In Search of Wonderful
Here’s one for the architects out there… how often do you find yourself having to defend our lauded profession in response to criticism of inappropriate development? It might be disparaging remarks about that over-scaled block of flats... or that towering new Tax Office building looming over our sprawling suburbs. Recently I found myself scrambling for an explanation in response to a comment that “all 1960's architects should be shot”. This statement was intended as backlash against council housing of that era, but it demonstrated an understanding that the architect is the player primarily responsible for determining scale and form.
In truth, there are many factors which govern the resulting form of a building, including project feasibility (which establishes cost and yield), construction efficiency, materiality, and planning constraints. But to keep things simple... we design professionals might argue that the loudest voice around the drawing board tends to belong to whoever holds the cash.
I’m not making excuses for poor design – on the contrary – it’s our responsibility to steer the design process toward a high quality, sustainable, and socially responsive outcome. But when it comes to commercial development, somebody stands to make money from the project, and so the governing principle is inevitably to deliver more for less. The result? Taller, denser buildings that can accommodate more flats or more leasable floor area... and built for the cheapest price possible.
The challenge for architects in the public sphere is to juggle the competing interests of the design vision and the balance sheet. Especially when it comes to commercial, mixed-use, and multi-residential buildings. Important buildings… the types that poke their heads out from our streets and laneways and define our city skylines.
With this in mind, I draw comparison to an advertisement currently airing on Australian television for a high-profile department store. The marketing campaign has coined the phrase, “find wonderful” and the ad follows a pretty ingénue as she weaves her way through a whimsical paper city and poses the question, “ever wonder where wonderful went?” As children - the story suggests - we found delight in little details. We were enthralled by life’s small offerings, and “fairies paid good money for teeth.” But as we’ve grown in age, acquisitions, and responsibility, we’ve all got serious.
“Suddenly, the world became one great, grey blah of adequate.”
Dare I say, a visitor to Melbourne’s Docklands would surely be forgiven for feeling one great, grey blah of adequate…and that’s in spite of the trite attempts to liven things up with splashes of colour across aluminium facades.
I recently wrote a piece titled In Search of Wonderful that looked at the work of Italian designer Carlo Scarpa and his use of semi-precious metals such as copper, bronze and brass to provide little moments of lustrous relief in an age of concrete architecture. As our great, grey cities expand around us, Scarpa’s work is a beacon to architects and a reminder that often it’s the small details you remember. A change in material, or a change in angle. Something sparkling unexpectedly…