Regulating architectural and civic space: why so negative

In a story in Today’s Crikey!, Guy Rundle raises a subject dear to my heart about which I am, alas, ignorant. Why are so many of our planning regulations negative – the most obvious being height restrictions, when what we really want from regulation is collective action to make the place nicer.

In a more general sense I call this the Michelangelo theory of regulation. Michelangelo famously attributed his sculptural prowess to the negative attribute of clearing away the unwanted marble. “I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition”. Bach said something similar when asked how he managed to play so well. He said “There’s nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.” But I digress. . .

Anyway, if we were to regulate well we need much more than a commitment to not regulating badly. And if we’re to build well, we need much more than a requirement not to build a building closer than x metres from the fence and no more than 5 metres high etc.

Rundle’s article is below the fold, but I’d be grateful if anyone who knows anything about this can tell me of promising ideas or practices. I realise that one main reason we practice ‘negative’ regulation is that ‘positive’ regulation is much harder to agree upon. Is that the only reason? What precedents exist and how did they go?

On the destruction of the Myer Building

by Guy Rundle.

For architecture tragics like me – young fogeys as we used to be called, when we were young – the destruction of the Myer building in Hobart is a disaster pretty much on the scale of paving over a rain forest.
My head realises that the earth’s lungs are probably of more importance than a gracious 19th C timber building, but my heart says, goddamit this was a 19th c timber building…

But it’s gone for good. Yet its absence raises the question as to what is to be done with key urban sites like this, whose character determines the character of a city. Are they simply to be left to the developers to plonk something down, or should a city have a say?

Architecture, unlike the other arts, is necessarily public. Whatever goes in the Hobart Myer space is something that Taswegians are going to have to look at for decades.

And until about the 1930s you could rely on the private sector to at least put an effort into making the thing look good. Buildings were commodified space to be sure, but they were also part of a city, and they wanted to contribute to its glory.

But after WW2 a new idea took over. Buildings were nothing other than commodified space and the cheaper you could throw em up the better.

When the full disaster of that policy became visible in the 1980s, post-modernism was invented, and you could throw buildings up cheaply and put a few frou-frous making coded references to the St Peter’s Basilica or some such, on top.

The last thing you would want to do with such spaces is have them designed by public vote – a camel under construction – but there’s no reason why a body such as Hobart City Council shouldn’t demand that, formally and otherwise, that Myer propose something really a cut above, from an A-list architect, for such a space.

In other words, the use of positive aesthetic criteria in permit approvals, rather than a series of negative ones.
Of course what is attractive is ultimately subjective and no building can please everybody. But there are certain minimum standards of design that are objective, and that a council could demand.

Civic imagination could make Hobart a national and world leader in this process – which is why I suspect Hobartians will nevertheless end up with a box with a few glass frou frous.

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Jc
Jc
14 years ago

How about a reduction (elimination) of stamp duty if one uses the money towards the fees of a fully accredited architect to design a new structure.

It doesn’t promise to get good design as only a trip through Toorak will attest, but it may help to improve the average.

building costs through government fees etc. and taxes are adding hugely to the cost of a new structure – up to 35%.

Archtitects these days are also having to wade through pages and pages of design codes that at times would force them to focus more on compliance than design.

People don’t realize just how great the experience of using an architect is compared to a designer. It’s more expensive, but boy do the good ones know what they are doing!

What’s also interesting is that Guy mentions how older buildings had nicer facades etc. It is worth remembering just how little code there was in thsoe times.

“Positive” code could really mean no code at all save safety and some other basic regulations. These days there is a code explaining how to install a basketball hoop because some years ago some kid had a freak accident.

I believe that in Austria you are required to use an accredited architect for any new structure. Don’t know the result though.

Jc
Jc
14 years ago

Guy however is showing a great deal of personal preference and suggests regulation of taste, which is the last thing you want. And who is to say it would be the A gradeers that come up with the best design. It’s another instance of potential rent seeking.

There are some great looking boxes and some really ugle ones too.

Federation square is possibly the most ugly box of pretenious junk I have ever seen.

http://www.2pi.info/travel/south-east-australia/p2104541_r.jpg

However this architects squares are inspirational…..

http://www.curbed.com/archives/2005_02_80frontstreet.jpg

New apartment building in NYC.

His website:

http://www.calatrava.org/

Patrick
Patrick
14 years ago

Why are so many of our planning regulations negative

?

