R+BA: One of the ideas that was first brought up by urbanist Alan Davies is that of a museum of Australian architecture, the premise being that it could house a collection of models and plans and photographs and digital information pertaining to our built heritage. Do you think that this is something that could get political traction?
TB: I doubt on its own that it would because it would be struggling alongside the sports museum and the performing arts museum, and they actually have to have a business case for them. I was very keen on the idea – and we’d actually pursued this – of putting together a planning centre for Melbourne, similar to what exists in Shanghai. For an architect it’s almost worth the visit to Shanghai itself just to go and see the planning centre. It’s a 5, 6, 7 storey building in the middle of Shanghai. It’s dedicated completely and utterly to the history and future of Shanghai as a city. Probably the main feature is a very very large scale model of Shanghai which is interactive in the sense that there are new buildings shown, old buildings shown, and you walk through it and around it, and it gives you a sense of scale that you can’t appreciate even being on top of the observation centre in Shanghai. Then around it at various levels is the history of Shanghai, the history of the buildings and everything that goes with it. I was very keen to see that explored as an opportunity, whether as a government project, or whether it was a government council project, or whether it was part of a largely commercial building. I think we could probably do it; we did explore it as part of a large commercial building. So the foyer became this interactive expression of the history of Melbourne. If you recall there used to be a little museum down the bottom of this building, the old treasury building, the City museum which had petite and very intimate exhibitions telling the story of Melbourne. It was closed under the previous Labor government. We made a commitment to bring it back. We were in the throes of that, it didn’t happen, but there is now a museum doing similar things downstairs, but with a different focus on the city. The notion of an architectural museum, I would have thought, fits perfectly in to the notion of a planning centre where Melbournians and visitors can go and say “ok, this is the morphology of our city, this is where we can go in the future, this is what the city’s going to look like when we superimpose the buildings that have been approved, these are the opportunities in the future and you can learn more about it as you go.” In a way, ACMI does that for film, a planning centre would be a really positive thing for planning, for development for architecture, and for everybody in the building phase of Melbourne’s history.
Shanghai Urban Planning and Exhibition Center Image source: Wikipedia
R+BA: Is there a site that you have in mind?
TB: Well I’ve certainly speculated about a few, I won’t condemn those sites by mentioning them, but we certainly thought about a few commercial opportunities. Indeed one of the considerations that I had, but I didn’t want to impose it on the Flinders Street Competition, was that there might have been something that could have worked there.
There are brilliant things in the Shanghai exhibition. You can actually step into a sealed space and you stand there and you’re invited to grip a handle and then you’re taken on a fly through Shanghai and it is as if you are in a helicopter flying through Shanghai and you end up leaning, it’s extraordinary. Kids love that. There are so many ways to allow children and architecture to embrace. Particularly in this city with our heritage. I think it’d be a great addition. Anyway it didn’t happen and it got a bit truncated when I got truncated
R+BA: But there’s no reason why that couldn’t come back.
TB: A smart developer doing a project on scale, given the opportunity could at least design a foyer for this. And a smart government would say go there, we’ll help you and we’ll give you some trade-offs as well.
R+BA: A building like that would be an excellent addition to somewhere like Docklands. It would add to the layering of that space and as an attraction to tourists.
TB: Docklands has still got a long way to go. The Boulevard is probably the most difficult space down there I think.
R+BA: Lord Mayor Robert Doyle predicted that in the not too distant future the Docklands Stadium would be demolished and a new facility built elsewhere. Do you think the position of the stadium was the right choice? Do you agree with his view that it’s got a limited future there?
TB: Well when we think the Waverley stadium was going to solve every problem for the AFL and it’s gone. The MCG will obviously stay where it is. It’s a bit like Washington’s axe, there’s no original piece of the MCG there other than the vibe and the location. And place is probably the most important thing about memory and remembrance and connection. A sense of place is incredibly important, so who knows?
My view of Docklands at the time, evolved when I got involved with a group that wanted to submit a non-conforming bid to build a different Docklands Stadium and I thought that had a lot of merit in it. At the moment the current Docklands stadium is just a two thirds replica of the MCG, ring of seating, ring of hospitality, ring of seating. It’s actually inefficient to run, it’s inefficient for small crowds. It’s expensive to build, expensive to service, all of that constraining. Everybody bid on that same design effectively, and the approach this group had taken was to say no, let’s pick up the ring of seating, the ring of hospitality, stack it on one side of the stadium, make that the hospitality area for stadium use, and when the stadium’s not being used it can be used as a hotel. Or when it’s being used for a concert it would be back of stage. And then you get the full stadium effect, a Colosseum of integrated seating. Much easier to build, quicker to build, quicker to service because you haven’t got the hospitality spread out, you’ve got stacks that you can use for hospitality. Anyway it didn’t happen. I suspect that somewhere in this country we’ll have a stadium like that before too long and perhaps Western Australia, or Perth, and Adelaide missed the opportunity to build a stadium that’s really different. Adelaide has now got a stadium that’s a little bit Melbourne, it’s got an interesting gap in it, it seems to be working for them now, but someone will do a different structure sometime in the future.
