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.
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.
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.