — is descriptive. Like the scientific name of roses, book names generally refer content — a sense of what the book may be about, what it aspires to, what it addresses or alludes or attests to. And in reports, particularly research reports, titles would be especially well-considered and chosen.
When I first became aware that a new report was soon to be launched titled Social Cities,2 by the Grattan Institute, an independent think tank focused on Australian public policy, in Melbourne, with a diverse program and one dedicated to cities, I was immediately curious due to the title — without seeing the report. What’s in a name?
To engage the same level of astute enquiry Richard Weller demonstrated in his review of a book that is titled in a similar manner, Distributed Urbanism: Cities After Google Earth, where he asked: “How many urbanisms are there now?”3, we could similarly ask in relation to this research report title, Social Cities, just how many cities are there now?
Eco cities, creative cities, green cities; networked cities, smart cities, sister cities; polycentric cities, mono-centric cities, compact cities; World’s Most Liveable City, World Cycling City, Design City… and now, “Social Cities”.
To continue with Weller’s sequential observation from his same review: “if there is one thing we’ve learned from twentieth-century urban planning it is that cities defy reduction.”4 And, despite its most honourable intentions, I think reduction is the basis of this Grattan Institute research.
By alluding to the state of sociableness in cities the title assumes the city as an independent, inanimate object; a tangible entity that can somehow be made to be social — or friendly or green or eco or world-class; even unfriendly or whatever the case and reductionist focus may be.
Because aren’t cities social, anyway?
Scicinius, another Shakespearean character, reminds us, in Coriolanus, of what really defines a city when he declares “What is the city but the people?”5
What is meant or intended by the term social cities — defined in the report, in the singular, as “a city that helps to connect us with other people” — is, therefore, unclear. An extract of the Institute’s own promotional précis of the report, however, gives some clues as to what the report is about:
This report looks at ways to make cities better places to live by increasing our opportunities to connect with other people.
It examines how the design and functioning of a city — from transport networks to the availability of parks and sporting grounds to the architecture of public spaces and buildings — can help bring people together or keep them apart.6
Where the Social Cities tautological title suggests the city is an entity to be influenced independent of the people who comprise the city — to be made more social, (as if not already social) — the outline of the report indeed confirms the research position that the city is something that is made. Irrespective of how well intended the aspirations of the research are for better human relations, the objective to make cities “better places” is looking at the city through the wrong lens, and asking cities to be something they are not or can never be.
Cities are not defined by place. And seeking improvement of social relations by prioritising “places” as the instrument with which to increase opportunities to connect with other people will affect places more so than social relationships.
Notwithstanding, there is a limited notion of place considered in the report, and limited anticipation of what might be considered appropriate social behaviours. Sharing the same reduced notion of place as contemporary urban planning ideology, place is taken as object, the physical place, and is described by planning classification — buildings, streets, parks. And, like planning, there is an emphasis on programmed use of place with a promotion of activity and vibrancy.
But place is more complex than type. It exists both in the dimensions of physicality and mind. There is no acknowledgment of terrain vague and the importance of unprogrammed, unprescribed and boundless place. Instead, vacant and underused places are highlighted as opportunities for activation. Where would one take refuge in a city replete with activity and vibrancy? What are the implications of increasing social activity by bringing more and more people together, over providing capacity for distance, reflection, and discretionary solitude in terms of the psychic health of individuals?
There is no acknowledgment of the phenomenology of place induced by cognitive resonance through experiential contact with the spatial and material within type, nor recognition of genius loci, the spirit of a place. The systemic nature of place where place-as-whole is effected by place-as-parts, and where the emergent properties of place-as-whole are much more than the place-as-sum of its parts is not considered, nor are the systemic relations among places.
The authors qualify their focus on place, providing caveat that they are “Not suggesting that city design is the answer to every challenge.” That the “report is not driven by a belief in physical determinism.” And that “Many influences on quantity and quality of social connection are not related to urban form.” But this is the extent of the declaration, and as a consequence it appears incomplete, as if the influences unrelated to built form are considered less than significant or unrelated.
