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Melbourne architecture won't benefit from group thinking

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With less artistic vision in its design, the Melbourne skyline is losing character (Screenshot via YouTube)

The City of Melbourne is forming a panel of experts to take on architectural designs, eschewing the traditional ways of visionary designers, writes Elroy Rosenberg.

MELBOURNE NEEDS to lift its architecture game, so we’re told. Deputy Lord Mayor Nicholas Reece published earlier this week an op-ed in The Age which, with great gusto, elucidated the dire architectural situation in which Melbourne finds itself mired.

Recent reporting into the swathe of highrise developments dotting either side of the Yarra points squarely at endemic poor design: excessive noise, including groaning and creaking; notoriously combustible cladding; and, in Reece’s words, towers which ‘are nothing more than spreadsheets in the sky’.

So far, so good — until we unearth the piece’s double-purpose. Not merely an argumentation, it also plays press release: the City of Melbourne, Reece reveals, is proposing a new Design Excellence Program. The program, a reinforcement of the Central Melbourne Design Guide approved by the CoM in 2019, will include the formation of two bodies — the Melbourne Design Review Panel (MDRP) and the Design Excellence Advisory Committee (DEAC).

The former is a panel of ‘leading’ industry figures that doles out ‘multidisciplinary advice’ on proposed projects; the latter consists instead of a ‘platform for industry, academia, and community to engage in a range of topics’.

The idea isn’t quite so novel as one might think. There is already a Victorian Design Review Panel (VDRP) established by the Office of the Victorian Government Architect (OVGA). It lists 86 architects, urban planners, designers and more as members on its panel. (The Melbourne panel would initially consist of up to 12 members.)

The VDRP began as a three-year trial scheme and was evaluated in 2013 by SGS, an urban public policy consultancy firm. I asked Andrew McDougall, who worked on the VDRP evaluation and is executive director at SGS, how his team of five undertook their almost six months of evaluating. The process, he assured me, was totally independent, although the VDRP, as SGS’s clients, were allowed to read, continuously comment on and provide context for the evaluation as it developed.

SGS was set a series of questions by the VDRP relating to how “efficient and effective” the panel was, and how well it “delivered on its objectives.” This was done in part by interviewing all panellists individually, as well as undertaking specific case studies. In the end, SGS deemed the program “effective.”

So what about the MDRP? “It’s probably a good idea,” McDougall said. “The benefits [of a Review Panel] are fuzzy, but it’s about how you explain them.” McDougall argues that if an MDRP is “designed similarly to the VDRP” then it will be a net benefit for our city.

Dr Philip Goad, Australia’s leading architectural academic and Chair of Architecture at the University of Melbourne, agreed, although with a slight caveat that much depended on the MDRP’s terms of reference and the composition of the panel itself. He also emphasised the need for the CoM to “look at the regulatory environment” in which shoddy highrise buildings were being greenlit.

He directed me to Sydney’s SEPP 65, an apartment design guide that ensures “standards” of design and planning for apartments across the Sydney metro area — a guide which “speculative builders and architects don’t like”.

Yet in light of Reece’s op-ed, one wouldn’t be blamed for suspecting something amiss here, something not quite right. Of course, no one within mere eyeshot of the CBD would dispute the veracity of Reece’s diagnosis. Robin Boyd, Australia’s greatest architect, once described Melbourne’s city plan as “a dressmaker’s floor strewn with snippings of style”.

That was 1960. Boyd would be positively aghast at the coarse mishmash of styles for which our city has since become renowned. So renowned, in fact, that it’s even in the Wikipedia page. But reading his piece, the prospect of yet another review panel couldn’t help but seem, on the face of it, a slight misdirection. I called a friend who had studied architecture at the University of Melbourne to see if my senses were fooling me. “I don’t think so,” he said. “With these sorts of things, you’re always asking: what are they really?”

What are they really, indeed. What is the MDRP really and why is its job to ‘provide independent, multidisciplinary design advice’ to the City of Melbourne, considering that to this journalist’s knowledge, it has no binding authority?

Why would the City of Melbourne claim great concern with aesthetics, with ‘character, style and sophistication’ and with Melbourne losing its appeal when we know that property in the Hoddle Grid is to them worth $40 million every year, at the very least, in sale and rent revenue?

