Density and the Suburbs

What was it?

A seminar organised by Justine Clark on behalf of the Australian Institute of Architects recently that discussed Melbourne’s suburbs and its disconcertedly low housing density. Rather than propose specific solutions, it sought to broadly articulate the scope of the issue and how our understanding of it might help us chart a course towards a more sustainable suburban environment.

Chaired by Professor Paul Walker, the impressive panel was populated by three individuals with significant experience in urban planning and policy: Brendan Gleeson is a Professor of Urban Policy Studies at the University of Melbourne, Emma Appleton is the Director of the recently formed Design Review Panel at the Office of the Victorian Government Architect and Damien O’Kearney is Strategic Development Facilitator at the City of Frankston.

Presentations from the panellists covered interesting territory: Gleeson’s was the most general, touching on concepts and broader issues; Appleton drew on her experience with CABE in the United Kingdom to contrast our local condition against international equivalents; while O’Kearney focussed in great detail on the current urban planning paradigm within the City of Frankston.

From these, we drew a series of concise messages:

  • Gleeson: According to energy and water profiles, low-end high-rise residential developments have the worst environmental performance of all building typologies.
  • Gleeson: According to post-occupancy surveys, low-rise medium-density residential developments perform the best of all building typologies.
  • Appleton: According to a detailed survey conducted in the UK, 86% of the housing stock that falls within +/- 20% of the average house price meet so few performance standards they should not have received planning approval.
  • Appleton: Despite the climatic, cultural, lifestyle and construction differences between Australia and the UK, suburban growth areas in both countries are indistinguishable.
  • Appleton: While homeowners in the UK collectively dream of owning a large, detached house on its own land close to the city, most are prepared to entertain apartment living as long as they have access to good parkland nearby.
  • Appleton: 42% of all multi-residential development proposals in Victoria go before the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
  • O’Kearney: 45% of Frankston households earn less than $1,000 a week.
  • O’Kearney: Frankston South has a median house price of $520,000 while Frankston North has a median house price of $280,000. Neither condition is sufficiently expensive to justify densification via apartment developments, which typically sell in excess of $500,000.

As well as more involved insights:

  • The transition from Melbourne’s current low-density sprawl to a higher-density fabric needs to take social equity into account. This applies to achieving good design outcomes for lower income families as well as protecting collective lifestyle values from the potential pitfalls of blanket high-density development.
  • Revitalising a stagnant suburb requires both grand, top-down vision as well as grassroots exemplars. O’Kearney noted that the Seaford Lifesaving Club by Robert Simeoni and Keast Park Community Pavilion by Jackson Clements Burrows are both small projects whose good design are inspiring unexpected interest in architectural design within local communities.

Seaford Lifesaving Club, Robert Simeoni

Keast Park Community Pavilion, Jackson Clements Burrows

  • NIMBYism is not the source of development stagnation but a symptom of poor underlying education in urban design and the functions of a liveable city. Even one member of the audience came curiously close to suffering from this ailment, railing against the inappropriateness of high-rise development.
  • Most residents support higher density development in their suburbs as long as it’s good quality and in keeping with the existing context. We do question this insight: surely increasing density and keeping with the existing (lower density) context are a priori incompatible concepts?
  • A cooperative development model has worked well in other countries, and could be employed with success here. It involves the pooling of neighbouring land parcels owned by separate individuals into a larger lot with the potential to achieve more significant, high quality design outcomes.

What did we think?

The content of the presentations was fascinating, and subsequent conversation engaging. They raised palpable issues very relevant to architectural practice and contemporary Australian culture.

Though we expressed a profound lack of faith in the abilities of the current political and planning systems to intelligently handle the much-needed transition towards a more compact city, we left Density and the Suburbs feeling uplifted and certainly more hopeful than when we arrived.

Indeed, we hope to organise a follow up session, operating as a workshop rather than within the presentation format. With a suitably open-minded client (O’Kearney would be perfect), productive curator and constructive workshop group, we can see real benefit coming out of such an event. Architects constantly bemoan Melbourne’s vast, untouched suburban fringe. We ask: why does the State Government continue to release new fringe land? Why do developers continue to design and build such poor-quality surburbs? And why oh why do people continue to purchase the resultant houses?

It’s about time we contributed more meaningfully to this issue.

Spam comments

What are they?

3,540 unrequested, irrelevant and nonsensical comments that have arrived at Panfilocastaldi in the 22 months of its existence. We received the following example earlier today and could not bear to delete it without sharing its utter absurdity with the world. The words are (mostly) English, yet strung together they barely even conform to the basic grammatical rules of the language:

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Dolphin slaughter in Taiji

Driving a pod to slaughter

What is it?