As well as couching a reduced notion of place, the report’s focus on place alone as a way to address what it seeks to enquire into: “the interaction between the physical and social” — itself a reduced notion of what cities are — is description by reduction. There is no sense of systemic thinking. Description by parts does not account for behaviours of the whole. Description of place without addressing other considerations, especially political economic (and other forms of place) does not deal with how places exist. The two hydrogen and one oxygen atoms comprising a water molecule do not account for how water behaves; like, for example, in the form of waves. Reductionist research has its place, as long as it is seeking to explain material composition, or is framed in a broader systemic sense, is part of a more holistic methodology of enquiry. But if social considerations are the topic of research, then reductionism is not an appropriate research method. And if the purpose of research is to inform policy development, and the “practical examples of things that have worked” provided in the report’s Appendix are an indication of how policy may develop, then any emerging policy directly relating to physical place and activity by word or pattern book design will not be appropriate. “I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity;” writes Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., “I would give my right arm for the simplicity on the far side of complexity.”7
It perhaps appears sacrilegious to be critical of anything attempting to enable better human relations. But like buzzwords and other urban terms of a seemingly sacrosanct and uncontentious nature, say, (replicated) heritage, (more) parks, (more) trees and, in this case (more) activity, discussions about anything to do with providing better social connection remain almost entirely immune from almost any critical thought. And I don’t think that is healthy. My interest here is in cities and getting the research we need, not picking holes in published work. After all, the complexity of cities demands rigorous research into what makes them tick. So I hope my review will be useful among students of the city.
It is impossible to make genuine gains in cities if cities themselves are not understood in terms of what they really are and how they are really made. So there are two main themes I would like to address here. The first is about research; the second about cities.
Research as design
In my first post I indicated that there is a common view that design relates to the look and function of something and is therefore associated only with physical or aesthetic qualities — objects of use, visual images — and that designers are people who only design those things and not that much else.
Designers themselves can strangely refer to their own research conducted as part of design as “design research”, as if research is done to inform design, and design is something sequential, that happens separately afterwards in its own particular space.
But that’s not what design is. Nor what research is for. Design is research — and analysis, conceptualisation and testing, all in one.
During undergraduate training in experiential, “learning-by-doing” learning (after David Kolb8), a cycle involving concrete experiences, reflective observations, abstract conceptualisations and active experimentations, I soon became aware of the relevance and applicability of information to the process of learning and problem solving (and design). “So what, now what?” was a saying heard around the studios, as colleagues challenged merely producing information and sought to assimilate real-world problem-situation-generated findings — in order to be able to conceptualise ideas that could be tested back in the real-world. “Converting data into information” was another favourite. In process, research/learning/design combined a continuing “recursive” flux among the four essential activities: (i) finding out in the concrete (observing/reflecting), (ii) finding out in the abstract (thinking/ assimilating), iii) taking action in the abstract (synthesising/ modelling/ inventing), and (iv) taking action in the concrete (acting/ accommodating).9 The whole “scientific” process (as distinct from scientific method but incorporating it as required) was in fact design. The essence of the methodology was informed by and intended for real-world situations.
How is this relevant?
Firstly, research which is intended to inform should first frame what it is that is to be informed — in concrete terms. In that way, research is assured of meeting the demands of what it seeks to enquire into and ultimately influence. To recall another saying from undergrad days, by psychologist, Kurt Lewin, “There is nothing so practical as good theory.”10 Research into cities, therefore, needs to frame just what cities are and how they exist, that they may provide insights and impetus for meaningful intervention.