Reverting to the text of the aforementioned Design Excellence Program, which has in some sense provided the aegis for the MDRP, we are explicitly told its mission: ‘to create a culture where design excellence is an obsession.’ Is this really the reasoning behind the MDRP? It may perhaps be a vestige of the fact that building and development remain the great tectonic force of Melbourne, both financially and otherwise.

‘Design excellence’ can thus be construed as a kind of euphemism, referring not to qualitative measures of aesthetic achievement but rather to a standard that serves to perpetuate a demand for more and more “excellent” buildings. The Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMMEU) would be licking its lips at the prospect of our construction boom continuing indefinitely — for “excellent” is never quite excellent enough, is it? After all, Melbourne’s “game” can’t be “lifted” with just one nice-looking building.

Never mind the mayoral complexities at play here — and by mayoral complexities, I mean the indismissable truth that during her election campaign in 2019, Lord Mayor Sally Capp – Reece’s senior – famously supported the redevelopment of Federation Square’s Yarra building into an Apple store. The Yarra building, one of the most unique in Melbourne, houses the Koorie Heritage Trust.

But the proposed redevelopment was worth $100 million to the city and Capp, a former executive director of developer lobbying group The Property Council, tilted towards the money. She won the mayoral election; but the building plans, instantly met with scorn from the court of public opinion, were eventually jettisoned.

Now the CoM is making aesthetic, almost sensory arguments for the establishment of the MDRP. On this point, I am even more certain that the MDRP is ill-begotten. We quite easily forget that architecture, like all art forms, cannot exist on its own; it belongs to a period, a politics and a corresponding aesthetic. And neither can we forget that great architecture, in Melbourne as anywhere else, is a totalising vision, usually of one person, which transcends its period.

The hoary and heralded buildings which make our city special – Shell House, the Majorca Building, Mitchell House, the Nicholas Building, Alkira House, the Manchester Unity Building – are the product of visionaries (Seidler, Norris, Wardrop, Barlow) who exceeded their epochal ‘expectations and processes’.

What we know for certain is that focus-grouped art, which is what Reece’s proposal purports to achieve, never works. It will likely bring a sense of greater unity and consistency to our CBD, as the construction continues unabated for many years.

A friend of mine, Spencer, an urban planning graduate working in Europe, also made this point:

“There’s definitely an Australian Ugliness aspect to this, maybe a committee like this could finally bring a universal and distinctly Australian aesthetic to Melbourne.”

I’m sure it would.

Except one has only to examine contemporary architectural practice to guess where this might lead. There’s the liveability aspect, first of all. Dr Goad expressed a scepticism that the current mode of highrise design, which allows only for the “unhealthy minimum” of liveability within the building’s glossy exterior, will be much reversed by an MDRP. He also acknowledged both the possibility and the danger of the MDRP seeing itself as “surrogate design editors”.

But then there’s also the aesthetic notion, too. Australian buildings seem only to get uglier as we keep putting them up — a recent block of ghastly colour vomit and unending curves, the Springvale Community Hub, won the AIA Award for Public Architecture. A skyline full of that? Hooray for consistency; to hell with taste.

The influence of Boyd’s book, The Australian Ugliness, is as much in the Deputy Lord Mayor’s thinking as it is in mine, or Dr Goad’s, or in Spencer’s. And so let’s refer back to the holy book once more. How do we avoid uglification, Boyd asks himself? Not through changing tastes arbitrarily, he says, but ‘by way of cultivating the quality of ideas in design’.

Yet it seems to me that Boyd is pointing not in the direction of panel-driven art, where genuine attempts at beauty and sophistication are quashed for the averaged-out quotient of “expert” taste. Rather, he’s pointing in the direction of the development of a proper sensibility. If true, it would necessitate a greater focus on architectural education, as opposed to an attempt to retrofit decent design onto fundamentally bad ideas, which is more or less the goal of the MDRP.

If our “game” is to be lifted, we might consider specifying exactly what “game” we want to lift.

Elroy Rosenberg is a writer and louche layabout living in Melbourne.

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