A magazine article of not too long ago


So, I take it that  you’re reading this delightful magazine because you value good design,  as I do. Like me, I imagine you feel that a life in a turgid grey world  of dank, dark corridors, sunless rooms and bare walls, is a much  diminished one. We want our spirits lifted, our possibilities extended  and our social exchanges fulfilling. Good design helps us reach these  heights; bad design shuts us down.

But where does our personal boundary on  responsibility for good design begin and end? Mostly we consider our own  private domain, our home, our garden, perhaps some elements of our  workspace, are within our remit. But accountability for the design of  places and spaces beyond this realm is less clear.

Well, it is time for us to grasp the  nettle. We must also take responsibility for the design of our  neighbourhoods, town centres, schools, hospitals and regional shopping  precincts. These are the places where we live half our lives, outside  our home.

Society lost its way sometimes during the  last Century. Mostly we seem drawn to Victorian and Georgian houses and  public buildings. But for twenty five years after the Second World War  some dreadful mistakes were made that we are still living with today.  Think, especially, of awful social housing schemes that delivered high  rise slums surrounded by fields of concrete, and of charmless suburban  shopping centres set in acres of arid car parks that turned their backs  to the world. This happened all over the developed world, and we have  our share too. There are the high rises of Carlton in Melbourne, the  expressways disfiguring Circular Quay in Sydney and Brisbane’s North  Quay, and any number of insular big retail boxes in our suburbs.

The history and culture of a nation are  written in its buildings, public spaces, towns and cities. We are  attracted to Paris by Haussmann’s parks and boulevards, to London by  Wren’s churches and to Florence by Brunelleschi’s il Duomo. Australia is  beginning to create a design-led heritage in our remodeling of spaces  in our big cities, but still too many of us spend our working and public  leisure time in drab surroundings. Teachers and pupils slave away in  school buildings that do nothing to spark their imagination, nurses and  doctors operate in claustrophobic hospitals and office workers surf the  ‘Net in campus style office parks that too often mimic suburban retail  boxes.

I worked for a while in a local  government in New South Wales and became depressed by the poor design  standards of proposed buildings and their surrounding space. Then I got  angry. Now I want to get even.

There are three excuses commonly trotted  out by developers and their apologists. These are that good design is a)  too expensive or that it is b) too subjective; and the particularly  egregious c) that if someone is prepared to pay for it, the design must  be good enough.

Actually, these are myths. Let me enumerate:

a) Good design incorporating a set of  sustainability principles will lower project lifetime costs. The real  issue is that the costs of poor design are usually borne by someone  other than the builder.

b) Furnishings may be a matter of taste  and fashion but design is not. There are design principles. They are  variously described as robustness, durability or sustainability;  usefulness or efficiency; and beauty, or the ability to delight people.

c) Individuals often do not have the  market power or frequently have little or no choice. They just have to  live with a drab school, airless office or sunless apartment.

People must be at the heart of design for  the built environment. Places that delight tend to be valued and cared  for. Places that do not tend to cost us in crime, high maintenance, poor  health and social exclusion.

These days, too much discussion about the  public realm is in black and white terms – for or against. It is NIMBY  (not in my backyard) versus short-sighted development. This typically  leads to a win/lose result – developer wins, community loses – and often  to a lose/lose result – no new development, no new jobs or activities,  and bland, barren public spaces.

We need to move beyond this paradigm.

Community activists – you and me – should  focus on pestering, nagging and insisting on good design outcomes in  our streets, towns, cities and shopping precincts. We demand that our  representatives, and some of us in appropriate forums, work with  developers, including those from governments, to deliver good design  outcomes. We deserve nothing less.