Taiji is a small town in Wakayama Prefecture, Japan, inconsequential except for its notoriety as the site of the regular and highly controversial slaughter of large numbers of dolphins. Endorsed by the Japanese government, details of the slaughter are systematically concealed by local authorities, so much so that the producers of 2009 documentary, The Cove, were forced to use guerrilla techniques to get cameras close to the slaughter site. Taiji continues to be the focus of international activist groups, Save Japan Dolphins and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, who hope to end the slaughter as well as the international trade in aquarium dolphins that fuels it.

Taiji first came to our attention when we saw The Cove in the 2010 Milano Film Festival, so it was with surprise that we immediately recognised the infamous site as the subject of a recent exhibition at Obscura Gallery by Melbourne photographer, Georgia Laughton. We attended the exhibition opening as guests of Samantha Cuffe, a talented glass artist we have discussed previously here.

We conducted the following interview with Georgia over recent weeks, gaining insight into her thoughts, experiences and ambitions for her work.

Thanks for agreeing to the interview, Georgia. Can you start by explaining what lead you to becoming involved with documenting the dolphin slaughter in Taiji?

Ever since I can remember I have been concerned about the state of the planet, and especially the state of the ocean. I became interested in animal rights when I was shown my first copy of a magazine by Animal Liberation at the age of 14, so the path that led me to be in Taiji is easy for me to track. I had been an on-shore volunteer with Sea Shepherd Conservation Society since 2008. At the time I went to Japan I was volunteering and working as the Melbourne volunteer coordinator, so was very aware of what was happening in Taiji (and many other parts of the world) every year.

The decision to actually go over to Taiji was made very quickly one day in November 2010. I was reading the daily update over what was happening there, and a pod of pilot whales had been slaughtered that day. About 4 of them had been killed. That slaughter just got to me, and I decided I wanted to go over to document and photograph it myself in order to help spread awareness over the issue.

Why did you select the photos included in the exhibition? What attracted you to document those in particular?

The images were selected to form a collection which tells the story of both events which happen to the dolphins in Taiji – and which I saw – dolphins being captured for a life in captivity and dolphins being driven into the cove to be slaughtered. I wanted to document both captivity and slaughter, rather than just focus on one or the other, as both industries are linked.

What about access? Some of the photos appear to have been shot under the cover of foliage. Were you able to take all the photos you wanted?

Access was difficult – obviously the fishermen wish to keep their actions hidden as much as possible, so they try to cover up all they can with tarps. This did make obtaining some of the images difficult – it was possible to shoot down into the Cove for some, however it was difficult to get past the foliage and to pass barriers. Areas are blocked off with Do Not Tresspass signs on the barriers (written in both English and Japanese).

Dragging a dolphin

The one image of the dolphin being dragged in alive by its rostuem was taken when I was hiding on top of the cliff top – hiding from the fishermen who comb through the area to try and make sure clear images of their actions cannot be taken. A few minutes after that image was taken the police did come along and asked me to move – a request I happily obeyed.

Were there others you wished you could have captured but couldn’t?

There were images which I wanted to take which just weren’t possible. It was not possible to photograph the Fishery Union Building where they process the dolphin meat and where, each morning, the fishermen huddle around a fire and cook and eat dolphin. Due to the tarps, it was not possible to photograph the slaughter either. I could hear it happening, I could see the blood coming out in the water, however I could not see the actions.

Do the gruesome images of the method of slaughter need to be photographed? Would it add to the series of the images? I don’t know. Part of me likes the fact I do not have the horrific images of extreme cruelty.

I also had the conflict of photographing the Whale Museum, where many dolphins are kept in captivity. I did not wish for any of my money to go and support this business nor did I wish to add to their attendence numbers. This did mean I do not have any photographs of how the dolphins live their life in captivity, apart from when they are in their sea pens being trained.

Dolphin base

One particular image I do wish I had captured was the day prior to my departure from Taiji. It was the end of the slaughter season and the fishermen had been busy cleaning down the slaughterhouse and taking down all the tarps and nets. As the final boat of fishermen sailed past, they bowed to us – an image I will always kick myself for not having my camera out!

We felt upon viewing the exhibition that it would have benefited from insight into the slaughter’s broader political / economic context. Have you considered juxtaposing your photos of Taiji against others of dolphin aquariums around the world, or even Japanese supermarkets that sell dolphin meat?

Yes, I did think about showing images of the meat, and whilst I would love to have photographed the fishermen’s fire barrel over which they cook dolphin in the mornings, I made the decision not to include the images I had of the dolphin meat all packaged up into little bags for sale in the nearby towns. I wanted to focus on the events of the capture, the slaughter and how they actually happen. I wanted the viewer to be taken through the slaughter only up to the point the bodies are taken out of the Cove and covered up by tarps, with fishermen sitting upon them.

