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Feature article

Architects as Activists


Together we have conversations about a brighter future for Melbourne.  We criticise, fantasise, probe, and plot. We interrogate our responsibilities and we ask more questions than we answer.

An idea we constantly consider is that of defining the role of the architect. Above designing beauty, maintaining client relations and delivering projects on budget, we contend that architects have an obligation to greater society and to protect the interests of the people: a curatorial duty to balance form, function, equality and practicality.

The building industry’s financial and political dependence make maintaining this equilibrium a constant scramble and we are at risk of losing our footing. Property ownership in Melbourne is becoming plutocratic. With profit-hungry developers and unnecessary intermediaries compounding purchasing prices, homeownership is all but impossible for first time buyers. It is critical that we as architects recalibrate the parameters by which the built environment is assessed, that we deconstruct society’s preoccupation with capital gain and measure success by liveability, accessibility and sustainability.

It is time for a sorely needed paradigm shift in Melbourne’s property market. A development model that is architect driven, holistically conscientious, and unambiguous. We dream of a homeownership meritocracy where alternative forms of housing are realised through community and affordability. By way of material reduction, we seek to implement an ideology of simplicity. We envision an architecture governed by humanity and functionality, by need rather than by desire.

We gloat over Melbourne’s commendation as a liveable city, but for this privilege to endure it will take a considerable refocus of resources and expectations. It will take flexible, anticipatory, human-centric planning and designing, and significant economic investment. The disassociation of financial profit from perceived project success is imperative for architects to do meaningful work. Profit-driven development, though seductive, is ultimately pernicious.

We, as a collective of urban-minded thinkers, wish to issue a professional call to arms to mobilise architects as agents of social change. In our office we are admittedly aspirational – sometimes naïve – but we are not misguided. These aspirations are not impracticable; we have had success in prototyping these ideas in our recent works. Most importantly, we have had support in doing so.

A coalition of Melbourne architects has started a new project engaging this approach: a triple bottom line development that is architect-funded, affordable, and replicable. As a group, we have purchased a site on which to pilot these ideas. Beyond designing another ‘sustainable’ building that is star rated and well-performing, we are hoping to create an affordable housing template that other can use as a tool for urban betterment.

Believing that transparency is key to efficacious reform, we wish to make public our relevant intellectual property including all research, feasibility studies, and business strategies. We hope that through sharing and collaboration we can engender an industry-wide attitude towards architectural activism.

We invite you to join our revolution, or encourage you to start your own.

Melbourne is in developmental liminality. As architects, we are in a privileged position to inform future growth. We implore you to take initiative. By pooling our time and resources we can make inner city housing authentic, inclusionary and sustainable. We can redefine the meaning and quality of city life, and we can make housing an economic model that is once again achievable for the people.