Is that a serious question? What does Michaelango have to do with anything? Isn’t the answer something to do with a presumption of freedom to dispose of one’s property? Isn’t there also some theory along the lines that one will generally get better results by letting people do what they want, especially in relation to something they own?

I am not necessarily denying that there might be a valid reason for ‘intervention’ in the case of the Myer building, nor that there are any points of merit in the article, I just found that introduction a bit hard to swallow at this hour.

Jonno
Jonno
14 years ago

What about the issue of culture and permanence? My understanding is that buildings built until the 1930s (gross generalisation) were intended to remain for a very long time. That is certainly not the case for modern buildings. If it is intended to remain for a long time, then perhaps more thought goes into it.

Jc
Jc
14 years ago

Nic

I’d never heard of Guy Rundle before. Seriously.

Russ
14 years ago

Jonno, I don’t think that’s the case. Every generation of buildings has its impermanent junk. But impermanence means what it means, and there is little of it left from the 1950s, let alone periods going back before then. The tragedy is the destruction of something good, for something mediocre. Hence the need for regulation, which theoretically should improve the built form over time, as the dross is replaced by something better.

At least that’s what I think the goal should be. In reality it is a hodge podge of positive and negative planning laws designed to achieve (or more often “encourage”) a set of outcomes that people agree on in principle, but get very upset by when there is a need for trade-offs. Hence there are dozens of positive goals regarding the environment, safety and comfort, and many negative restrictions protecting detrimental effects in regard to uses that impact on well-being, heritage structures, the environment again, traffic and parking, the ephemeral idea of neighbourhood character, and so on.

How to promote better architecture over the short term is more problematic. I’ve always though the Dutch have done well in their pragmatic way. They have strong restrictions – like most European cities – in their older areas, but seem to slide in a mix of new buildings of roughly the same height and shape that don’t look like silly pastiches. I think putting in some general guides for height and building materials help if the shape is consistent already, but if the form is eclectic they aren’t necessary unless you have other urban design reasons (wind shear, pedestrian access, etc.). But how those guides are interpreted depends on the quality of the architect, and bad ones produce bad buildings regardless of the rules.

Good ones can do really amazing things, though they are not without controversy. Two new (and very prominent) buildings by Gehry in Prague, and Saee in Paris come to mind. I like them, for what it’s worth.

David Rubie
David Rubie
14 years ago

I’m ambivalent about the concept of “positive” restrictions. If Myer were required to replace the burnt timber building with a facsimile, you’d end up with a boring bit of pastiche like the faux-federation houses that pollute the new suburbs of Sydney – their few nods to federation style being a silly pointy bit of wood stuck on the eaves and some cheap printed colour on the windows near the front door (oh and all painted primrose on the facia boards).

The cities wouldn’t have their character without a bit of experimentation now and again (what would Hobart be without the original Wrest Point Casino building?).

The safety aspects and making sure buildings stay within the property borders restrictions are pretty sensible, and leave enough room for people to express themselves via their buildings. If you look at photos of Sydneys main streets from the 1950’s, they are almost unrecognizable to todays eyes, but there is no value judgment to be made from that. Newer may or may not be better, but a city that fails to evolve to meet the needs of it’s citizens will die, and perhaps Myer can take the opportunity to build something better (safer, cleaner, environmentally friendly, nicer etc) than just another fake nod to a past that probably didn’t exist in the way the old building presented.

Roger Migently
14 years ago

The story goes (told to me by an English pilot) that the first line of the British Aviation Regulations is, or used to be, “An aircraft shall not fly….” followed by “unless”, probably. This is CASA’s mindset also. It is the mindset of regulators around the world. You might have hoped that the first line would be “An aircraft must fly unless…” (you know, “unless the pilot doesn’t feel like it”, or something). It is the mindset of regulators for two reasons. Firstly, give someone something to regulate and they feel that they must regulate it and the tighter they screw it down the more they are seen to be doing their job. Secondly, the world is run by economists and lawyers. What else are they going to do? The “vision” thing doesn’t really pop up that much in their bookos or their well-ordered universe(s). Some economists, of course, are more visionary than others (stroke, stroke…). And then there are the priests under whose yoke our western culture has laboured for millennia and whose mantra is “Thou Shalt Not…”
If only a few lawyers and economists could come up with an argument that freedom of expression and fewer negative regulations generated greater happiness and therefore increased productivity, higher profits, and fewer losses, while at the same time providing a field day for lawyers to prosecute those who unneccessarily impeded personal expression, experiment, exploration and adventure….