R+BA: I suspect that with the docklands stadium it wasn’t really until maybe the rectangular stadium [Cox Architects] was built that I think the general public realised that an opportunity had been lost at Docklands to do something of that sort of extraordinary architectural quality.
Melbourne Rectangular Stadium by Cox Architects Photo credit: Christopher Falzon
TB: Well, because Docklands was essentially based on a standardised design, that Jackson’s did, and the design has nothing particularly wrong with it, except that it’s a bit hard to know where you are once you’re in there. I guess that no one amongst the decision makers was looking at it architecturally. At that particular time there was such sensitivity following all sorts of public discussion about how the casino was procured, all of which went nowhere, but there was sensitivity about nonconforming bids.
The rectangular stadium itself, it was such a struggle to get that up. A number of people tried to get that up 9 years earlier and to get a rugby union team in inner Melbourne. It’s got its limitation in the number of seats, and Melbourne Victory would still like to use it, but they’re drawing bigger crowds for the bigger games and so they have to go to Etihad. The mobile seating is in operation there to try to close the gap on the rectangular pitch, but there’s still a lot of people a long way from the pitch at Docklands Stadium.
R+BA: Another one of the big issues Victoria’s facing at the moment is the idea of should there be minimum standards for apartments. The current government’s going through a big process of figuring out if there should be and what those standards should be. The office of the Victorian Government Architect’s been doing a lot of work in that area as well. Do you think Victoria needs minimum apartment standards?
TB: Let me give you a short answer: Absolutely.
TB: The long answer: Absolutely Essential. I had been working, as premier, very closely with Geoffrey London and encouraging the development of an apartment code. We have a very significant problem in Victoria, and to some extent in other states. The apartment code is one part of the solution to that. The problem is that we have very expensive construction costs in this country, particularly in Victoria. Anything over 3 storeys, the price is 2-3 times more per square metre than a small lot single storey cottage construction. And that leaves the young family that’s making the decision about an apartment in an inequitable situation. On the one hand, they can choose a smaller single storey cottage construction in a developing area, the greenfields, or they can choose an apartment. The apartment will be half the size and twice the price. So what are young families doing? They’re making that decision to build twice the space at half the price, and they’re going to greenfields. And their wishes are being accommodated by developers who’ve mastered the art of single storey small lot cottage construction. They know where every nail’s going to be, the sites are shrinking, everything is shrinking, the power points are shrinking, the thickness of the plasterboard’s shrinking. Everything is being condensed in those areas.
We don’t have any attention on reducing the cost of apartment building. The only response that the industry’s come up with is to now avoid some of the problems and now fabricate offshore and assemble here. That is a direct response to these high costs. I had a project on my desk two years ago that was brought to me for a thousand apartments in a tall building in the CBD and each and every one of them fabricated offshore and assembled here, each and every one of them 16 square metres. It has got to the ridiculous stage where we are forcing families to the fringe and creating this massive donut of families. We’ve got to change it.
The cost of construction is having a bigger impact on the planning of our cities than anything else. I tried to focus on that within government and we were within a whisker of getting a productivity commission inquiry in to construction costs. We were vigorously opposed by the then federal government. We eventually got COAG [Council of Australian Governments] on board, and the federal government then attempted to scuttle that by means of unacceptable appointments, because COAG had demanded that they get the right to appoint the enquiry. Until we address that you can have all the planning policies in the world, it’s not going to change. We will continue to send families to the fringe. Until we have an inquiry in to construction costs and do something about those costs, and give families a more equitable share – nothing will change. And until we put in place apartment codes, we will get the market reacting and just building product which is foothold product. Somebody wants a single bedroom which folds down. I’ve been concerned about this for 10 or 12 years, I’ve been on the public record about it all that time. We were concerned when apartments were getting down to 35 square metres and now they’re getting down to 16. We can lower the costs, it’s not just about 1 dimension. There’s a whole lot of things that can be done, and if we do, we’ll make the choice easier for families to choose to live closer to the city.
Having a code is essential and I was really disappointed that after I left it didn’t happen. I do hope that under this government it does. Yes there’s an argument about how it will increase costs. Well until you decrease the relative core costs of construction for apartments it’s a furphy to worry about one aspect, when there’s the central aspect. We’ve got apartments now that are just dreadful. They’re shocking. Tiny balconies that are jammed up with an air conditioner and internal bedrooms with no ventilation or light, fold down beds, ceilings that are to the absolute minimum. Then barely having any prospect of ever meeting accessibility standards in the future, and they’re completely unsuited to families.