Secondly, by thinking of research as part of a learning/design process, responding to the concrete and taking action in the concrete, the scope of research is potentially extended to address the political circumstances of cities which otherwise stand in the way of pure research reporting and need to be negotiated in effecting any change. The extension of research from “finding out” (and the generation of theoretical or propositional knowledge) to “taking action” (and the generation of practical knowledge) generates what Richard Bawdin refers to as experiential knowledge.11 The whole process (and challenge of addressing cities) is, in fact, one of design: the process required needs to be just as concerned with the nature of decisions as it is the nature of the content that is to be decided. Research, in the context of cities, is a vital part of that design because it needs to be considered as design. And, as highlighted in my previous post, “good design tells the truth”.12
In the About section of my website I outline the abstract nature and arbitrariness of the use of the term city. I indicate that what is really of consequence is the urban — that which happens among people — and that the urban is not physically or geographically defined. Through this attention on citizens and their levels of commercial and cultural exchange, the city as place — as adopted in the Social Cities report — can be understood to be their material evidence.
It follows, then, that seeking improvement in how citizens exchange, from a social standpoint, would best be facilitated through research into the very forms of exchange, not through the evidence of that exchange. And this is not least because research would deal with subject matter, but also because the physical built environment which is the subject of most of the research’s identified social ills — and its answer to them — would be seen as a product of exchange in the political economy of place.
Because the built environment is not an appropriate starting point for addressing social concerns, the built environment professions — planning, architecture, and urban design, as we know them — are not appropriate professions to look to for dealing with them. As Pritzka award-winning renowned Dutch architect and urbanist Rem Koolhaas has said: “People can inhabit anything. And they can be miserable in anything and ecstatic in anything. Architecture has nothing to do with it.”13
What is noticeably absent from the report is any focus on the industry within which planners, architects and urban designers “planning” and “designing” places and buildings work. These professions merely support their particular industry of the political economy — the one responsible for delivering the places we visit and the buildings we inhabit. Notwithstanding the lack of attention on these processes, the entire development process whilst ever remaining focused on simply providing places and buildings — even ones considered to be good, friendly and social — cannot deliver the broader forms of social wealth required of sustainable communities. For the best proof of this we could look to naturally developed city events of an extremely unsocial nature. As reported in The Guardian, no amount of urban regeneration through refurbishments to housing estates in the UK, for example, could address the deep social and economic concerns of their communities, or prevent riots from occurring in their neighbourhoods.14
The critical challenge, then, is not how the city as built environment should be planned or designed to make better conditions for social friendliness and neighbourliness — a paradox in current development processes anyway — nor how developers might better build better, more social places and buildings, but how better defined social (and economic, environmental and health) outcomes, broadly, for community, can define more diverse and appropriate economies for generating the social outcomes sought — and broader forms of community wealth, too.
The design cities need
If the city is appreciated as citizens and their levels of commercial and cultural exchange, not buildings, streets and parks, and if research into improving social relations focused on citizens’ values of friendliness and neighbourliness, then their particular methods of exchange in the political economy would be an ideal and rich subject for research.
The subtitle of a report on Social Cities, in The Australian, states the Grattan Institute report claims Australia’s urban planning too often emphasises productivity and sustainability at the expense of friendliness and community.15 Despite the appearance that this might be the case, the critical issue here, as urban strategist Ingo Kumic has identified in email exchange with me, is, “That it’s not that planning emphasises productivity and sustainability at the expense of friendliness and community, it’s that planning doesn’t recognise friendliness and community as an important tactic in achieving productivity and sustainability.”16
In other words, it’s not whether our physical settings are socially conducive or not, or whether our economies responsible for those settings can create more friendly conditions. It’s whether community values can select and drive particular forms of commercial and cultural exchange to attain more social, sustainable ways of life.
As Wouter Vanstiphout highlights in his piece in BD online, in response to the UK’s recent riots: “… urban politics and hence planning and urban design are too often treating the city with ulterior motives, instead of actually working for the city itself. The city has become a tool to achieve goals, political, cultural, economic or even environmental.”17 [Or social.]
