From ugly cities to something better?
Russell Degnan

Gary Sauer-Thompson comments on an op-ed by Guy Rundle in The Age last week on ugly cities, noting that

"I do not think that design/aesthetic arguments will work. Economics rules the city. The city is seen as a machine to make money not a place for people to live"

I am not that cynical. People would like to live in nice buildings, and work in nice buildings. For example, corporations spend a lot of money on lobbies to make good impressions. The question on quality comes down to whether the cost of good design is more than people are willing to pay. Sometimes it will, sometimes it won't.

I blame architects and not the wide-spread use of tilt-slab construction for ugly buildings. As noted in this Paul Graham essay (hat-tip 2 Blowhards), good design is simple (and therefore cheap), but also it is hard, and daring. Architects have been given a great opportunity with such a simple and flexible construction material, and all they are producing are what Rundle called "construction[s] so devoid of feature and style as to make the average Holiday Inn look like the Bilbao Guggenheim.". We should expect better, and tell them so (though I might add that not all new buildings are horrendous sins against nature).

The second part of Rundle's article asks for planning legislation to enforce good design. It is an interesting point. As a rule, planning does not concern itself with aesthetics - an area that is highly controversial in any event. The exception is for heritage listings, which are currently done badly, with an all or nothing approach to preservation.

The hope, for any city, is that it will slowly improve. That each generation's icons and classic forms will remain while their featureless piles and cheap ruins are replaced with something better. We don't need to save everything, merely the best. But we do need to keep improving.

Perhaps we should look to something akin to the Native Vegetation legislation, where each demolition is assessed for its aesthetic and heritage value and given a grade. Any building that would replace it must then achieve a better grade of aesthetic worth before it can be built.

This would hopefully give much greater certainty to developers regarding what they could do, though I doubt the legal brawls would cease. Another positive benefit, would be that highly graded buildings would be cheaper to buy and rent - because they are harder to replace - hopefully also making them cheaper to maintain.

Sterner Matters 1st February, 2005 08:09:59   [#] 


Who's assessing
Who's assessing the aesthetic quality of the buildings? A random sampling of architects? A random sampling of the general public? Prince Charles? The local council? The Planning Minister Labor hack mates (or the Liberals' developer hack mates)?

To take a not-so-random example, how about Storey Hall? I'm sure much of the general public still thinks it's an eyesore. (I'm not convinced it's beautiful, but it's certainly distinctive and originality gets extra marks in my book).
Rob  3rd February, 2005 22:40:09