Most developments, when they launch now, their promotional material says 1, 2, and 3 bedrooms. In 200 apartments there might be two 3 bedrooms, they will be at the top of the building, the most expensive, and the third bedroom will be a pigeon hole. The two bedrooms is usually one bedroom and a pigeon hole. And the one bedroom’s will be a fold down bed and good luck if you’ve got a bike. It’s going to kill the golden goose in the city if we continue down the track.
R+BA: I think architects throughout the city are wary of these issues and some are actually doing something about it, such as the Nightingale development, have you been following that?
TB: Most of the fuss about Nightingale was about the car parking, and that was an easy one for the public to digest as an issue. On the car parking issue, the problem with that is that if you do one, you’ve got license to do all of them the same. Regardless of whether somebody uses a car in a building, the building gets visited by cars, so you have to accommodate cars. And we shouldn’t just assume we’re talking about petroleum driven vehicles. Sometime in the future, there will be personal transport which is much more environmentally friendly. So I have my doubts about not providing car parking. But that’s an aside.
Part of the problem is that councils don’t get that capacity to make selective decisions, and one of our problems with rezoning is that we tend to drop the zone. We changed the residential zones, and I thought that was an important thing to do, but even then, with some zones we’re looking for diversity in product, but if an area already has diversity, the chances are you will kill the diversity and you’ll end up with a homogenous result.
We don’t empower councils sufficiently to make selective decisions. Yes you can have no car parking there, but the next building will want car parking, otherwise we’ll just end up with cars parked all over the place. You need the diversity. I have no problem with there being some apartments that don’t have car parking provided that there are others that do. Then you get the diversity, and then you can get the price differentials which appeal to the broader market. There’s no use having everything really high price because your young workforce can’t afford to live there. We’re getting a bit of that with some resorts now. So the cost issue is the right one to pursue, but we have to pursue all aspects of it. We’ve got the three storey rule, regarding costs, it’s arbitrary, really heavy OHS costs. We’ve got completely non-competitive bidding, everybody bids on the same basis. Tendering in this country is just not competitive.
To make it truly competitive we need a bit more international competition to fuel that. We’ve got to deal with the monopoly supply chains on cement and other products, and have a serious look at why the cost of an apartment that’s over 3 storeys is 2-3 times more expensive than the equivalent on ground. Otherwise it’ll just keep going. All the grand gestures and all the articles in the newspapers, you will write about it and others will write about it, about how we’ve got to stop the sprawl. The sprawl will stop when young families can make an equitable choice to purchase what they want in an apartment.
Proposed design of the Nightingale Apartments by Breathe Architecture
R+BA: The Nightingale decision at VCAT was highly controversial amongst the architectural profession and I think in the general community as well. There’s been a couple of VCAT decisions since to allow apartments without any car parking. I think that in the profession there is a perception that VCAT is quite inconsistent. What one member will think is the most important and deciding factor another member may not.
TB: Well I was Planning Shadow for a while, and at least I understood what was being talked about. I don’t want to blow my own trumpet but I have a fairly mature view of VCAT and we had a policy position which we didn’t get to under me and unfortunately it probably would have been implemented if we won an election.
My view of VCAT is that VCAT shouldn’t be surprising the community. The fundamental planning schemes ought to be set at the council level with municipal strategic statements, and that you shouldn’t go to VCAT if you don’t fundamentally comply with the municipal strategic statement, either for or against. Unless there’s substantial compliance with the municipal strategic statement, you don’t go to VCAT. If you want to do something which is out of the ordinary then you take it to the council level, or it remains for the government to call it in. You can seek the rezoning of whatever and take it through a planning system. In my view, VCAT shouldn’t be making declarations which take everybody by surprise. And I think it’s unfair on VCAT. It required a modification of the strategic approach to VCAT which we’d been working through but didn’t get to while I was there unfortunately. So I have various strings to the bow to try and keep our cities liveable – cost enquiry, strengthening the government architect, having the apartment code in place, looking at VCAT, design review panels which are a fantastic initiative, looking at strengthening the local community in the sense of municipal strategic statements and actually sticking to them. If you don’t want to stick to them then take it through the planning system rather than through VCAT.
R+BA: One thought with VCAT is that perhaps if there is this inconsistency, maybe what we need to be doing is having more decisions made by a panel of three rather than an individual sitting member.
TB: When it comes to inconsistency there’s so much in the eye of the beholder and closer examination does raise different circumstances. The claim will be inconsistency on one hand but then an analysis will say well that decision was on a sloping site, this one was on a flat site.
R+BA: Yes it could well be a perception of inconsistency.
TB: That’s why I thought the solution to that was to give a little bit of authority back to those strategic statements, so if you want to breach them you go a different route, you don’t go to VCAT.