Winner of the 2017 Architects Medallion, Georgia Forbes-Smith reflects on architecture's 'Sydney moment' - and the challenge of balancing private gain and public interest
We all know it - Sydney has been in a construction boom for the past decade. But the sheer rate of development across every scale of building - from small-scale granny flats to billion dollar light rail networks - has been so rapid that we seem to have arrived at the end of a sprint while completely losing track of the finish line.
So has this push to fuel Sydney’s prosperous economy carried - and maybe shaped - the design sector more than architects care to recognize? It begs the question of who’s really benefiting from architecture’s boom? The client? The architect? The developer? The council? Or the community?
There’s no doubt the city has been subject to radical social, economic and formal reconfigurations. We’ve seen the gentrification of traditionally working-class regions of Sydney, a dearth of local infrastructure improvements and a swathe of ‘short term’ design solutions ranging from the scale of bathrooms to entire suburbs. But have we also seen architecture reduced to a “commodity” by a market hooked on ‘architecture dressed up as jewellery boxes’ - resulting in the elimination of social housing in inner-city suburbs and forcing an exodus of long-standing local communities from the places they have called home for years because they can no longer afford the exorbitant price tag?
Currently, our society is completely defined by market economics. Architects have become cogs in an accelerating system of development. When homes become less about living, and more about ‘flipping for profit’, real estate agents supposedly have more ‘expertise’ than architects. So where does that leave us? Despite our qualifications, we have been pushed aside by a crowd of self-appointed experts and advisors in marginal fields. But have Architects and Planners been just as complicit in the creation of the hyper-development-led Sydney we see today? And has a critical voice has been lost along the way? Who else is going to address Sydney’s dire need for long term planning? Is it being left solely to planners and the free-market? I think architects are well situated to tackle these questions with the distinctive training/understanding of looking at problems across a series of scales from people to cities.
Reflecting on this, there are a couple of lessons to be learned from the hap-hazard city that we find ourselves in today. Firstly, how architects (perhaps unknowingly) have contributed to this outcome and secondly, how they have fallen victim to the endless specialization of the construction industry affecting design intent, process and outcome across all scales of architecture and the built environment.
Lesson 1 - We have to fight harder to retain high quality design as a ‘must have’ for our cities, buildings and public spaces. We need to find better ways to balance the reality of short term solutions (that, sure, must make a profit) with well-designed longer term, and more sustainable solutions. One way to achieve this is to maintain the push for more design-focused policy responses from our governments.
Initiatives such as Design Excellence Competition Policy, creates a requirement for private entities to hold a design competition when developing buildings over 55 storeys or sites larger than 1500 square metres. The policy works by offering incentives to gain extra floor space in return for better design. Triggering this policy brings the potential for a more involved process with architects as well as including the potential for smaller firms to gain experience by joining ventures with larger firms. This policy has seen many great designs throughout Sydney as well as getting an array of different architecture firms involved (and diversity is good!). But the motivation for developers is still all about chasing that additional floor space.
As a cautionary tale, in New York during the 60s, a policy was introduced where developers/builders were allowed additional floor area if they provided some kind of public plaza as a part of the design. Unfortunately, the policy was taken advantage of and resulted in a whole series of dull unused public spaces. The issue was, that these public offerings of space were still seen as an afterthought and just as a tick box to gain additional floor area and therefore additional profit. As a solution, the New York City Planning Commission consulted with sociologist/urbanist William H. Whyte and his associates to conduct a study The Social Life of Small Urban Places which investigated the public plazas and parks in the city in order to understand how they were used. The results of this study were then integrated into New York City design policies to improve the quality of their public spaces. This scholarly, evidence-based approach to understanding how our cities, towns and places work is definitely something we need in Sydney today.
But we also need to avoid the ‘tick box’ bureaucracy that sometimes get attached to these competitions. It needs to be communicated (especially to the client/privately funded corporation) that the importance of quality design is equal to the yield of the development and perhaps, sometimes, maximising every inch of a site is not the only measure of good design.
Lesson 2 - Architects need to accept what it means to be an expert! It is our responsibility to bring to the fore the best design outcome for public amenity and social benefit, not just aesthetics or revenue. It’s about public interest, not just private gain. I understand the inseparable role of capital in making buildings, but also know that design excellence and profit can be polar opposites sometimes too. We have an ethical responsibility to maintain a position that benefits the greater community and the city as a whole. Maybe we need to step back and be more discerning - and, yes, even more critical - of each other (and most importantly our own work). How can we encourage others to expect better when we, ourselves have been pushed down the path of under-thought, market-driven architecture?
The truth is, we need to close the communication gap between the public and the architect. Having a social impact relies on having open discussions between people and designers. Architects have been notorious for only talking to each other. But how can new models emerge if we are only talking to ourselves? It is this relationship that will encourage change in how architects are seen and what it is that people think that we to do. It should be better known that as a profession, our intentions are to create better spaces for all - not just to gain profit. Not just as a hired gun. I don’t know what all the answers are but it seems quite clear to me that we are currently not doing as much as we should.
One last speculation. How can an architect have a positive impact on social good when housing design is so heavily embedded, and influenced by financial markets and land costs, political powers and corporate and private funding? In the current Sydney market , is there any real chance for architects to even make a social impact? Perhaps we have to morph in to some new form of archi-politicians, archi-developers, archi-activists, archi-investors, archi-theorists, archi-planners to makes the change we know we need. Maybe the architect of the 21st century needs to design genuinely new avenues for change to keep up, and compete with the market-driven city taking shape - whether we like it or not.