Regulating aesthetics

This is an article from the Architecture Australia archives and may use outdated formatting


Images from the Residential Flat Design Pattern Book showing coastal, garden and urban apartments, with associated colour palettes.

Images from the Residential Flat Design Pattern Book showing coastal, garden and urban apartments, with associated colour palettes.

Mondrian Apartments by Stanisic and Associates, joint winner of this year’s Wilkinson Award in the RAIA NSW Chapter Awards.

Mondrian Apartments by Stanisic and Associates, joint winner of this year’s Wilkinson Award in the RAIA NSW Chapter Awards.

THERE IS CURRENTLY a desire to codify everything under the banner of “standards”, and the proliferation of such standards over the last twenty years seem to be without end.

Regulators like standards as they provide a methodology for judgment that should be beyond debate, and which can be justified to others should that judgment be questioned. They can be easily quoted as “a minimum to be achieved”, and they remove personal responsibility in determining what is acceptable. Within the sphere of architecture, standards are useful in setting acceptable benchmarks in construction and material selection and for specific design problems (such as car parks or designing for access), though their overuse is now chronic.

In the latest edition of the Building Code of Australia, sixty-nine individual standards are independently referenced. So, it is not that surprising that authorities would extend this approach and seek to draft standards that set a methodology for assessing aesthetic quality.

At this point things become highly contentious. However, in any discussion about authorities interfering with an architect’s aesthetic freedom, it is worth remembering that this not a specifically twenty-first century debate – it is a perennial argument and a philosophic one – aesthetics being a branch of philosophy that deals with beauty and taste.

Robin Boyd’s 1952 book Australia’s Home, recounts a 1948 judgment by Mr Justice Sugerman. The case was bought by a client of Sydney Ancher’s against Warringah Shire in Sydney, who, in assessing a house design by Ancher, had requested a parapet to hide “the ugly view of the flat roofed building”. In summing up, Justice Sugerman wrote, “The advancement of architectural design is an aspect of cultural progress which, in the exercise of its present jurisdiction, this Court cannot ignore. When faced on the one hand with the claim that domestic architecture should be required to retain its familiar sameness and on the other hand the claim that architects of skill and understanding should be allowed to introduce, or at any rate to try out, here the principle on contemporary design which have been widely accepted elsewhere, the path of this Court is, I think clear…. The development of architecture must be impeded while any large and important area closes its gates to the unfamiliar in architecture as such.” ›› In short, the judgment supported the right of the architect to pursue contemporary design, even though some might consider it unpleasant and unfamiliar. This is one of those passages that all architects should read and reread to remind themselves that they should not have to accept narrow-minded assessments by those in authority. Boyd’s chapter then concludes with the prophetically over-optimistic statement that architecture “would never again be forced to defend herself in a court against municipal aesthetic prejudice.” Unfortunately, little has changed. Architects are still defending their proposals against aesthetic prejudice.

This particular article has been prompted by an ongoing debate within the RAIA NSW Chapter’s Architecture Bulletin initiated by a series of pieces under the banner “Enforcing Design Mediocrity”. The articles, written by Harry Seidler, Alex Popov, Glenn Murcutt and Ed Lippmann, (March/April and May/June 2003), decry the design restrictions imposed by local councils which, in NSW, are given legislative backing through the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act.

Aesthetic controls within planning instruments are well intentioned. However, invariably council officers with little or no design training administer them. Without adequate training, their ability to judge tends to be limited by what they have seen before and by personal taste.

Experience, or knowledge, is critical in aesthetic judgement and, even then, knowledge only enables someone to present a reasoned viewpoint, not to prove a fact. The result is that controls intended to improve the built environment in fact stifle change and innovation and promote a soporific sameness. In the words of Seidler et al, they “enforce design mediocrity”.

