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Dear Chief Minister – about the architecture of Northbourne

By Paul Costigan - 3 May 2017 14

The drive down Northbourne Ave has recently revealed the truth about architecture in Canberra.

The removal of all those beautiful tall trees down the centre of Northbourne was contentious. The total removal in a very short space of time has revealed something that I doubt anyone could have predicted.

Now you can cruise along this main avenue and enjoy a new way of seeing the main entrance to Australia’s capital city.

On a fine day, with the sky being that intense blue, you are met with a wonderful vista of open sky.

This vista is bound by the trees along the footpaths and behind them, the vast array of architectural gems – or at least they should be architectural gems.

What hits you now is the lack of diversity in what the architecture professions have delivered to the national capital.

With few exceptions, the entrance to this city is a line of bland boxes of steel, glass and concrete.

I would designate very few of the buildings as being examples of architecture worthy to stand at the entrance to any capital city. The buildings are mostly ordinary boxes straight out of an international flat pack catalogue. You could be anywhere.

We can do better than this!

The first piece of evidence of how seriously this city has not been about architecture is at the Dickson intersection (Northbourne-Antill/Mouat). Here we are presented with those grand buildings known as City Gate.

We really hope that these towers do not indicate where we are to go with the new buildings along Northbourne into the city centre.

They do not represent good architecture.

Chief Minister, I am aware that you recently urged those designing the new buildings (and there are to be many) to do so as if they were out to win awards.

I admire this good sentiment except if you know as much about these awards as I do. Such awards are not a guarantee that quality will be delivered. And I have to stop there – as I have many stories about awards and that has to be a tale for another time.

Having seen the avenue without trees and having admired it for its openness, we have been presented with a fabulous design challenge than could not have been predicted – before the rushed total removal of the former tall gums.

I am now not so sure that we need to replace the previous tall gums with new trees to the same height.

Let’s keep that open sky and below it have a grand mix of greenery and colour alongside the new tram tracks.

Lower trees, a mix of shrubs and the inclusion of some open space pocket parks (with appropriate public art) dotted along this new entrance to Canberra could be something attractive.

This green centre, which would become a grand linear park, should be enhanced with new spectacular architectural and landscape designed solutions along both sides of the avenue.

The new buildings should be designed very specifically for the location. That is – this is the bush capital – read what is displayed on those new number plates.

Each new development – each new building – should in itself be a grand architectural achievement – so that the journey along the avenue becomes a trip through early 21st Century aesthetics in architecture and landscape architecture.

I seriously doubt whether the new proposed Northbourne authority will have the design authority to bring this about.

I suspect Chief Minister that you are about to anoint a committee of the usual suspects. Nooooo! Please don’t.

This very special aesthetic challenge for the new Northbourne is going to require a very particular set of non-aligned visionaries; please reject all the usual lobbyists and institutional rent-seekers.

This is not a job for yet another bureaucratic committee. Look down Northbourne to see what they have done so far.

Canberra desperately needs new thinking – new design visions.

We need a small group of very special people with the power to insist that developers build something that will be admired well into the next century and then be defended by the 22nd-century heritage lobby.

We need really good architecture – and innovative landscapes.

Keep that sky – keep the openness – but remember it is the nation’s capital – so make the new buildings and the new green spaces very – very special.

Please Chief Minister, look beyond your usual advisors  – all those usual suspect who are probably being listed for this new authority.

Northbourne Avenue could be great – or else it could be …

What’s Your opinion?


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14 Responses to
Dear Chief Minister – about the architecture of Northbourne
1
planeguy 8:39 am
03 May 17
#

Paul,
Do you have any examples of architecture you would like to see in the area?

2
bringontheevidence 10:56 am
03 May 17
#

I am really keen to know what you consider to be great architecture Paul. Can you provide some examples, either here or in any other city?

3
Holden Caulfield 10:58 am
03 May 17
#

planeguy said :

Paul,
Do you have any examples of architecture you would like to see in the area?

Hear, hear.

All we usually hear from the author, with one or two exceptions, is that everything is rubbish. Nothing is good. Not in my backyard!’

And my kingdom for an editor!

There’s around 30 paragraphs in the OP. I reckon half of them could be deleted, or at the very least replaced with positive commentary on examples of architecture that you do deem worthy of your eyeballs.

The architecture that was worth saving along Northbourne, like many Canberrans, you wanted to knock down.

The point being, design is usually subjective. As much as I hate to say it, the lovely mid-century buildings that are being bulldozed will be replaced by buildings that are, at least, more comfortable to live in with better efficiency and the like. Just like the City Gate apartments you dislike. I’m sure they’re not perfect, but they’re hardly an eyesore.

Perhaps the bigger issue here is the diversity of architecture that will be lost. Instead of having a mixture of buildings built across a number of decades, we’re going to have an avenue lined with buildings all designed and constructed within a decade or so of each other.

