Where’s Perth’s architectural creativity?

There was an interesting letter to the editor in Saturday’s paper this week, basically asking why Perth architecture is all so boring and uninspiring, in response to Linley Lutton’s critical comments on our city published last week. (See this article too for a response.) I won’t publish the whole letter but note these parts :

“While one does not expect our so-called architects to be in the league of Anton Gaudi of some 100 years ago, surely they could be outside of the square in imagination – or should I say out of the shoebox mentality in their designs? The current breed of apartments showing their flat faces are extremely boring…Even in former Soviet Union countries, the apartment blocks now being designed…show decades of imagination far beyond our Perth designers. They are simply not oblong boxes with the same balconies everywhere, but actually show imagination with variations, interesting shapes, carved columns and more. It’s not an Australian thing totally because there have been a few interesting shapes on our eastern borders…Can someone please tell me what it is with Perth architects? Is it our universities, perhaps an ancient curriculum, an easy exam standard or is it just too much sun killing the imagination here? Maybe it’s our councils because I believe they give no guidance or involvement at all.”

So what do we think? Are we boring? And if so, why? Where are the opportunities for the architecture innovation that seem to occur so easily in other states? I really seem to struggle to push clients to want to be innovative sometimes, and I think also there is not the competition here yet between companies / offices / apartments to try and raise the bar. Look at Perth’s biggest office project ever :

BHP tower - photo from Skyscraper City : copyright Matt Austen http://www.flickr.com/photos/mattausten/5088972145/

140William - Photo from AIA website gallery

and you can see that it was designed primarily to maximise lettable area, not any particular architectural design. But then at the same time, HASSELL does this magnificent building:

So the question is, why the difference? Both offices, both city locations. Same architects, so it can’t be that the architects aren’t creative, it must be that the client just doesn’t want to try. As architects, I think we all would love to be more creative, unfortunately we just don’t often get the opportunity. How can you convince a client that they should properly design their apartment building, when the off-the-shelf ‘shoebox’ down the road is selling for the same amount? What is the client’s motivation to build better architecture? It seems most of the well designed buildings lately have had at least part public funding (140William, State Theatre, Fiona Stanley Hospital), whereas private developers maybe just want to make profit and not allow the architects to put too much ‘design thought’ in to it. Should local councils enforce more stringent design guidelines for private developers to ‘force’ creativity??

Like most of my posts…more questions than answsers…what do you guys think??

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28 thoughts on “Where’s Perth’s architectural creativity?

  1. They tried to pull the old “It’s the client’s fault.” with the Convention Centre as I recall. As with standup comedy, it’s always your responsibilty to make it work, despite how drunk or stupid the audience appears to be. It’s absolutely and totally the architect’s fault.

    • It is my client’s fault if they stop my creativity

      A lot of my clients are unadventurous however much I might try to be creative with them

      • This might be a key point of inspired creativity – should creativity abound despite all the obstacles, rather than be limited by them? (Although I have done my fair share of plain box, ‘no we can’t afford that, that is not like the other buildings, I saw this picture of a federation style house and want you to build me one the same’ style design.)

  2. are we missing the point – as a profession we have just been “smashed” in the paper, and the first thing we do is blame the architects (and do so in a rather uninformed manner) – can we be anymore masochistic.

    i suggest rather than speculating it would be better to researching – for one, there are just under 150people in the HASSELL perth office alone, not one or two architects that bring their designs done from the mountain top. i would also question if you really trust local councils to enforce design guidelines – think about how many schemes have had the guts ripped out of them…

    dont get me wrong, i think its great that there are people talking about architecture in WA, i think its great it question the opportunities that exist but surely, as a profession we need to find ways to advocate and mobilise people around good design and find ways to identify more opportunities – yes with a critical dialogue, but also an informed one.

  3. G’day Lazy,

    I totally get that stand up comedy / architecture connection, honestly (I think all architects would), but comedians don’t have to show their drunk, stupid audience all the jokes in advance, before the audience commits to paying for them. Can’t you just cut out all that unnecessary build-up and just go straight to the punchline? Why would I want to pay for all those words which aren’t funny? That shortens the show by half so I’m only going to pay that much.

    In the biz it’s called value engineering, which is when the building is redesigned by accountants so it costs as little as the concrete box next door. It seems architects are seen as either boring and devoid of imagination (BHP Tower) or living in la-la-land with no idea of how much their frippery will cost (Perth Arena).

    In other matters, 140 William is great but the BHP Tower already deserves a couple of Boeings.

