Architecture as commodity
by Peter Mac A famous 18 century architect once stated that architecture had to have "commodity, firmness and delight". He used the word "commodity" as meaning "usefulness". But we can also use the word with its current meaning in relation to the practice of architecture, which almost always involves the provision of a commercial service, i.e. the design and/or documentation of works, with a view to the production of commercial goods, i.e. buildings or other structures, fittings, site facilities or landscape. Many architects dislike describing their work in such vulgar terms, since architecture is supposed to be a noble art, capable of bringing together the arts and science in the design of the built environment, and in the process enriching human life while satisfying practical needs. And so it should be, and is, frequently — but by no means all the time. The great works of architecture have always reflected the prevailing power structure, and especially in the construction of palaces, fortifications, houses, gardens etc., whose designers strove to make them appear grander and/or more opulent than those of lesser mortals. However, one critical difference between modern architecture and its predecessors is that in previous eras the great structures of the rich and powerful retained a degree of unity with their more meagre neighbours, simply because of the limitations of technology and available building materials. Modern architecture, on the other hand, has at its grasp a huge range of materials and construction methods. Add to this vast reserves of capital, a volatile mix of developer's greed and architect's ego, an education system that promotes strong contrast between the individual creation and its setting, and a legal system that all too often favours gross or inappropriate major development — and you have a vastly increased potential for hideous visual clashes between works of architecture and their surroundings. In some cases this may even be quite deliberate. The promotion of some consumer products in recent years has utilised a certain cultivated ugliness, in order to enhance an image of toughness or rebelliousness as an appeal to a particular market segment. Architecture may follow suit, either as an attempt to appeal to a similar characteristic of the client, or simply as a novel design approach. The relentless quest for novelty may involve the aping of a current fashion or, occasionally, the creation of a distinctly new style, even where this is impractical.. In fact, the practice of architecture is subject to all the failings of the marketplace, including the artifical stimulation of demand for services which are not really required, and the promotion of design trends which are overly self-indulgent or even anti-social. The struggle for corporate promotion is the root cause of many of the failings of current architecture. However, in an age of corporatisation and privatisation of public services, and of the general subservience of government to corporate influence, these failings appear in government projects as well as those of the private sector. One of the clearest examples of anti-social trends in architecture arises from the profit-driven demand of commercial developers for the removal of buildings or landscape of importance for cultural reasons, including its historic and/or aesthetic significance. This was evident in the historic struggles waged in the 1970s over the preservation of areas of natural bushland and parts of our built history, for example Sydney's "Rocks" area, which was the first suburb, and the first home of the working class, in Australia. These struggles resulted in state and federal legislation aimed (at least ostensibly) at the preservation of our built heritage. However, the deregulation of government over the last 20 years has resulted in a weakening of this protection. As a result, there has been a re-awakening of the need to impose the tactics of the 1970s, including, where necessary, mass protests and the use of union "green bans". A vivid example of this was the recent imposition of a green ban on proposed works to Sydney's old Maritime Services Board building, now home to the cash-strapped Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) at Sydney's Circular Quay. The Carr Labor Government had proposed either the demolition and replacement of the building or its enclosure by a vast concrete "coffee table". The unexpected "green ban" threw the government into disarray over the issue, and it hastily withdrew its proposals. The MCA case illustrates the point that the people, and grass roots organisations like the trade unions, can reverse anti-social trends in architecture or town planning, just as in other areas. There are plenty of other examples of the tendency of developers and compliant governments to ride roughshop over national heritage, and to subjugate the beautiful or interesting to corporate greed. Look for the 1950s' revival monopitch roof plonked over the dignified stone former government building, the skyscraper shaped like an overful waste- paper basket, the formless glass "shard" structures placed insensitively opposite a 19 century cathedral. Think about the current trend for structures which expose their skeletal frames within delicate glass skins, a design motif which has great dramatic potential but which often requires huge energy consumption to counteract "greenhouse" thermal load, and frequently conflicts with a traditional setting. And note the sunless "wind-tunnel" effect of huge buildings constructed on streets originally designed for horse-drawn traffic, and the progressive ruin of once-enchanting city skylines. A recently-aired TV series on Australian architecture showed many brilliant as well as appalling examples of the work of this profession. It also revealed some interesting responses on the part of its clients. One government official, for example, commented that at first he hated the jagged glass fagade of a new building designed for his department. However, he declared that his colleagues and the architects had argued strongly that he should love it, and in the end he had taken their advice! He should have backed his own judgement. You don't have to like a thing just because someone calls it "art", and a lack of effective architectural criticism means that the community is in danger of falling prey to the "taste" of the corporations and their subservient architectural representatives. The environment in which we live is too precious for us to leave all the major decisions about it to big business, or to its representatives in the fields of architecture, town planning and government.