The vital and missing research and discussion in relation to our cities is one of politics and community and the overall economies encouraged by them. “Cities”, “social”, and “social cities” are just names. There’s the irrefutable sweet smell of Juliette’s rose, and the beautiful sweet exchange of roses among people; and then there’s the production of roses to get that smell. But the question of roses in relation to cities must extend to — indeed penetrate — just how they are to be produced, broadly, within society: How would the production of roses embody social aspirations of community more broadly defined than by the desired smell or the ritualised exchange of the rose itself, that the enjoyment of roses through smell and gift may be sustainable? That would be a conversation not limited to horticulture, but one inclusive of concepts of local and connected communities, home, work, travel and the environment.
Applied to the content of the Grattan Institute report, desirable and friendly places and buildings must not been seen as objectives in themselves. Nor should the processes of their creation be seen as potential solutions. Better places and buildings do not make better societies; and designers, government agencies and developers of places and buildings — in so far as they are developing just places and buildings — cannot bring about better societies. Better societies are created through the full gamete of society’s political economic undertakings.
It is one thing to recognise the outcomes we seek in our cities are a result of their productive capacities, but we need to enact those capacities through the values of community. Hovering above roses, it is clear the real value of bees is not in the honey they produce and we enjoy to taste, but in their productive ability to pollinate the world’s crops that we might indeed eat at all. But even then, their productive capacity is at the mercy of the hands of political economy and the impacts of urbanisation arising from it. How, then, could ideals of food provenance and quality and security, for example, determine approaches to broader economies and ways of life that conserve bees — and human life itself? Applied socially and more broadly, just how can social aspirations (as well as economic, environmental and psychic) be constructs for the determination of economies that are productive in social and broader forms of wealth?
The question for cities in relation to seeking social outcomes is really whether social values can be clearly defined and upheld as ideals to live by, and through. And that’s a challenge of design. Not the design of cities, places, buildings or even economies, but design of politics and community futures first.
1. William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliette, Penguin Books (Middlesex), 1967.
2. Kelly, J-F.; Breadon, P.; Davis, C.; Hunter, A.; Mares, P.; Mullerworth, D.; Weidmann, B., Social Cities, Grattan Institute (Melbourne), 2012.
3. Richard Weller, book review, Landscape Architecture Australia, No/129, Architecture Media (South Melbourne), February, 2011.
5. As quoted by Robert Nelson, The Space Wasters: The architecture of Australian misanthropy, Planning Institute of Australia (Carlton), 2011.
6. Grattan Institute Website: www.grattan.edu.au/home.php
7. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., (unsourced).
8. David Kolb, The Learning Style Inventory: Technical Manual, McBer and Company (Boston), 1976, as documented by Richard Bawdin, The Hawkesbury Experience: Tales from a road less travelled, paper prepared for the “Workshop on New Directions in Agroecology Research and Education”, University of Wisconsin-Madison 29-31 May, 2002.
9. Richard Bawden, The Hawkesbury Experience: Tales from a road less travelled, paper prepared for the “Workshop on New Directions in Agroecology Research and Education”, University of Wisconsin-Madison 29-31 May, 2002. Later published as: Bawden, R.J. (2005) “The Hawkesbury Experience: Tales from a road less travelled.” Chapter 14 in The Earthscan Reader in Sustainable Agriculture, J. Pretty (ed), Earthscan (London).
10. Kurt Lewin, (unsourced).
11. Bawdin, The Hawkesbury Experience: Tales from a road less travelled, op cit.
12. Robert Grudin, Design and Truth, Yale University Press (New Haven and London), 2010.
13. Rem Koolhaas, Tweet via @remkoolhaas.
14. Lynsey Hanley, “Invisable force-fields surround our estates”, The Guardian, Comment is free, 11 August, 2011.
15. Stephen Lunn, “Town planning hastening the slide to isolation”, The Australian, 27 March, 2012.
16. Ingo Kumic, pers comm., March, 2012.
17. Wouter Vanstiphout, “Back to normal?”, bdonline.co.uk, 11 August, 2011.
One of my favourite places to grab a coffee from is the Cup of Truth, down in the subway at Flinders Street Railway Station, in Melbourne where I live. One routine morning upon arriving at my desk after grabbing a take-away coffee from this excellent hole-in-the-wall outlet, I found myself staring at the question the cafe had printed, stencil-like, on the outside of their cardboard cup: “WHERE DO YOU LOOK FOR THE TRUTH” [no question mark].