  4. I think the analogy is pretty well spot on. If the mic doesn’t work and the venue is shit and everyone’s heckling it’s still the performer’s fault that they couldn’t pull off something good. I think it’s the same for architecture. Like the architect, the performer unfairly or not gets all the glory or all of the blame. If they let it get redesigned by the accountants, or can’t pull off something good despite the problems, it’s still their fault. It just is, or at least that’s how it will be remembered, which is the same.

  5. Hey, Lazy (are you a working architect? I never have been able to tell from your blogs and posts, but the interest is obviously apparent), I think your analogy and the letter to the editor both appear suffer a bit from misunderstandings, in that everyone seems to think architects have a role like Guadi or FLW had back in the day, telling the client what they are getting and smashing your fist on the table until they succumb. I would argue that in a lot of cases what the architects wants and what the architect can bring to a design aren’t the markers a client relies on when setting out to produce a building. In a lot of projects there are a lot of people who affect the building in more ways than the architect.

    Having said that, I don’t think that Perth necessarily strives for good design in any case. We certainly strive for resale value and profit and cap-ex, there’s no denying that. Architects have notebooks, drawers, websites full of projects that nobody wants because they are too expensive, too outlandish, not enough like the one the client saw in the magazine, too ‘experimental’. Barrett is right, we hate on ourselves too quickly. We should be standing up in front of Perth, and all those possible clients, and waving our beautiful, outlandish sketches in their faces telling them that we are here for them if and when they want something beautiful, something they can be proud of, that can be shown off to the world.

    But we won’t, cos we’re neutred and cheap and it’s easier to whine about our tiny slice of the pie and our insignificant status than it is to change the circumstances (ooooo, controversial).

  6. Obviously you think the analogy is spot on as you came up with it – but you reduce the debate to trivial rubbish. You have completely ignored the context or commercial reality within which different projects are procured.

    These days the architect is not necessarily at the top of the food chain – the contracts are set up differently and if, as often, the contractor is your client, who both holds the purse-strings and makes the decisions about what will and won’t get built, you can design what you want, but if they don’t like it or see too much risk in terms of the costs, you will be sent back to the drawing board. And if you fail to service your clients’ requirements you are failing in your primary responsibility and you will not work for them again. Great business plan.

    I am not saying this is a good thing. In the UK things are a lot worse. Value engineering is king and the architect’s role is dimishing to the point of extinction on certain types of project where we are merely used to “do the fancy stuff to get planning permission” and then act as a glorified drawing office to change anything at the whim of those ruled by spreadsheets. To suggest it is all the fault of the architect completely ignores all the other parties involved in getting a building designed and built and is grossly arrogant.

    It is critical that all those involved – councils, builders, architects, community – understand the importance of good design and can share in the debate. It is a matter of public policy, not picking some bowtie-sporting “creative genius” to tell us all what to do (…or laugh at). Architecture is for everyone. You can choose which comedian you go and see….

  7. …worthwhile discourse but we have miss the key point that both projects discussed will contribute significantly and positively to the active groundplane of the city.
    Let us take a moment to perhaps celebrate the One40 William urban design contribution to the city and the significant reactivation of City Square…
    The buildings themselves are important…but the public interface is paramount.
    At last we are experiencing key building projects within this city that give back vitality and diversity where they touch down rather than merely presenting austere minimalist office lobbies as edifices to corporate taste…
    These two projects alone have added pedestrian permeability and a new dimension to the public realm they inhabit…urban landscapes and range of diverse shops and food and beverage tenancies…in precincts that were until recently dead zones.

  8. lazy, whilst your response is amusing, and has some merit, unfortunately it doesn’t reflect the reality of construction in perth, as g’day and unimpressed have pointed out.

    ultimately, what gets built is what the client approves, and if your client is driven by dollars and has no aesthetic sense, well then you get crap. you can make as many analogies as you like, but they don’t actually reflect the reality, much as they might make us laugh.

    and i, for one, like the bhp billiton building.

  9. i think the last few comments (david weir, unimpressed, perplexed and first kitten) have all touched on some key aspects. first there is the reality of the situation, then there is the aspiration.
    i think you will find that the majority of architects do aspire to deliver the best possible outcomes – we may not always succeed, but part of our job is to identify the opportunties and navigate our way thru a multitude of constraints.
    what we do actually isn’t all about us, and part of our job is to educate clients, consultants, councils and people about what good design is about.
    “perplexed” in particular made some really good comments about the public realm – what is it that we do that value-adds to place (despite the value management that pretty much applies to the majority of built work) – that in general is an aspiration for many architects and urban designers

    i truly believe that perth is emerging out of the darkness (so to speak) with projects that engage place, people and context. it doesn’t happen overnight that we magically are all like gaudi or the city becomes like melbourne. it evolves, and it takes layers, learning and yes sometimes mistakes to get there. (fed square in my mind is one of the best public spaces in the world, yet it is consistently voted the ugliest)

    charlie mann once asked my studio “what are we doing, if what we do doesnt enhance someones life on a daily basis”.

