Below is the front cover of a brochure produced by the City of Sydney council (CoS) extolling the virtues of late-night business trading (but not the revival of nightlife). The image shows a bookshop, trading to 8pm, looking interesting and inviting, full of stock, well-lit with beautifully displayed books. The putative customers in the image are signalling good business.

Tone on Tuesday: On droit de suite

For me, the image invites discussion of two things, and neither having a happy ending.

First question, where is this delicious shop? Answer, it’s on the ground floor of one of three long and very handsome 3-storey buildings on the north side of Sydney’s Oxford Street between Taylor and Whitlam Squares; and all three are owned by the aforementioned City of Sydney council.

The buildings result from the widening of Oxford Street for tram lines in 1905. Sydney City Council, as it was then, compulsorily acquired the row of small workers terraces, then considered slums (but now would be heritage). The site thus created was originally intended for apartments to rehouse the displaced workers, but council at the time decided to opt for a greater return with commercial spaces above retail shops.

The result, completed in 1915, were beautifully proportioned Federation-style buildings in face brick and local sandstone, although it is now a little shabby and unkempt in parts. Some leased shops have lasted (Zinc and Sons Art Deco front is a local icon), some have changed, but all are let at below competitive rates. As they become vacant, they have been refurbished and upgraded for accessibility by the CoS.

From the beginning successive councils have leased the upper level offices to socially oriented, not-for-profit and philanthropic groups at discounted rents. The offices are well-loved, the beautiful spaces having light from two sides (a result of the narrow site created by widening the street and keeping the rear lanes).

Providing lower rents for socially progressive organizations is needed and worthy, particularly as Sydney becomes so monoculturally expensive, but a year ago, the current CoS, led by mayor Clover Moore, decided to lease the building for 99 years to an international retail operator, describing it as a ‘refurbishment’. No doubt Ariel bookshop will be priced out and disappear as soon as the ink is dry on the deal.

The CoS seem more concerned with appearances than continuing social obligations built up over a century, effectively admitting that they care more for the glamorous community centres and libraries, that they have been rightly proud of building in the last 15 years, than the gritty unions and leftist agitators who have been their tenants.

It is ironic that Australia's wealthiest LGA also has the largest number of homeless people - but the council has never connected those two facts. The CoS makes little provision for low-cost housing, and none for homelessness. Since Oxford St was rebuilt it has made no effort at all at low cost offices or retail, and now it’s effectively selling off the one building it does have.

The second issue to be examined is the image itself. This is the credit given on the front endpaper, inside the brochure. (see below)

Look past the spelling error (perhaps the millennial copywriter is more familiar with the ‘Arial font’ than ‘Ariel Greek angel’) let’s turn to who is credited here: the photographer. Not the owners (mother and daughter) who initiated the business, nor the architect who created the content of the image. Without the client and architect there is no photograph to be taken.

Which begs the question of how much credit is given to architects when their designs are used in photos, films or advertising. Precious little. Whilst we see paintings and artists credited when they appear in films, or particularly in stills, rarely is the architect credited.

Architecture forms a huge part of the visual language of film, from endless modernism by Jacques Tati or dystopian LA in Bladerunner by Ridley Scott. It can even be the entire raison d’etre for a film like Columbus by Kogonada (you haven’t seen it?). The architects are rarely credited – a big shout out to the futurist Syd Mead for Bladerunner, and Scott’s choice of George Wyman’s Bradbury building and FLW’s Ennis House.

Architecture, especially in dramatic forms, is the backdrop for thousands of advertisements for lifestyle products, cars and clothes. ‘Location finders’ hoover up the latest high-end award-winning houses and buildings onto their books, which can be great for the owners as there is much money to be made when they are used in advertisements; though sadly not for the architects who created the scenography.

My concern here is twofold: giving credit to the architects is ethically, artistically and morally correct. Moreover, giving architects money is an important principle wherever their work makes money for others. Architects should benefit when buildings sell for more than their costs – the added value comes from their design work.

This is the basis of ‘droit de suite’ or resale rights where each sale renders a small percentage back to the author (usually an artist but applied here to an architect) in recognition of the value in the design beyond the expenditure of monies on building costs. It is those costs which form the basis of the architect’s ‘percentage fees’, but how much better to have added fees for ‘value’.

Some architects, mostly of expensive homes, have a ‘droit de suite’ clause in their contracts that returns a proportion of any future sale to the architect, usually calculated on the basis of profit over costs at completion. Rarely does a contract have a provision for fees when their work is used as a film or advertisement location, but maybe they should.

Architects are often poorly renumerated for their work. Their contracts, if based on a percentage of construction cost, may be driven down, when they should be reflective of the value of the project. Unfortunately for now, this only ever applies to that rarefied world of high-end glamour home projects.

For architects undertaking most run-of-the-mill projects, or projects with a strong social conscience like the CoS’s Oxford St buildings, ‘droit de suite’ is a fantasy from another world.

Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Comments can be posted here or addressed to [email protected]

A final postscript: Ariel bookshop in the photograph was designed by environa studio, my own firm. If it’s OK for CoS to credit their photographic staff, then they should credit the project’s creators as well. The principle is important. It’s not personal, even if you think it is in this case. Perhaps you agree with my editor who refers to this column, not as Tone on Tuesday but as 'whingeing Wheeler'.