A Lot to Ask

December 2017
first published in The Material City: ed. Ron Ringer

Words by Aaron Peters

New city fabric is frequently greeted with derision and, as anyone who has visited Brisbane recently will know, our city is currently in the midst of a multi-residential boom. I find myself reflecting on this transformation, wondering what kinds of neighbourhoods are being constructed, but more importantly, how we might judge them in the future. I wonder, are we squandering this moment of economic buoyancy, or is this an awkward transitional period out of which a new and dynamic Brisbane will emerge?

It seems to me that we are quick to judge new city fabric, often by comparing it to long established neighbourhoods. Unsurprisingly, this tendency can lead to unfavourable assessments. This dichotomy is currently playing out not far from my doorstep. I am fortunate to live in West End, in a two bedroom timber cottage situated on the fringes of a ‘character’ residential area. Nearby, a light industrial enclave occupying the flood plain between Montague Road and the encircling Brisbane River is undergoing huge transformation. Warehouses and factories are giving way to medium-rise apartment buildings. Change has been rapid and disconcerting for a number of existing West End residents, many of whom defiantly display ‘city planning, not city cramming’ placards on their rickety front fences.

So are they correct? Perhaps we should begin by considering how other neighbourhoods might once have been viewed. I’m reminded of a passage in Michael Sorkin’s book 25 Minutes in Manhattan where he describes the alluring character of Manhattan loft spaces (converted from former workhouses into plush apartments) but only before noting that his grandmother saw the same bricks and mortar through the prism of her own memories: oppressive spaces that bore witness to poverty, exploitation and drudgery¹. Similarly, David Malouf, in his memoir 12 Edmonstone Street, reveals that South Brisbane, the suburb adjoining West End, was viewed by his own father as cheap and undignified². In fact, many of Australia’s most vibrant districts are now located in neighbourhoods that have suffered a period of historic decline or were once unattractive places to reside. Could it be that West End’s new urban fabric simply needs time for its identity to emerge?

The problem for architects and planners is finding ways for this to happen. Subversion by future users and unanticipated adaptation are not conditions that can be easily designed for but, as I have noted, it can be argued that they are determining factors in enabling urban fabric to prosper in the long term. What we are left with is the uncomfortable reality that neighbourhoods will have a life and identity that stretches far beyond the guiding hand of their designers.

My concern with the bulky eleven storey apartments being constructed in West End is that they would appear to resist incremental adaptation. One reason for this is that they lack what John Habraken calls joints: divisions in the fabric of the built environment that can act as natural breaks between building elements. He illustrates this principle by describing the terrace house model whose party walls provide frequent, fine grain divisions between building elements. These joints permit individual pieces of the city fabric to be frequently altered over time without unduly disrupting the surrounding fabric. Most importantly, the small scale of these individual elements is such that alteration can be undertaken at lower cost and, therefore, by a broader section of society³. At present, only large scale developers and the extremely wealthy could afford to make substantial alterations to the configuration of the apartment buildings being constructed in West End. Essentially, the decline of the area would need to be terminal before it makes financial sense for anyone to get involved. This I find concerning.

It seems reasonable to suggest that greater consideration should be given to making city fabric as adaptable as possible. If it is not possible to adapt our environment, our environment will adapt us, potentially for the worse. In the case of West End it is far too early to say whether the new neighbourhood being constructed will succeed or fail, but I would argue that it shows limited capacity for incremental adaptation. This trait may reduce the community’s ability to renew its built environment when problems become evident. Consequently, we will all increasingly rely on property developers and municipal authorities to get it right the first time round. This, of course, is a lot to ask.
¹ Sorkin, M. (2009) 25 Minutes in Manhattan, Reaktion Books Ltd, London, pp 53
² Malouf, D. (1985) 12 Edmondstone Street, Chatto & Windus, London, pp 11-12
³ Habraken, N, J, (2005) Palladio’s Children, Taylor & Francis, USA, Canada, pp 113-114