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Flat-out Developers Must Realise The Whole Is More Important Than Its Parts

Sydney Morning Herald

Friday July 26, 2002

Chris Johnson. Chris Johnson is the NSW Government Architect.

The move towards architect-designed apartments will help protect Sydney's character, Chris Johnson writes.

SINCE the State Government decreed that architects should design flats to prevent ugly blocks of apartments studding the city, critics have cried foul.

Some have said it is impossible to legislate personal taste; others have argued that Sydney architects lack imagination and flair. But these critics have misconstrued the balance between individual freedom and civic order.

The Government is not aiming at eliminating artistic expression, but at improving the quality of the built environment for everyone. This means lifting the quality of the architecture of the entire city rather than having a city filled with one-off pieces of architecture the whole environment is more important than the individual parts.

Take the terrace houses of Paddington as an example. The suburb has a superb character there are still individual gems of art galleries, pubs and shops but it is the well-mannered backdrop of terrace housing that holds it all together.

The State Government's intervention into the design of residential flats is about the public impact of these buildings, not about individual amenity.

As societies become more urban-based, as has been the trend over the past 200 years, the need for rules to ensure community harmony becomes greater. One of the most obvious manifestations of this increas-ing urban focus is a growing preference to live in apartments. Hence the need to ensure that communal values are enhanced by applying a few rules and by encouraging a better-quality environment.

Last week, Elizabeth Farrelly argued in the Herald that it was inappropriate and impossible to legislate for good taste. ``Laws are for moral issues," she stated, while denouncing excessive government intervention in the sacred area of aesthetics.

But laws are also made for environmental reasons, particularly where increased densities of people threaten the balance of nature. Look at air pollution, water pollution, the need to control emissions from cars and even recent laws to enable councils to remove graffiti from private buildings.

The Government's introduction of SEPP 65 now requires architects to design residential flats, just like car drivers need to be qualified before they can be let loose on the roads, or plumbers must be licensed to protect the consumer. Many of these laws were introduced only after the community saw major problems occurring.

So, too, the environment of our cities is now reaching a critical point where the number of ugly residential flats means we must establish some rules to ensure the environment is improved to an acceptable level. An individual house with its front garden has little impact hidden by its landscape, but when we build up to six or eight storeys the building is there for all to see.

Some architects argue that rules can stop exceptional one-off solutions. But this shows a lack of understanding of urban environments. In most cases Sydney's residential flats need not be about showing off with sculptural objects; they can be about displaying good manners and establishing a well-designed backdrop to our cities.

Just visualise Rome, Paris or Venice. It is the consistency of the buildings that give these cities their character. What we need is an architecture of the city that balances individual expression with civic order.

Sydney is on the cusp of moving into a new period of denser living. We have not done this building type well to date except for a few one-off examples. Now is the time to lift the bar to say that our own built environment does matter and that we must control visual pollution. Lifting the bar inevitably means establishing a few rules and requiring the use of the most competent designers.

If we had a major health plague we would immediately establish new rules for managing the situation. If we had major problems with air pollution we would establish rules to control emissions. It is entirely appropriate to influence the emerging problem of poorly designed residential flats by establishing a few rules on behalf of the community.

In 20 years we may well have accepted the need for quality design of residential flats. But right now we must intervene so that we can set up parameters for a long-term quality future.

The Government's initiative in establishing the Residential Flat Design Pattern Book, the requirement for architects to design residential flats, the establishment of design review panels and draft codes for councils to adopt are all interventions in the marketplace that signal a positive way forward.

Chris Johnson is the NSW Government Architect.

© 2002 Sydney Morning Herald

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