As I sat at my desk, fixated on these profound words and contemplating their appeal, my own answer came to me. I wanted to reply. So I tweeted: “@cupoftruth: Where do you look 4 the truth? People don’t look for something they don’t want (THE truth); they prefer their own version of it.”
Just as people maintain their own versions of reality, operate within their own narrative on life, they also regard beauty independently. The old adage “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” suggests beauty is personally discerned.
But is it? Despite such personal interpretations of beauty and truth, it was Keats who said they were one and the same: “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ — that is all/Ye know on earth and all ye need to know.”1
The linking of the two is key to unlocking what they individually mean. Whilst we can walk around with our own version of reality, and debate whether something is beautiful or not, by defining beauty and truth as one the poet teaches us that perhaps not everything we hold as beautiful is beautiful, and not everything we believe to be true is true. Keats is not simply linking synonymous words. Keats links different words — words of different meaning — in a statement of qualification. The meaning of both words is conditional upon the other: beauty is only beauty if it is also true, and truth is only true if it is also beautiful.
So what does each word individually mean that they may be joined in association to give a greater, more complete and definitive meaning? Robert Grudin, in his book Design and Truth suggests truth “is the laws of nature as we experience them…[that] the truth lies in the rough but workable details of what we are and where we are.”2 He, too, links truth to beauty by suggesting good design — which he argues “tells the truth” — “honours the dominion of beauty and delight.”
What then of beauty? In his book The Thinking Hand: Existential and Embodied Wisdom in Architecture, Juhani Pallasmaa teaches us that “beauty is not a detached aesthetic quality, the experience of beauty arises from grasping the unquestionable casualties and interdependencies of life.”3 Sounds a lot like truth.
In my first post, I introduced a rough definition of design. My main theme concerned the process of design and the importance of strategy in it. What I want to build in here, is just why design matters. Design is critical because through a process of observing our world and devising new ways of interacting with it, design can bring us in a direct and real relationship with our world and with ourselves in the world. And in this greater consciousness of ourselves and the world in which we are living — a greater sense of being alive — good design reveals the truth and affords beauty. The ocean baths at Merewether does both.
Designed and supervised by H.G. Skott, Engineer, Merewether Ocean Baths were built during the depression and completed in 1935 by unemployed labourers through a depression-relief scheme. At an overall dimension of 100-metres x 90-metres they are the largest ocean baths in the state of New South Wales, and possibly in Australia.4 (Many locals believe them to be the largest ocean baths complex in the southern hemisphere.) Merewether is a suburb of Newcastle, and is located 3 kilometres from the city centre. The city lies 162 kilometres north of Sydney.
The baths consist of two large rectangular pools (100-metres x 50-metres, and 100-metres x 27-metres) arranged perpendicular to the ocean, orientated with their equal longer sides parallel to the shoreline. The two pools are divided by a generous concrete walkway level with the edges of the pools. The wider, outer pool is tidal; the inner, narrower pool is partly filled with sand and water pumped from the ocean, and is used by young children for shallow swimming.
The shell and surrounds of the baths are constructed entirely of in situ concrete formed on natural rock shelf, and finished with whitewash applied after cleaning which occurs twice weekly during the swimming season and weekly the rest of the year. Bench seats line the dividing promenade between the two pools. Picnic tables and shelters and outdoor showers are provided just below the baths pavilion opposite the wading pool. The pavilion houses a life guard on duty seven days during the summer swimming season, and change rooms, toilets and showers.
