The Changing Face of Housing

January 29, 2010

Heritage Park, a dense low-rise housing development outside Sydney, offers an appealing alternative to the sprawling suburbs of Australian cities.

Sydney will struggle to build homes and public transport infrastructure for a predicted population of six million people by 2036. This is not helped by the fact that government and the public cling to outmoded, and inefficient – some might say ugly – medium density housing models superseded elsewhere 60 years ago by better, more effective alternatives.

The demographer Bernard Salt recently noted that, “There is a significant and growing cultural divergence between different groups”, which he attributed to an economic division between niches for wealthy inner city elites, who live within 10 kilometres of the city centre, and housing for battlers, migrants and assorted low-income earners, who have now been flung to the city’s edge. The division is reflected in very different housing styles. Income, Salt asserts, is one of the key drivers of social division.

The middle and outer suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney comprise more than six million residents out of a total of 22 million. These outer edge suburbs account for the vast majority of each city’s growth. By comparison with the inner city, the residents of outer ring areas typically have lower incomes (by an average of 27 percent to 50 percent in Melbourne), are less well-educated (33 percent compared to 50 percent with bachelor or higher degrees) and have a much higher proportion of families (85 percent compared to 45 percent of households). Migration to edge suburbs increases the exposure of families
to poor public transport, health, maternity and educational services – reducing opportunity.

A wider offering of housing models that create opportunities for integrating the different economic, social and cultural groupings may prevent this. Forty years ago, dissatisfaction in Denmark with the rigid high-rise model led to the development of new forms of dense, low-rise housing. There are few similar examples in Australia. Alex Popov’s Heritage Park development at Bowral, in association with Marchese and Partners, though targeted at a demographic of retirees and affluent empty nesters, offers an alternative to the widespread exhaustion and alienation endemic to Australia’s struggling edge suburbs.

In Australia, we inherited the Anglo-Saxon prejudice against communal shared arrangements in housing. Families tend to live separately, imprisoned within an exclusive nuclear realm – not for the English the large uncurtained windows found in the Netherlands. As Popov explains, “We are up against the ingrained prejudice that the English brought here, that the townhouse is for the poor.” Popov, though Sydney-based, trained at the Royal Academy in Copenhagen, where he was exposed to a wide range of Scandinavian housing types. Australia has a very different heritage to Scandinavia – solutions that are appropriate there, may not readily translate here – however, Heritage Park draws upon the communal, Scandinavian model, while also catering to the Australian attachment to a backyard outdoors. It demonstrates that it is possible to make this model genuinely appealing to Australian consumers.

It is no surprise to discover that the challenge to the free-standing isolated dwelling has come from other cultures, notably Scandinavia, in particular from Denmark and Finland. In Denmark, Popov contends, group housing is much more about social priorities. “The idea of social values having a priority, the sense of belonging, sense of collectivism, the sense of unity, striving together, sharing,” he says. The Finnish model, as he describes it, is more about man’s passion for nature. “You get a good result in Finland because you get that – what seems to be very logical – no buildings should be taller than the trees around them. Buildings should respect the rocks, the planting; whether it is a church or a singular house they all adhere to that same philosophy. It is not a mechanical thing, ‘we should build like that’. Australia doesn’t share the same collectivism or the same social condition.”

In the postwar period, the existing suburban pattern was challenged by a model that grouped houses sensitively around wooded areas or lakes – Jørn Utzon’s Kingo courtyard houses and his ‘string of pearls’ at Fredensborg spring to mind immediately. Earlier still, Viggo Møller-Jensen’s Atelier houses on Grønemore Allé for a community of artists in Utterslev in 1943, is justly celebrated.

There have been other notable examples more recently too. Vandkunsten’s Koglerne co-housing, at Skovbrynet, 2004, for young people with serious disabilities, fuses the individual units in a seemingly haphazard yet unified group, which, like Lansdowne Crescent, Bath (1794), responds flexibly with its serpentine curves to the demands both of town planning and terrain.

