What is the 'Urban Project'?

Housing: The Prevailing History

Conventional Architectural history poses two prevailing ideas in relation to housing since the Modern Movement. These are: the rational housing block and tower forms propagated by architects such as Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius; and, the ‘Garden City’ best represented by the work of Ebenezer Howard.

Both of these models are essentially iconic; the housing block for its heroic image, and the Garden city for its landscape picturesqueness. They are also Utopian; purist ideas about city form that quite intentionally reacted against the urbanisation of historic cities at a time when they had undergone a change from ‘Pre’ to ‘Post’ industrialisation.

The tower block, best represented by Le Corbusier’s Unite de Habitation, but more commonly by poorer copied versions is associated with a negative stigma, not unfairly due to the often clinical expression of a these towers in disassociated landscapes.

The ‘Garden Suburb’ ideal in Australia, best represented locally by Haberfield (here in Sydney) continues to prevail as lesser versions of it are rolled out in Sydney’s continuing expansion. We still refer to it as the ‘Australian Dream’ reflecting the ideal, but it is a prevalent aspiration and increasingly becoming an unviable and unsustainable proposition.

Despite the differences in scale, what these models share, is an emphasis on the landscape (garden or naturalistic) at the expense of the street. The other issues which compound the problem of their successful integration is the segregation of housing from other parts of the city, which is to some extent a byproduct of our specialised society; zoning as the responsibility of planners, roads the responsibility of traffic engineers, buildings the responsibility of Architects. There is no-one to consider the integration of the social spaces of the city – our streets (thus the advent of the Urban Designer).

What is the ‘Urban Project’?

The ‘Urban Project’ is an integrated way of thinking about making places in our cities. This approach ran parrallel to the more commonly prevailing historical models outlined above. The executors of ‘Urban Projects’ were not the more commonly known ‘Starchitects’ but nevertheless Architects of a broader thinking. They include J.J.P. Oud who undertook work in Rotterdam, Berlage in Amsterdam, Bruno Taut in Berlin… the list goes on. The thing that distinguishes the work of these Architects is an understanding of the importance of the street, and the social and spacial structure of neighbourhoods.

Their projects were not solely the design of buildings but of integrated places that included: infrastructure, streets, parks, squares, public buildings, shops and other places for work as integrated environments for housing. By comparison, these projects were not particularly iconic. They were polite, understated, considered, and respectful of the street, possibly unheroic in their expression, but certainly not unambitious.

Sydney has its own historic examples of these projects. The most ambitious and exemplary of these is a project executed by John Sulman as the Government Architect in the early 1900’s. The project included: Streets, roadways, jetties, storage sheds, a kindergarten, shops and a clever housing model. Part of this project, High Street Terrace, the associated kindergarten and housing remain today, but the jetties, upper level roadway and bridge have since been demolished.

What these projects understood is that while streets facilitate movement of people, goods and services, they also have a less tangible function of facilitating communications and interactions between people and groups. While some might argue that Facebook and other (contrived) forms of social media have replaced this role, there is no substitute for the open and equitable exchange on public territory.

What these projects understood is that while streets facilitate movement of people, goods and services, they also have a less tangible function of facilitating communications and interactions between people and groups. While some might argue that Facebook and other (contrived) forms of social media have replaced this role, there is no substitute for the open and equitable exchange on public territory.

In today’s specialised world where streets may still be designed by traffic engineers and our cities are zoned to exclude uses of perceived incompatibility, even modest projects can embody the principles of the ‘Urban Project’ by valuing the street as the genuine public cultural institution it is.

This respect of the street is unrelated to the image of a building but inherent to its strategy. With this understanding some of the moves we make within our own work; to emphasise pedestrian entry over service entry, to laminate more active uses over otherwise inactive ones, but most notably to provide opportunities for the exhibition of social life to and from the street, embody the principles of the Urban Project.

These issues are primary in our work. This is not to suppress environmental, financial or other consideration which must be of equal importance, but to provide engaging public and private environments; not just buildings.