Why So Little Pride in Public Buildings Anymore? 7

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Thursday, October 15th, 2015
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Sydney Opera House
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In the past, Australia used to invest heavily in the design of its public buildings.

These were not monuments to big egos but an expression of community pride and an investment in a sense of permanence, substance and importance to the life of Australian society. The most obvious were centres of Government; State Parliament buildings, City and Town Halls, centres of administration all tended toward a design quality that reflected the best of the era, even if much of that mimicked ‘traditional’ European styles at the time.

But the investment in public building design was even more widespread. Train stations, libraries, fire stations, police stations, schools and even electrical substations were structures that featured quality design efforts by designers of the day and a level of investment in public buildings which said “we are proud of these things.” That sense of pride has lasted; many of these structures are now heritage listed and the community would be horrified to see them demolished or radically altered.

Haven’t times changed? Today, driven in part I suppose by a public which is increasingly cynical of overspending by governments at all levels, the brief for public buildings tends toward the lowest cost solutions possible. Low-cost materials, quick construction and elementary design mean that new public buildings are rarely things to excite community imagination. Indeed, tendering by governments rarely focusses on achieving the best design outcomes, and instead focusses on lowest cost proposals – however often this might be denied.

As a result, a growing nation is designing and building the new public structures needed to service our growing community with little thought to the design legacy they might leave us. Think of any number of new public structures in your local community and whether there are any that would make you say to yourself “I’ll be happy to see that building still around in another 50 or a hundred years.”

I also wonder whether taxpayers have ever really been given much choice in this. In terms of community spirit, an enhanced sense of place and shared ownership, quality design of public buildings and public spaces can make a significant difference. By the same token, low-cost designs that fail to inspire people will only tend to depress the sense of community.  Are public officials wrongly assuming that taxpayers will automatically reject well-designed proposals that will leave a lasting legacy because they assume that we all want  the cheap solution?

Or is it that our collective commentary on urban design – via social or mainstream media – is so confused and opinionated that this highly charged topic is one that governments prefer to avoid by choosing the least controversial – or vanilla – option? If this sort of thinking, combined with cost-driven priorities, is what really determines our approach to the design of public buildings, I doubt we will ever see another Sydney Opera House again. Think of the design controversy and cost criticisms which greeted Shane O’Riley’s ambitious concept for the Perth Concert Hall. Rather than welcoming these bold and place-defining ideas, we seem to collectively bark out derision and howl at the costs without pausing to consider the long-term positive impacts memorable designs can bring.

Sadly, I suspect this has become a permanent feature of political life in this country. Few leaders possess the ambition to see design quality expressed in public buildings, and governments are always quick to refer to tight budgets as the reason. As a result, it is increasingly left to the private sector to champion architectural design quality and leadership. This is not a bad thing at all, but it might be better if the responsibility for investment in the public domain were more equally shared.

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7
  1. Cam Hart

    Federation Square is a quality public building, but bearing in mind it was finished 13 years ago. Probably wouldn't get built today because of the cost

  2. Bruce Christopher

    Agreed Susan. The opera house and 'new' Federal Govt building seem the last of any stand out civic architecture. First experienced in some long term primary and secondary schools I attended, there were the feature 'old school' along with bland 'new school' buildings utilised. Proud memories relate to the appearance and atmosphere of the century old, well-designed and solidly built red brick buildings, in one case still standing and used while the box buildings of the 60's have been torn down. So many Government buildings in the last few decades could only be described as cheap and functional, generally pleasant and functional inside but just ordinary outside. Long term economics perhaps not considered important any more given that newer buildings are likely to be recycled several times over compared with the life of those earlier civic icons. Sadly, I think most people don't think beyond shorter term, personal and functional needs.

  3. Phil Morey

    I've seen 80 year old electricity sub-stations with more architectural credibility than a lot of today's structures. But it's all down to cost . Public Schools are now throw-away demountable hot boxes, State governments rent in anonymous glass rectangular prisms and apartments are designed to be windowless doss houses with no public amenity available. Sad to see some of the more interesting architecture in communist China.

  4. Julie Ward

    Our forbarers left us some lovely legacies which have stood the test of time but I wonder just what legacy this generation will leave? I can't see any future for the Lego block buildings of today especially with the new build and tear down in 10 years mentality which is so current. When did new houses and public buildings come with a 10 year guarantee. These are investments of major proportions and should come with major guarantees.

  5. John Doyle

    It is certainly very noticeable in our country towns. Civic buildings and churches are still the defining works in every country town. It does make one wonder why it's not continuing. It does seem our generation is not as positive about their towns as were the early settlers.
    Some building types have lost relevance, such as churches and post offices. Utilitarian, cost sensitive advice is followed today, with occasional exceptions.
    In the bigger centres there is a strong ethos of decadence with leisure and spending desires dominating. Our civilization is heading for it's ending game and our era of exponential growth is untenable for much longer.
    Government ignorance of economics, most blatantly displayed in the false assertion that federal taxes limit its spending abilities, is always a stumbling block to results a community could be proud of.

  6. Grant Spork

    There was a prominent Queensland architect who didn't appear to use a single curve or freeform shape in his designs, the ultimate "Big Box" architect. One young protege suggested that "Someone should buy them a flexicurve and a compass for his birthday!" no such luck he never discovered the curve, the arch or any freeform shape in his design vocbulary. Today we have the BIM-ers who set up their database based on rectalinear shapes and easy to configure protocols, a dearth of actual design and thought, you would never get a Frank Gehry building or a Frank Lloyd Wright building froma BI biased architectural firm. That begs the question, are the big boxes worthy of public buildings, they are more efficient but Australia will never nurture a Renzo Piano or a Gehry when the only criteria for a public commission is the BIM factor. What is required is less BIM and more creativity, otherwise architects no longer are a profesion for the integration of art and the built form. I blame the BIm no doubt until design has greater autonomy we won't see a y Jorn Utzon or remarkabnle architecture. Down with BIMmers!

    • Andrew Prentice

      Really interesting views, which I (as a non-architect) had not considered before. In our endless quest for efficiencies and "shaving the bottom line" we may indeed be eliminating much of the innovation and sheer artistry that once characterised the design of public buildings and transport/utility infrastructure. The whole issue seems to be related (I believe) to the increasingly "noisy" personal media platforms which generate suspicion and mistrust of our public officials. The shrinking time cycles of the business world and the political sphere seem to be eroding any long-term vision among the building/construction community also .