The only image I wanted after this is the final one, at night, where a light is kept on to illuminate the killing Cove while the rest of the area sits in darkness.

Killing Cove at Night

What do you hope your exhibition will achieve?

I am mainly hoping to raise awareness of the issue and hopefully spark some new thinking. There are so many issues of animal cruelty and others facing our oceans. It would be wonderful if a small seed has been planted into peoples’ minds which might make them look further into some of these issues and hopefully change their actions (a small change for the better is better than no change at all) and help support some of the many organisations which are working to fix some of these problems. I hope that if faced with the choice between going to a dolphinarium or not, that people who have seen the exhibition and remember the images will choose not to contribute any money towards maintaining the captivity industry.

And what do you think it will take for Japan to cease harvesting dolphins?

Sadly, in my opinion I think it will take a lot for Japan to stop harvesting dolphins. It has been proven that dolphin meat is highly toxic – to me the most basic of facts which should shut down the slaughter – yet the Japanese public is largely ignorant of the relevant health issues. The dolphin slaughter is hidden from them, yet in order for it to stop they need to get behind the urge for change. I think there also needs to be a world-wide ban on dolphins living in captivity. If no dolphins are being sold for captivity, where the bulk of income comes from, then the slaughter will also cease.

Many organisations are working in various ways towards ending the slaughter and I would like to believe it will come to an end. The excuse of tradition is often used as a reason for it to continue, but if we look back in history, we see the end of many cruel traditions. It is simply not a tradition that makes sense in modern times.

After the slaughter

So what next? Do you have further plans to visit Taiji or other sites of animal cruelty around the world?

I would like to venture back to Japan at some time in the future, however for now I wish to focus on animal cruelty which is happening here in Australia. Unfortunately there are many different areas of abuse of animals and the oceans happening here, from the unregulated kangaroo meat industry to the gas hub in the Kimberley.

Thanks for the insight, Georgia, and all the best with future projects.


Both the documentary, The Cove, and Laughton’s exhibition have left an impression on us. Understanding the context of the dolphin industry, and what happens in the hidden shadows to introduce dolphins into captivity, have forever poisoned dolphinariums for us. In captivity, dolphins are often kept in small, barren tanks. In the wild, dolphins will swim up to 100km in a day, the only place our children will ever see them.

Sublimely utilitarian: Kitchenaid stand mixer

The objective:

This is the fifth in a series of posts showcasing the sublimely utilitarian. To qualify, a product must understand and address its purpose perfectly, must comprise nothing that isn’t essential. But it must also go beyond the expected – it must suprise, pleasure and delight. It must respond to this great saying: “Only do something if it is necessary, but if it is necessary, do it beautifully.”

The product:

Kitchenaid stand mixer.

Its qualifications:

  1. The mixer has extraordinary durability, lasting decades without servicing.
  2. There is only one switch to control both power and speed – simplicity at its most elegant.
  3. The tilt-up head is neatly synchronised with the shape of the bowl, when down poised precisely millimetres over its base, when up providing access to its contents while ensuring no drips beyond its rim.
  4. Like any modern classic, its design has retained its integrity through the years. Our unit is exactly the same as our parents’.

Our verdict:

The form of the Kitchenaid mixer maintains a perfect balance between simplicity – each part is precisely shaped for its purpose – and sculptural expression – the unique silhouette is instantly recognisable, much copied but never equalled. It is solid, close to indestructible, and a pleasure to use.

Good design knows no boundaries

The process of writing How to steal like an architect last year, a series of 10 articles based on Austin Kleon’s How to steal like an artist, made me consider other lessons learned over the years. What further lessons would I teach my younger self, given the opportunity?

20. Good design knows no boundaries

An article in The Age earlier this year gave insight into the principles of Aesop owner, Dennis Paphitis. His creative vision for the excellent Aesop brand is so dogmatic it extends to all aspects of its operation: the product, the packaging, the inspirational quotes on the office and outlet walls, even the colours in the marketing department’s reports.

At first glance, this has the ring of the obsessive compulsive about it. But upon closer inspection, it reveals a powerful commitment to design. It reveals the attitude that good design starts with the biggest gestures and finishes with the tiniest details. Good design happens most easily in an environment that encourages it.

This is all the more important for the architect. Unlike the painter who works directly with his canvas, and the musician who works directly with his instrument, the architect works only indirectly with his materials. Concrete, timber, glass and steel are the domain of the builder: paper and pens are the domain of the architect. So why not make your drawings works of art? Frank Lloyd Wright did. Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony did.