Vilhelm Lauritzen architects’ Naestved housing, south of Copenhagen, is close to becoming acceptable in the Australian context – Danes have, in the intervening years since the 70s, become more bourgeois. Naestved’s two-storey bent wing shapes are crisp, orderly and open, in a restrained, gentle and very Danish way. If Australians are ever to be weaned off their diet of McMansions, the Naestved model offers a superior alternative that should be acceptable to edge suburb battlers, with its accessibility to landscape, outdoor play space for children and more efficient land use.

The garden city movement spread people out thinly and, while families require space, this need has been greatly exaggerated. We are a social species who live in groups for mutual protection, safety and social interaction. The single-family dwelling is exceptional. Heritage Park is some distance outside Sydney, but it could hardly be confused with the city edge suburbs and caters to a very different lifestyle. It would make even better sense in Sydney, where greater densities and low-rise housing is likely to result in a more humane, liveable style of housing than the terraces or standardised blocks of multi-storey units dictated by developer opportunism.

Rethinking housing form, making it more flexible while still achieving the necessary density, is possible, as Popov demonstrates in Heritage Park. Thinking about the future – a more humane, people-oriented future, in lieu of a dumb developer dominated and dictated one – Heritage Park engages such critical issues creatively in a way that, against the prospect of a Sydney of six million, offers an alternative that is better than sprawl. How else are we to deal with a failed public transport system, clogged roads, choking pollution and lack of safe spaces for children to play?

The past and vernacular building contain many suggestions. Take the marvellous conical white stone Trullo houses at Alborobello, Apulia, with their imitation tent-roofs arranged in curving groups reminiscent of Utzon at Fredensborg. It is the roof that makes the Trullo, the fantastic idea of fabric frozen in stone. Here the houses are interspersed in a bucolic setting of vineyards, cherry orchards, olive and almond groves – which produces a dazzling spectacle at blossom time. The image presented is one of community, not of isolated lonely individuals.

Heritage Park shares some of the informal qualities of Mediterranean vernacular villages such as Alborobello: no individual unit is assertive, the housing has its own rhythm and the forms offer an anonymous foil to the plants and landscape in the intervening spaces that remain.

Group housing, as interpreted by Utzon, was a special case of vernacular additive thinking applied to architecture, produced by repeating the same unit form and linking each in a repetitive chain, which responded sculpturally to its terrain. Such housing is all about shared values, repeated motifs, similar roofs, similar doors, the same colour or colours, grown together in harmony, like an African village.

Popov has succeeded in adapting these Danish models to Bowral without in the least depreciating the essential idea: the houses are two-storey blocks with hipped grey metal roofs and simple modern fenestration. They had to be built cheaply, paying special attention to the Australian requirement for large generous courtyards and double-height living spaces. A considerable proportion of common land is dispersed between staggered and overlapping blocks to form outdoor areas for living and playing. The architecture has the same quiet common language and limited material palette, vehicles are relegated to the perimeter and children are free to wander while being kept in visual contact.

Heritage Park combines the socially-driven qualities of the Danish examples with the nature-led Finnish housing tradition. The Bowral houses are interspersed in a landscape garden overlooked by each unit, so intruding strangers are immediately spotted. When the trees are fully grown, it will be impossible to take in the development at a single glance – such is the informal manner in which the units have been arranged. The horror streetscapes of endless rows of identical brick terraces that blighted the industrial English Midlands, which were then transplanted and imposed on Australian cities, are a thing of the past. Bowral may not be Alborobello, but it employs many of the same principles together with a sophisticated take on modern Danish practice.

Is this the future of housing in Australia? One hopes so. As Popov observes: “At Smithfield [in Sydney], you have to walk three kilometres or wait for a bus to take you to a supermarket. All this does is isolate people, cause criminality, desperation – the individual is marginalised from society. In suburbs such as these, it is much more important to deal with that isolationism, the lack of infrastructure and planning. Social cohesion is more important there because nature is just flat. It would be terrifying if such housing were to spread all the way to Bowral.”

We are, after all, talking about housing typologies that are already well and truly outmoded. Whether such new thinking succeeds or not will depend less on architects than on the attitude of politicians and the public.

Heritage Park shows what can be achieved on a low $2000 per square metre budget. It also shows that there are viable alternatives to the stereotypical outer suburban housing pattern, and that people are willing to pay for them.

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