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Archi-tales: The failure of domestic architecture

By Paul Costigan - 2 March 2016 37

 Reid0404-12

Along with some very pointed questions that were posed at the recent talk at the Albert Hall, there were a couple about the lack of government leadership in emphasizing the value of good design and the importance of architecture. Sadly along with many other questions asked, there were no satisfactory answers.

When it comes to domestic architecture in Canberra, meaning the design of stand-alone and semi-detached houses as opposed to apartments, this city has not done very well. In fact, I venture to add that the city of Canberra is a sad case of the failure of domestic architecture.

Please do not get me wrong here – Canberra is a great place to live and there are many wonderful advantages to living here. My point is that architecture has done little to add value to the aesthetics and visual pleasures that should come with a contemporary and fairly newly planned city.

The early decades were dominated by functionality as opposed to good design in the provision of houses. The housing stock was not designed for the climatic conditions for this part of Australia. While it is a good thing that some of these early dwellings are now heritage listed, unless they are retrofitted (insulated, double glazed etc), they are not the most comfortable places to live and to bring up families.

The 1960s onwards saw the arrival of many developer driven project homes. Unfortunately there was still no priority for well designed and well-built houses that addressed the extremes of climate that is the norm for the Canberra/Monaro area.

The government continued to provide government houses that were functional and competently built (well mostly) but were mostly boxes with little aesthetic adornment.

duplex-P1020444

The former National Capital Development Commission (NCDC), with all its powers and access to resources, failed to take up the architectural domestic challenge to create a local and relevant style.

While many of these earlier houses survive in more or less their original state, a huge number have been used for makeovers (modernizing and extensions etc).

Crace-P1100253

 

47david-oconnor01

Meanwhile in the last decades we have seen the arrival of the new international style (or cookie cutter style) approach in the new suburbs and into the inner streets.

The comparison between some of the new suburbs the more established areas is stark. The common theme is that these newer suburbs generally continue the practice of not building for this climate.

Given that such a lack of design may be linked to having money – I took the time to wander through the suburb of O’Malley where supersize is the norm. Sadly most of the houses in this suburb of mansions are simply enlarged versions of the same boxes found in most city suburbs. It was rare to see any outstanding architecture.

But then there is this. It speaks for itself.

OMalley-P1160462

Successive ACT Governments have not provided architectural leadership in the oversight of the provision of domestic stand-alone or semi-detached housing. It has been left to the market place to provide whatever they can sell.

Amongst the many very ordinary and climate unsuitable dwellings there is the occasional well-designed gem, but they are the exceptions. Even amongst the many make-overs of established houses, the architectural successes are uncommon.

If it were not for the success of the establishment of urban forests in the earlier suburbs, Canberra would have little that defines it. And the government now wonders why residents are so passionate about saving every tree from the developers and the LDA/directorate in their joint efforts to build more towers and car parks and diminish the cherished green spaces.

The current government’s urban development policies are summed up in the words of the Chief Minister when asked about a proposed development. He said that the government was not running a beauty contest and that they left all that to the market and to the planning authorities. I suspect that reflects his and other local politicians’ attitudes to architecture and good design. (At least he did not use his favourite term – ‘vibrant’).

Despite the continuous line of graduates from architectural programs, we have not seen a rise in the provision of any set of architectural styles suitable to and reacting to the Canberra environment. Where do they all go and why have they not grabbed the challenge of providing something, anything, new and innovative for the local housing market?

The failure of architecture in Canberra belongs to the lack of vision from government ministers of all colours, the historic failure of the architecture profession to take up the challenge of providing high quality and relevant design solutions and because of that the failure of people in general to have an appreciation of, access to and ultimately to demand quality design in housing.

This failure is a shared responsibility of us all and it shows in what this capital city is now starting to look like when one looks around the suburbs at our housing stocks.

The challenge is to change the politics of architecture. Too many architects are comfortable in partnerships with developers and government resulting in a lack of innovation in domestic architecture. Something needs to change.

For the owners of houses considering renovation or a rebuild it is logical to use an architect but history has shown that this is not the path chosen by so many. There are complex issues to do with using architects that are off-putting despite the benefits that flow when a a house is based around the use of good design.

With so much commitment by so many to our city’s future, there must be someone with some bright ideas about how to lift the expectations for domestic architecture.

I do recommend a book to you anyone interested in Canberra’s housing. Published in 2013, 100 Canberra Houses: A Century of Capital Architecture, is a book by Alan Roberts and Tim Reeves. It provides a positive view of a century of homes –a larger review may follow.

Watch this space for more comments some time on architecture across apartments, commercial buildings, landscape design and education campuses.

What’s Your opinion?


