Walkability squandered

southA typical Carlton North green median strip

We consider ourselves very lucky to live in Carlton North. Walkscore ranks its walkability in the top 20 of Melbourne’s 346 suburbs, awarding it 88 out of 100 total points. The Walkscore summary states that “most errands can be accomplished on foot” while residents “can walk to an average of 7 restaurants, bars and coffess shops within 5 minutes.”

Empirically, we experience excellent access to public transport, bicycle networks, parks, recreation, entertainment, shops and schools. Almost every day to day activity we undertake, including work, shopping, dining, socialising and exercising is accessible within a 5km radius. We truly live a post-car lifestyle: mobility has been replaced with proximity, and the 1.5 hour return trip of the average Melbourne commuter has been replaced by higher productivity and more time with family.

parks mapCarlton North parks map

Parks in Carlton North are represented at a variety of scales:

  • Out our front door is a green median strip, providing immediate access to lawn area. We and our neighbours use it regularly for activities that would otherwise take place in private back gardens. We use it for picnics, playtime, garage sales, yoga and sunbathing.
  • Within a 5 minute walk is Curtain Square, a small, intimate park well designed for families. It incorporates play equipment, basketball courts, shade trees, a gazebo, park benches and lawn areas.
  • Within a 10 minute walk is Princes Park, one of Melbourne’s more significant parks. It has a 3.2km circumference perfect for running, large ovals for sports activities, a bowls club and Visy Park, home of the Carlton Football Club. Ovals and lawn areas are used during the day by nearby Princes Hill Secondary College and during the evening by private sports leagues.
  • Also within a 10 minute walk is the Capital City Trail, a busy walking, running and cycling trail which feeds into the Merri Creek Reserve. For many kilometres in both directions, the trail and creek connect Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs, parks, sporting ovals, golf clubs and Collingwood Children’s Farm.

streets mapCarlton North streets map

Local streets also possess most of the qualities identified by the Grattan Institute in their 2012 report, Social Cities, necessary for social connectedness and personal wellbeing. Author Jane-Frances Kelly encourages readers to think of streets like rooms in a house, with some streets (highways) like corridors: “places for moving through rather than staying”; and others (local streets) like living rooms: “places for sitting and socialising”. The City of Yarra has done well to design the local streets of Carlton North like a connected series of communal living rooms:

  • Strategic road closures and speed limiting devices restrict car access to non-local traffic, while permitting free access to pedestrians and cyclists. Frequent dead-ends, intersections and roundabouts reduce vehicles to non-threatening speeds.
  • A dense housing fabric provides varied and engaging streetscapes, augmented by well-maintained green spaces and street trees.
  • Shallow street setbacks enhance opportunities for interaction with neighbours.
  • Dense commercial fabrics like the Rathdowne Street Village offer a diversity of commercial, civic, health and hospitality uses at a variety of scales, encouraging social activity and communal living. Small businesses are run by local owners whom residents can get to know, “fostering recognition and connection.”
  • Family-centric programmes like schools and childcare centres are embedded into the residential fabric, increasing intra-suburb pedestrian activity and establishing strong connections between children and their local environment.

It is estimated that around 50% of car-based cities like Melbourne are given over to car-related infrastructure, of which streets form a major part. It is a good thing that our local streets are designed to inhibit vehicular activity and promote pedestrian activity, as all that land area not only facilitates mobility, but also significantly contributes to residents’ safety, health and sense of community. The Social Cities report makes reference to Donald Appleyard’s pioneering work on streets, where he showed that residents in “a street with light traffic flow had three times more friends living in the street than residents on a street with heavy traffic flow”.

It should come as no surprise to us then that we are on good terms with a number of our immediate neighbours. Nor should it be a surprise that many of the owners of the shops and cafes along Rathdowne Street know us by face, name and order. We attend playgroups at the local library, Italian classes in a nearby church, have our clothes drycleaned at the local milkbar and buy our bread from the local bakeries – all activities we undertake on foot.

Whether by coincidence or mutual recognition of the qualities outlined above, there are also six households of family and close friends living within a 10 minute walk of our house, four of which are actually on the same street. The residents of one of these households are in fact the inspiration for this article, but not because they embody the attitudes of a healthy, social city. Rather, they embody the opposite: when they visit our house, or go out for dinner on Rathdowne Street, both journeys of less than 1km, they do not walk, they do not cycle, they drive.

Why, in the name of all things good and true, do they drive?

It might be suggested that for busy professionals, working long days and enduring further hours of commuting each week, time has been transformed into a scarce commodity. When a lawyer charges out her time during the week in 6 minute intervals, or a banker works a 70 hour week, it could even be considered natural that the precious little time left must be treasured, streamlined and maximised. Why should they waste the 10 minutes it takes to walk to our house, when they can instead drive and take only 3 minutes?

