Professor Richard Manasseh, program leader, Future Urban Infrastructure at Smart Cities Research Institute, Swinburne University of Technology observes that ‘architecture is too important to be left to architects’.

So would a collaboration between an architect and an engineer better serve the purpose of design? When world renowned architect Le Corbusier wrote ‘a house is a machine for living in’, he meant that architects should design inspired by the machine age, in which form follows function.

As masters of space, architects understand how human beings perceive and respond to space. One example that comes to mind is Le Corbusier's design of a 1947 high-rise apartment building called Cité Radieuse in Marseilles, France.

Designed as a city within the city, the building included homes for ordinary people as well as facilities that met all the needs of the residents such as shops, a theatre, a childcare centre, a rooftop children’s pool and picnic tables.

Unlike modern apartments that have front doors opening onto an interior corridor with the resident practically living in a tunnel lit at one end only, Le Corbusier incorporated access corridors only on every second level, creating two-storey apartments with views of both the mountains and the Mediterranean. Only a good architect can achieve this brilliant manipulation of space, says Manasseh.

However, an architect’s concept of space, which is forever fixed in time, is not enough for the 21st century.

Speaking on his own area of specialisation – fluid dynamics – which is the study of fluid flows, Manasseh observes that both air and water are fluids, and the understanding and control of their motion are vital to future cities. Since fluids move and their patterns of flow can change in time, their control demands calculations in time as well as space.

There are skyscrapers with integrated wind turbines that are usually left idle. Going a step further, could the street be designed to funnel wind into a giant turbine? Not very practical from the point of view of engineers who will tell you that doubling the speed with a ‘wind funnel’ street would quadruple the force slamming into doors, windows and people.

However, engineers could design the walls of buildings for harvesting wind power without affecting the people living in them. When applied to the air, water and energy flow inside the building as well as outside, this dual purpose thinking could result in homes that balance both form and function.

Rainwater harvesting is very common in Australian cities but can rainwater collection be integrated into the architecture, rather than leaving it as an afterthought for builders? Manasseh suggests that rainwater reticulation should be integrated into urban design.

Stormwater systems are designed by civil engineers, who calculate that drains choke at a critical ratio of flow rate to the square root of depth. Architects could work with these civil engineers to give drains a second time-dependent purpose, as well as with electrical engineers to integrate the design of pumps with solar capacity.

Connecting human-centred and machine-centred design

Based on their experience integrating the human-centred and machine-centred design worlds, Swinburne is working on concepts that pair architects and engineers. The university’s Product Design Engineering course, for instance, hybridises the human-centred arts with mechanical engineering. With architectural engineering, the masters of space are being trained to be masters of time too, says Manasseh.

The university also uses big data available for urban environments to test their concepts. For example, shade from street trees reduces air-conditioning loads and the trees also transpire water, reducing stormwater loads. However, they also reduce the solar power, wind and water that could be harvested. Urban data provides information on several aspects such as where the shadows will fall or how wind patterns will change.

On a visit to Le Corbusier's Cité Radieuse a few years ago, Manasseh found that the building still offered beautiful views of the mountains and the Mediterranean; however, the children’s pool was dry, and the shops had been replaced by architects' offices.

Time had moved on, and Le Corbusier's ‘machine’ was a sculpture, not a machine.

Based on the article ‘Architecture is too important to be left to architects’ by Professor Richard Manasseh, Program leader, Future Urban Infrastructure, Smart Cities Research Institute, Swinburne University of Technology

Image: Richard Manasseh