Tag Archives: architecture

Look Up!


I don’t regard myself as parochial toward any particular city. I relate to Melbourne best, because I lived there for so many years. So although I imagine myself to be Melburnian (or however we’re supposed to spell it), I cringe at the thought of comparing Melbourne to other places or spouting Melbourne to be anything other than a great city. Sydney’s a great city too. Great because it’s different to Melbourne, and because it’s not Melbourne. I’d better explain.


On this trip to Sydney, I’ve been struck by the beauty of her built form. I’m keenly aware of some of her prominent historical buildings (around Martin Place, St James Park and elsewhere), but my surprise has come from doing something that most forget to do. As I walked down Market street on my way to the water, I cast my eye up to the buildings high above. Looking up is something all of us that love the city, should do.


Downtown Sydney (oh yes, I did go there… girlfriend) is laid out on an elongated grid of streets running south from Circular Quay. The layout is often traduced for its long blocks, narrow street reserves and (of course), even narrower footpaths. But one of the finer points often missed about the elongated grid, is the view it offers those that bother to look up and along the long blocks of buildings that make up the CBD.


The concentration of high-rise buildings are a demonstration in contrast of material, height, shape and colour. The effect is quite unique in my experience, from any other Australian city. Sure, other State capitals have high rise buildings, but what Sydneyhas is more in the style I imagine many US cities like Boston, Dallas, Detroit, Chicago and New York, to be. By Australian standards they look bigger, and there are more of them. They are in the minds of many, a discerning feature that makes the city, the city. Sydney does high-rise better than, um, Melbourne. In my humble view, Sydney does them best.


But there is no escaping inter-city rivalry, unfortunately. On the Airport Link to Central Station I overheard a middle-aged Sydney local explain the difference between Melbourne and Sydney to a couple who had most obviously just flown in from Asia. “It’s the people” he said. “In Melbourne, they think they’re more cultured than us. But I don’t know… I’d prefer the harbor and the sunshine, you know? Plus, I don’t think Melbournepeople are as friendly as us…”


‘Fuck off’ I thought. But I didn’t say it. That wouldn’t have been very friendly. Plus, I’m not one of those that regard themselves as parochial toward any particular city – as I’ve already explained.


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Power, Art then Architecture

If you happen upon this place, go in. Tate Modern, London.

As I write this, I am sitting on the hard floor of what is the vast space known as the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London. Ever since I first visited here in 2006, I have imagined returning. To me, this is a wonderful place – a masterstroke of a landmark building. I think its a better piece of architecture than Guery’s Guggenheim Bilbao, and other buildings with a similar iconic intent. Let me tell you why.

To the uninitiated, this is an interesting building, but not flashy. To the initiated, its heritage adds a dimension that is largely irrelevant, but altogether exceptional.

The building is large, of coarse. But its scale doesn’t seek to intimidate or assert power over those that visit. Instead, from the inside at least, it inspires awe. It’s an object lesson in scale and perspective. It’s big, and it is powerful, but it’s power bound up in it’s previous life as an instrument of human ingenuity, and not in the statements the architects might have been trying to make.

Turbine Hall, Tate Modern. Not my picture, it's from here

If you don’t know about the rejuvenated building that is now the Tate Modern, you should learn about it. By doing so, you will learn about what makes good place-making architecture.

You should also get on a plane and visit this place, even if you visit nothing else in Europe. This is, as I said before, a wonderful place.

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Some Lessons from Barcelona

Barcelona: Day Twenty-two

Great streets are places that feature women, and children. Barcelona reminds us of that. And here are a smattering of other things I learned and observations about the city.

A Different Type of Density
Ildefons Cerda was the engineer responsible for the unique layout of the new part of Barcelona; Eixample. The intersections of streets throughout these parts of the city feature an octagonal reserve which allows four street frontages to face directly onto the intersection, which in most instances meant that cafes and bars could take advantage of the open space of a streetscape bordered by 4 and 5 story buildings. The effect is quite unique – allowing light and air to permeate otherwise congested streets. I’m undecided about whether this is good design or quirky.

Another feature of Cerda’s work is that most city blocks feature an internal courtyard largely accessible by residents of the buildings, although some are open to the public. Good or bad, it’s a pattern of development that was adopted wholeheartedly in the early part of the 20th century. There seems to be a genuine attempt by Cerda to integrate public and private open space in an otherwise densely populated area.