The realness of the sea is all around. It is in the natural elements of the coast — the constantly moving ocean, the sound of waves and birds, the rocky shelf around the walls. Our own existential awareness is heightened in relation to these natural elements through the constructed: the feeling and appearance of the weathered whitewash-coated intermittently wetted concrete underfoot — the patchy arrangement of exposed stone and white coating illuminating the ocean waters to a translucent emerald colour. There is also an awareness that is internal — within ourselves — in the challenge the waters of the baths present to us as individuals with abilities and preferences known only to us. And there is our awareness of each other; of people similarly partaking in what is offered. Overall, there is a happiness, a joy of being there, a celebration in participation by all ages, all body types and all levels of swimming ability.
This joy of engagement is not something I have experienced, say, at a regular municipal public swimming pool. For starters, the ocean baths are free of charge. There are no lane shenanigans here — no abuse, no dropping in or charging ahead at the change of ends as is customary at in-ground public pools. (Perhaps paying a price to swim gives some false sense of entitlement or right of possession.) Here, nobody owns the ocean.
In the early hours of the morning, feeling awkward with camera in hand in a public place where everyone had next to no clothes on, I was taken with people’s acceptance of me being there. Everyone I politely asked for permission to allow me to take photographs in their vicinity had no objections. On the contrary, most enquiries led to prolonged discussion about the baths. Through this I learnt of one elderly lady who had the previous day lost her goggles, only to come back the following day to find them hanging visibly on the shelter adjacent the baths, where someone kindly and thoughtfully placed them. This was important to her; she suffered emphysema and had set herself a goal to swim one entire length of the baths. I benefited from a similar act of consideration when, occupied swimming laps on an incoming tide, someone had thoughtfully lifted my sandals from off the weathered pavement and onto a bench seat to save them from being washed away. Elsewhere, two local men proudly told me about the “Steps of Knowledge” where regulars, around 8.30am, would meet to discuss affairs. Two other men soaking up the sun and enjoying conversation, poolside, pointed out the defunct Burwood Colliery railway tunnel in the bluff behind the bathhouse.
As the morning developed, families occupied the smaller pool. Here, children in rashies safely paddled about in floaties and pool toys, closely observed by parents standing knee-deep in the same calm, protected water. Other families played in the sand, next to beach towels and under umbrellas, completing an overall colourful, carnival scene of innocence that both parent and child were equally enjoying.
It is not just the swimmers who enjoy the baths. Next to the Steps of Knowledge is a much longer flight of steps which afford a different type of workout to swimming laps. Here runners and walkers do climbing repeats. Nearby rails and benches are used for push-ups, step ups and crunches. Again, all ages and abilities are in action, and no one really seems to mind what anyone else is doing.
It can’t be the sunshine and ocean alone which make people so happy, so relaxed, so charged with enjoying the moment and life. Afterall, the beach is more natural and, although popular, does not match the baths for the united participation and rapport among individuals. (Besides, I was told by the two men on the Steps of Knowledge that they and their mates continue their daily ritual of laps and communion year-round without a wetsuit, and, apparently, winter is the season for more intense conversations focusing on the football performance of the city’s beloved Knights.) Nor is it merely the provision of a relatively safe area in which to swim, or the topography that is so ideally suited to other forms of outdoor exercise; there are plenty of community and sporting facilities in our cities. There is something more to Merewether Ocean Baths.
At 100-metres x 90-metres and possibly the largest of their kind south of the equator, these are indeed impressive dimensions (an olympic-size swimming pool measures 50-metres x 25-metres), but their size isn’t their significant quality. As Dutch Landscape Architect Paul van Beek has said of landscape design: “Size doesn’t matter; Scale does!”5 Here is where beauty and truth come in to play: scale is contextual. And in design, context is everything — literally (context is physical, social, cultural, psychic, economic) and metaphorically (design cannot be pursued independent of context). Context determines which rules of truth apply.
