A different driver

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.

Lessons from a child: thinking about thinking — about cities — and the design cities need: the business of community

If we define ourselves by our collective intentions, then we can define our cities by our collective selves.

One of the defining qualities of a designer is not just thinking about things — we all do that to some degree — but constantly thinking about the way we think. So it was of great surprise to me and the source of an immense feeling of pride to have one of my young daughters help me in this intriguing and at times burdensome tendency.

My daughter had been studying philosophy at school. She told me recently, at the tender age of 6, that she was learning about ‘metacognition’. I asked her what it was and she said “its thinking about thinking”, in that joyful, precise way most kids that age would say something that was of great importance to them, like in proudly telling which of their toys is their favourite or in pointing out their very own bedroom but, in this case, the answer was delivered with an extra level of excitement that would only come with the realisation knowing about the term and its meaning is less common for a child of that age than having one’s own toy or bedroom.

But if thinking about the way we think is a defining aspect of design, isn’t the city and its making constantly under critical review? That depends, of course, on whether you believe cities are designed. And that depends on what you term city, because I would argue that the city that is generally considered to be “designed” is not the core of our collective existence, and for this same reason, what is couched as design falls short of being design.

As I have outlined in the About section of this site and in a previous post, if the city is understood as citizens and their various activities of exchange, then the city as form (infrastructure, buildings and public space) could be understood to be the material evidence of its citizens. Design of cities would, therefore, address citizens — who they are, what they seek — and devise exchange activities that deliver on their expectations, rather than addressing the outputs (form) of some types of exchange which are not enquired into and are taken for granted (growth, urban expansion, infrastructure provision, and the normalisation of luxury lifestyles, for example).

How often do we discuss cities in terms of citizen needs, values and preferences? The language of time, convenience, sharing, affordability, accessibility and choice is drowned by the descriptive language of height, density, activity centres, facilities, growth and growth boundary. And how often do the designs produced for cities address and enable preferred ways of life? The image, master plan, singular-issue strategy and action plan for the city have predominance over governance strategies — partnerships that could create the right conditions for initiatives that respond directly to the expectations of community and are able to deliver on collective wealth.

In essence, could we prioritise the business of community (who it is, what it stands for, what it is to produce to sustain itself and share its wealth), over the businesses we think might make a “community” (government services, and the property development led retail, housing and commercial industries that drive our developments)? Could businesses be interested and play a vital part in the business of community? Could the sustainability of community (the economic, social and ecological networks vital to building resilience) be considered as important as building “sustainable” technologies (green roofs, green buses and green walls)?

The real challenge and opportunity in the design of our cities is to make community the business proposition.

It may sound overly complex, this thinking about the way we (currently) think; but it doesn’t have to be so hard: the irony is, to understand the city as citizens and their communities of exchange, and to undertake design that begins with citizens and devises investment strategies to deliver on their expectations is a lot more straightforward than the way the city is currently viewed and made. It may just take a little honesty, selflessness and imagination — as a child well knows.

What’s in a name? The city research we need

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?

Social cities.

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.

Social cities.

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.

Social cities.

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

Social cities.

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

Understanding cities

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.

4. Ibid.

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.

Beauty and truth in Merewether – ritual and exchange through design at the ocean baths

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.

7. Ibid.

8. Pallasmaa, The Thinking Hand: Existential and Embodied Wisdom in Architecture, op cit.

First post, and the (strategic) nature of starting (in design)

Here is my first blog for my newly created EnvisagedCity website.

In thinking about a first post for EnvisagedCity, the immediate and prevailing question had been: what to write about? The obvious answer was that it should be something about EnvisagedCity/myself. But understanding I would cover this, somewhat, in the About and Background sections of this site, I was interested in how the requirement of writing a first post was an activity in starting something, and how this could become the very subject of a first post on the nature of “starting” in design.  Consequently, this first blog is partly about EnvisagedCity and partly about the nature of starting in relation to design. And given EnvisagedCity, like all brands, will be what people other than myself think it to be, the part about EnvisagedCity will not be articulated in a didactic way. It will begin to be revealed through the narrative on the nature of starting in design.

Starting something can mean different things to different people. For some it can be daunting; for others it can be exciting. No less in design, where the reality and complexity of the real world and the blankness of a “canvass”— site/trace/page/whiteboard — can provide great opportunity or bring about hesitation.

Design, for me, poses a particular challenge which demands a particular approach and, therefore, starting point. This is part design — wanting to address what I think is most relevant and important — and part management — wanting to do so most efficiently and effectively. It is with this consciousness and intent that I often check myself with the thought of one of “graphic designer” Bruce Mau’s “Incomplete Manifesto for Growth” items. His is an acknowledged quote from John Cage, providing encouragement to effectively start anywhere.