Pedals are Better than Pistons
Amsterdam may be the city of the bicycle, but here in Barcelona, the motorcycle is king. Gone are the banks of bikes clinging precariously to bike racks (and anything else stationary in the street), replaced instead with row upon row of Piaggios, Peugeots, Hondas, Yamaha’s and Suzuki’s. Motorcycles are probably better than cars. They take up far less space, they use less fuel and do less damage to the roads, but they are noisy. Bicycles are much better.

Pedestrian Priority
I want to know, how do they manage to coordinate the pedestrian lights in such way that if I walk at a consistent speed, I need never have to wait at an intersection? More to the point, why don’t we do this in our cities? (Relax, the question was rhetorical).

Let It Go
I wonder if the legacy of the 1992 Olympic Games has been as poorly handled in Barcelona as the 2000 Olympics were by the New South Wales Government? Certainly the precinct looks like it’s just waiting for the next big thing – but what?

Architects Should Design Buildings
I don’t like Antoni Gaudi’s contribution to architecture. But Barcelona has much to be grateful to him for, and the Banco Ondulante (Undulating Bench) at Park Guell is beautiful, and comfortable. Although I understand Gaudi didn’t design it anyway, one of his understudies did. Although Park Guell itself is a bit of a shambles I think. Perhaps he should have stuck to designing buildings… or not.

I’m sorry to be leaving Barcelona after only three days. I think there is a lot more I have to learn here (and to appreciate, perhaps?).

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18 Hours in Bilbao

Bilbao: Day Twenty

The three minutes between 06:40 and 06:43 yesterday morning were potentially the most costly three minutes of my life. It was by this margin that I missed the check-in for my flight to Bilbao. I had to pay for a seat on a later flight, then had to purchase a ticket for a return flight because my late arrival in Bilbao would mean that the early departure of my train to Barcelona the next day would leave me no time to see any of Bilbao itself – the only reason for making the journey there at all. There were other complications too, but most costly of all was that now, I was late for a very important date.

Bilbao is the archetype for culture-led urban rejuvenation and redevelopment around the world. Located on Ria de Bilbao in Norther Spain, it’s the largest city of the Basque region that straddles the Spanish and French boarder (but let’s not get in to all of that). It used to be a port town which experienced an economic and social decline in the later half of last century. Then they built a lavish modern art galley, and now everything’s sweet (or so it appears).

Like most that visit Bilbao, I found myself propositioned by her younger, prettier companion – wearing a flashy sequinned gown and revealing a little too much cleavage. She was difficult to ignore. In fact, I couldn’t take my eyes off her.

Metaphors aside, Frank Ghery’s Guggenheim Bilbao was my first proper encounter with contemporary ‘starchitecture’. I’m not really sure what the etiquette is for a meeting such as this. Before I left my hotel room this morning I began to wonder: should I get dressed up? Would it be more appropriate if I wore a coat and tie for my visit? Somehow, I felt a little too self aware given the prospect of visiting what is really just a big shed, albeit an architecturally iconic one.

There’s been lots written about the building and the impact it’s had on the fortunes of the city, so I’ve no intention of adding much to that conversation. My metaphor of the other women however, accurately illustrates the relationship that most visitors have with Bilbao. They first see the seductress in her midst, and occasionally they notice her standing there, waiting politely for a glance in her direction. This is of course, a deliberate ploy to lure visitors to an otherwise overlooked part of Spain. The other women is for most, the reason Bilbao appears on their travel itinerary in the first instance. I’m torn. I feel as though I have been played.

But my 18 hours in Bilbao was time enough to discover that the city itself is a special place.

First and foremost, it’s a city that got up off the canvas. I don’t know if things were bad before, but this is now a city of 350,000 or so that ‘benefits’ from about one million visitors each year. There’s something to be said for having the courage to back yourself when the opposition to the revitalisation plans of the 1990s must have been significant. I’m not aware of any cities that have been quite so bold as to wager so much on such long odds. But from what I saw during those 18 hours, this was a well planned and cleverly executed redevelopment campaign.