Simon Knott from The Architects on Triple R recently discussed a study related to the State Government’s new planning reforms, part of whose agenda it is to encourage the 20 minute city. Providing opposition to Matthew Guy’s rhetoric surrounding the reforms, who believes that disseminated workplaces will establish a localised workforce and shorter commutes, the study discovered the remarkable truth that for journeys of less than 1km, 50% of Melburnians will still opt to drive. In other words, there is such an engrained reliance on the car, it supplants even walkable journeys. Our friends, despite living in one of Melbourne’s most walkable cities, provide us with firsthand proof of this distressing statistic.

What can we do?

We would very much like to confiscate the keys to our friends’ car each weekend, though we suspect this will not make much difference to the broader attitudes of most Melburnians.

Dreaming as large as we possibly can, we would love to see a major paradigm shift in the infrastructure investment practices of our State and Federal Governments. As mentioned only last week, it is long past time for investment in roads to be replaced with investment in public transport. Every call for a new or wider road makes us shake our heads in dismay. The Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics has estimated that congestion costs Australian $9.4b annually: when will the decision makers learn that building more roads does not reduce congestion, it increases the number of cars on the road?

At the grass roots level too, there are ever more opportunities for positive engagement in our streets that will enhance their pedestrian-friendliness and living room qualities:

  • Since 2005, San Francisco design firm Rebar has been running PARK(ing) Day, “an annual open-source global event where citizens, artists and activists collaborate to temporarily transform metered parking spaces into temporary public places.” Sydney is running their second PARK(ing) Day event this year, though Melbourne has yet to take up the mantle.
  • Renew Newcastle is a not-for-profit organisation established in 2012 “to find short and medium term uses for buildings in Newcastle’s CBD that are currently vacant, disused, or awaiting redevelopment.” So successful has this organisation been that it has now been expanded into a national initiative.
  • The Social Cities report outlines a raft of further ideas for social connection in cities, including the installation of more interactive equipment in under-utilised parks; the commissioning of public and community art; the promotion of active and mixed-use streetscapes; community gardens; sharing household resources; and the proliferation of hyper-local websites.

For our part, we will continue to enjoy our walkable suburb and try, weekend after weekend, to encourage our friends to leave their car at home.


What’s in a name?

freedom of information
Farrah Tomazin, The Age, p. 13, 18th November 2012

architect \ˈär-kə-ˌtekt\
1) a person who designs buildings and advises in their construction
2) a person who designs and guides a plan or undertaking

In Australia, there are many who claim ownership of the name, architect, but who among them truly deserve it?

First of the aspirants are the professionals: those who adhere to the registration requirements of the Architects Act. To become registered, and gain the legal right to use the name, one must first graduate from an approved architecture school, then gain experience under another architect, and finally pass a series of registration exams. This is the group most commonly understood to uphold the first dictionary definition of the name.

However, even within this group of some 11,000 registered architects, there is limited homogeneity. There are many who are little more than technicians: CAD architects whose experience of building goes no further than the edges of their computer screens. There are those whose expertise lies in sketch design but have never had to devise a waterproofing detail; or those who live day in and day out on site, but have no interest in design. This group is unified by their education and the titles on their business cards, but little else.

Second are the architect wannabes: building designers, design and construct practitioners, and draftspeople all clamouring at the door of the professionals’ shaky stronghold. They are individuals commissioned in similar ways to the architect, in the design (if in only a limited way) of buildings, but they have not survived the many years of study and apprenticeship required of formal registration.

Third and further afield are the curiously un-litigated misuses of the name: the interior architect is somewhat allied to the ambit of the architect, but is nothing more than a sly semantic evolution from the interior designer. Entirely unrelated are the systems architect, enterprise architect, data architect, solutions architect and software architect, new professions that owe allegiance to the second dictionary definition, but have no role whatsoever in the design and construction of buildings.

Finally, there are the journalistic uses of the name: the architect might be responsible for an Act of parliament, a new computer design or a war. The applications vary, however they share the same sinister tone, the architect being synonymous with inventor or mastermind.

beyond the fall of night
Arthur C. Clarke and Gregory Benford, Beyond the Fall of Night, p. 307

What defines an architect?

The key to understanding the architect is to understand her unique world view, one whose seeds are planted at university and continue to grow as she travels and works. Hers is a paradigm that believes in the power of good design to affect positive change. It is the rare merging of ideas and craft, the mental and physical realms coexisting and enhancing one another. It is both science and art, the functional and philosophical shaping of lives and activities. It enables the architect to see the bigger picture of every decision, places the importance of the built and natural environments above other concerns.

