A new advocacy player

ArchiTeam; Architecture; Logo; Graphic design; Melbourne; Australia
This article is co-published with ArchiTeam.

In July last year, ArchiTeam launched a working group tasked to find ways it might “educate the public about the value of architects through marketing and public outreach”. This endeavour proposes to engage in both marketing and advocacy activities, a canny mix of pragmatism and altruism that I believe has the power to simultaneously promote our profession and protect the built environment.

But before I elaborate, it’s worthwhile asking the question, why?

There are at least a dozen different organisations competing for a slice of the Melbourne architectural advocacy pie, and ArchiTeam is far from the largest, best funded, most widely known or most experienced in the sector. These are pretty compelling reasons not to get involved with the often poor rewards of architectural advocacy. However, they hardly paint a full picture of the importance of this work, nor the role ArchiTeam might have to play.

Pub; Demolition; Rubble; Raman Shaqiri; Stefce Kutlesovski; Developer
The Corkman Pub, illegally demolished by developers Raman Shaqiri and Stefce Kutlesovski.

Why get involved?

As I have discussed previously (herehere and here), the built environment has too many enemies reaping profits from it at any cost for the architecture profession not to have a go at stemming the tide. Increasing housing unaffordability, ever-present developer greed, the emerging effects of climate change, and a conspicuous lack of planning leadership from government are all hacking away at the future legacy of contemporary architectural production.

Confronting these challenges can seem a mountainous task, but as Gregg Pasquarelli has poignantly described, the architecture profession is guardian of the built environment. Our often lonely role in pursuing quality over quantity demands that we enter the fray whenever and however possible.

This means it’s not enough to just produce the built environment, we need to proactively defend it as well. Lawyers have successfully achieved this within the legal system by exploiting case law, an area they know best. Doctors have done it too, setting up referral systems between general practitioners and specialists that support the entire profession. Architects must do the same.

And indeed, there’s no time like the present. In Melbourne, Daniel Andrews is proving to be far more open to engagement than his predecessor, who infamously met with the Australian Institute of Architects only once during his tenure. In Sydney, the proposal to demolish the Sirius Apartments has met with considerable and coordinated public resistance. And in both cities, festival calendars are overflowing with architecture and design events attended by audiences numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

Now might also be the best time to address a rarely voiced truth: it’s not just the built environment that needs help, the architectural profession could do with a hand also. We are losing the fight for Darwinian supremacy, with any number of rival professions beating us at our own game. Have you ever heard of a cheaper version of a lawyer? Of course not.[1] Architects meanwhile must fend off competition from every project manager, building designer, draftsperson and real estate agent thinking they can do it better. If we don’t start protecting our territory with the necessary ferocity, we will soon find ourselves filling a curious yet extinct ecological niche.

So it isn’t really a question of why ArchiTeam should compete for a slice of the advocacy pie, but how.

Advocacy; Logos; Graphic design; Nightingale Housing; Parlour; Pecha Kucha; Open House Melbourne; Robin Boyd Foundation

How to get involved?

Fortunately, there are some shining examples of successful advocacy already at work in Melbourne. They operate at different scales and with different forms of agency, but all share the common goal of promoting architecture and architects. Some have been in action for many years, laying the groundwork for an increasingly design-aware public.

It’s important to distinguish here between public advocacy and government lobbying. The latter is a more procedural endeavour, with all manner of special interest groups clamouring for the same rarefied airspace. There are lots of special interests, but not so many politicians, so lobbying needs to be focussed and internally consistent. As our peak professional body, the Australian Institute of Architects has already assumed this role of government liaison, and should be supported in presenting a unified position to Canberra and Spring Street.

Public advocacy is in many ways the opposite of government lobbying. It is grassroots not topdown, generalised not specialised, conversational not dogmatic, and has room for diversity. The millions of individuals that comprise the general public all have their own interests and passions, and are constantly forming and reforming into tribes searching for chiefs. Want to knit some scarves for trees? There’s a society for that. Can’t get enough parmigiano reggiano? There’s a collective for that too.

So there’s room within the public advocacy domain for ArchiTeam to find its own voice, and its own tribe. To my mind, the organisations that have already carved their own successful niches and are undertaking the best public advocacy work in Melbourne right now are:

  • Melbourne Open House attracts hundreds of thousands of participants each year to its behind-the-scenes tour of the city. It captures the voyeur in everyone, inspiring intense curiosity in buildings and architecture.
  • The Robin Boyd Foundation has allowed a somewhat smaller but perhaps even more passionate audience to discover many of Melbourne’s best private houses. The Spring open day of residential award winners in particular gives a glimpse into the amazing things made possible by working with an architect.
  • Pecha Kucha is a global network of public presentations with architecture at its heart. It’s short, sharp and unpredictable, the diversity of speakers ensuring an equally diverse audience.
  • Nightingale Housing is an alternative housing development model that aims to disrupt the profit-incentivised status quo. Primarily an organisation that builds apartment buildings, it has dramatically altered the conversation around affordable housing within the profession and beyond.
  • Parlour has demonstrated that it is possible to affect positive systemic reform where business as usual is both entrenched and harmful. It has successfully injected gender equity into the centre of design, practice and leadership decision-making.

