More than Meets the Eye

Recently Alan Davies wrote in Crikey.com [here] about a social housing project designed by MGS Architects. The project was the recent recipient of the Victorian Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects’ Award in the Multiple Housing Category. The article prompted an impassioned Twitter (albeit 140 character) discussion between a few of our colleagues, and indeed a far more detailed commentary on the article’s web page. Many of the comments reflected on issues outside of the article, either to open the conversation up further or perhaps due to a misreading of its limited intent. Ultimately, Alan makes it quite clear in his responses to comments on the article, that his concern boils down to the fact that the building looks “different” and why should social housing tenants be subjected to an extreme form of architectural aesthetic in which they have no choice and one that may not be countenanced by the commercial market in general (my words). It’s an interesting thesis, worthy of some discussion, but curious for the fact that it discounts the vast majority of criteria by which we should be assessing the quality of our housing, social or otherwise, and certainly disappointing in this omission. Housing is all too often judged on appearances alone and this narrow judgement quite rightly should not have passed without comment.

 

It concerns me when critique focusses on appearance or the aesthetic of a building at the exclusion of all else. Appearance is a natural starting point for critique, it is the most tangible aspect of a building. Ultimately, any reasonable critique should discuss the entirety of the the design and how skilful or otherwise all aspects have been incorporated into a cohesive work of architecture that is more than just fit for purpose. In the design of housing there are many fundamental considerations, appearance is certainly an important one of them, but also the environment, construction, budget and perhaps most importantly, amenity (as we’ve previously discussed here). Equally, the intangible aspects of architectural design are incorporated into the more complete housing projects. These intangible aspects include the personal responses to dwelling, of joy, delight, a feeling of home and homeliness. Varying weighting is given to each consideration in the design process and on a site and project specific basis. I think the same balanced consideration should be afforded by the architectural critic in any fair review.

It is hard to judge McIntyre Drive Altona from the images shown (at the time of writing MGS Architects are yet to publish it on their website), but at face value past projects by MGS architects have shown a commitment to the architectural intangibles and a high level of skill in affording the residents the highest level of amenity possible within the constraints of site and budget. By all accounts, the residents are also extremely happy living there, although we must be wary on this pronouncement, when so may of the populous are happy in poorly designed homes. It is nevertheless disappointing that this housing project, that the Victorian AIA thought worthy of an award, should be reduced to a discussion of the appearance and whether social housing recipients should have to suffer its difference.

With debate in Sydney recently being focussed on two apposing Casino proposals, it is notable that the debate has emphasised their appearance. It is concerning that when both proposals are excising public land for their own benefit that the level of debate that we’re having is about their appearance. Whether this symptomatic of a poor level of consideration of our built environment, I’m not entirely sure, but it should not be left to pass. As we seek to increase the densities of our cities the quality of the design of our housing is increasingly important. Critique of their design quality, or otherwise, must take into consideration all aspects of their design.

 

Appendix

To emphasise the point that Redshift considers that architecture should be judged on more than its appearance, we always publish the plans and sections of our projects on our website. We hope that this will allow for a more articulate understanding of our designs, as well as to literally illustrate that our consideration in their design extends far beyond the images we present.