The Material City, edited and curated by Ron Ringer, is a deep-dive into urban density; a celebration of the Australian architects and designers whose work addresses this growing phenomenon in innovative and exemplary ways. The book contains 50 projects and 20 essays and features, as well as an index of suggested products for urban density projects.

What I liked

This certainly is a hefty book. It looks and feels impressive, with its sleek, minimalist hardback cover and over 530 pages of content.

The book begins with projects. Some of my favourites happen to be from Melbourne – the Wertheim Factory Conversion by Kerstin Thompson Architects and RMIT New Academic Street by Lyons, MvS Architects, NMBW Architecture Studio, Harrison and White and Maddison Architects.

Wertheim Factory Conversion is a stunning example of adaptive re-use done well. Originally designed by Nahum Bernet and completed in 1909, the building was once home to the Wertheim piano factory before serving as a factory for Heinz and eventually the site of GTV Nine, where the show ‘Hey Hey it’s Saturday’ was produced until 2001. Now, the beautifully-maintained brick building is a mixture of residential, community and retail space.

the material city architecture book review
Photography by Shannon McGrath

As written by the architect, “It demonstrates the economic, cultural and social value in the adaptive re-use of heritage buildings at the scale of the individual dwelling, the residential complex and the broader neighbourhood”.

the material city architecture book review

“It shows how our built history can be reworked and stringently value-managed to meet current building codes, while maintaining links with our past in ways that enrich higher density living opportunities for today.”

RMIT New Academic Street is also a great example of the delicate touch sometimes required in complex urban density projects. Located on the site of existing buildings in the middle of RMIT’s city campus, it took four years to plan and three years to build, all the while the university needed to remain operational.

the material city architecture book review
Photography by Peter Bennetts

“The facilities managers at RMIT probably wished that they could demolish the buildings concerned and just start again from zero in a nice clean state, as they did in the 1960s, but this was simply not feasible,” write the architects.

“The project started with the task of modifying and renovating large chunks of very large buildings, working from the bottom up with eight occupied levels above… fully engaged with the messiness of history, the stubbornness of tradition, and the hyper-specificity of existing conditions.”

These are just some of the interesting case studies profiled in The Material City. The essays in this book are also well-worth reading. In particular, Kim Crestani paints a great picture of a manifesto for urban design in Vertigo – a manifesto?, where she makes a comprehensive series of recommendations for Australian cities to successfully embrace urban density.

I would also like to give special mention to Louis Kahn Speech, a clever, charming free verse poem written by Neil Durbach about his university days; his admiration of Louis Kahn and what inspired him to become an architect.

The verdict

This book has a bit of everything; interesting case studies, thoughtful essays and building product recommendations. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in urban architecture and design, and anyone who’s wondering how on earth we’re going to deal with our ever-growing population. The case studies and opinion pieces in this book show that at the very least, there is no shortage of good ideas from Australian designers.