It’s also worthwhile mentioning the excellent Save Our Sirius campaign in Sydney, which is fighting to retain the brutalist Sirius building on the Sydney Rocks. Tracing its lineage to the Green Bans of the 1970s, this is an incredible example of smart advocacy that utilises a rich mixture of crowdfunding, legal action and public events to further its cause.

These and other examples can act as touchstones by which ArchiTeam shapes its own approach to public outreach. They catalogue the forms of agency already covered, or even saturated, and reveal the mechanisms by which other organisations are getting it right.

Game of Thrones; Small; Dwarf; Powerful

Small but powerful

So how does ArchiTeam fit into this heady cocktail?

Well, first and foremost it is unique in being a Melbourne-centric member organisation for small practice architecture. 80% of its 500 or so member practices are concentrated in Melbourne and rural Victoria, and almost all have fewer than five staff. This is in contrast to the AIA for instance, whose 11,000 + members are spread across every State and Territory, and work within every size and type of architecture practice.

Second, ArchiTeam members are pragmatists, and already positioned at the coalface of public advocacy. Fooi-Ling Khoo, a sole practitioner and director of ArchiTeam, observed to me that “we’re typically the first architects people work with, or even meet, and are often the ones who convince them they need an architect at all.” Crucial advocacy work is done on this one-on-one level, through an extensive collection of invisible and laborious interactions.

In the context of public advocacy work, small and pragmatic may in fact be better. The AIA was noticeably absent from the powerful anti-tollway sentiment that grew up around the Napthine Government’s doomed East-West Link. It was perhaps prevented from taking a strong stance by having to wrangle with the political implications of large practice members who were involved in the project.[2] The much smaller Australian Institute of Landscape Architects faced the same conflict-of-interest dilemma, but felt no qualms in taking a position and advocating loudly for it.

While larger organisations must somehow grapple with the conflicting and regularly mutually exclusive demands of a diverse membership, ArchiTeam is largely homogenous. It represents predominantly small studios, most of whom work on residential projects. These qualities make ArchiTeam more focussed, more nimble, less stymied by governance red tape, and better able to jump on an advocacy opportunity when presented.

Being small should allow ArchiTeam to concentrate on initiatives that resonate across its membership, to craft a singular voice on issues of interest to the general public, and to react rapidly when opportunities erupt from nowhere and evolve quickly. In time, this will allow ArchiTeam to become a public authority on small practice architecture, and contribute meaningfully on issues where small practice has a qualified opinion. This is an important ambition, and one that honours the member interest that sparked ArchiTeam’s decision to engage in advocacy work in the first place.

As a member of ArchiTeam’s advocacy working group, I’m excited to see where the energy of the membership will lead. The working group has now met a number of times over the second half of last year. These preliminary sessions were aimed at working out the why, the how and the what of advocacy, and have arrived at some inspiring conclusions.

I’ll cover my experience of this process in a subsequent post, but will leave you for now with this pertinent observation from Noam Chomsky:

“If you assume there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to a better world.”


Footnotes:

  1. Conveyancers perform a similar role to lawyers on simple property transactions, but there is no confusing them for the real McCoy.
  2. The AIA did release a position paper on the proposal, but avoided wading into the political battle. It instead focussed only on the proposal’s design qualities.

Image sources:

  1. ArchiTeam logo, sourced from ArchiTeam.
  2. Corkman Pub, sourced from Consulado España Melbourne.
  3. Advocacy logos, sourced from Nightingale Housing, Parlour, Pecha Kucha, Open House Melbourne and the Robin Boyd Foundation.
  4. Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister, sourced from HBO.

Streets Without Cars

20140331 drummond street

What is it?

An unsolicited project our architecture practice, Mihaly Slocombe, recently completed. We redesigned a segment of Drummond Street in Carlton North, the street where we live and practice.

The project began with conversations with around two thirds of our neighbours, who helped us understand the cross section of the community for whom we were designing, as well as providing specific project briefing requirements. We published (and continue to maintain) a blog that tracked our research and design activities, and facilitated ongoing feedback to the community. The blog can be viewed here.