4
MonarchRepublic 1:04 pm
03 May 17
#

Really? No one has commented on the evil cyclist who is clearly crossing Northbourne illegally in Paul’s 4th photo? Colour me shocked!

5
dungfungus 1:46 pm
03 May 17
#

I sourced the following comments from an article in Urban Geography magazine. It’s about another place with the exact problem Paul is alluding to. This phenomena is called “pop-up landscapes” so we instantly know we are on track. I have replaced the location with “Northbourne Avenue”:

“Through a qualitative analysis of pop-up landscapes on Northbourne Avenue, this paper examines how entrepreneurial urban actors, such as municipal officials, urban planning agencies, and landscape designers, strategically harness to catalyze investment. While pop-up landscapes have disrupted negative associations with the streetscape, providing a space for people to re-imagine the city and playing an active role as an integrative public space, the paper argues that there are reasons to be sceptical about the long-term goals the pop-up landscapes serve, given the widespread focus on real estate-led development.

KEYWORDS: Redevelopment, pop-up landscape design, tactical urbanism, public–private partnership”

That is just the way that contemporary Canberra is going.

6
MERC600 1:49 pm
03 May 17
#

I must admit I don’t realy worry about what they build along Northbourne. Skyscrapers even. Only that they be hugely popular with equally huge rates, to help out the treasury coffers.

7
thelonius 1:53 pm
03 May 17
#

I agree with the author.

However, this is not a matter of poor design quality for one or more specific BUILDINGS. Rather, it is a more serious – and intractable – problem created by Canberra’s overall urban design.

Canberra’s urban environment is determined by vehicular transport. So we’ve got lots of roads. Big, wide roads. And lots of vehicles moving at high speeds everywhere. Everything is spread out across multiple distributed suburban areas. The automobile enables access to distant suburbs, where we can buy cheap(er) land and houses. Then we can commute by car to work, shopping, and leisure activities.

Once you’ve built your greater metropolitan area around highways and high-speed vehicular access, it’s VERY difficult to change scale, and try to retro-fit the design of the urban environment for smaller. more diverse, mixed business, apartments, with “walkability” and cycling as equal road uses with private and commercial vehicles.

The private and public roads industry becomes a very powerful political force. And any subsequent attempt to provide segregated infrastructure for – say – cyclists – in the form of bicycle lanes – is met with outrage (“Lycra Louts Wage WAR on MOTORISTS”).

Relative to other, larger, older cities, Canberra still has very large blocks of inner-urban land. A lot of these are in the city and along Northbourne.

So – almost inevitably – you’re going to get these massive great multi-story, monolithic office buildings and apartment buildings everywhere.

To change, the government planning functions would have to say:

“No, we don’t want Canberra to be dominated by multi-acre, high-rise, single-purpose office and apartment buildings. And we want to use land for more valuable purposes than parking cars. We want smaller, diverse businesses, and mixed business and medium and high-density residential uses.”

And – given what you’ve got today – that’s never going to happen. At least not for another 20 or more years.

*Cue outrage*

8
pdpd 1:58 pm
03 May 17
#

Here are some constructive suggestions, courtesy of Google Maps…

Idea 1 – https://goo.gl/maps/zC7nCUrpbYE2

This one caters for a wide boulevard with trees, shops and residential all thrown into the mix – tres chic in my humble opinion

Idea 2 – https://goo.gl/maps/EfUPTgrp6Ts

very vibrant, particularly at night. May need a few more windfarms to power it though… Will work nicely with a tram station at a busy intersection.

Idea 3 – https://goo.gl/maps/wybm525Uqq42

This one has it all and is my fave – culture, vibrancy, employment opportunities and a means to diversify the ACT economy. This is Northborne Avenue’s destiny and will put the ACT on the international map. To quote the King, “a-huh-huh”

9
Acton 2:25 pm
03 May 17
#

Well I agree with you Paul. The architecture in Canberra is generally crap and the bland architecture along Northborne Avenue is particularly crap.

Only those who condone or make their living from crap architecture would not take offence at the mediocrity that has been, is and will be foisted upon us.

Every day we see the abomination of Sky Plaza in Woden, with all the appeal of a Formule 1 airport hotel and a prime candidate for the next implosion. Sky Plaza is a monument to Canberra’s architectural profession and a model for all architects lacking in talent, creativity, imagination and aesthetic appreciation.

In Canberra we should have buildings that inspire and amaze. Instead we have a mediocre local architectural profession and an unimaginative building industry that has adopted a cram in as many as possible, build as cheaply as possible approach driven by an ACT bureaucratic policy imperative of urban densification. So we get Sydney uglification and Sky Plaza clones.

Is there an alternative? What is beautiful architecture? It’s creative. It’s original. It’s admirable. Beautiful architecture is something both the architect and the citizen, now and into the future, would be happy to behold. Travel the world and you see beauty in many places.

