Bernard Maybeck: Honorary Australian and patron saint of continuous improvement

A truly lovely space non?

As I’ve been thinking about all the exigencies of making ‘continuous improvement’ a feature of our regulatory culture and institutions, I read an intriguing and, in such circumstances inspiring essay by Glyn Davis (pdf), cleverly titled “A city of two tales”. He might equally have called it Two cities of two tales, because the essay is a nice rumination on Canberra and Berkeley – in California.

But the heart of the essay (for me anyway) is Glyn’s stumbling upon a church on a walk around Berkeley with the political scientist Aaron Wildavsky. Wildavsky was an adherent of an approach to political science and policy studies which was built on the American philosophical tradition of pragmatism. I’m more familiar with the work of another in a similar mould – Charles Lindblom – who coined the expression ‘disjointed incrementalism’ to describe how policy was and should be. His point was that a ‘synoptic’ vision in which all things were considered was always misguided because it was unaware of its own ignorance.

In the spirit of pragmatism – which has deep roots back to Darwinism (one might call the philosophy of pragmatism ‘Darwin comes to epistemology’) – Lindblom argued that policy should evolve in a self guiding process of doing more of what worked, and trying to correct one’s mistakes. In many ways Popper would agree. So would Herbert Simon.

Of course the tradition that this opposes is positivism (in epistemology), wholesale social engineering in social policy and a good deal of the approach of neoclassical economics and the idea of optimising – as opposed for instance to Lindblom’s idea of muddling through with incrementalism or Simon’s of ‘satisficing’.

Be that as it may it turns out that the architect Maybeck came from a similar tradition. His architecture looks lovely, but he’s much less well known than other greats of his time, like Sullivan and Burley Griffin and Frank Lloyd Wright. They were probably greater architects but they also had the luck of pioneering ‘modernism’ which then dominated architecture for generations.

Anyway, as the essay explains, Maybeck entered the competition to design Canberra. And his entry was rather remarkable.

He proposed, in truly pragmatic style, that the new capital be established essentially as a temporary and experimental capital with buildings mocked up from plaster and cement and then rebuilt as the city grew and so people were in a position to figure out what was working, what wasn’t and knew more about what they wanted. Pretty amazing I think.

There was a fair bit of this kind of building going on at the time – for world’s fairs and so on. Maybeck built the temporary Palace of Fine Arts for San Francisco’s Panama Pacific International Exhibition of 1915, but of all the temporary buildings, it’s the only one that remains, now (I think) rebuilt of nicer stuff. An old picture and a newer one follow. Canberra is on the horizon

Canberra should inherit all the past.

International expositions have been used for commercial developments alone.

They have taught us what is possible in a short time, and have proved a stimulus.

Build a temporary city of cement staff and wood and not to cost more than
3,000,000 pounds sterling.

Build it in two years fully equipped and ready to use in 1920.

Subjected to the test of use as a model city, its mistakes will soon be found out.

Call it a sketch of a city, any part of which can be replaced by something permanent.

Use it a while.

Traffic lines will define themselves, political and commercial needs will appear in their practical forms. To these the permanent can afterwards be made to minister in the most convenient way.

Knowing that the artists and architects will be needed, the coming generations will produce masters equal to the problem.

The City of Canberra will thus develop rationally and beautifully.

Future generations will not have to pay the penalty of haste and lack of foresight.

So there you have it. At a time when we understand these ideas all too well, at a time when the looseness of the internet’s design means that it is engineering for the happy accidents of the future, we can look back on Maybeck as perhaps ahead of his time.

At a time when Firefox 3 is in its fifth beta, we can appreciate Maybeck’s idea of starting off the nation’s capital with Canberra 0.1. I’m not too sure how well these ideas apply to architecture, and I’m not sorry that the Great Walter Burley Griffin won the comp (only to descend into an all too typical Aussie Schemozzle). But Maybeck’s ideas certainly apply in lots of other areas. When the new tax system was put in place in the year 2000 it was all designed up to be the perfect system. It had a Regulatory Impact Statement that was held up as a model of good regulation.

But no-one road tested the BAS – effectively the software interface between businesses and the government administering the new system. And it turned out to be a nightmare. Complex regulation like that, just like Firefox, can’t be designed without being prototyped and tested. And on release the process of optimisation should just keep on going.

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16 years ago

What a fantastic idea indeed!

And on release the process of optimisation should just keep on going.

Perversely given the previous example, tax law is often much like that, with half a dowen major amendments a year and 40-odd smaller, and significant reviews of specific areas every year or so.

So maybe it is just a matter of appropriate incentives (such as tax revenue!)

16 years ago

The creation of Canberra is a fascinating architectural story, about which little has been made known to the public.

A central tenet of its design was to eschew the usual means by which a city is “planned”, and effectively start from scratch, on paper. Current day town planning has to contend with serious design flaws in too many cases due to a town or city having begun as ribbon development: a main street or so as CBD, away from which people reside, and between these they travel. Looking at the massive problems this creates when a city grows to the size of Sydney, Canberra’s original planning concept showed foresight.

Part of the planning of Canberra was to create spaces wherein those who lived would be able to find employment, shop and commute to their usual activities all within a smaller radius of the home. These districts were intended to be largely self-fulfilling. It was also obviously designed with the parliamentary triangle as a central (in many ways celebratory) theme, the focus of which is Parliament House.

While this plan has resolved many of the problems faced by growth from ribbon development, one of the criticisms it attracts is that the city has “no soul”. There is an argument to be had about the value of, say, things like housing to the shoreline, which of themselves create a certain character and human dynamic, however, it’s not widely known that Canberra was planned to be functional two hundred years from implementation (ie, minus the problems, and flourishing from its conceptual benefits). Hence, that argument will probably best be answered then.

It was also headed up by a team of visionary planners back in the seventies (particularly, through the National Capital Development Commission [NCDC]), which sought the best of world’s planning practice, very much inspired by the knowledge Canberra was sitting on the verge of the benefits of its original design concepts in growing contrast to other Australian cities. This team was also sought after from various international planners. A small example of this was the way the planners first approached new districts for development by taking careful stock of the district’s natural amenity, and designing from that for the human good. A significant tree, for tiny instance, had roads steering well clear of it, in the understanding that people’s lives would be enriched by its qualities (again, a very small example).

Moreso, however, was the striving to implement a design which enriched the human condition, and would go on to do so over time – obviously central to town planning itself but Canberra’s later planners lifted from the original concept a dedication to go well beyond the need to be best-functional. There was a belief in the human condition which was cause for celebration as to lift and inspire it.

All of this may support the argument that Canberra is “over-planned”. And what Maybeck is talking about above is fascinating – one wonders what would have happened had he been involved, or where he’d have taken this visionary event. However, I hope this small input serves to highlight how much of what he is quoted as saying here has actually happened.

As an aside, one of the frustrations the planners in the NCDC had was how the media and from it the public would refer to “Canberra” when talking about matters political, as in “Canberra has rejected that proposal” or “It’s up to Canberra to now make that call”, when the whole focus of their efforts was to continue something wholesomely remarkable for the resident. You can still hear these references today, but it’s less prevalent.

Perhaps that was a design flaw, created by celebrating its conception as the home of Parliament. But for sure, it’s a work in progress, and we’ll be long dead before a proper assessment of its vision can be more fully grasped.