At this size the ocean baths would potentially obliterate parts of an inland suburban neighbourhood if installed there. But perched on the edge of Merewether’s rocky shoreline, at the base of a rugged, dramatic bluff, the baths are at one with tide, crashing wave and ocean horizon — whereupon enormous bulk carriers waiting in line for their turn at entering Newcastle port appear strangely unaffected by wind or current. This is due to scale, which here, is part size (just over six olympic-size swimming pools), part plan simplicity (rectangular against a rocky sea edge), part siting (just above high tide), and part robust and consistent use of the one material (concrete finished in whitewash). And because of the appropriateness of scale to context, (and in the greater context, a gritty, traditional working-class city founded on coal mining), people are at one with the baths, with each other, and with all the sounds, sights and smells of the sea this perfect relationship and synergy so vividly affords.
Beautiful because it is so irrefutably true. Our awareness of our human condition relative to nature is heightened: the clear but subtle juxtaposition of the framed water of the baths to the infinite vastness and uncontrollable power of the ocean heighten our appreciation of both nature’s strength and rhythms, and our own individual vulnerability in relation to it — perhaps more so than what the ocean separately induces. We appreciate the relative safety of the pool, and feel secure with fellow swimmers compared to creatures lurking in the untamed ocean depths. This reveals the truth about the tide and our limits.
There is an honesty to the baths, which is a form of truth. You can almost feel the hardened hands of those who built the massive, concrete battered outer pool walls. There is no other added aesthetic to this construction. Everything built is made for purpose. Form has followed function in the modern tradition, but my guess is when H.G. Skott designed these baths to be built by men who sustained their living in doing so, he was only thinking of tide, pool depth, swim length and maintenance. There is no other sense of consciousness here that invades our contemporary seaside promenades. No ubiquitous “surfboard” seats or “ship’s mooring” bollards — what Grudin would refer to as “design lies”.6 Just the amplification of the essence of being at the coast, which is defined not by what we can bring to the water’s edge, but what the expansive ocean horizon, flushing salty waters and wind and sun in your face can bring to us. Good design is about what it reveals about place and what it reveals about us. Beauty is in the revelation.
What impresses me most about the baths is the incredible level of communal exchange that occurs there. The baths are a platform for the daily ritual of immersion in nature, exercise, conversation, mateship and courtesy to others. Merewether Ocean Baths teaches us that good design is less about what a designer produces than what a designer enables. As Grudin argues, “good designers are truth-tellers, facilitators in the dialogue that allows us to comprehend and engage reality.”7 To this end it is worth returning to the complimentary wisdom of Juhani Pallasmaa who reminds us that “beauty and simplicity cannot be preconceived, conscious targets in artistic work; one arrives at these qualities by struggling for other ends.”8
When it comes to cities, the commercial foundation, existence and basis of their survival should not preclude the generation of wealth defined by non-financial terms. Cities need to be productive places where the economic livelihoods of their citizens are maintained, but, in ways which makes for a society rich in the cultural, the social, the psychic, and the sensory, as well. In this regard, Merewether Baths is a sound public investment in physical infrastructure that enables us to be brought into a closer connection with nature and our own biological part in it, and with our fellow human beings. And it is an investment which seems true to the city it is within: open, friendly and workman-like.
As concurred by the husband of the lady who had lost and recovered her goggles, I think the wonderful sense of genuine communal exchange and ritual down at the baths is due to the respect that we have for one another in recognition that we are all seeking and enjoying the very same thing. That’s a beautiful truth. And that is worth both designing and living for.
1. John Keats, poem titled ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, 1819.
2. Robert Grudin, Design and Truth, Yale University Press (New Haven and London), 2010.
3. Juhani Pallasmaa, The Thinking Hand: Existential and Embodied Wisdom in Architecture, Wiley (West Sussex), 2009.
4. NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, Heritage Branch website, http://www.heritage.nsw.gov.au/07_subnav_04_2.cfm?itemid=2170762
5. Quoted from the presentation given by Paul van Beek at the AILA National Conference, 200 Mile City — Designing a sustainable urban future, Brisbane, 2004.
6. Grudin, Design and Truth, op cit.
8. Pallasmaa, The Thinking Hand: Existential and Embodied Wisdom in Architecture, op cit.