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Cities Reborn

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Photography by David Mist. David Mist Archive, Powerhouse Museum

There’s been some comment lately about the fact that for the first time, more than half of the human race lives in cities. At the same time, cities are being seen again in a generally positive light. Some, including London and New York, are growing once more after a few decades of decline.

It hasn’t always been so: a century ago town planners and politicians were arguing that crowded, polluted, slum-ridden cities should be replaced by low-density ‘Garden suburbs’, pub-less, factory-less expanses of cottages. Sydney has some of the world’s first planned garden suburbs – Haberfield, parts of Kensington and Botany – though they are now barely distinguishable from the rest.

During the 1920s Le Corbusier advocated a ‘Radiant City’ of parks and apartment blocks connected by freeways. This idea was not as absurd as it seems today; much of Modernist architecture was developed from the design of 1920s social housing estates in central Europe and many of these have been socially as well as architecturally successful – Siemensstadt and five other Berlin Modernist housing estates are now World Heritage sites. But this housing/planning model was not an adequate basis for a complete city.

The Museum’s collection holds an archive from an advocate of the Modernist city: Charles Frederick Beauvais was a designer for Singer, Crossley and other British car makers before moving to Sydney in 1937. During the 1940s Charles Beauvais became a newspaper and magazine favourite and in numerous illustrated articles he extolled the potential of transport technologies to transform city life. In 1947 the Atlantic Union Oil Company asked Beauvais to create a model city of the future for the Easter Show. Like most such concepts, Beauvais’ ideal metropolis consists of high-speed transport freeways connecting tall buildings and parks.

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Atlantic Union Oil 'City of the Future' exhibition at Royal Agricultural Show, designed Charles Frederick Beauvais, photograph Russell Roberts, Sydney, 1947

By the 1960s and 1970s grand scale town planning was on the nose, and the future of cities was widely viewed with pessimism expressed in media as different as Jane Jacobs’ The death and life of great American cities and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.
The dystopian city fantasy is a resilient literary and cinematic genre, but at the moment it is lacking a little potency thanks to a wave of feel-good celebrations of city life. This phenomenon is not unconnected with the middle class colonisation of the inner city; in Sydney the start of this movement can be dated with precision to 1968, the publication date of Rob Hillier’s book Let’s buy a terrace house.

The most prominent cities advocate of recent times is Richard Florida whose book The rise of the creative class argued that agglomeration of artists, curators, writers and boho types generally was the key to successful cities. Around the mid-000s Florida became something of a travelling circus, touring the world to pronounce on the creative buzz of city after city – I can’t remember his judgement on Sydney’s creative class. Still, it was brilliantly successful concept, if only because it made everyone in possession of a laptop or smart phone feel as if they were surfing the wave of history.

And Florida was correct in many ways, if misguided in his definitions of creativity. Cities are fundamentally economic entities. They succeed by bringing people together so that ideas, strategies, jobs, markets, alliances and enterprises can flourish as nowhere else. It’s sometimes proclaimed that the internet will make cities irrelevant, that people can be just as connected and creative on a farm or a boat. But the evidence so far is that today’s increased connectivity is making cities even more attractive and efficient, building on their inherent strength in connectivity and unplanned association.
The biggest cities used to be a Western phenomenon, but are mostly found today in the developing world. Sydney is barely a village compared to Sao Paolo (20 million residents) or Shanghai (23 million), cities which have redefined urban scale. And we still have the luxury of debating the relative merits of city versus country living, while across the world migration to cities is recognised as the only chance of escaping grinding rural poverty and subserviance.

The urban ideologies of the 20th century were focused on creating architectural monocultures, whether modernist or suburban. Yet part of the appeal of cities is their layering of eras and building types embodied in their architecture. Even a relatively young city like Sydney can give a buzz of juxtaposition and variety.
The planning policies of today are still largely focused on creating consistent urban and architectural scale. It’s arguable that this is a denial of the essential quality of cities and one of the reasons that Sydney and Melbourne suffer from a mismatch of demand and supply in dwelling types.

An appropriate response doesn’t have to involve large scale rebuilding (though this was part of the repeopling of Sydney’s CBD). The mansions and large terrace houses of Sydney were abandoned by most of their owners during the early 20th century when servants became scarce and the suburbs more fashionable. Most of the big houses were recycled as boarding houses or flats; they’ve since been recycled yet again as homes, share houses or offices.

A similar career could await today’s McMansions and other suburban buildings. Walk-up flats, for example, for a long time the most-reviled of building types have recently been identified as one of the most sustainable. Low energy design and high thermal mass construction makes the red-brick ‘six-pack’ an unlikely exemplar of green suburban living and a design resource for sustainable urbanism.

If people feel good about cities, all sorts of things are possible.