The architect is not only invested in her current project, she is invested in all projects, in whole cities and countries. Hers is an occupation that requires visionary acts to write the built future not yet written. She is passionate about that future, fights to protect it when others are incapable of glimpsing it. She is a true tightrope walker: thinker and maker; scientist and artist; historian and prophet.

It is not sufficient to define an architect therefore as a person registered with the appropriate authority. We have known plenty who are architects from 9am to 5pm only. During evenings, weekends and holidays, they switch off. For them, architecture is merely a job, a means to an ends like any other. The registration process in Australia establishes a minimum requirement but not a maximum: it is a measure of one’s ability to survive the obstacle course of contemporary regulation but not of one’s capacity for design.

Likewise, it is not sufficient to define an architect as a person who designs buildings and advises in their construction. A building designer can be said to do this, but there is a significant gulf between her and the architect. By dint of personality or experience she might gain the architect’s world view, in which case we may very well refer to her as an architect in all but name, but she does not develop it a priori. She lacks the values transmitted osmotically during a tertiary education: the personal and unequivocal investment in the built environment.

Lastly, it is not sufficient to define an architect as the designer of a plan or undertaking. The IT industry cannot simply attach the name to its collective chest like a shiny name tag at a high school reunion. The systems architect might have many responsibilities resonant of the architect’s, but she has no expertise in the making of buildings, no interest in the built environment. Perhaps the distinction between real and digital environments is growing ever more blurry, but the latter has yet to evolve an appreciation of craft: effort spent by skilled trades in the making of things with their hands. The architect knows this effort and is rewarded by it.

mechanical computers
MX, p.10, 25th July 2007

What do we think?

We think the architect is many things:

The architect is a problem solver. Presented with a loosely assembled host of questions (of site, client, budget, climate, urbanism, regulation), she uncovers unlikely and singular answers. She juggles structure, materials and finishes, and the construction industry that employs them. She is logical, a lover of hierarchy, sequence and proportion. She is committed to the slow experimentation of architecture, constantly revising and improving ideas and details.

The architect is a creative thinker. She is able to see far outside the box and anticipate uses and programmatic arrangements otherwise unthinkable. She presents outcomes that not only meet expectations but exceed them. She ensures her projects are flexible, adaptable and resilient, built not only for her clients but for future generations as yet unborn.

The architect is a craftswoman. She cultivates both the brilliance of her broad design strategies and the technique of her detailing, following Robin Boyd‘s command to imbue her work with her clients’ spirit and ideals. She understands the work of the carpenter, mason and joiner. She manipulates tonnes of concrete with the same ease and confidence an artists manipulates tubes of paint.

The architect is a scholar. She respects the history of her profession, the many centuries of thought that precede her. She understands the city, produces architecture that is not aloof but part of it. She cherishes the built fabric that pre-exists her projects, the stories it tells and values it represents, preserving it without mimicking or pandering to it. She conserves both its embodied energy and its meaning.

The architect is a leader. She drives projects through the minefield of regulatory authority, user group discord, allied professions, budget cuts and environmental sustainability. She inspires both her peers and younger generations, resisting all setbacks in the endless pursuit of greatness. She belongs to her community and listens to their needs, but she is also apart from them, entrusted to fashion buildings that delight and uplift them.

The architect is a teacher. She recognises her role in the ongoing pedagogy of architectural education, shaping young minds in the way hers once was. She applies the insights of her practice to her students and draws inspiration from their enthusiasm. She imparts lessons on design specifically and life generally, knowledge mingled freely with wisdom.

The architect is a businessperson. She manages staff, deadlines and resources. She knows her way around profit and loss statements, time management software and accounting packages. She understands both cashflow and the long play, accepts commissions that provide the former while simultaneously paving the way for the latter.

The architect is a politician. She faces down vested interests, massages egos and navigates the shifting terrain of project procurement. She is an orator, comfortable in front of an audience of angry neighbours or skeptical engineers. She floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.

The architect is a polyglot. She speaks the languages of client, cost estimator, planner, neighbour, engineer, builder and plumber. She shapes and reshapes the dialogue of her project to appeal to their diverse agendas, so they may not only understand it but share in its ownership. She weaves together ideas, aspirations, patterns and relationships: she is a story-teller.

architects of warDavid Jackson, The Age, p. 13, 16th December 2004

What can we learn?