Our essential agenda for Streets Without Cars is best summed up by the opening remarks on the project blog:

Around 50% of all developed land in Melbourne is consumed by space for vehicles, most of which is streets.[1] The characteristics of a street, its dimensions, footpaths and traffic volume, all contribute to the wellbeing and happiness of the people who live along it. Drummond Street boasts a generous green median strip, but of its 28m width, 14m is reserved for car traffic and car parking. For the 130m between Curtain and Fenwick Streets, that’s a total of 1,820sqm, or around 15 typical Carlton North terraces. Also consider how little of the time this space is in use: on average, people are either entering, exiting or driving their vehicles for only 14 minutes in every hour.[2] So not only does Drummond Street dedicate a lot of its valuable space to the car, this space is left unused most of the time.

Imagine if there were no cars: no need for car parking or wide moats of asphalt reserved for car traffic. What could we do with the space and how might we foster new ways of living together as a community?

Once we began work on the project, it became clear that while removing all cars was a romantic proposition, it was not viable. We elected instead to explore a shared or living street philosophy. This is an idea that requires a street to be designed for walking first, cycling second and driving third. It slows down bicycle and car traffic; removes the traditionally separate zones for people, bicycles and cars; replaces asphalt with materials typically associated with parks and plazas; and encourages communal engagement between all streets users. We discussed aspects of this idea here.

20140331 aerial day

20140331 aerial night

What did we design?

We have just published our full design proposal to the Streets Without Cars blog, which can be viewed here. An animated flythrough of the project can be viewed on our Vimeo page.

We also presented the project at Volume 22 of the Pecha Kucha Melbourne series earlier this month. The 20 slides x 20 seconds format of Pecha Kucha offered the productive opportunity to distil the project down to its essential aims and qualities. Also relevant was the theme of the event, Members Only. It asked presenters to consider the value of clubs, their members, why and how we gain access, and what we do once we’re in. We titled our presentation, Getting Back into the Players Club.

The visual and spoken content of our presentation was as follows:

20140331 pecha kucha 01
Good evening. I’m Warwick Mihaly, a principal architect of Mihaly Slocombe. Every year we like to work on a speculative project that engages in questions of urban design. I’m going to present our 2014 project to you tonight via my presentation, Getting Back into The Players Club.

20140331 pecha kucha 02
Who are the current members of the Players Club? They’re the people and corporations shaping the future fabric of our cities. Once upon a time they used to be architects and urban designers, but this is less and less the case. These days, they’re mostly project managers, developers, even bankers.

20140331 pecha kucha 03
There are now whole cities springing up from the desert sands whose core focus is not livability but investment opportunity.

20140331 pecha kucha 04
Recent approvals for very large towers in the city, coupled with the poor urban outcome of the Docklands and dubious planning strategy for Fishermen’s Bend, shows that this is happening in Melbourne also. Do we really want our city to be corrupted by money?

20140331 pecha kucha 05
The traditional procurement model looks like the top line. A big investment company commissions a building design, then markets it to smaller investors who aim to lease out individual apartments. How the inhabitants are involved in this process is not clear. What we’d like to do is explore the bottom line, where design and community consultation drive the development process.

20140331 pecha kucha 06
Which brings me to our project, Streets Without Cars. The premise of the project is this: we wanted to redesign the street where we live and practice as a shared space, with pedestrians as its highest priority. We also wanted to engage our local community, so we spoke with as many of our neighbours as we could to understand how they would like the street to work.

20140331 pecha kucha 07
This is the site. It’s a 120m long section of Drummond Street in Carlton North, running between Curtain and Fenwick Streets. It’s 28m wide, 14m of which is currently covered in asphalt to provide room for north- and southbound car lanes. It has a central grass strip that is already reasonably well utilised.

20140331 pecha kucha 08
We were able to interview 22 of our 39 neighbours within the site zone and received rich feedback containing both concrete and aspirational design direction. One of our neighbours, James, gave us the phrase that ended up guiding our entire design process, “Like a big backyard for everyone.”

 

20140331 pecha kucha 09
We discovered a lot about the demographics of our neighbours. We now know there are 2.6 bicycles per household, that around 72% of our street works within a 5km radius, and most households have limited access to private open space. We were also able to collate the many briefing comments into groups of activities to design for: living, eating, socialising and play.

20140331 pecha kucha 10
So we came up with a design that removed the southbound car lane and used the space for a 17m wide strip of activity space bordered by a narrower strip of paving to be shared by bicycles, cars and pedestrians. A series of small pavilions runs down the length of the site, providing shelter and gathering.