    i guess what i am saying is that reality and aspiration can co-exist, and when good architecture happens is generally when the client and future inhabitants are engaged by the process and the product

  10. Yes but what I’m trying to say is that it’s the architects name that ends up on the project. It’s the name of the firm or occasionally (but not here) the actual architect that gets remembered, not anyone else, which it’s why it’s their fault even if it’s not their fault. And yes G’Day, they do get the glory even if that’s undeserved as well. No one will remember the guy who pulled the finances out of the fire and against all the odds got the money through for the award winning project, or the tightarse client who tried to ensure it was a piece of crap.

    First kitten, I don’t accept that if your client is only driven by dollars the result is inevitably crap. How depressing. That’s not how it is in many other cities, so why would Perth architects just capitulate? Exactly the same type of “realities” apply to the performer, film actor, painter, sculptor, comedian. The architect is a performer in a similar way, and since their name is forever associated with it, it is up to them to get that silk purse out of said sow’s ear. Nobody will ever give a crap about the excuses, no matter how valid.

    Unimpressed, I haven’t ignored anything. Those are all excuses that nobody cares about. “Commercial realities”, “contractors holding the purse strings”, blah, blah, blah. Sound exactly like bad acoustics, drunk crowd, poor venue to me. Tough crowd, sure, but still your fault. Otherwise the client might as well get the builder to design the thing. What are you there for? Enough of the excuses already, you can’t put them in your portfolio. To me, having your name associated with something the builder could have done is not such a great business plan either.

    Perplexed, yes, having ranted and all that, Perth actually has turned the corner with the built environment in the last few years. The city is changing, with a lot to do with the size of the place I think. Critical mass. An exciting time to be around. I’m hating less, (despite some recent egregious backsliding). There are some new developments that you can look up and say with a little surprise, “Hey, that’s actually pretty good!”

    Barrett, you said it better than me, (apart from Fed Square which is a little piece of Perth in the heart of Melbourne. I think that the mere fact that there is now a public space in the city where one was desperately lacking is the critical factor, it gets away with poor design because of that.) Yes, what are you doing if not enhancing people’s lives every day?

    I’m OK with the sides of BHP. Not sure about the top and front.

    David M Weir. 6 years of clown college unfortunately precluded an architectural career. Great loss to the city.

    We should do this more often.

    • I think the issue of critical mass is an important one, as we start to get more, better designed buildings in Perth, hopefully we can educate clients to understand the fundamental importance of good design, through what they can directly observe. Eg in Sydney and Melbourne it is near impossible to rent out office space that is not Green Star certified. And clients see something like the NAB offices in Melbourne and understand the importance of design. So hopefully as we are currently slowly, slowly getting better architecture in Perth, clients will begin to demand better solutions.

      Just a thought tho…the original letter mentioned ‘creativity’. If this is defined by originality, stimulating the imagination, transcending tradition rules and patterns, progressiveness (thanks dictionary.com) then is not the most creative building in Perth currently … The Arena??!!

  11. true lazy, no one will ever give a crap about the excuses. but they exist.

    yes, we should do this more often, it’s been real.

  12. Pingback: Port Ewen | The Worst of Perth

  13. “Otherwise the client might as well get the builder to design the thing. What are you there for?”

    That is in effect exactly what happens. You may call it an excuse but in simple terms, the form of many modern construction contracts means the client appoints the builder to “Design and Construct” the job, and the builder then appoints the architect – they are our client. The builder guarantees the maximum price of the job and the client minimises his risk. Not always recipe for fabulous design outcomes as it is in the builders’ interest to keep the building costs as low as possible inorder maximise his profit. That does not happen in all instances, but sometimes it does. With current economic conditions developers are more and more risk averse and they want those kind of contracts. If things go wrong you can easily see insane cost blowouts like the arena (which to me does little for the city anyway).

    Don’t get me wrong, I do think things can be better and I don’t favour this setup, but things in Perth are going in the right direction. To add to the big stuff, a lot more varied, smaller scale projects by young up and coming architects would be a great thing to see. Although your idea of good design seems more to do with your own taste, which is completely subjective. Things are a shit load worse in a lot of places. I could take you on a tour of recent buildings in the UK that would make you weep. Yes maybe that’s an excuse, but it is what happens when the bottom line drives everything and is not within our gift to change.
    Added to that big expensive projects are thin on the ground – other cities have them because they developed faster than Perth, which is just coming into its own. Again, you can play school yard about it and shout “excuses, excuses” but that suggests to me you are too lazy to engage in any sensible debate on the issues. I guess you are just living up to your name!

