This is the third and final part of our exclusive interview with Tone Wheeler, the principal and director of Environa Studio.
Was Australian architecture sustainable in the 1960s and 70s?
No, they were building suburbs, the city they built was modernist and pretty and personable but they did some stupid things like the Liberal Party pulling out all the trams – the third biggest system of transit services and second biggest system from Brisbane and Melbourne. That was rank stupidity.
However, a lot of very good things happened such as the social housing programs when we were trying to help people after a terrible war, we were taking in people from mostly southern Europe and then towards the end of that period, we were taking in people from Asia because we were fighting in south-east Asia.
You can repopulate those suburbs, you can take the main lines of transport, and double, triple, quadruple the population in those areas, but you can leave the suburbs as they are. Your house is not threatened, 90 percent of the houses in the suburbs are not threatened.
Maybe you could do something like make your house more sustainable, grow some vegetables, put in some solar panels, put in some better insulation but the real sustainability is that you increase those traffic routes now.
Rob Adams, the former city architect for the Melbourne city council calculated that you really only have to work on a very small percentage, about 6 percent of the building stock to double, triple, quadruple the amount of housing along the transport routes in order to be able to double the population.
That's what we want to do in Sydney – you just need to target certain areas and you build something so if you look at the way in which some of the urban centres of Sydney are being revitalised, you don’t hear the negativity of medium density houses, people living in flats, actually quite a lot of people like living here without a car, having direct access to the services, and don't want a big kitchen as they would rather go down and have a meal at a restaurant.
I think suburbia has changed greatly.
People with a bigger lot and a big house are having more people live in the same house for several reasons – economic, cultural, social; there are more and more grown children staying at home because they can't afford to get a house of their own, they can’t afford to move out, they are comfortable doing it, their lifestyle is one where they move between places so it’s just a safe haven to be at home.
So you're getting three generations now, and as the economics bite, the parents can’t afford to fund both their own house and their grown children's house. Since the grandparents are getting older, and the house is getting too big for them, what you do is you cash in one of the mortgages on the grandparents’ house, which is paid off and you put that money into rebuilding what I think is really a miniature block of flats.
The invisible hand of the market – is that what will save or increase sustainability in Sydney or any other capital city?
One of the talks I gave at the Sustainability Live event was how in my woods the green karma runs over the brown dogma. What I’m talking about is that green is no longer on the margins; it's become mainstream and brown dogma is really the kind of pushback against it.
Taken as a whole, Australia has got some of the most interesting innovations in sustainability, the highest uptake of photovoltaic panels on private houses in the world, maybe due to the fact that we have so much suburbia, or maybe because of the incentives that we have.
Australia has a huge number of self-made electric cars – the Australian Electric Vehicle Association listed about 400 homemade electric cars. The thing is they’re coming and they’re coming in such a way because it's so much easier to charge off the photovoltaics than indulge in fossil fuels.
That aside, there's a whole revolution in what people are eating, and how you eat and how you travel, where you go, how things get made and what goods are at one level.
It’s not all bright sky because there's a brown dogma; I think Australia has world class brown dogma. Any country where the Prime Minister, the premier politician, walks into Parliament carrying a lump of black coal saying this is the future, don't be scared of it; not to put too fine a word on it – it’s idiotic.
What does the future look like?
The future is much, much, more complex. It's much more social, it’s not physical; the reason that Blade Runner is such an interesting movie is because it concocted a social notion about the idea of robots, because replicants are essentially robot units.
Only in the last three or four years, have we started to talk about the idea of artificial intelligence and effectively what replicants are and what they will do to the future. There are people on both sides and that's a huge debate now. Robots are everywhere in one sense or another.
My positive spin on it is that you'll get robots to do the stuff that you don't want to do but you won’t let robots do the stuff you really enjoy. So robots can run the trains, robots can run the autonomous vehicle to pick you up and take you to the airport, vacuum the house and make my lunch.
But if I want to go for a drive in the country in my luxury car, I do not want some robot doing it – I want to feel the wind and the air and the light. If I want to grow some food, I don't want a robot growing it in some autonomous factory. If you want to have really beautiful clothing that fits you, you don't want it made by a robot.
What do we need to do to try and make life more enjoyable to everyone? The city is diverse; by 2050, we will have some 75 percent of the world's population living in cities so we need to address what goes on in cities.
We have to address social, and particularly, economic inequality; I don't have a simple solution for it but I do have a solution for people to enjoy their lives more by just getting a little bit closer to the traditions of looking after yourself in handmade clothes, handmade food, slow feed, having good share transport, living in shared houses with maybe two or three generations, slowing it down, it's the slow movement, that's the sustainability movement.
For the full podcast of Tone Wheeler on Talking Architecture & Design, click here.