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37 Responses to
Archi-tales: The failure of domestic architecture
dungfungus 3:08 pm 03 Mar 16

rubaiyat said :

Holden Caulfield said :

Canberra is no better or worse than anywhere else in Australia.

If only just saying so, made it so.

In my experience Sydney is bad and Canberra is worse, much worse because the bad inappropriate design, build and orientation impacts more in our extreme climate.

When I inspected my current house for example, there were no ant caps under the house other than a few close to the under floor access, yet it “passed” the building inspection!

It was found to be compli-ant then?

HenryBG 1:58 pm 03 Mar 16

rosscoact said :

Your last image is of a house designed by Architects Ring and associates. Each bedroom is the approximate size of the footprint of my house. 🙂

Where the government comes in is in the overall planning choices in terms of block size and what is permissible within the block size.

What has happened out at Gungahlin is an atrocity. Those houses wouldn’t look half so bad, and wouldn’t have such poor passive alignment, if the government’s planning hadn’t been so completely lacking in vision. a 400m2 block should never be allowed to have anything much larger than a 2-BR townhouse on it. And so on.

rubaiyat 12:55 pm 03 Mar 16

Holden Caulfield said :

Canberra is no better or worse than anywhere else in Australia.

If only just saying so, made it so.

In my experience Sydney is bad and Canberra is worse, much worse because the bad inappropriate design, build and orientation impacts more in our extreme climate.

When I inspected my current house for example, there were no ant caps under the house other than a few close to the under floor access, yet it “passed” the building inspection!

crackerpants 11:19 am 03 Mar 16

madelini said :

rubaiyat said :

People obsessively approach housing design like they do food.

No, to little, thought for quality, health or functionality. A singular obsession with LOTSA, conformity and things that might impress relatives and neighbours.

The sad results litter our suburbs, are the cause of most of our excessive use of energy and result in uncomfortable, often dark interiors with little thought for outlook or gardens in the left over spaces between the houses and the fence lines. All exacerbated by the equally dismal “town planning”.

Curiously having ignored the lessons and objectives of the German Bauhaus movement for almost a century, people now have continued to ignore its essential good layout, orientation and functional objectives BUT picked up on its superficial cubist visual features as a tack on of the perpetual builder schemozzle of double/triple fronted bungalow/two storey MacMansion.

What they have done is picked up a cheap copy cat look, just as they did with that abomination the pseudo Federation look a decade or two ago.

It is such a joy to see the very rare well designed architect house, but they are almost as rare as hen’s teeth, and have no influence on what people actually build. Sadly what we build hangs around for a very long time and affects our environment for even longer. The craziness of the thinking is where the extremely badly designed dwellings are revealed for what they are, eg when destroyed by the environment that they ignored, people seem to put back pretty much what was wiped out, in the vain hope that it won’t happen again.

Being “architecturally designed” does not mean that it is aesthetically pleasing, or even designed practically.

And what’s wrong with Bauhaus, aside from its somewhat blocky nature?!

I think Rubaiyat’s point was that only the superficial aspects of Bauhaus have been appropriated, not the essential good design.

I agree 100% Rubaiyat – so many new houses have cavernous cold, dim, downlit and tiled “open plan” spaces, where large amounts of space are wasted through poor design – space that would be better kept as planted outdoor space. We are going through an architect for our house extension, and took pains to find one that we clicked with – that is sympathetic the history and original (rather unusual for a 1970 build) design, understands that we need enough space for our large-ish family without detracting from our outdoor spaces, and will incorporate sustainable features where possible. For example, our original timber windows can be retrofitted with double-glazing, restored and re-used, and our extension will finally give us a north-facing roof surface suitable for a solar installation.

Given the tiny amount of new land available to private buyers/owner builders, remodelling an existing home with the help of the right architect is the only viable option for us to achieve the home we want. Unfortunately, residents of Gungahlin (and I suppose Molonglo) are restricted to buying what is available…and at the end of the day, as an architect once said, most people only buy a house to keep the TV dry 😉

rubaiyat 10:45 am 03 Mar 16

madelini said :

rubaiyat said :

People obsessively approach housing design like they do food.

No, to little, thought for quality, health or functionality. A singular obsession with LOTSA, conformity and things that might impress relatives and neighbours.

The sad results litter our suburbs, are the cause of most of our excessive use of energy and result in uncomfortable, often dark interiors with little thought for outlook or gardens in the left over spaces between the houses and the fence lines. All exacerbated by the equally dismal “town planning”.

Curiously having ignored the lessons and objectives of the German Bauhaus movement for almost a century, people now have continued to ignore its essential good layout, orientation and functional objectives BUT picked up on its superficial cubist visual features as a tack on of the perpetual builder schemozzle of double/triple fronted bungalow/two storey MacMansion.

