Quotes this week

Il faut ´être absolument moderne.” Arthur Rimbaud, 1873. One must be absolutely modern. 150 years ago.

The hero shot is the bane of good architecture. Form follows photos. It's a manifestation of container over contained: the exterior, not the internal. It should be space, light, use, quality. Those are the things that make architecture. I rail against the hero shot’s ubiquity, and architects’ obsession with it.

Not so heroic

Rachel Bernstone, of the weekly Architecture Drilldown, suggests another problem with the hero shot: it communicates entirely the wrong message about architecture to the public. Her rejoinder to my earlier piece dissects a problem that architects ignore at their peril. If you don't subscribe already, you must read our most interesting commentator on architectural affairs.

Bernstone’s presentations at this year's AIA conference in Canberra highlighted how little architects know about marketing and communications. They talk to themselves, not the public. To patrons not consumers. As a result, the public are ill-educated about what architects can do and ill-disposed to use them.

Her proposition: architects real work is making useful, sustainable space, and that needs to be better communicated to the public, to bring a greater understanding and appreciation for architecture, and more work for architects.

Ten-fold wrong

I will however vehemently dispute one of Bernstone’s assertions: that only 3% to 5% of dwellings are designed by architects. An oft repeated rubric, that’s rubbish, but we don’t know what the real number is because we have no evidence, research or science. But that won’t stop me having a stab, and say it’s more like 50%. Or more. In the past, and now.

In NSW applications for apartments outnumber houses, and it’s trending that way in Victoria and Queensland. In NSW all apartment buildings must be designed by an architect. Bingo, that’s 50% right there. You say there are lots elsewhere that are not architect designed. Prove it, ‘cos I don’t see it.

But wait, there's more, with steak knives. Most project homes have their origins in an architectural design. Leading firms that want to be more than bottom feeders use well-known architects to design one or two flagship homes for their collection. It is an uncomfortable idea for most architects. Heaven knows I’ve been pilloried for working with several firms on project homes. I comfort myself thinking I am following in the footsteps of Edgar Gurney who designed more than 10,000 individual houses built by AV Jennings between 1931 and 1956. Only 9,900 to go.

Yes, drafters within the organisation will add frills and variations (more bedrooms, more garages, more rumpus) but the origins of the house are architected. Begs the question of what we consider ‘designed’. And who we consider an architect as ‘author’, rather than as registered.

Add in all the individual houses or alterations and additions designed by small firms of one or two architects. As a regular contributor to Sydney Architectural Networks, I'm astonished at how many very small firms are dedicating entire careers to doing houses without fanfare and recognition, most of whom don’t have the resources to do the media campaigns at the heart of awards. Nevertheless their dispersed endeavours add thousands of one-off architect-designed dwellings for not-always-grateful clients.

It would be a great research project to test how many dwellings are actually designed by architects. And crucially, the range of design ideas. If it really is 50% or more, and if it is as diverse as I think it is, then that’s a good news story to raise public awareness of what architectural design can be.

If we want to believe that only 5% of houses are architecture, and hence only 5% of houses are designed by architects, then we are condemning ourselves to a marginalised high-minded design ghetto, failing to communicate the vast range of design possibilities to the public, instead of having an even greater number of houses that are well-designed and sustainable.

A part I meant

Here’s a story of a building you thought had no architect. The B+W photo is the front cover of a construction report prepared in my third year (before the Lonely Planet Tony became so famous I changed my name). The other is that block of 14 flats today. This unremarkable building was designed by the well-known architectural firm, Jackson Teece Chesterman and Willis.

My report was forwarded to the firm, and David Willis kindly replied by letter that I had misunderstood aspects of “low-cost” construction and that “the quality of construction must come as a shock to young students”. Today I’m more shocked that I didn’t remark that such a reputable firm (whose work I now so admire) was involved in such ordinary apartment building. But you see, it’s an unacknowledged fact that lots of ‘buildings’ are architecturally designed.

Coda: I got a B for the report. B, despite dear David saying I did a good job. 15 years later I took over third year construction from that same teacher. Revenge is a dish best served cold. Still didn’t get an A though.

