Subtropicality seems to be rather a shadowy and elusive quality because we are still searching for a handle on it. See the paper referred to below. If it is so subtle, perhaps it is not as important and material to good urbanity as is thought. I submit there are other urban qualities to which we should give much higher priority.
Design assimilation or cosmetic effect
It seems that other global urban regions have not felt the need to specifically include ‘mild temperate’ or ‘hot arid’ as requisite criteria in their city making strategies. Perhaps they have intuitively assimilated the phenomenon of climate and place in their design and planning thinking.
Are we sure we are not looking for a cosmetic effect to create a more distinct image. If it is promotion and marketing driven, there are likely to be more direct and overt devices we can use. Did this ‘movement’ emanate from the city’s previous ‘City Image’ concerns for some kind of competitive edge? If subtropical expression and qualities are intended also to respond to cultural landscape issues, we have a long way to go. The concept of cultural landscape is not new. Why have we not embraced it before?
If it is local character we are seeking, there are other means and routes to it than the narrow path of ‘subtropicality’. The geography is as much a part of place heritage as any built element. Yet, we seem to have considerable difficulty in responding to our local geography and topography.
After attending to what we can do within public territory, too much depends on the quality of architecture. Contemporary modernism seems to be too internationally homogenised to be capable of supporting a distinctive and broadly based local expression. How dedicated are the architecture schools to a search for subtropical character? We are still in a desperate plight to credibly respond to the built Queensland heritage, let alone the shadowy figure of subtropicality.
What happens when climate changes?
Our climate is changing and the signs that we might be able to arrest that change are not very promising. There is a possibility that in another 20 or so years, SEQ could be in a different climatic zone. How confident can we be that we are backing the right horse? Would it not make more sense to pursue the objectives and practices of sustainability and give it primacy in all our planning and urban place making? Urban design education in Queensland is and has been in a parlous state for many years. A Centre for Subtropical Design (CSD) has been established within Queensland University of Technology. This dissipates the already scarce resources and intellectual energies further. Would it not bring a higher dividend if they were utilised to broaden the front of disseminating general urban design knowledge and understanding which is more fundamental to high urban quality than merely promoting one aspect of it?
According to the CSD web site, it intends to:
- Inspire design suited to the subtropical climate, landscapes and lifestyle. Leading by inspiration is commendable. However, there are numerous other important qualities and objectives we are unable to achieve by various planning and design instruments. If legislation, guidelines and other tools have not been very effective, are we now down to the last resort of ‘inspiration’?
- Develop and demonstrate comfortable and affordable subtropical design for our neighbourhoods, homes and workplaces. Who could argue with the value of that! However, in the face of multi-million dollar marketing budgets of air conditioning companies (as well as power supply utilities), I wonder just how much the CSD has spent on public promotion and advertising of the merits of cross-ventilation and appropriate orientation? Only extreme costs of power and air conditioning systems will have significant impact on that one. Worthy, but misplaced effort.
- Share knowledge and experience of subtropical design. A good idea, but how many other places are there that need our advice? In any case, subtropics is not even a major climatic region on my atlas. Should we not be placing higher priority on including knowledge on designing for climate as a core component of all built environment education programs? Leaving it after graduation is an acknowledgement of failure.
Some early research on this broad topic has been done by Drs. Danny O’Hare and Bishna Bajracharya for their paper ‘Integrating subtropical design in transit oriented developments of South East Queensland’ (see http://urbandesignaustralia.com.au)
I submit that their findings support the uncertainties expressed here. It also confirms that subtropical ‘expression’ is little more than merely good urbanism (which by most definitions responds to the breadth of qualities of place, including climate).
Let’s just get on with educating more people to not only design good places but also commission them, discriminate for quality and see enough value in them to invest appropriately.