Giving housing a big wrap

This week the SMH highlighted a confluence of coincidences to bring fresh ideas to the housing debate. Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal are French architects whose work on French public housing garnered much attention and the Pritzker Prize.

Their approach is to leave the building intact and wrap it in lightly glazed additional spaces for residents. And all this work is undertaken with the residents in place.

Public housing in France is as dire as Australia (but more of it). Architect’s dreams of vast visual essays in concrete. Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal work otherwise: eschewing grand architecture in favour of the individual resident. How wonderful that they have a residency at the University of Sydney, just when a change of government in New South Wales says it will halt the sale and demolition of public housing.

It's time for their students, having visited projects in France, to turn their attention and ideas to the local concrete monoliths in Alexandria and Waterloo. Their challenges won’t only be the difference in climate or construction; moreover it’s the intransigence of our deep conservatism on housing.

To shade or not to shade

Delving into Paul walker’s new book on John Andrews (see last week’s AAT) begs a big question about changing technology in designing building envelopes. Changes wrought to his early 70s design for King George Tower, (originally, then American Express, then many re-brands) typifies the issues.

KGT had a witty series of bent stainless pipe frames that held up green polycarbonate ‘sunglasses’ over the glazed facade, horizontal to the north, angled vertical to the west in response to Sydney's sun angles, an intriguing pattern. Not only did they give shade, but they also provided access walkways for window cleaning and a foreground view for those suffering from vertigo.

In 1998 the building was controversially re-clad by removing the ‘sunnies’, replacing them with high-performance glass, and 5 external atria (architects Rice Daubney). This poses a conundrum. What happens when glass becomes so sophisticated that sheer double glazing with specialist coatings can outperform any form of external sun control, resisting heat loss and solar gain whilst maintaining full views.

60s and 70s traditionalists, brought up on a diet of Victor Olgyay’s Design with Climate, want to see physicality on the building’s exterior, representing sunlight and shade. Architecture having an expression in response to climate. Old schoolers hate the banality of the glass box, no matter its performance level. KGT may be more efficient, but it looks dull by comparison. It only adds to the tragedy that John Andrews is the most destroyed architect in Australia's history.

A bouquet made of bricks

Bricks are the foundation of Australian building: the first manufacturing established in the colony. Bricks have held sway, as had the industry organisation, Think Brick. Rebranded from the Clay Brick and Tile Association some 15 years ago, under then CEO Linda Ginger, it had an illustrious time in the media sun with several innovations.

Most were led by Cathy Inglis, technical and marketing manager at Brickworks. A longitudinal study of thermal comfort at the University of Newcastle was parlayed into the website Designing with Climate, extolling the values of insulation, shading, sunlight, but particularly thermal mass, where brickwork shines. Innovative speculative designs by leading architects, using bricks in creative ways, were published for several years. Think Brick awards were established, featuring the Horbury Hunt prize.

Sadly it’s been a bit moribund for a while. But no more. Cathy Inglis is the new CEO, something her many fans in architecture are applauding (if the socials are anything to go by). She's rare, and not just because she's a woman excelling in a man's world. A materials scientist by training, she's designed many innovations, such as Terracade and improvements in the way precast structures are made. A creative at heart, an enthusiast by inclination, she has an exceptional ability to talk sense to architects. I look forward to an extraordinarily productive second part to her career.

May the force be against you

Urban Taskforce Australia is made up primarily by big property developers and financiers and have been described as one of the most powerful lobby groups in NSW. Founded in 1999, and controversially boosted by then NSW premier Bob Carr, it’s had a chequered history as it promotes the ideas for greater density (on the side of the angels) and the removal of council powers (angering the greens). For eight years it successfully steered its way in choppy waters with CEO Chris Johnson, former NSW Government Architect. But since he left in 2019 it’s been all over the shop.

The most recent incident that raised architect’s eyebrows was in its 30 June edition. “Urban Taskforce to the Australian Institute of Architects – “stick to architecture, leave the economics of development alone.” How dare architects talk about housing economics. They should stick to their rails as designers. Incorrect, insulting, inept. You want as many on your side as possible. Here’s a hint boys (and they are all boys): you get more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.

Bookends: Materiality x 2

Here’s two books sponsored by Brickworks (with the steady hand of the aforementioned Cathy Inglis guiding the work). Full disclosure: your correspondent features a couple of times in one, and for his sins is omitted completely in the other.

Signs off: Brick Dex

You know you’re on a winner when the words are spelt phonetically, and the texture is haptically cringeworthy.  Here’s where we sign off this week.

Tone Wheeler is an architect / the views expressed are his.

A&D Another Thing, 4 August 2023 (week 31)

Long columns are Tone on Tuesday, short shots every Friday in A&D Another Thing.

You can contact TW at [email protected]