Good design starts at the centre of your architectural world: your studio. From there, it extends to all things. There is nothing that can’t be designed well.

A house can be designed well, as can a car. A light fitting can be designed well, as can a chair. A computer can be designed well, as can an oil and vinegar jug. There is no part of the human experience that is unworthy of good design. Even the most utilitarian of devices, the most mundane of tools can benefit from it. The design need not be expensive, nor complex, nor fancy. In fact, for the majority of the objects we use these qualities are the opposite of what we really need.

I shake my head when I see toilet paper perfumed and coloured and quilted and printed. Why does toilet paper, surely the most quotidian of all artefacts, attract such rubbish? What it really needs is good design, simple and honest.

Take a leaf from the book of Charles Rennie MacKintosh, the Scottish architect who pioneered the design of furniture and lighting in his buildings. The preparedness to consider every element of a project as an opportunity for good design will not only extend the vision of your architecture into its contents, but will improve the architecture itself.

Good design knows no boundaries.


Sting like a bee

The process of writing How to steal like an architect last year, a series of 10 articles based on Austin Kleon’s How to steal like an artist, made me consider other lessons learned over the years. What further lessons would I teach my younger self, given the opportunity?

19. Sting like a bee

The design of great buildings, of any building, is not an easy road. You need to fight for your ideas and your designs, fight for them through every hurdle. There is no guarantee that your clients, or the allied professionals and tradespeople with whom you will work on every project, will share your vision. Be it unwittingly or otherwise, they will make decisions that compromise your work and leave you with one of two choices: you can choose to float like a butterfly and fold the compromise into your design, or you can choose to sting like a bee and fight for its purity.

Floating like a butterfly is easy to do, expedient. Stinging like a bee may be the difficult choice, but it is the right one.

You will need to stick to your guns at every stage, survive opportunity after opportunity for your project to be compromised. Learn how to reshape your singular vision to fit the paradigm of the person you are trying to convince. Learn how to speak the languages of the town planner, the builder, the engineer and the client – all have a unique set of priorities, a unique way of viewing the world. If you can speak to them in their own language they might just come to believe in your vision and, hopefully, protect it as much as you do.

Frank Lloyd Wright was a charismatic master of this. S. C. Johnson said this of his experience working with Wright on the Johnson Wax building: “At the start of the project, Wright was working for me. In the middle, we were working together. By the end, I was working for him.”

Sting like a bee.

Learn from your body

The process of writing How to steal like an architect last year, a series of 10 articles based on Austin Kleon’s How to steal like an artist, made me consider other lessons learned over the years. What further lessons would I teach my younger self, given the opportunity?

18. Learn from your body

Your body can teach you many things about architecture.

Sitting in your studio, it can teach you about dimensions, the appropriate heights of desks and benches, the depths of cupboards, the widths of chairs. It can teach you about size and proportion, about the distances between things, how hard it is to reach a high shelf, the spaciousness of a room. Carry a scale ruler and a tape measure with you at all times. You will find yourself referring regularly to them both, to measure both your drawings and your surrounds.

Outside your studio, your body continues to teach. Two activities in particular impart fundamental lessons.

Rock climbing teaches you about triangulation, efficiency and balance. Hanging from the face of a wall by your fingertips and toes, the tensions running through your limbs and core tell you precisely what you need to do to keep from swinging out like an opening door. Climbing elegantly, with minimum effort easily concealed, is to climb efficiently: to place your foot in this place at that angle; to push off at this speed to that height. There are yet deeper lessons here, about the purpose of structure, the beauty in efficiency, the ancient appreciation of poise and balance.

The uncommonly vertical movement of rock climbing, and the extreme effort required of parts of your body not used to the exertion, reveal insights readily overlooked.

Running teaches you about endurance, patience and the long haul. Setting out for a 20km run, you must fight two simultaneous but opposing urges: first, the temptation to run as fast as you can. Instead of expending all your energy too quickly, you must pace yourself, building into the run with increasing speed and planning the use of your body’s resources with the distant finish line in mind. Second, you must resist the (far more powerful) temptation to stop. Running hurts, a deep, low burn that spreads uniformly through the body, occasionally concentrating itself sharply in this joint or that muscle. You must overcome the reflex need to protect yourself and avoid pain, instead pushing onwards with the higher-cortex knowledge that you are improving yourself.

Architecture is not a sprint, it is a marathon. Like running, it must be endured. Like running, it has its steep hills and head-winds, its easy flats and tail-winds. Like running, it requires that you pace yourself for the long haul, understand that the tedious day-by-day minutiae will ultimately be rewarded with the big prize at the finish line: a built project. Like running, architecture takes as much will power as it does inspiration.

Learn from your body.