The recent statements by the NSW Minister for Planning that architectural style guides are to be prepared for various suburbs of Sydney by the NSW Government Architect, while well-meaning, could be a dangerous move.

The design of cities often becomes a debate between innovation and uniformity. The Minister in his interview on style guides referred to examples of built environments from the past that represented uniformity and are generally considered aesthetically pleasing by the community. He referred to the terrace houses of Paddington, the federation style bungalows of Haberfield and the art deco apartments of Potts Point.

But all of these built environments evolved in times when society was much more uniform. In the Victorian era, men sported top hats and women wore long skirts. Since these times, our culture has become much more diverse and creativity and individualism is embraced and encouraged. The cult of the individual is celebrated much more and a quick glance at the fashions in today’s Sydney demonstrates this diversity.

We could take the uniformity from style guides to extremes by referring to some Asian cities with hundreds of 20-storey concrete apartment towers all lined up in rows. Some cities during the Soviet era were also blighted by row upon row of identical, bland concrete towers, a deliberate tactic to deter individualism and free thinking in the population. On the other hand, the uniformity of Baron Haussmann’s Paris produced a well-mannered, medium-scale city admired by all. The problem with style guides in the Australian context is that they will ultimately be used and abused. Council planners often interpret these style guides in a literal, inflexible manner that would add another layer of red tape to slow the planning process even more.

These documents, intended to be ‘guides’ to assist developers in developing aesthetically pleasing buildings, ultimately become rigid handcuffs on architects which hinder innovation. Eventually this could add to the cost of housing. While some authoritarian regimes tend to have style guides that make all buildings look the same, other cities celebrate innovation and diversity. New York, for example, is a dynamic city filled with individual buildings.

In addition to this, these style guides are not updated frequently enough to keep pace with design trends, changes in building technology and other advances which influence building design. For example, recent advances in building products has allowed beautifully curved buildings to be constructed at a reasonable cost, resulting in an abundance of curved buildings popping up throughout Sydney and Melbourne. The issue falls down to the difference between the roles of a planner and a designer. Council planners tend to look at what has worked in the past and they attempt to emulate this for the future. Designers and architects attempt to imagine the future, not to recreate the past.

The Minister for Planning’s ultimate aim is to lift the standard of design in urban areas, and this is a laudable objective. He could use his Government Architect in this regard to profile quality examples of good design, to review projects and to work with the Greater Sydney Commission and councils to develop a culture for design quality. Of course, NSW already has an Apartment Design Guide that sets down the ingredients for good design. There is also the State Planning Policy that requires qualified architects to undertake apartment building design for buildings above two storeys. Other Australian states could well learn from these NSW initiatives.

If, however, the Minister gets his way, as Ministers often do, and a Style Guide does occur, then we need a completely new approach to how this is done. I could visualise an online website that connected sites and quality architects with an analysis of local characteristics that in the hand of a Master Architect would produce a solution that would inevitably get an instant approval.

There have been attempts to do this through the Case Study homes of California, the Pettit and Sevitt homes by architect Ken Woolley, or Japan’s Toyota Homes modelled on the car industry or an American site called Etekt that connected architects to customers like an online dating service. These are the 21st century versions on style guides adapted to our diverse society.