    Still, I am enjoying this

  14. About time we had some real debate.

    Architects do make excuses, sad but true – mainly because it makes it easier to earn a living – Lazy my question to you is this.

    Do architects who stick true to their principles, often at the expense of income earning capacity, really get a hence to improve the architectural outcomes in the in the community?

    The fact is they aren’t given the work – a funny comedian (even with bad acoustics) is generally appealing to the public if they are actually funny. Quite often, bold, exciting, adventurous architects are simply passed over for “established”, “safe”, “risk free” practices who are pumping out the same old tripe, cassette stack apartment blocks and rectangular boxes with applied ‘pasties’ as if that makes it the already attacked Fed Square . By the way they are not passed over by the public, but by project managers and bean counters -all those faceless people who actually run Perth’s architectural scene and have far more impacts on the outcomes than any individual or architectural practice.

    What more these ‘power brokers’ are hidden behind a veil of anonymity a lot of the time – preferring to see the shit flung at the architect and all the while being the biggest problem of all.

    Want to change architecture in Perth – how about a bit of audience participation and influence instead of backwards looking, ass covering booking agents who serve us up the architectural equivalent of “Home and Away” or “Australia’s got Talent”. I think the general public are a little more intelligent than that – both in TV land and in their appreciation for good architecture.

    There’s plenty of good architecture going on out there, and you know who you are (and who you aren’t) – its the programming I am concerned with.

  15. Pingback: Shedism, Perth architectural style | The Worst of Perth

    • Wow, has anyone ever told you you’re quite negative? I think you’ve missed a bit of a point here – the clients aren’t necessarily crap, they just want a certain thing. If the Client for the Arena, wants a strange-looking crumpled tin can, who are we, as architects, to tell them they can’t have it? If BHP want to pay for a boring flat toaster builder, why shouldn’t they be ‘allowed’ to? If the client for a crazy angular residence in Freo wants that style, why should architects stand in their way? If they are paying for it, why can’t they have what they want? Our role as architects is to guide the client, certainly, but if they really want a certain style, they should be able to spend their money as they see fit. (Of course when it comes to public buildings this may warrant some more attention, but in the end ‘we’ voted these people in and unfortunately that means they get to choose how ‘our’ money gets spent.) The best we hope to do in some circumstances is make the best decisions we can within the client’s parameters.

  16. Pertharch – who are you responding to here? – my email update said it was someone called ‘shedism’ but I can’t find the original, negative post. I actually think the fact there is debate is positive and that people are concerned with quality is wonderful. Clients (and by these I mean the end user , who sometimes isn’t the one writing the cheques or controlling thee contract – in the case of public buildings) are demanding a lot more or we wouldn’t have this kind of response and desire for continual development and improvement.

    cheers

    • Hmmm, strange that didn’t show up – I was responding to this post http://theworstofperth.com/2012/01/04/shedism-perth-architectural-style/
      on the Perth’s Worst site, but maybe the pingbacks only show up for me. Yes I agree, the fact that we have discussion is definitely beneficial, and I think increasing knowledge in the public realm about the role of architecture (including the challenges) is one of the only ways to bring about change. Which is why I took a little offense at the claim that the future architects of Perth are just a bunch of complainers. In all of this post I have been trying to make the point (although seemingly constantly failing!) that there are many people involved in the design of an architectural piece, and good architecture is about more than just aesthetics. And sometimes we make the very best of the situation / project that we’ve found ourselves in, we try our best to please as many as we can. I actually think there’s some pretty neat public and private architecture going on in Perth at the moment and the attitude that our industry is under-performing is undeserved.

  17. Really enjoying the debate.

    Thanks to all concerned.

    The debate DOES mean things are changing – we want and expect more for our State Capital, and city, which dare I say, at the end of the day, we love?.

    I greatly admire 140 William, I find it’s a rare example of modernist box stacking that works. Love the heritage precinct regeneration around it – Globe Hotel etc – wish too it could go back to being a pub — and think excellent – the project flow-through to the GPO and that parquet floored central space with its haunting echoes of WW1 sacrifice.

    As for BHP/B’n- Like First Kitten – I’ve come to really like this building.

    I think it stands out not just as a Perth original, but as an Australian original, and has already added much depth to our traditional East-West postcard skyline.

    C-2 does take getting used to from a distance, granted, but at the ground level, it’s an awesome industrial beauty.

    Have a look from the Esplanade bus station concourse as you’re making your way down to the Train Station – it takes your breath away – or does mine – anyway.

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