Stalinist architecture?

palace of the sovietsPalace of the Soviets by Boras Iofan (1932)

What is it?

Michael Gurr wrote an opinion article in The Age recently condemning the Footscray Station Precinct development by SJB and McBride Charles Ryan as Stalinist. “If the communist bloc still existed, Footscray’s apartment buildings are what their security headquarters would look like. These buildings are big, grey and black… [without] a kind line in them. They seem to refuse human involvement.”

Disturbingly and inexplicably, Gurr widened his attack to encompass the entire architecture profession. Comparing us to owners of vicious attack dogs and methamphetamine dealers, he claimed we’re the bad guys, the real bad guys.

Offended by Gurr’s non-specific vitriol but wishing to remain constructive, we wrote into The Age with a letter of rebuke. The letter was published the next day, its full text reading as follows:

Michael Gurr’s criticism of recently built Footscray apartment buildings is fair and reasonable, relying as it does on his first hand negative experience of their impact. His attack on the entire architecture profession as a result of this one development is both unwarranted and unsubstantiated. On the back of one poorly written novel, would he dismiss every author everywhere?

Architects are not the bad guys Gurr makes us out to be. We believe in humane experiences within the urban environment and work hard to achieve them. We fight against a vast array of interests aligned against this aim, from developers wanting to make a quick dollar, to neighbours crying NIMBY, to builders wanting to build as cheaply as possible, to planning regulations that discourage innovation. On larger projects, we take on the unpopular and improbable role of attempting to reconcile every competing aim presented by these diverse interests, and are in too many cases the only ones at the table interested in a quality outcome that improves the built environment.

I suggest Gurr delve more deeply into the processes behind building developments around Melbourne before he starts throwing stones.

While we are happy to leave Gurr’s personal taste undisputed (despite any credible connection between the pompous monumentality of Stalinist architecture and the activated streets and articulated facades of the Footscray Station Precinct) we could not leave unchallenged his clearly misguided understanding of the procurement processes behind most large scale developments. He pleads for us to sit down at a development meeting and “say something radical such as, ‘Let’s build something friendly. Let’s build something the neighbourhood might like'”. We wish architects had the power to steer large developments with nothing more than a suggestion. The sad truth of our era is that, sitting at the table with the developer, project manager and builder, we often have the smallest voice.

Ultimately, Gurr’s opinion article raises three separate though related concerns: first and foremost, that architects do not unfortunately enjoy the unchallenged authority he attributes to us; second, that such a misinformed, incendiary article defaming our entire profession could have even be published; and third, that the best rebuttal our community could muster was the above short letter.

As already elaborated in a past article here, where was the Australian Institute of Architects on this issue? Why did our representative body once again leave us all to our own devices to defend ourselves?

footscray station precinct aerial

20130127 footscray station precinct streetFootscray Station Precinct by SJB and McBride Charles Ryan

Why your budget is not your brief

Dear potential client,

When you first approach us to design a house for you, before you sign us up, you come armed with two things: a brief and a budget. Your brief might look something like this:


In fact, one of the first things we do when we are commissioned is to help you expand and enhance your brief even further, articulating detail and fleshing out your dream. This includes descriptions of your family, an explanation of how you like to live, an estimate of how much space your house will need, individual room requirements, what feeling you’re hoping to achieve, examples of details you’ve seen and liked, and how long you intend to live in the house. This is a task of thorough research, aimed to extract as much information as possible about your aspirations for the project so that we may best tailor it to your specific needs.

At the same time, we ask for your budget, which might look something like this:

20130111 budget

One number undoubtedly shaped by considerable contemplation, deep assessment of financial circumstances, and much worry over land capitalisation. One number that has a powerfully defining impact on the project yet to evolve. One number that means a lot to you but as yet has nothing at all to do with your brief.

Until we have performed a feasibility study, or obtained a cost estimate from a quantity surveyor, both of which provide an understanding on how much your brief is likely to cost, it and the budget are in no way connected to one another. It is the same as walking into a car dealership and telling the salesperson you want a shiny new car for $500. Unfortunately, wishing it does not necessarily make it so. Anyone who tells you otherwise is not telling you the truth, but what you want to hear.

We used to give potential clients advice in the very first meeting about whether we thought their budget aligned with their brief. We learnt the hard way that when a potential client is told upon first contact that the considerable sum of money they are prepared to spend is insufficient, they go elsewhere. We were vindicated once, when such a client ended up with a fully documented project far beyond her budget and, as it happens, squarely within the range we suggested many months prior. We might have been vindicated but we still didn’t win back the project.

We now practice a more gentle method of financial management, one that lacks none of the honesty of our old approach but adds considerable value to your decision to engage an architect. The idea is simple:

we do not design

Bear with us for a moment while we explain.

As architects, we are more than mere technicians. We are part scientist and part artist, a design professional whose aim is to not just meet your needs, but exceed them. We take your 1,300 word project brief, with all its disparate and sometimes competitive requirements, and distil it into something whole, something unexpected, something that delights.

We use smart design, multifunctional spaces and sensitive retooling of existing rooms to increase the effectiveness of your brief without compromising its aspirations. In other words, we make your house smaller. Our best outcome so far was a 280sqm brief we distilled down to 170sqm. Most telling is the reaction of our clients, whom upon presentation of the resultant design at no point said, Oh, we really wanted something bigger.

Let us elaborate further.

In today’s construction market, architects generally achieve construction costs somewhere between $2,500 and $4,000/sqm. For a 280sqm brief, providing financial advice in our first meeting would have meant telling our clients they needed to spend $700,000 to $1,120,000. Since our clients’ budget was $330,000, this conversation would not have ended well. Instead, after our preliminary design work, we were able to tell our clients they needed to spend $425,000 to $680,000. Still well over budget, but now attached to two important pieces of information:

  1. This range is a realistic reflection of the project cost, no longer an arbitrary figure, so can now be reliably manipulated according to finishing requirements.
  2. Thanks to our design input, the range represents a 40% reduction off the cost of the initial brief.

There still remained a challenging discussion ahead, one that needed to reconcile the $95,000 gap between our clients’ budget and the bottom end of the cost range. However, our clients were now armed with a realistic assessment of costs and the benefits of a design process that had already saved them considerably. Ultimately, the brief was reduced and the budget was expanded to meet somewhere in the middle, the most common solution to this scenario.

Our gentle approach was, and remains, to turn your budget into a realistic project cost only once we’ve successfully reduced your project’s scope but long before you’re financially committed to it.

Sadly, there is an urban myth that architects inflate the cost of building projects. While there is certainly a sticky history of some architects avoiding budget management for fear of losing projects, by and large this is not true. First, we do not set construction prices. The construction industry, driven by supply, demand and ever-increasing labour costs, does. Second, what we do do is act as a messenger, often getting shot simply for communicating to you that your project already cost more than you expected, you just didn’t know it yet.

As our clients, you need to appreciate that wishing your project to cost a certain amount does not make it so. You also need to understand that a flippant, Oh, let’s go ahead and add that third bathroom, does not cost nothing. And as your architects, we need to guide you through the challenging process of aligning your budget and your brief, even if it means delivering unpopular news and risk getting shot.

Yours sincerely,