Of course local council interference in development applications is an easy dinner party topic to get architects off and running, as every architect worth their salt has at least one story of officialdom meddling in design with adverse results. There is also a general acceptance that certain issues fall squarely within the sphere of planning controls, such as height, bulk, FSR, site cover, setbacks, overshadowing and the like – the quantitative controls. What is in question are the qualitative controls, and in particular, aesthetics. Murcutt summarizes the architect’s frustration well with his impassioned plea to remove aesthetics from all planning controls because, “the bottom end can’t get bottomed out much more.” ›› In New South Wales the issue has gained a certain momentum due to the implementation of SEPP 65 – Design Quality of Residential Flat Development prepared by Planning NSW. This is one part of the NSW Government’s Design Quality Program, and is supplemented by the Residential Flat Design Code and the now infamous Residential Flat Design Pattern Book. All three of these documents were the targets for heavy criticism in the Bulletin, especially the Pattern Book, which Seidler describes as “an absurd, naive and regressive design guide”.

Under SEPP 65, specially convened Design Review Panels are supposed to offer independent design advice to consent authorities. The panels are made up persons with expertise in the areas of architecture, landscape architecture, urban design or environmental planning. But these panels cannot make a binding determination on whether a proposal meets SEPP 65’s ten principles of quality design. This is the responsibility of the consent authority, which is only required to take the panel’s advice into consideration.

Since the publication of the Bulletin articles, debate has continued on radio and in the newspapers. Representatives have presented a submission to the Minister for Planning, Craig Knowles, calling for reforms. However the Bulletin group has now softened its blanket objections to SEPP 65 – indeed they now acknowledge many positive aspects in the legislation – and are instead calling for changes to the scope of the document, mainly dropping Principle 10: Aesthetics. The NSW Chapter of the RAIA has also been drawn into the debate and now also supports the removal of “Aesthetics” from the planning process.

NSW Government Architect Chris Johnson and Gabrielle Morrish of Urban Design Advisory Service have penned replies to the Bulletin, noting that the vast majority of what is built across Sydney has little architectural input and that that is what SEPP 65 and the Pattern Book are aimed at (September/October 2003). While Johnson does not mention the word elitism, it is there between the lines when he warns that, “the profession must be careful to not be typecast as craft-based artists of one-off objects.” He draws the analogy between the contemporary pattern book and the Victorian-era pattern books that helped define many of the terrace houses of the inner city, which are today recognized as worthy contributors to cohesive streetscapes and which had little direct input from architects. The analogy is probably a good one, and Johnson is of course correct in noting that there is nothing new about the concept of the pattern book. It is just that the modern architect has spent the best part of the twentieth century poking fun at the very idea of pattern books and the eclecticism they promote. In the past it was a tool for the untrained, the assumption being that the qualified architect was quite capable of working directly from their own experience and training, and was not in need of a ready-made solution. In this respect perhaps the role of the pattern book has been misunderstood. It is not really for architects at all – it is for everyone else.

However the Pattern Book does warrant greater scrutiny, especially Part 2 which presents three residential design typologies for three mythical site types; urban, coastal and garden. This is a curious document that attempts to simplify the process of good design to such a remedial level that its usefulness – even to the untrained – has to be questioned.

Differences between each type seem arbitrary and, in many cases, almost non-existent.

Fundamentally each of the types could be swapped from site to site with little change to the end result. The section on materials and colour palettes verges on the trite.

While the Premier’s foreword to the Pattern Book says that improving design quality it is not about aesthetics, in the end that is what Part 2 really deals with. And that is exactly what the pattern book has traditionally been – a book on architectural aesthetics reflecting and disseminating a particular style. The book does not delve into construction techniques or how the gap between good design and lower cost housing could be bridged. In that respect, this pattern book is no different from its earlier namesakes. While the traditional pattern book draws on the history of architecture to codify the current attitude, this particular version draws on the current top-end developer aesthetic, which architects such as Allen Jack & Cottier and Stanisic Associates do with great professionalism. But there is no room in the Pattern Book for a Horizon, a Grid or an Altair. In promoting what is good design, a pattern book implicitly critiques the other as possibly not “good” design. In the hands of untrained councillors, or developers trying to take ideas literally, they have the potential to lead to much confusion. What are such readers to think when buildings promoted by the profession through the award system seem to break the rules of the Pattern Book?

