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urban

scenarios

WORDS BY Simon Whibley

INTRODUCTION

It is common these days to see urbanism appear as the subject of discussion in both the news and opinion sections of our local media. Long-standing debates on suburban infill development have been recently supplemented by concerns that the successful agglomeration of densities and built fabric in Melbourne’s CBD is at risk of sterilisation by residential high rise and that the failures of Docklands are about to be repeated at Fishermans Bend. Such discussions are, of course, not limited to Melbourne’s centre and inner suburbs, nor are issues that have profound urban affects limited only to the how and where of housing increasing populations. Questions of a post-Ford Geelong, or the continued infrastructural isolation of peripheral suburbs, are highly complex problems that are inherently spatial. Despite this, discussion is almost always around building type and density, and architectural design itself is largely excluded as a way of furthering debate or contributing ideas to the form of our settlements.

 

MAKING SENSE

The theme for this issue emerged through a series of design studios in RMIT’s Master of Architecture program, where I developed a simple teaching structure to enable students to identify and develop design opportunities for large-scale urban proposals. Over the course of the thirteen week studio, each week the students examined the same urban area through a different lens — changes in economics, demographics, or climate — and returned each week with a new proposal. As these investigations and speculations accrued, a complexity of approaches emerged, and large and small-scale ideas were applied. One of the clearest outcomes of these studios is the identification of important sites: the critical places within a larger urban area that emerge following these investigations. Design proposals in these urban scale projects valuably demonstrate how important such sites can be — how they can provide the founding character and context for unique urban environments. These studios revealed that architectural exploration of urban issues, such as population growth, climate, ageing, or the economic influence of Asia, can identify the broad physical, spatial and programmatic opportunities within these changes. Without an investigation that combines architectural speculation with more conventional methods of urban planning, important opportunities for our cities are excluded from policy or public debate — a full sense of possibility is lost. This edition of Architect Victoria looks at the various ways an architectural project can identify and respond to issues as they affect the urbanism of towns and cities within Victoria. The examples discussed employ large and small scale urban strategies, ranging from speculative urban design proposals to exemplar built projects that have long lasting effects on their locations.

 

Regions

One of the related ambitions of this edition is to consider the future urbanism not only of metropolitan Melbourne but also of regional Victoria. Given the increasing phenomena of the peri-urban, where regional towns and cities within commutable distances to urban centres become convenient and affordable locations for city workers, such futures are inevitably intertwined: speculations on a town, city or suburb’s future can be undertaken through an understanding of the relationships and influences beyond its boundaries as much as the local and contextual – an approach that combines both the strategic and the specific. This edition is therefore structured simply; six locations at increasing distance from the centre of Melbourne, commencing in Fishermans Bend and ending in Mildura, are addressed. The first group of projects represent an inner region, where the relationships to Melbourne are most keenly felt. In the second group, the influence of Victoria’s urban and economic centre is manifest in its absence.

 

practice & research

In 2010, as part of a RMIT design studio travelling to China, I visited the office of Brearley Architecture and Urbanism (BAU) in Shanghai – the practice of Australian architect James Brearley. BAU was undertaking a number of projects in China at large and very large scales, the practice of designing cities that has become commonplace under China’s urban transformation and identified with contemporary Asia in general. In BAU’s projects, the upward shift in scale did not necessitate a reduction in speculation; the complexity of design ideas were as they would be in a building. Such complexity for BAU was necessary to reconcile the scale of new development with existing communities, built form and landscape; to ensure small grain urbanism was preserved alongside the larger project. Back here in Australia, such ambitious design thinking at large scales in practice is absent, even when sites of similar (or smaller) scale are being considered. Though differences in government, ownership and a slower, more fragmented system of development are pointed to as the reasons such approaches are precluded in practice, the ideas present in projects, such as BAU’s projects, provide a rich precedent for studio projects undertaken at our universities. Here, practitioners from small, medium and large practices are working with students to develop proposals for our future urban environments at various scales and locations, a body of research that will only increase as RMIT and Monash commence their Master of Urban Design programs. For practitioners with an interest in urbanism and the capacity of architectural design to contribute to it, the design studio becomes the means by which that contribution can be demonstrated, either as an extension to work undertaken within their practice at a particular location, or as a sustained investigation of a new site. These approaches and collaborations between practitioners, researchers and students are strongly represented in this edition and characterise the urban scale as an area where design speculation is a combined activity of practice and the academy.