Beautiful architecture enhances the city’s appearance, efficiently channels the flow of vehicle and pedestrian traffic and features design excellence, parks and grand boulevards.

Google ‘beautiful architecture’ images and there is much to choose from, including this site:
http://www.quertime.com/article/arn-2012-05-30-1-40-stunning-and-beautiful-architecture-photography/

My favourite is Krzwy Dom. I would much prefer to see a row those along both sides of Northborne Avenue, than more “bland boxes of steel, glass and concrete”.

10
thelonius 4:39 pm
03 May 17
#

For all those demanding to see “examples of good architecture” for buildings – what do you think of the examples below?
https://urban.melbourne/planning/2017/05/03/when-box-simply-wont-do-dual-eye-popping-south-melbourne-designs-emerge

11
Acton 5:52 pm
03 May 17
#

MonarchRepublic said :

Really? No one has commented on the evil cyclist who is clearly crossing Northbourne illegally in Paul’s 4th photo? Colour me shocked!

Well spotted.
Crossing a major road against a green traffic light is behaviour so typical of the Canberra cyclist as to merit neither surprise nor condemnation.
There you go

12
planeguy 7:01 pm
03 May 17
#

thelonius said :

For all those demanding to see “examples of good architecture” for buildings – what do you think of the examples below?
https://urban.melbourne/planning/2017/05/03/when-box-simply-wont-do-dual-eye-popping-south-melbourne-designs-emerge

thelonius, I like those. However, I also like a few buildings that have been used as an example by Paul in a previous post (here) as to poor architecture. In particular, I think that Nibu is an innovative facade, as are some other Gibson Judd buildings like Ori. I like the New Acton East Apartments, and whilst I believe that overall the Dickson City Gate Towers are disappointing, I like the one aspect of looking towards them from Antill St. A shot with a telephoto lens at the right time of day could grace an architecture blog (shame about the rest of it).

And that brings me to my next point…

Acton said :

Google ‘beautiful architecture’ images and there is much to choose from, including this site:
http://www.quertime.com/article/arn-2012-05-30-1-40-stunning-and-beautiful-architecture-photography/

My favourite is Krzwy Dom. I would much prefer to see a row those along both sides of Northborne Avenue, than more “bland boxes of steel, glass and concrete”.

Unfortunately, I think your weblink is a good example of good Architectual Photography, not necessarily good architecture. The dramatic angles, lighting and interiors, do not necessarily translate to good street appeal, let alone good urban planning.

That being said, I would love to see more works like Krzwy Dom, or works that would be featured on Dezeen or Archdaily or any other Architecture website. But, I would much rather have a populated strip, with mixed-use spaces of “boring looking” buildings, where residents mingle with shops, eateries and recreation spaces. Where we have space for greenery, and seats, and bikes, and skate paths – and enough people living nearby (in apartments and other medium-high density housing) to make it feel alive.

13
JC 10:45 pm
03 May 17
#

Holden Caulfield said :

planeguy said :

Paul,
Do you have any examples of architecture you would like to see in the area?

Hear, hear.

All we usually hear from the author, with one or two exceptions, is that everything is rubbish. Nothing is good. Not in my backyard!’

And my kingdom for an editor!

There’s around 30 paragraphs in the OP. I reckon half of them could be deleted, or at the very least replaced with positive commentary on examples of architecture that you do deem worthy of your eyeballs.

The architecture that was worth saving along Northbourne, like many Canberrans, you wanted to knock down.

The point being, design is usually subjective. As much as I hate to say it, the lovely mid-century buildings that are being bulldozed will be replaced by buildings that are, at least, more comfortable to live in with better efficiency and the like. Just like the City Gate apartments you dislike. I’m sure they’re not perfect, but they’re hardly an eyesore.

Perhaps the bigger issue here is the diversity of architecture that will be lost. Instead of having a mixture of buildings built across a number of decades, we’re going to have an avenue lined with buildings all designed and constructed within a decade or so of each other.

Too true it is all very subjective and there are many buildings that I personally don’t like that others consider to be gems, or unique examples of changing styles and design ethos.

On northborne there are some pretty plain buildings that’s for sure but eye sore don’t think so. And having lived and grown up in this town northborne to an extent documents the history of the development of Canberra.

14
ffisher 12:00 pm
04 May 17
#

Good architecture, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. For the most part the blandness of Northbourne was hidden by the beautiful trees. Yes, they say they will plant tress back but I’m pretty certain they won’t plant them in the middle hanging over the light rail system so we will forever be exposed to the nothingness of the entry to the city (the Capital City no less!). The “bush capital” without any bush. Country town planning = country town appearance. There is no solution because property developers and big business run the country. Just thankful they haven’t found coal seam gas along Northbourne!

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