Excellence in design doesn’t mean reaching for the latest international design celebrity and superimposing their designs into an Australian context.
Design excellence should reflect local conditions; the climate, the culture, the choice of materials and the way a design responds to its environment are all considerations.
But is this what we’re getting with the latest round of international designs? Are we at risk of losing some of our Australian-ness in the pursuit of ‘international city’ status for our urban centres?
There have been some outstanding examples where international architects have created enduring cultural landmarks in Australia. Danish Architect Jorn Utzon’s design for the Sydney Opera House is probably the most iconic, but importantly his design was very much engaged with the local environment of Sydney Harbour, reflecting the sails of boats that plied the harbour. Today sadly, much of what we see as “international architecture” is little more than a transplanted design of something that could be equally at home in any “international” city.
This can be at odds with local culture, the realities of our climate or the workings of the local economy. We’ve seen European-inspired plazas with hard surfaces and open skies imposed into subtropical environments where shade from the sun and shelter from tropical rain are valued considerations. I love the designs of European public plazas but I also think they tend to work best in Europe.
We are now also witnessing a number of apartment designs which owe little to the Australian context and would be just as much at home in Hong Kong. There are hotel and resort designs which would be equally at home in Tonga or Thailand. Is it a form of cultural cringe or are we just not thinking when we start putting Bali huts with thatched roofs into the Australian resort context?
The Australian identity is something unique, but this identity isn’t finding much expression in the architecture I am seeing delivered on many recent projects across our cities or tourism destinations. Rather, what seems to be happening is that international design homogeneity is becoming the norm. Whether delivered by international architects direct via their studios in Dubai or London or New York or by local design firms keen to mimic what they’re seeing on Pinterest or through global design media, I am concerned we are not making the most of local context nor are we valuing the insights of local design firms.
Climate is one very obvious consideration that impacts on everything from the design of a large shopping centre to residential dwelling. The Australian climate varies greatly from the tropical north to temperate south, and the history of much Australian design has reflected these local climatic considerations. Material choice was influenced by regional availability.
The iconic ‘Queenslander’ house design featured timber and tin because these were readily available materials. Brick and stone were prohibitively expensive in what was then a poor colony. The wide verandas provided shade and shelter and internal designs promoted as much ventilation as possible.
By contrast, Melbourne faced a very different climate and its choice of materials was aided by the prosperity of the gold rushes. Brick, stone and tiled roofs were the preferred and widely available material choices. Wide verandahs and breezy homes aren’t of much appeal in a Melbourne winter, so their designs reflected that. The point is that design reflected and responded to local environmental and cultural conditions.
Modern designers have a much wider choice of materials at their disposal, and frequently the costs are highly comparable from one choice to the next, but this shouldn’t mean adopting designs that don’t reflect local cultural, economic or climatic environments.
Good local design can be more energy efficient, create stronger connections with outdoor spaces and neighbouring precincts, provide for permeability, encourage air flow, promote local identity, reflect history in the choice of materials, colours or recycled building products. It should intuitively understand Australian values of work, society and the way we engage.
Good local designers are also more acutely aware of the more mundane but still essential aspects of design that reflects the finer points of relevant building codes, disabled access requirements, and a host of other regulatory or policy based instruments. We’ve seen time and again that project documentation outsourced to low-cost overseas markets often aren’t up to speed with our regulatory systems.
Australia is such a unique country, set into unique landscapes with unique climates and a very diverse set of cultural roots. It just seems a waste of opportunity for our architecture not to work harder to reflect these conditions and our environment. In my view, surrendering to ‘international design 101’ is both lazy and a lost opportunity.