What they have done is picked up a cheap copy cat look, just as they did with that abomination the pseudo Federation look a decade or two ago.

It is such a joy to see the very rare well designed architect house, but they are almost as rare as hen’s teeth, and have no influence on what people actually build. Sadly what we build hangs around for a very long time and affects our environment for even longer. The craziness of the thinking is where the extremely badly designed dwellings are revealed for what they are, eg when destroyed by the environment that they ignored, people seem to put back pretty much what was wiped out, in the vain hope that it won’t happen again.

Being “architecturally designed” does not mean that it is aesthetically pleasing, or even designed practically.

And what’s wrong with Bauhaus, aside from its somewhat blocky nature?!

“Architecturally designed” guarantees the same aesthetics or practicality that “Engineer designed” guarantees it will stay up. ie More so.

And how did you get such a wrong handle on the Bauhaus design?

dungfungus 10:29 am 03 Mar 16

rosscoact said :

Your last image is of a house designed by Architects Ring and associates. Each bedroom is the approximate size of the footprint of my house. 🙂

That would be the Mediterranean Mansion in O’Malley?
I love your comparison.

Holden Caulfield 9:14 am 03 Mar 16

Canberra is no better or worse than anywhere else in Australia.

Look at the houses we were building in Australia 100+ years ago. Based on what worked in the UK and aside from being double brick or heavy stone, had no genuine redeeming features for the Australian climate; ubiquitous verandahs aside.

rosscoact 2:38 am 03 Mar 16

Your last image is of a house designed by Architects Ring and associates. Each bedroom is the approximate size of the footprint of my house. 🙂

Meconium 12:48 am 03 Mar 16

Best post I’ve seen on The RiotACT since its glory days. Couldn’t agree with you more Paul. The question is, what do we do about this problem?

I guess we should just cross our fingers and hope that the vacant spaces along soon-to-be vibrant Northbourne Avenue 2.0 will be filled with a New Federal Capital-style vernacular. If this agile vision were to eventuate, maybe Canberrans wouldn’t be so annoyed about all the trees being bulldozed.

madelini 4:03 pm 02 Mar 16

rubaiyat said :

People obsessively approach housing design like they do food.

No, to little, thought for quality, health or functionality. A singular obsession with LOTSA, conformity and things that might impress relatives and neighbours.

The sad results litter our suburbs, are the cause of most of our excessive use of energy and result in uncomfortable, often dark interiors with little thought for outlook or gardens in the left over spaces between the houses and the fence lines. All exacerbated by the equally dismal “town planning”.

Curiously having ignored the lessons and objectives of the German Bauhaus movement for almost a century, people now have continued to ignore its essential good layout, orientation and functional objectives BUT picked up on its superficial cubist visual features as a tack on of the perpetual builder schemozzle of double/triple fronted bungalow/two storey MacMansion.

What they have done is picked up a cheap copy cat look, just as they did with that abomination the pseudo Federation look a decade or two ago.

It is such a joy to see the very rare well designed architect house, but they are almost as rare as hen’s teeth, and have no influence on what people actually build. Sadly what we build hangs around for a very long time and affects our environment for even longer. The craziness of the thinking is where the extremely badly designed dwellings are revealed for what they are, eg when destroyed by the environment that they ignored, people seem to put back pretty much what was wiped out, in the vain hope that it won’t happen again.

Being “architecturally designed” does not mean that it is aesthetically pleasing, or even designed practically.

And what’s wrong with Bauhaus, aside from its somewhat blocky nature?!

rubaiyat 3:10 pm 02 Mar 16

reddy84 said :

Since when does the government determine the architectural design of a private sector developed building?

You cant legislate “good design” as the very notion is subjective and cant be tested in law. So what are the options? Providing incentive for good design is the only way. Money talks and this is what many of us need to understand.

There are costs involved in everything and a good architectural design adds to it. There is a reason firms like Cox and the like have so much work in the ACT, they design functional buildings for cheap. Why would a developer pay for a more expensive design when there is little incentive to do so? They are still going to sell their product anyway, the market here is just not competitive enough to dictate otherwise.

Again, in terms of single and detached dwellings, home owners can barely afford to build a house off the plan let alone pay for an architect to emulate a Grand Designs home. With so little land left in the ACT, people scramble to secure whatever they can get and builders just build from a template because they sell.

What is your solution? All plans to be scrutinised by a team of government employed architects to ensure good design?

New Zealand mandates Architects just as we do engineers, plumbers, electricians etc.

Those Architects are in turn responsible for their buildings as are the builders.

The Government fails to administer its own standards and causes most of the problems with wrong regulations and badly oriented blocks of far too small size. They are also responsible for the sprawling suburbs because they are THE property speculator in this town.

