Private $pace. Public profit

Mar 11, 2009
  • Article by Hamish Lyon

Welcome to new Australia. The redemptive experience of saying sorry, shared by all Australians (except perhaps one) has, for the first time in more than a decade, seen people talking openly about a collective future in terms other than economic indicators or nationalist paranoia. More recently, the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has brought together the nation’s great thinkers, business leaders, arts patrons, cultural figures and a movie star in an attempt to set an ambitious agenda for the nation: ideas were work-shopped, lists made, press photos taken and editorials followed in print across the country. So where was the agenda for architects, planners and urbanists? Nation building is important stuff – roads and ports drive the economy, sustainability is an electoral necessity, affordable housing is a well-worn catchphrase, even film was given a cultural and economic value. But architecture and urban planning, it seems, remain on the non-essential services list.

Why? Because with new horizons come old problems. All levels of governments (on both sides) are no longer willing to risk electoral uncertainty or budgetary collapse to endorse a contemporary vision of architecture and the city. Instead the traditional cornerstones of a civil society, such as schools, hospitals, courthouses, prisons, railways and roads, have been interbred with the free market economy. Australia’s capital cities are evidence of this phenomenon. Over the past decade Sydney and Melbourne have undergone major renewal, controlled by equal measures of electoral promise and speculative commerce. In Melbourne the daily newspapers have been actively engaging with the politics of the city’s private/public future. Grand plans for extending heavy rail, dredging Port Phillip Bay and creating new freeway tunnels and desalination plants have been illustrated by maps and plans emblazoned with thick red lines, offering the public a focus for either contemplation or outrage.

Against the propaganda and posturing of these major headlines another issue remains below the surface that has not yet been critically addressed: In the academies the popular term is “density”, while local planning agencies prefer the buzz words “sustainable communities”. But in the consumer world the ideological vacuum is filled by lifestyle TV commercials advocating that we all move to Arcadian villages where husbands can play golf endlessly, wives can drink café lattes and kids can ride their bikes on pristine nature trails. In reality, these new communities are the outcome of commercial sub-dividers who are relentlessly carving up the fringes of Australia’s major cities and developing fictional social orders created entirely through marketing spin: architects are nowhere to be seen.
This is confronting for an older generation of urban thinkers who still remember the radical planning visions of the 1970s where urban design had a social dimension and generated a range of urban and regional outcomes: the satellite suburbs of Canberra, the green corridors of outer Melbourne, the Whitlam government’s vision for de-centralisation and the heritage battles of Paddington and Carlton to name but a few. These issues were generated by an intellectual and artistic challenge to define the nature of the Australian city against a reality of ever-widening suburban sprawl. This critical engagement was also evident in the works of architects such as Peter Corrigan, whose awkward and self-conscious Catholic churches at Box Hill and Keysborough transfigured the central element of European architecture to the scale of a suburban milk bar, or Graeme Gunn’s early housing models for Merchant Builders’ cluster communities. These sites have now been overrun by conservative middle class enclaves (both physically and intellectually) and absorbed within the sprawl. Even Robin Boyd’s outer suburban limit, the entrance arch he designed for the Fountain Gate Estate (1966-68), has entered mainstream Australian culture via the populist language of Kath and Kim. Boyd’s grand vista, which was intended to be viewed from the cabin of a 1960s Holden speeding along the Princes Highway, has been reduced to the status of a backstreet by Melbourne’s new Monash freeway, which races past obliviously.

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Given the paucity of investment by local and state governments in outer suburban public facilities over the last decade, the shopping centre has, by default, attained the status of a civic place. Accordingly, it has also become an essential part of the land sub-divider’s tool kit. Previously, urban planners reserved a deep distrust for the shopping centre, protecting local communities by insisting on wide setbacks and landscape buffers. In return, the community spoke with their feet by making the local neighbourhood retail centre the focus of public engagement in the new estates. This has generated a rethink in the realm of the privately sponsored master plan, which now places the retail centre as the symbolic focus of the new community. Announced under the mantra of a ‘Main Street concept,’ it reveals nostalgia for the High Streets of older, more established urban precincts. Unfortunately, this new-found conviction in the value of urban density has resulted in a number of over-zealous and misplaced outcomes at the expense of any genuine attempt to develop integrated and functioning town centres. The results are akin to stage sets or ghost towns, where the supposed “Main Street” is completely disconnected from any broader street pattern or future growth strategy.

Many of the current shortcomings in this debate are the result of a lack of commitment on the part of contemporary architects to the difficult and complex ideological terrain of new town planning. The public/commercial condition of the retail town centre is not viewed as having the redemptive purity of the curated civic project. This deeply ingrained moralising and yearning for the glory days of high priest Modernism has seen many architects stick to working in the relatively “unsullied” space of traditional public architecture, while the major housing and retail developers continue to build entire suburbs without any critical engagement from the profession.

It’s time the local and regional shopping centres are afforded a position that reflects the integral and valuable part they play in Australia’s developing urban communities. Given urban planning and infrastructure projects require long-term strategies to ensure the identities of developing communities are not driven by dogma, but rather by innovation, architects, planners, economists and local and state authorities need to recommit to a body of research into the critical issues arising from the future growth of the Australian suburb.

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