Coming from the heavily urbanised UK, my paper has four main topics: the current debate about architect and urban design driven design; the problems of land delivery in the UK; how we are delivering on different agendas and initiatives both in cities and outside them; and finally what Australians can learn from this.
I have coined a phrase for the sort of Urban Design expression that is beloved of Alsop, Gehry, Zaha Hadid and others which I call ‘ecstatic urbanism’. I define this as urban design where the main intention appears to be to overwhelm the spectator, and pitch them into a state of awe and well-being by disjointing their perceptions of accepted scale, textures, massing and relationships.
Within my own office, BDP (Building Design Partnership), we produce iconic buildings but these are in appropriately dramatic settings and not in complex urban contexts. The question is: by piling up the iconic forms, when does overload occur and the ecstatic reaction set in? Also, how lasting will be these ecstatic urban environments be – can they keep up the buzz they create on initial impact?
Land supply affects all urban design in the UK, whether Brownfield or Greenfield sites. Brownfield take-up is low, despite the best efforts of English Partnerships and the Regional Development Agencies. There is tremendous pressure on Green Belts, particularly around cities such as Cambridge. The Thames Gateway, promoted by London Development Agency, is beset by the problem of covering an area of exceptionally low-lying land. The parallel Olympic bid for London in 2012 is a great idea to provide a springboard for regeneration. However, it is subject to success in the lottery that is the International Olympic Committee decision-making process.
Some of BDP’s work, for example, award-winning schemes such as Sheffield’s Pinstone Street and Liverpool’s Paradise Street, are good exemplars of current urban design practice. Liverpool, in particular, exemplifies the process of first getting the master plan right, then employing a group of selected architects to tackle specific sites. I call this the pluralist urban design approach. This process was repeated on the major Stratford City development, where BDP were responsible for the retail/residential core and worked alongside architects such as Mecanoo and Branson Coates.
Waterfront City in Melbourne is a major project won in a competition alongside ING (as client) utilising pluralist urban design techniques. Here BDP were working with Hassell in Melbourne to develop ideas that combined the best of the European influence with Australian design flair. We have now developed this scheme to a high level of detail, and it demonstrates the idea of distinctive street blocks and buildings being deliberately different, again designed by different hands.
What are the lessons?
Finally, what are the lessons to be leant from the UK experience? I think they relate to a knowledge and understanding of which approach you want, and I caution the long-term validity of ecstatic urbanism as exemplified in Melbourne’s own Federation Square. There is a lot of potential in looking at collaborative design techniques, and also in educating the Australian local authorities in the principles of good urban design, as Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment is doing in the UK. Collaboration between professionals is also essential, and Liverpool, Stratford and Waterfront City all demonstrate the advantages of this. All of these schemes utilise higher densities giving a stronger urban environment and, even in Australia where space is less at a premium, this is a good principle.
I have not seen anyone yet define the ideal Australian Space. Many high quality environments are related to waterfront sites (Sydney, Brisbane, Fremantle) and in that sense are appropriate to the Australian love of the outdoors and recreation. David Malouf in his 1998 Boyer Lecture, ‘The Spirit of Play’ encapsulates the idea of a new multi-cultural Australia that demands new types of active urban space. That space will have to be sustainable, and there is a real challenge in the suburbs and remoter settlements to achieve that. The urban design debate is still relatively young and it is developing into a world-wide phenomenon to which I am certain Australia will have a lot to contribute.