Talk Review: Shake and Substitute

Laura Harding reviews: Housing & Constraints – Making the Most of Less
A talk by Redshift & CHROFI on 11 March 2014 at Tuesday @ Tusculum


It’s a sufficiently rare occurrence for architects to be talking about housing projects they’ve completed in Yagoona and Bankstown, that perhaps it was unsurprising that the recent talk by Redshift and CHROFI at the NSW Institute of Architects titled Housing Constraints, was the cause of some exasperation during the question session.

‘All of this discussion about profit margins – it seems everything’s about developers, about the council, about their profit margins. What about the sense of community? What about the sense of arrival in a place? What about the roof gardens with the common area or laundry? What about the concern for the community that lives there? Isn’t that more important than these side issues?’

If only the planning, procurement and economics of mass housing were side issues, rather than thorny fundamentals of Australian housing. In Australia, multiple housing and redevelopment in urban and suburban centres are sources of deep unease. The culture is shifting, but is still grappling with the idea that communal forms of living might be a desirable housing ‘choice’, rather than a second rate compromise for ‘renters’ (a term almost exclusively used pejoratively).

It is a complex situation, as the fear of urban housing that infects both our culture and our planning is not unfounded, and has intensified through the lived reality of poor development practice littered across the state. So pervasive are poor quality forms of multiple housing that the genre itself, rather than its poor execution, is perceived to be the problem. Planning has responded by trying to limit the proliferation of multiple housing through regressive controls, but the societal pressure from population increase and shrinking household sizes saw that strategy pass its used by date more than a decade ago.

SEPP65 legislation, introduced into NSW in 2002, attempted to mandate design quality but has had limited success. While you can legislate for improved amenity, there isn’t a planning rule, guideline or formulae in existence that can turn poor practice into excellent architecture. That requires a culture that knows what good design is, understands its transformative potential and is willing to pay for it. A cultural shift of that type happens only through a broad, lived experience of skilful, architecturally rich urban housing models and the vital urban environments they shape. This necessary shift is impeded in Australia by financial speculation and the banal real estate formulae that narrow the scope , ambition and quality of housing.

Attempting to make great quality multiple housing in NSW is often the story of death by a thousand cuts. The first of these is the planning process. Redshift gave us a confronting insight into the bizarre world of housing procurement in NSW, their ‘tales from the trenches’ illustrating the consequences of inflexible, generic planning controls being strictly applied to places with varying individual circumstances and characters. Their initial proposal for the Lane Cove Apartments emerged from sound, strategic responses to the site’s orientation, topography and specific beauty. A desire to maximise natural sunlight and form a generous garden space around a remnant stand of eucalypts and a sandstone rock outcrop saw Redshift bias the built form towards the southern boundary. Unfortunately, such site specific thinking didn’t suit the strict measure of the planning controls, where there was no room to consider the implicit potential of the real world situation. In defiance of all common sense, the controls insisted that the building form be equally offset from each of its boundaries and the scheme was required to be altered in a second, complying proposal – still with great qualities, but diminished in terms of its potential through the inflexibility of planning.

Redshift also illustrated just how hard multiple housing has to work in Sydney. Development margins are very tight, and Redshift have coined the ‘shake and substitute’ effect that works over a building after the planning regulations have taken their pound of flesh. There is no money available for anything that is not absolutely essential to the building’s compliance and/or functioning, and anything superfluous will be deleted or substituted for a cheaper version throughout the course of the works. These conditions have seen Redshift adopt a tight rigour in the architectural language that they deploy in multiple housing. There is nothing applied. Form, shade, recesses and planes are the only language available, as fine detail, craft, finishing and trimming just will not survive the process. Projects such as Yagoona and Bankstown demonstrate their sophistication in crafting a sort of street-smart, rugged beauty in implacable circumstances.

CHROFI’s discussion of its recent project on a very different site offered an intriguing parallel. The Stamford on Macquarie tower is located on one of the most extraordinary and expensive locations imaginable. Importantly the planning pathway in this instance was flexible and could look to alternative options rather than the generic planning check-box. Yet even with a Design Excellence planning process run by the City of Sydney (one of Sydney’s most enlightened planning authorities) and, one imagines, fewer budgetary constraints there were disturbing echoes of the Redshift story.

CHROFI also found itself in the position of needing to leverage architecture into the project. Shrewdly, they undertook an analysis of the key drivers of profitability, to try to find an argument for architecture that spoke the development language. Even in this most positively engaged of processes, the lever that mattered wasn’t architectural quality, typological innovation, maximised amenity or enhanced sustainability initiatives – it was that good old-fashioned Sydney obsession of ‘views’. CHROFI argued the case for a more expressive building form through the foil of a ‘views equals return’ argument, a smart way to unify the commercial and architectural agenda. However if architects are forced to package up architecture in a ‘Trojan horse’, even in this most progressive of development opportunities, it points again to the deeper, cultural problems we need to address.

Architectural advocacy is a must. Redshift and CHROFI were generous and candid in their discussion about the difficulty of making excellent urban housing today, but this needs to be balanced by a passionate exposition of the positive agenda that architecture brings to housing and the city. We must explain the inexhaustibly rich traditions of architecture and typology upon which we draw; how architecture supports patterns of living; that the craft of making explored through architecture is not superfluous, but necessary to rich and meaningful lived experience; that quality is infinitely more valuable than quantity – and, most importantly, that urban housing forms the very basis and substance of our cities and civic lives.

These are the very real things that planning, economics and culture are stifling.

They are the opportunity cost of poor housing choices.

It’s time for architects to ‘shake and substitute’ the development orthodoxy.


Laura Harding works at Hill Thalis Architecture + Urban Projects and as a writer & architecture critic. She is the 2013 winner of the NSW AIA Adrian Ashton Prize for Writing and Criticism.