20140331 pecha kucha 11
Our material palette is robust and urban. We used Bluestone paving on the ground, steel structure for the pavilion roofs, hit and miss brickwork and timber battening for the pavilions themselves. The four mature trees on site were retained and added to.

20140331 pecha kucha 12
At the heart of the site are the living and dining rooms, terraced spaces that can be used for just about anything. Gentle slopes in the terraced platforms allow us to catch pools of water for play and cooling. The roof over the dining room kicks up to support a solar panel array. All roofs collect water for irrigation.

20140331 pecha kucha 13
The dining room is loosely divided into four sub-spaces, some of which are undercover and others in the open. They are bordered by an open weave of brickwork that permits air movement, and down the track, trained vines.

20140331 pecha kucha 14
Running the full length of the site is a community vegetable patch. There’s also a fruit orchard embedded into the side of one of the pavilions. Our hope is that these would become activity centres to strengthen the local community. It would be pretty handy to harvest a few extra apples and a sprig of coriander too.

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20140331 pecha kucha 16

A big part of our design thinking revolved around transport. We decided to retain around 80% of the existing carparking, then added a couple of carshare spaces and 96 bicycle parking spaces within secure storage sheds. These anchor the ends of the site, free up valuable space within peoples’ homes, and encourage more integrated use of the street.

20140331 pecha kucha 17
The kitchen is a small cafeteria located adjacent to the dining and living rooms. Its operator would also act as caretaker for the vegetable patch and orchard, to keep them from getting unruly and providing an opportunity for the enjoyment of local produce.

20140331 pecha kucha 18 20140331 pecha kucha 19We met with the sustainable transport group at the City of Yarra today to present the project. They didn’t exactly front up a few million cash to build it, but they were very enthusiastic about the community consultation and radical, for Melbourne, urban design strategy. Our vision is that this sort of project could be rolled out across an entire municipality, small insertions designed to decrease our reliance on the automobile and increase our shared use of our streets. They could be spaced out so every resident has access to one within walking distance: another, finer layer of public parkland.

20140331 pecha kucha 20
That’s a 20-slide tip of the iceberg. We’ve been engaging with our neighbours via a dedicated project blog. If you’d like to find out a bit more about us, you can look us up on our website, design blog or twitter feed. Thank you.

Where to from here?

Our design may be finished, but the project is far from over. As mentioned above, we are now embarking on consultation with the local council to investigate ways we might implement this project. With some considerable determination and a bit of luck, future funding earmarked for the Carlton North area as part of the City of Yarra’s Local Area Traffic Management scheme might very well find its way towards Drummond Street and Streets Without Cars.[3]


Footnotes:

[1] At least a third of all developed land in cities is consumed by space for vehicles. In the especially car-focussed cities of the United States and Australia, the average rises to around half. In Los Angeles, an estimated two-thirds of urban land is primarily for vehicles. Michael Southworth and Eran Ben-Joseph; Streets and the Shaping of Towns and Cities; Island Press; Washington; 2003
[2] See our Drummond Street traffic research conducted in October of last year. Mihaly Slocombe; Traffic Conclusions; Streets Without Cars; Melbourne; 2013
[3] See a brief introductory page on the scheme at the City of Yarra website. Local Area Traffic Management; City of Yarra; Melbourne; 2014

Image credits:

  1. Drummond Street. Author’s own image.
  2. Aerial by day. Author’s own image.
  3. Aerial by night. Author’s own image.
  4. Pecha Kucha slide 1. Author’s own image.
  5. Pecha Kucha slide 2. Author’s own image.
  6. Pecha Kucha slide 3. Author’s own image.
  7. Pecha Kucha slide 4. Author’s own image.
  8. Pecha Kucha slide 5. Author’s own image.
  9. Pecha Kucha slide 6. Author’s own image.
  10. Pecha Kucha slide 7. Author’s own image.
  11. Pecha Kucha slide 8. Author’s own image.
  12. Pecha Kucha slide 9. Author’s own image.
  13. Pecha Kucha slide 10. Author’s own image.
  14. Pecha Kucha slide 11. Author’s own image.
  15. Pecha Kucha slide 12. Author’s own image.
  16. Pecha Kucha slide 13. Author’s own image.
  17. Pecha Kucha slide 14. Author’s own image.
  18. Pecha Kucha slide 15. Author’s own image.
  19. Pecha Kucha slide 16. Author’s own image.
  20. Pecha Kucha slide 17. Author’s own image.
  21. Pecha Kucha slide 18. Author’s own image.
  22. Pecha Kucha slide 19. Author’s own image.
  23. Pecha Kucha slide 20. Author’s own image.