Maya123 2:40 pm 02 Mar 16

reddy84 said :

Since when does the government determine the architectural design of a private sector developed building?

You cant legislate “good design” as the very notion is subjective and cant be tested in law. So what are the options? Providing incentive for good design is the only way. Money talks and this is what many of us need to understand.

There are costs involved in everything and a good architectural design adds to it. There is a reason firms like Cox and the like have so much work in the ACT, they design functional buildings for cheap. Why would a developer pay for a more expensive design when there is little incentive to do so? They are still going to sell their product anyway, the market here is just not competitive enough to dictate otherwise.

Again, in terms of single and detached dwellings, home owners can barely afford to build a house off the plan let alone pay for an architect to emulate a Grand Designs home. With so little land left in the ACT, people scramble to secure whatever they can get and builders just build from a template because they sell.

What is your solution? All plans to be scrutinised by a team of government employed architects to ensure good design?

What are needed are the choice of a basic set of (true – not what builders claim are) energy efficient designs that builders can use as many times as they like. These off the plan designs could start from basic two bedroom, one bathroom, one living area houses and for extra money have more rooms and features. This is not happening at present in the cheaper housing range. I am not talking solar panels here, but basic good building design. Plus the new housing subdivisions need to be laid out for solar access. That does not necessarily mean large blocks, but streets and the blocks facing the correct way. This will likely mean more grid streets, rather than the doodling streets at present, that use up much more fuel just by navigating round and round and back and forth until one gets to the destination. An example, in one newer suburb I could see the destination across an area of grass, but blocked off by boulders. After driving around the disgustingly winding streets, I had ended up about 50 metres from where I wanted to be, but still needing to drive two kms to get the 50 metres I wanted to go and could see. I think I might have ended up parking and walking.

Mysteryman 1:55 pm 02 Mar 16

One of the greatest barriers to good architecture in the ACT is the heavy handed government regulation from ACT Environment and Planning Directorate (formerly ACTPLA, and before that PALM). There is all manner of pointless yet stifling regulation to discourage interesting, exciting, and practical architecture. Having worked for and with architects, I can tell you that dealing with these guidelines and the agency responsible for them is a frustrating experience.

The same government seems only too happy to release tiny blocks of land and approve street after street full of McMansions, jam-packed so tightly that eaves are nearly touching. When you consider how much land gets released straight to builders, with very few options for customisation for the home buyer, it’s no wonder that our new suburbs are full of bland cookie-cutter designs. The land that isn’t already owned by builders is often so expensive that most people can’t afford to do anything unique and interesting.

There is no shortage of good architects in Canberra. This is a problem that begins and ends with government.

reddy84 11:18 am 02 Mar 16

Since when does the government determine the architectural design of a private sector developed building?

You cant legislate “good design” as the very notion is subjective and cant be tested in law. So what are the options? Providing incentive for good design is the only way. Money talks and this is what many of us need to understand.

There are costs involved in everything and a good architectural design adds to it. There is a reason firms like Cox and the like have so much work in the ACT, they design functional buildings for cheap. Why would a developer pay for a more expensive design when there is little incentive to do so? They are still going to sell their product anyway, the market here is just not competitive enough to dictate otherwise.

Again, in terms of single and detached dwellings, home owners can barely afford to build a house off the plan let alone pay for an architect to emulate a Grand Designs home. With so little land left in the ACT, people scramble to secure whatever they can get and builders just build from a template because they sell.

What is your solution? All plans to be scrutinised by a team of government employed architects to ensure good design?

rubaiyat 9:54 am 02 Mar 16

People obsessively approach housing design like they do food.

No, to little, thought for quality, health or functionality. A singular obsession with LOTSA, conformity and things that might impress relatives and neighbours.

The sad results litter our suburbs, are the cause of most of our excessive use of energy and result in uncomfortable, often dark interiors with little thought for outlook or gardens in the left over spaces between the houses and the fence lines. All exacerbated by the equally dismal “town planning”.

Curiously having ignored the lessons and objectives of the German Bauhaus movement for almost a century, people now have continued to ignore its essential good layout, orientation and functional objectives BUT picked up on its superficial cubist visual features as a tack on of the perpetual builder schemozzle of double/triple fronted bungalow/two storey MacMansion.

What they have done is picked up a cheap copy cat look, just as they did with that abomination the pseudo Federation look a decade or two ago.

It is such a joy to see the very rare well designed architect house, but they are almost as rare as hen’s teeth, and have no influence on what people actually build. Sadly what we build hangs around for a very long time and affects our environment for even longer. The craziness of the thinking is where the extremely badly designed dwellings are revealed for what they are, eg when destroyed by the environment that they ignored, people seem to put back pretty much what was wiped out, in the vain hope that it won’t happen again.

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