Implicit & Explicit Urbanism

An important discovery from working in regional locations is that an architectural project does not become urban only as a function of increasing scale. In these places, which are almost always under resourced, any new facility needs to have a community impact beyond the briefed function of ‘hall’ or ‘child care centre.’ This in turn begs consideration of the location’s future urban development. This implicit urbanism, while not being entirely ‘bottom up’, can certainly introduce public space in an adaptive and opportunistic manner that creates complexity within and/or against larger scale urban plans. The content of this edition operates across each end of this spectrum, between the urbanism implicit to the manner in which a building engages with its location to explicit speculations for new urban form and infrastructure. This diversity, important for the presentation of the edition’s theme, can also be seen as a design methodology itself, a necessary suite of design strategies to cope with, and contribute to, the necessary complexity of a city.

 

urban scenarios

The title of the edition, ‘urban scenarios’, reflects the approach outlined in this editorial and explored in the contributions that follow. Adopting generic approaches to density, built form, streetscape and type misses the opportunities afforded by what is particular and possible. Inventive approaches to urbanism, be it redevelopment of an inner city industrial zone or revitalising a declining rural community, involve reconciling quantum, such as population, economics and services, alongside the application of integrative and speculative architectural design. Such approaches could provide solutions to some of our more difficult urban problems and, at the least, provide exciting and enduring urban realms.

 

individual contributors

 

New Melbourne: A Tale of Three Cities…? Lindsay Holland

Lindsay Holland presents the outcomes from a series of design studios at Melbourne and RMIT Universities examining the Fishermans Bend area. Through this work, Holland identifies the capacity of Fishermans Bend to create a long-term and fundamental transformation of Melbourne’s centre, reducing the demand for higher density in the central CBD through the establishment of a multi-nodal centre to the city. He contends that this potential is overlooked in current plans for the area and an ambition comparative with similarly-scaled international projects is required. 

Sunshine Rising. Urbanising the suburbs, Rutger Pasman

Rutger Pasman revisits his post-graduate research work, updating this investigation of urban networks through a speculation for the future development of Sunshine. This proposal reinterprets the urban mobility of Randstad in the Netherlands, a collective conurbation of over seven million, within the urban and regional connectivity of Sunshine. This ‘urbanism of in-between’ provides an alternative identity and means for establishing a new metropolitan centre.

Geelong: Old Sheds, New Tricks Lance Van Maanen

This Master of Architecture thesis project also uses an unconventional model for redevelopment, the expo, as a way to consider the post-industrial future of Geelong and its extraordinary remnant fabric. Van Maanen offers an optimistic speculation for two enormous abandoned sheds on Corio Bay: to house an expo centred on the themes of future production and manufacture, and to provide the infrastructure for a post-expo community.

The Melbourne Section Maud Cassaignau and Markus Jung

Between the inner and outer regions is this reflection on a Monash University design studio that challenges the core and periphery model of Melbourne through the revealing act of a section, cut from the CBD to Healesville. Run by Swiss architects and academics Markus Jung and Maud Cassaignau, the studio addressed the need for increased densification by looking at selected parts to determine a strategy for the whole. For Cassaignau and Jung, the section was a way to make sense of Melbourne’s expansive urban form and to identify its specificities.

Bendigo’s ‘good commerce’ Bill Dowzer

BVN Donovan Hill principal Bill Dowzer discusses, through a reflection on the Bendigo Bank headquarters building, the ways in which large-scale commerce can influence and contribute to urbanism. For Dowzer, Bendigo Bank’s investment is consistent with the entrepreneurial character of the city itself; that the success of Bendigo’s urban centre is tied to its strong and socially positive economic culture.

Un-pickling Ballarat Nick Searle

Nick Searle of Searle x Waldron Architecture (SxWA) presents an investigation of Ballarat complementary to that of BVN in Bendigo. Using their Ballarat Art Gallery Annexe as a starting point, SxWA, through design studios with students from the RMIT Architecture program, have extended their investigation of Ballarat’s central city historic fabric and the enlivening urban effects of the small scale public spaces and facilities.

Mildura Jan van Schaik

To complete the issue Jan van Schaik, co-director of MvS Architects, provides a reflection on the difficult relationships between architecture, urban change and existing communities within Mildura in Victoria’s north-west. His involvement, through arts-led development programs and as the architect for one of the protagonists of these transformations, gives rise to his commentary upon the historic, ‘old’ and ‘new’ Mildura and a consideration of how these dynamics impact upon its architecture. This edition also features the work of graphic designer Joseph Johnson, who, in addition to the cover design, created a suite of graphic elements in response to the editorial theme. There are six of these ‘arrows’, one for each of the locations featured. I want to thank all the contributors for these generous and diverse responses to the theme of the edition.

Simon Whibley is the principal of Simon Whibley Architecture and a lecturer in the RMIT Architecture Program. His interests in architecture’s urban implications originate from post-graduate research in RMIT’s Urban Architecture Laboratory, and have developed through teaching, research and practice projects.