Alphonse
Alphonse
14 years ago

We get the architecture we deserve. From the economic system we deserve. It’s an expression of us, like it or lump it. Bring back noblesse oblige. A personal aristocracy beats a corporate aristocracy every time.

Best hope is a harmonious uniformity based on energy efficiency, brought about by a carbon tax assessment against the builder, not the purchaser or the occupant. Right now the driver is square metres per dollar and hang the comfort, the depreciation (true, not allowable) and the operating costs.

The Lazy Aussie
14 years ago

Positive regulation is non regulation. See japanese cities where often only the building safety is regulated but not the design. Chances are slim that a pleasing or interesting building will replace myers.

Robert
Robert
14 years ago

Nicholas, this all touches on brilliantly absorbing ground. Would you be willing to expand on the original questions in your post?

If so, a question with thanks: how do you relate architecture to ideology, and vice versa?

Caroline
14 years ago

Its very difficult to see how we could ever return to time-consuming, labour intensive individual craftsmanship, (let alone supply the raw materials) that have gone into some of the older, grander, buildings we are in the main so fond of. But that doesn’t mean that everything need be cheap, nasty, quick and concrete. (Unless of course it is being overseen by economists and lawyers!)

Architecture has traditionally been at the avante garde of new art movements. I’m still waiting for something to replace PM, but do wonder from an aesthetic perspective, where to now? Once ‘the reductive quest of modernity’ had paired itself right back to the blank canvas, it had nowhere much else to go but to accept all and everything and thus we got the mad heterogeneity of post modernism. I guess the ‘green’ building is being born out of necessity. But that doesn’t tend to give terribly much away about aesthetics.

Jc
Jc
14 years ago

Caroline

Modern processes are fantastically beautiful. The modern adaptation of glass allows us to be both protected from the environment as well as living in it. Don’t forget how dark and pokey old homes were when it was considered that a dark room away from the sun in an east west was considered superior. Concrete allows us to “bend” structures in ways that was not possible in the past.

The Victorian (terrace) house we all love was simply and English home with a veranda to keep out the sun.

There are new homes being built to the specs of the old, which in my opinion are detestable- the mock Georgian come to mind. They weren’t cheap to build either.

However take look at some of the newer structures. Take a look at this home built by Meier. I rate more beautiful than any old structure I have ever seen. Look at the curves and the way it molds itself into the environment. This is years- centuries of accumulative knowledge.

Richard Meier & Partners
Neugebauer House
Naples, Florida

http://images.google.com.au/imgres?imgurl=http://www.arcspace.com/architects/meier/house/18.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.arcspace.com/architects/meier/neugebauer/&h=232&w=300&sz=9&hl=en&start=6&um=1&tbnid=rTtgSx7koNZwQM:&tbnh=90&tbnw=116&prev=/images%3Fq%3Drichard%2Bmeier%2Bflorida%2Bhouse%26svnum%3D10%26um%3D1%26hl%3Den%26sa%3DN

Caroline
14 years ago

Thanks Jc, thanks. I agree it is a lovely building and I also agree with you that we now are able to use “centuries of accumulative knowledge”. I think in terms of styles Modernism is the end of one road, which in a Post Modern world branches out into thousands (& thousands) of lanes and byways, which I guess makes choices in aesthetics purely personal. These days one cannot ignore the environment, although the builders of the hideous McMansion seem to have given it their best shot. As to the emergence of a particular ‘style’ of building to define the times, I haven’t been able to discern one. (yet) Maybe if I were to look back in another 75 years or so, it might become more apparent.

Having lived for a while in a concrete apartment block I have a bias against concrete. For insulation purposes it was pretty hopeless–hard on the feet and legs too.

wilful
wilful
14 years ago

You can’t regulate positively, it’s an inherent and acknowledged limitation of the system. What Victoria has done is employ a State Architect, John Denton, to guide on matters of good taste where possible.

derrida derider
derrida derider
14 years ago

de gustibus non est disputandum, and therefore it is just not possible to regulate for taste and very probably counterproductive if we try. The best we can do is regulate for practicality (which can be disputed) and aid the longevity of buildings that are generally agreed to be in good taste (ie some form of heritage protection).

The latter is much harder than it looks, though. Apart from the fact that it’s easy to create perverse incentives for the owners, age does not correlate well with aesthetics. My canonical example is the preservation of the old Pyrmont bridge as part of Darling Harbour. It was preserved because it was old, but it was butt-ugly the day it was built and remains butt-ugly 150 years later.