The Guggenheim Bilbao is the centrepiece of a broad reaching social, physical and economic redevelopment; deeply influenced by (or itself influencing) ‘creative city’ planning ideals. The mistake many cities make is to invest their fortunes in a landmark building without following through with a fully integrated development strategy. Like planting a seed in a bucket of gravel; it might sprout, but it probably won’t.

I have many reservations about the use of landmark architectural centrepieces at the heart of any urban rejuvenation strategy. And these are borne out by those cities that have not properly understood what Bilbao has done. It wasn’t the building that did it for Bilbao, it was what (and who) the building was built to appealed to. It appealed to the creative classes, and love it or hate it, it worked.

Further to this however, Bilbao’s plan seems to have taken everybody in to account, and children in particular. Every 300 meters or so along both sides of the river adjacent to the Guggenheim, there are a series of fully-fledged children’s playgrounds, each different from the others. Between each playground are a variety of spaces that include nooks for hiding, rises to roll down and lots of open space to muck around in. There are none of those unsightly metal knobs designed to stop the young ones from using their skateboards in ways that would solicit a tut-tut from the rest of us, either. These are spaces that people of all ages and interests are welcomed and encouraged by the design treatment, to use.

Bilbao’s compact ‘old city’ has all of the charm that we have come to expect from a precinct with heritage significance, and the buzzing commercial centre and riverfront treatments give the city a richer sense of place, and legitimacy. Of course, I’m yet to fully comprehend what the rejuvenation has meant to the residents of Bilbao themselves. I imagine there have been problems – new problems that have arisen as a result of the “rock star” profile the cig has now attracted. But this is now a city that people visit for fun (and vanity), but it also has a serious purpose. I have to accept that much of what Bilbao has done seems to have been done very well.

Since my visit to the Guggenheim Bilbao I’ve read about other people’s experience of this particular piece of Ghery’s work, on blogs from around the world but mainly America. One lady described her visit as “one of the greatest moments of my [her] life”. This is someone who’s been thoroughly bedazzled by the other woman.

Some people just need to live a little… but let this be where the metaphor ends.

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Pretty Pictures

A person who listens gives themselves every opportunity to learn from others, something that they don’t already know. But it’s impossible to listen if the voice that’s doing all the talking is theirs. With this in mind, and given than a picture speaks a thousand words (or so the saying goes); who is learning what when we look at all those pretty pictures drawn by architects, landscape architects and urban designers?

Today we played audience to a variety of presentations at the Aedes Network Campus Berlin (ANCB) in Berlin, each looking at a different aspects of architecture and land use planning in Europe and Australia. We saw how historic patterns of rural land use are becoming increasingly incompatible with modern pattens of demand in and around Limerick in Ireland – the results of a project by a bunch of Architecture Students from the university there. AB, one of the academics traveling with our group, gave a presentation covering some of the substantive issues facing land use planners in and around Melbourne; identifying some similarities with the previous talk, but with many contrasts. We heard also from Frank Segebade, a representative of the Capital Region Berlin-Brandenburg (www.gl.berlin-brandenburg.de). A key aspect of his presentation was his glossy brochure – in English, interestingly. It featured lots of reasons why the metropolitan hinterland state of Brandenburg will benefit from closer administrative ties with Berlin, and how the new International airport will be good for everyone. It seems that pretty pictures and a glossy brochure are popular devices here too, for presenting an argument for change that may or may not have substance. It seems that the Australian Government’s Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (yes… I know) is in good company.

The final presentation for the afternoon was particularly interesting. Joachim Schultz-Granberg from the Office of Urban Design and Architecture at the Meunster School of Architecture (www.fh-muenster.de/d6) shared some of his students work; looking at small scale housing developments in Berlin. True to type, his presentation was packed with some wonderful illustrations, images and graphic devices that had me at times looking at the artwork more than the message. To my surprise, this very issue became the subject of some questions and comments after the presentation.

The degree to which the architectural profession has in the past valued the engagement by, and contribution of the broader public may, it was suggested, be partly responsible for the fact that less than 5% of housing in Berlin is architecturally designed. This comes despite attempts by the profession to explain how it can potentially create buildings of architectural merit that cost the same or less than conventional construction projects in which architects are excluded. There is a communication problem that architects themselves must overcome to maintain or increase their relevance.