“Begin anywhere. John Cage tells us that not knowing where to begin is a common form of paralysis. His advice: begin anywhere.”

During my time at WEST 8, one of the firm’s partners, Edzo Bindels, would often say, in opposing reaction to some other firm’s design proposal or an audience’s suggestion that was contrary to his firm’s work: “… but it’s not our starting point!” The way WEST 8 approaches their work in urban design and landscape architecture all over the world is very particular, stemming from a highly developed and consistent position based on their world view — a world view different from that of mainstream urban design and landscape architecture practices. And there is their rationale for upholding the starting point as critical.  Who they are and how they see the world shapes their work; their work is defined by their world view. No wonder founding director, Adriaan Geuze, has aptly said, to get better at design “you need a life”.

Yet contrast this ideological approach to design, with the unbridled action of a child at play. Anything goes. Action and connection are everything. Not starting is not considered. As a consequence, the drawing, game or activity performed develops and builds, and an outcome is realised. And usually with children, this activity is highly creative.

This creative immersion in activity is perhaps partly what Cage and Mau are saying is important in beginning. Maybe they are saying what’s really critical is to simply begin, to make a start, to follow the essence of Nike’s slogan, “Just do it”.

But should design be started anywhere?

It’s worth framing just what design is. Design is a purposeful activity. Unlike music or art — both highly creative endeavours (interestingly, John Cage was a composer and artist) — design is defined by its intention-based application to provide something of use and meaning — either denotative (functional value) or connotative (emotional value and identity) — to people. It takes real-world experiences, problem situations and circumstances and through abstract conceptualisation develops ideas for accommodation back in the real-world. This is what makes design so useful, so applicable, and yet so misunderstood and undervalued. It is not something limited to the appearance of things, or confined only to the making of products, or only of relevance to particular industries.

Because design is both real-world derived and real-world intended, context is everything. What’s a good colour? Depends what it’s for. Is Madrid a nice city to visit? Depends who I’m with. How many lanes should this street have? Depends on the purpose the street is to serve within the way of urban life being envisaged.

So, should design be started anywhere?

My answer is: no, and yes!

My design starting point is always to enquire into context — the bigger picture, the essence of a problem, what the design is for, the ultimate reason why something exists (and hence my “no” to the question). With this approach to design — which isn’t child play nor, in the context of design in/for the “city”¹, necessarily confined in outlook to the particular level of urban intervention practiced by WEST 8 — my “yes” in support of starting design anywhere, is contingent upon a very BIG proviso: Yes, start anywhere if that’s what helps get you going, but as long as you can think and react strategically!

The transfer from the real-world to the abstract, from circumstance to idea in design requires strategy. Some products may be beautiful to look on. Some creations may be like no other. Some things may work extremely well — like machines, groups of people and organisations but, for something to have been designed it must be the outcome of conscious invention for an application to context. This demands strategy. And the starting point of design can be a vital part of that strategy.

For this reason I share and favour Bindels’ discipline in having a starting point in design. Especially in the complex environment of urban design. However, the only way starting anywhere can be truly effective, is if one has the capacity to constantly and progressively trim the consequences of starting anywhere toward context — like a skillful sailor on the jib of a yacht on-course — which is a form of progressive strategy.

The importance of a strategic process, with or without strategy as the starting point, is consistent with another one of Mau’s Incomplete Manifesto for Growth items, and which is a favourite of mine:

“Process is more important than outcome. When the outcome drives the process we will only ever go to where we’ve already been. If process drives outcome we may not know where we’re going, but we will know we want to be there.”

In stressing the importance of process, Mau is recognising strategy. He’s not just talking about an anything goes, random process of designing something. He’s talking about a driving force. And in seeking to go to new places, he’s talking about seeking a particular outcome, one not defined by what is already known, but defined none-the-less — by opportunity; the space for an idea. Strategic thinking is creative thinking. It is the defining essence of design.

So, in seeking to achieve great design, how we start is certainly less important than how we progress. “Just do it”² may work to sell running shoes and provide useful encouragement to begin design, but strategy — either at the outset or progressively developed immediately thereafter — is essential in design. It will help us creatively channel our efforts towards designing for application to context; towards designing just what the “it” ought to be.

1. For the city-urban distinction, refer the About section of this website.

2. Of course, the Nike slogan is a vital part of a well-conceived and executed design strategy. As Marty Neumeier points out in his book, The Brand Gap (2003), the “Just do it” slogan appeals to the well-understood tendency people have to procrastinate about undertaking exercise (and to quit soon after embarking on a new exercise regime), and it also provides encouragement to overcome any lingering doubts we may have about our actual ability to be “out there”.

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