Housing gets railroaded

Speaking of housing, there is much recent discussion about the Quarterly Essay by Alan Kohler The Great Divide, Australia’s Housing Mess and How to Fix It. You can hear a good summary of his thesis on why house prices have spiralled out of reach and are unlikely to come back on Saturday Extra with Geraldine Doogue on ABC RN. There’s a good critique in Crikey by Cameron Murray, who has his own book, The Great Housing Hijack, coming out next June

Kohler sees two tribes: demand and supply, the former gets a workover in the first two thirds, attacking negative gearing and capital gains discounts amongst other tax evils. He concedes that no government has the will to address them. So on to supply, which gets curiouser and curiouser, as he argues for a huge network of fast trains to connect regional and ex-urban areas to the CBD, assuming that the only source of supply is greenfield sites.

This has two major flaws. Firstly, only about 15% of all workers are employed in the CBD. So setting up rail lines to funnel well suited financial types to the city is a nonsense. Kohler’s ignoring the construction workers, teachers, salespeople, doctors, dentists and the like who work in the suburbs.

Secondly, and more damning for an economist, the costs to build extra housing within existing suburbs is half that at the fringe; Infrastructure Victoria says so. So brown is better than green, at least in fields of dreams. These are the missing middle typologies that will consume all of the 2024 design airwaves.

Kohler's otherwise excellent analysis is undone by this weird solution of rapid transit to nowhere.

COP that

The last week has seen the 28th meeting of the Conference of Parties or COP28, setting a world agenda for climate change. After 10 years failure by the LibNatFeds we finally had some adults at the table, albeit one that's dominated by the oil and fossil fuel cartel. The COPS have been talk fests with little outcome.

The best critique of COP28 is by George Monbiot in The Guardian, who has described it a “a farce rigged to fail” and “billionaires blocking action to save the planet”. But one issue for grammar pedants is The Guardian’s insistence on acronyms being in lower case when the rest of the world has them capitalised, so COP28 becomes Cop28, even though it’s officially COP28. Look past that conceit to some good writing

Could Marmite fix the Middle East

Amongst a variety of clients it was one of my great pleasures to work with Edward De Bono, the inventor of lateral thinking. Design discussions proceeded on analogies in various guises: footings were like tree roots; roof sections were like airfoils to capture breezes in tropical climates. The result of these discussions was reviewed in AA by Peter Skinner and in ToT here.

Today I’m moved to think of one of de Bono’s most extraordinary edicts, made in 1999, that the Arab-Israeli conflict could be solved with Marmite (aka UK Vegemite). He postulated that unleavened bread led to a lack of zinc in the Middle East diet, which made all sides more irritable. A yeast extract could make peace easier? Trite joke. His writings on lateral thinking versus deductive reasoning suggest that the current war requires a far more complex solution.


This week’s book is an exception to prove the rule of the hero image. You might think it a limited subject, maybe 10, ordinary. But there are a hundred, many brilliant, designed by significant architects: Joseland and Gilling, Samuel Lipson, Leslie Wilkinson, Emil Sodersten, Eric Pitt and Aaron Bolot. Author, amateur historian Larisa Sarkadi, has made a tour de force in bringing these apartments to the fore, with details of architect, builder, numbers and dates.

The downside? Not a single building would be approved today. Under the NSW Apartment Design Guide, issues such as access, size, cars, balcony size, materiality, finish, height, scale would rule 'em out. Yet the buildings have almost one hundred years of treasured occupation and usefulness. It's an indictment of our profession that the authorities think we need a restrictive pattern book as a means of controlling the worst of developers' desires.

Signs off

Sign on St Stephens Uniting Church in Sydney City. 2016.

Next week

The dead zone, 2023 in review.

Tone Wheeler is an architect /adjunct prof UNSW / president AAA.

The views expressed are his.

These Design Notes are Tone on Tuesday #192, week 50/2023.

Past Tone on Tuesday columns can be found here

Past A&D Another Thing columns can be found here

You can contact TW at [email protected]