One gentleman in the audience was able to quote an architect from the 1970’s who said something along the lines that first and foremost architects must ‘create a demand for architecture’. Somewhere in here is a lesson for strategic land use planners and urban designers, I think.

In other words, we need fewer pretty pictures that speak a thousand words, and a more inclusive process that perhaps solicits images from members of the community. Instead of (or in addition to) running a consultative community talk-fest, maybe the community should be asked to illustrate their own ideas somehow – to bring their ideas to life in a language other than words. The role of the strategic planner and urban designer ought be one of inclusively ‘listening’ to and interpreting the ideas of others, and not imposing a series of ideas and hoping the community will remain engaged long enough to determine which they despise the least.

So the architecture profession is today coming to realise it’s relevance isn’t asserted through generating pretty pictures. There’s something to be said then for the futile nature of any profession that expects others to sit up and take notice of what it’s trying to say, when the language it chooses to say it in is exclusive, and not inclusive.

So Strategic Planners and Urban Designers take note. You too could end up asserting yourselves into irrelevance by generating too many, pretty pictures.

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So Many Buildings, So Little Religion

I’ve long been intrigued by the relationship between people, space and place. In fact, my long term attachment to the hospitality and retail food service industry is directly attributable to my broad interest, but narrow understanding of this trio of abstractions.

With an established career in hospitality management, training and consultancy, others have at times raised an eyebrow when I explain I’m a student of urban, rural and environmental planning. The link is, I admit, not immediately obvious. I too have wondered if indeed there is any link, or anything at all from my professional background that might be regarded as relevant to my current field of study. But there is. Really, there is…

Restaurants in particular, and other other food service places play a unique role in our society. For me, these are ‘places’ in a similar way that home, school, or work-places [sic] are spaces that have meaning and purpose to each of us at different times throughout out lives. The unique, and to me, exciting thing about restaurants is that they transcend the typical understanding of place. They represent a nexus of people, space and events that are mostly joyful, celebratory or significant in people’s daily lives. In a way, restaurants, bars, cafes and pubs have come to replace more traditional places of congregation and celebration. Places we once used to congregate and reflect (and ask for forgiveness) have to many given way to places we go to meet friends and pontificate (and to forget perhaps, in the morning).

I’ve observed a fairly rapid change in the way people use restaurant and food service spaces over my career. But its only been recently that I’ve stopped to think about what this type of change means from a land use and community infrastructure prospective. Here, in Prague (Praha, Czech Republic), similar impacts are quite dramatic. And the future implications for cultural and historical heritage are significant.

Our architectural walking tour in the early evening was much like many of us expected. Neo-gothic this, Romanesque that. Prague is a beautiful city, this is undisputed. But I guess my expectations were raised by each of those presumptuous enough to tell me before I got here that I would love it. My expectations were, um… satisfied. Sorry Prague, but you have been a victim of your own success.

Toward the end of the tour, as we stood among the substantive structures that make up the Prague Castle and modern day Presidential residence and administrative quarters. We were told about how many of the buildings around us had little religious significance to the residents of modern Prague. We were told by Jerry (our guide) that although still in use, the Basilica holds a place of religious significance to fewer than 15% of the cities residents, and of course, the occasional Catholic tourist. Each other building of religious heritage was largely unused, and those that were had been converted to one form of tourism related attraction or another. These buildings it would seem, had outlived their usefulness.

So just what do you do with so many buildings of great architectural value, but such diminished community worth?

I don’t know. One of the academics on tour with us – let’s call her “JR” – asked me a related question along the way. Imagine if, in Australian cities we had buildings of similar architectural and historical value. What would happen to them? Given contemporary debates regarding our built heritage, would they be demolished to make way for high rise apartment buildings and car parks? Or would we, as those in Prague have done, turn them in to a museum and hope that somehow tourists will continue to understand the cultural context of each enough to keep paying a fee to visit and take photos?

At the rate were going in Australia though, it appears this won’t really be much of a problem. If you don’t allow a building or precinct to develop much in the way of historical value, and you knock it down and build something more functional and modern, this never really becomes a problem. That’s where the residents and administrators of Prague got it wrong, you see; they should have just knocked the buildings down back in the day and they wouldn’t have had to deal with the problem of maintaining their architectural, cultural and religious heritage at the behest of foreign tourists.

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