The new aesthetic battlegrounds are now often fought as a clichéd conflict between the new and the old, as heritage and context are regularly used by authorities to stimey contemporary architecture. (SEPP 65 does not specifically deal with heritage, though Principle 1: Context has an obvious overlap.) In Sydney’s Haberfield, an entire suburb has been declared a conservation area in an attempt to preserve the character of one of the country’s best repositories of domestic Federation in a garden suburb setting. In Haberfield heritage is unashamedly taken very literally. Not only are extensions highly controlled in terms of form, height, colour, materials and details, but new infill buildings must also conform to a late twentieth-century vision of Federation style.

Here is a suburb where it has been deemed that modern architecture has no right to exist. It is, in effect, a kind of architectural apartheid, which goes well beyond aesthetic considerations. In the case of Haberfield, it is also an example of an ethnically directed conservation zone that was trying to halt the cultural overlay of the dominant group in the suburb – in this case southern Italians – that for the most part arrived in the postwar wave of European immigrants. Suggesting that design controls might have a racial aspect to them is a touchy topic, however it is naive to pretend that they might not. When aesthetic judgment becomes aligned with a particular style it also challenges the aspirations and values of those who do not share the same judgment.

Federation at its best is a freely expressive approach, more akin to the inventiveness of Art Nouveau than to the stifling orthodoxy of rule-based architecture. Here too the concept of the pattern book is evident: one is not encouraged to invent, but rather to mimic.

But the regulation of aesthetics is just one part of a much bigger problem. At present the Development Application process across Australia has become unwieldy to the point of dysfunction, and has been heavily criticized in a recent report released by the RAIA and Archicentre. The level of information demanded by councils before an application will be considered has steadily grown over the last twenty years to the point that most projects need to be fully resolved and essentially documented at the time of DA. To ease this burden, some councils now recommend pre-DAs, with their own fees and requirements, which are in themselves more involved than DAs once were.

In NSW, minor changes, such as changing a window shape or position require a Section 96 application, which involves additional fees, time and often further public notification.

Community consultation has somehow been reinterpreted as the right to critique, as though a design might somehow be improved if everyone has a little chew at it. Councillors will regularly lend an ear to noisy neighbourhood amateurs, considering their assessments over the carefully prepared recommendations of their own professional staff. Planning staff, frustrated at the process, regularly move on and rob councils of valuable local experience.

Having established a series of controls that are tangible – density, site cover, height and envelope, setbacks, construction standards etc – what does it mean to then extend the controls into the conjectural? What is the motivation and need for such controls? What might happen if there were no such controls?

It is interesting to note that while the recent improvements in the design quality of many residential flat buildings in Sydney might seem to coincide with the advent of SEPP 65 in NSW, it actually predated it by a number of years. This improvement was a consumer-driven phenomenon. As the consumer became more sophisticated, and the market more competitive, well-designed developments like Moore Park Gardens (coincidentally right next door to a similar-sized development by Meriton) practically illustrate the gap between good quality design and the mediocre. And this has now transferred into better sales. For the moment at least, quality design is good business, with or without design quality regulations.

So the argument comes down to the basic one of whether you can or should legislate for good design. The discussion about aesthetics is at the root of the problem, because any attempt to codify aesthetics may be flawed, because of what it disallows, rather than what it supports. These are things that there is not agreement on even among respected design professionals. This is displayed at the RAIA awards, where every year there are examples of projects that are overlooked one year, only to return the following year triumphant. The design has not changed in the intervening year – but the jury has.




Published online: 1 Nov 2003


Architecture Australia, November 2003

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