By all means the Geelong Library and Heritage Centre represented an example of what can be achieved through true architectural innovation.
Designed within a traditional colonial area masonry building at the front sitting in front of a modern uniquely styled and cut glass and concrete dome, the project took out the coveted Sir Zelman Cowen Award for public architecture at the Australian Institute of Architect awards last year.
The Centre was not alone, as projects such as the University of Queensland Oral Health Centre and the ‘brutalist’ Perth Concert Hall were also celebrated as examples of what can be achieved when the architectural profession is freed up to deliver its best.
Especially at the more bread and butter issue of new developments and residential and mixed-use apartments, however, some commentators fear our ability to deliver innovation within the built environment is being restrained by regulatory environments which encourage risk-averse approaches to design, planning and project assessment.
Speaking particularly of Sydney and New South Wales, former government architect and current Urban Taskforce head Christ Johnson said innovative design outcomes were being held back by resistance and a regulatory system which was encouraging a lowest common denominator approach to planning whereby new developments were being encouraged to look similar to existing ones within their surrounding context.
Such a phenomenon, he said, could be seen through other industries such as taxis and hotels, whereby innovations such as Uber and Airbnb were meeting resistance despite many benefits being associated with these types of technologies.
“In both those examples, you see a conservative reaction which says ‘we don’t want the change, we are comfortable with what we have got’”, Johnson said. “Yet for the benefit of the broader community, the change in innovation is often positive.”
“I think the same happens within the built environment. The protectors of the public realm if one can assign that term to regulators are very much conservative, looking after the past, trying not to upset anyone and to have their version of what is happening in the industry.”
“Yet the risk takers who are making the new built environments happen are very much committed to new ways of thinking, new ways of living, new ways of working and are in a way the vanguard of the future.”
“There is a tension that is built up between those two areas.”
Speaking particularly of local councils in Sydney, Johnson talks of a cohort of ‘mid-level’ planners who feel a need to determine how the built environment looks, feels and is used based upon their own perceptions and ideas about what is good for the community. Often, he says, these people fall into the trap of operating in a cacoon-like fashion in which their views may not take adequate account of opportunities available through different approaches.
An example, he said, could be seen through a tendency from some to want to hang on to aging industrial sites within inner urban areas for the benefit of blue collar workers. The reality, he said, is that manufacturing has changed many of these sites are now used only for storage. From a more innovative point of view, he said new opportunities could be created through mixed use types of precincts where people lived, worked and shopped.
In design, Johnson says planners often want new buildings look like those of their neighbours – a contrast to a more innovative approach whereby the scale, height and materials of the existing environment could be respected but opportunities could be sought to deliver something better.
He says Sydney is worse in this regard compared with Melbourne – the latter of which he says has a design culture which is more adventurous and less restrictive.
Other offer slightly different perspectives. Speaking of Victoria, Vanessa Bird, Victorian Chapter President of the Australian Institute of Architects says it is too early to comment upon the likely outcomes or assessment impacts associated with the newly introduced Better Apartment Design Standards in that state.
Nevertheless, she says a critical point which the AIA pushed for but was missing in a recent review of design regulation in Victoria revolved around the need to ensure that both the design preparation itself and the assessment of those designs was performed by people with suitable levels of qualifications and expertise in architecture. In New South Wales, for example, apartment buildings above three stories must be designed by a registered architect. In Victoria, no such rule applies.
From an innovation perspective, Bird says this is disappointing. The best regulation to facilitate innovative outcomes, she says, reported around broad based objectives and principles as opposed to an ‘instruction manual’. The quality of outcomes, she said, depends largely upon the quality of the assessment process. Leaving registered architects out of the regulatory process as Victoria has effectively done, she said, leaves the assessment process vulnerable to becoming ‘innovation averse’ and the design guidelines susceptible to becoming a series of absolutes.
Going forward, Bird would like to see Victoria mandate the involvement of architects in the design of all apartment buildings over and above four storeys – in much a similar manner as the NSW regulation does likewise for apartment buildings of more than three storeys. In addition, design review panels are needed to assess Better Apartment design standards and provide impartial advice in respect of the appraisal of individual projects against the principals of the standards.
Architects, she said, have the skills and expertise required to adopt bold approaches and drive innovative outcomes which extend beyond merely replicating existing models.
Speaking again of New South Wales, meanwhile, Johnson would like to see change in a number of areas. First, he would like to have planners move away from a ‘tick the box’ approach toward development assessment and instead have them consult the expertise of registered architects when assessing development proposals from a design perspective.
Whist design review panels were a good idea, meanwhile, Johnson says these should stick to critiquing proposals in a constructive manner and should avoid the temptation of engaging in any form of ‘takeover’ of proposals through which they overlaid their own view of the project too forcefully.
Behind all this, Johnson says there needs to be a culture whereby planning systems were more supportive of different approaches to planning and design.
“At the end of the day, I think all of this is a pendulum which swings from innovation to regulation and back again,” he said.
“I don’t think there is an absolute that one is right and the other is wrong. I think that if the pendulum swings too far towards regulation and away from innovation, it’s a problem. Equally, if it swings totally the other way and all that matters is innovation, that is a problem is well.”
“What I am saying is that in Sydney, the pendulum has swung too far toward the regulatory side. It seems to me in Melbourne the balance is a bit better.”
“But we need to have this discussion and this debate to ensure that we get a good quality built environment.”