Late last year, someone somewhere in the world asked Google whether it is boring to work as an architect, and for unknown reasons this anonymous person arrived at our blog. We don’t know what it was she was seeking, nor whether she found it here. But our answer should she ever return is: no, never. The architect is many things, but never boring. She is forever on her toes, steps with ease from design studio, to construction site, from engineering workshop to council chambers.

Perhaps the architect should recognise the compliment inherent in the journalistic uses of her name. In ascribing the grand plan to the architect, the journalist invokes the mystique that still clings to her, inferring both deep intellect and prescience. The architect is a jack of all trades, the last of the Renaissance women. She has the appropriate education and accreditation and is involved in the making of buildings. But she is also, to paraphrase Gregg Pasquarelli, a custodian of the built environment. She is charged with care for our buildings and cities, forever crafting her contemporary architecture to better enable her vision of the future.

Vote Flinders Street: conclusion

herzog + de meuron federation square

herzog + de meuron evening rooftop

herzog + de meuron platforms

herzog + de meuron gallery

herzog + de meuron across the river

herzog + de meuron amphitheatre
Winning proposal by Herzog & de Meuron + HASSELL

What is it?

After two years, 117 Stage 1 submissions from around the world, 1 unauthorised exhibition, exhaustive work from 6 architectural teams on Stage 2 submissions, jury deliberation, extensive media coverage and two weeks of public voting, the results for the Flinders Street Station design competition are finally in.

By unanimous jury vote, the competition winner and recipient of $500,000 prize money is the Swiss / Australian team, Herzog & de Meuron + HASSELL. The jury praised their proposal “for its respect for the heritage of the Administration Building while creating new and memorable additions to the station.” We hope the competition organisers will release further jury commentary soon.

Winning the people’s choice award and all four judging criteria is the team of Columbian students from the University of Melbourne: Eduardo Velasquez, Manuel Pineda and Santiago Medina. The public was taken by the proposal’s generous green roof and, we suspect, its designers’ underdog status.

Curiously, the jury did not award individual second and third prizes, instead rewarding all five of the non-winning shortlisted entries as equal runners up.

velasquez pineda medina festival

velasquez pineda medina aerial

velasquez pineda medina parkland

velasquez pineda medina platforms
Winner of the people’s choice award by Eduardo Velasquez, Manuel Pineda and Santiago Medina

What do we think?

We have already dedicated significant pixel space to discussion of both the Herzog & de Meuron’s + HASSELL proposal and Velasquez, Pineda and Medina‘s. As indicated, we voted the former in second place, so are more than pleased it has won the jury’s vote. We voted the latter in fourth place behind very strong competition, commending its generous parkland but criticising its unconvincing heritage treatment and under-ambitious programme. We are certain that over coming years they will be architects to watch: again, we are pleased it has won the popular vote.

Most perplexing, even suspicious, is the jury’s decision to award equal second place to the five runners up. We feel it demonstrates either an acute lack of self-confidence or inappropriate political intervention. To our minds, the Zaha Hadid + BVN Donovan Hill proposal is clearly inferior to all other five. That it can be awarded to the same extent as the compelling NH Architecture and John Wardle Architects + Grimshaw proposals is offensive.

Dennis Napthine, Premier of Victoria, has stated that the winning proposal is likely to cost between $1b and $1.5b to build. It is certainly a hefty capital investment and one commonly understood will never be made. This is a great pity and, we suppose, a reflection of this State’s 40 year public transport investment drought. Looking at the broader implications of this competition, it is a small leap for us to dream of a world where the East-West road tunnel is de-prioritised in favour of the Melbourne Metro, Doncaster rail line, Melbourne to Brisbane high speed rail project and, of course, the Flinders Street Station upgrade.

Comments following the announcement of the winner in The Age are disturbing but perhaps not surprising. Following in the grand tradition of the Eiffel Tower, Sydney Opera House and Federation Square, there is little love for the winning design. Misunderstandings abound: historical, programmatic, formal and environmental; they’re all there. There is also significant condemnation of the money spent on the competition itself.

Since this argument has been on our minds over recent months, let’s take a quick mathematical look at it:

Prize money = $1,000,000
Competition organisation = ~ $2,000,000
Total competition cost = ~ $3,000,000

Number of Stage 1 entrants = 117
Average time spent on each Stage 1 entry = 400 hours
Number of Stage 2 shortlisted entrants = 6
Average time spent on each Stage 2 entry = 3,000 hours
Total time spent by all entrants = 64,800 hours
Average value of architects’ time = $180 / hour
Total value of architects’ time = $11,664,000

Our only response to those who believe the State Government has squandered the competition money in vain is this: they have never before spent so little to receive so much. If they and their federal counterparts could receive $4 value for every $1 they spend in every other area of their operations, we would truly be the luckiest country in the world.