Architects for fifteen minutes, The Australian.

Tuesday 16 November

Architects for fifteen minutes

“In the future, architects will be like movie directors.” At least that’s how visiting Berlin urban designer Christoph Langhof figures it. He could just as easily have modified Andy Warhol’s famous dictum and said “In the future, everyone will be an architect for fifteen minutes”. It wouldn’t have mattered.

His slogan says much about the current struggle for the shape and future of our cities. Caught somewhere between the town planners, developers, politicians, bureaucrats, business managers, and public, the architects feel they’re being pushed backstage. Everyone else gets their chance at fame while the architect increasingly loses directorial control.

The image of the movie director must have a certain appeal to those architects and urban designers who feel their profession is being relegated to little more than producing convincing isometric sketches, zappy CAD floorplans, and impressive boardroom presentations. The built environment may be constantly changing and evolving, but who is really in the director’s chair? The problem is, it’s often hard to tell.

There’s nothing wrong with anonymous films, or for that matter anonymous design (like paper clips or drawing pins). The worry is that all too often the production of our urban environment is a jumbled mess, lacking cohension, out of touch, running out of control and most probably overbudget.

To the detriment of our cities, the executive architect is being given lower billing. Just take a look at any of the hoardings around town and you’ll see what I mean. Winston Barnett, head of architecture at the University of Technology, Sydney, bemoans this trend in a recent issue of ‘Architecture Australia’: “The prognostication is not good. The project manager runs the job, the quantity surveyor the money and the architect designs the skin.”

If the process of design is to be more than skin deep (as it surely must), then the built environment can only be improved by the contributions of architects and urban designers. Who else can meaningfully assess and coordinate the vast array of often conflicting environmental, technological, economic and social factors at play in urban developments? Isn’t it the role of the architect to crystallise – in built form – the needs, emotions and desires that exist amorphously in society?

I’m not saying the solution to this lies in a return to a modernist view of planning either, with the omniscient architect at the helm. Our cities are living, decaying, growing testimony to the failure of urban masterplans. Once the great dream of postwar town planners who imagined they could guarantee the future of a city soley by implementing a strategic plan, a set of government ordinances, and a program of so-called urban renewal, the idea of the masterplan has fallen into ill-repute.

Cities the world over are governed by a range of forces that always exceed the dictates of the town planners and egomaniacal architects alike. The best metropolises are the result of evolution, not planning. Even the most idealised planned cities such as Walter Burley Griffin’s Canberra or Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh quickly fell prey to the flows of everyday life. And why not? Where the conceptual plan ends, the actual politicians, business people and home-makers begin.

One has only to drive through the downtown district of any of our capital cities to be reminded of this complex interaction of urban forces. Often the aims of councils, state governments, transit authorities, and main roads departments have little in common and even less to communicate to each other. There is no central authority that regulates all aspects of development or redevelopment. (Sydney’s Darling Harbour, Walsh Bay and Pyrmont are not part of a coordinated waterfront redevelopment policy for example). Sometimes a happy pandemonium of forces results – but not always.

So where does that leave the urban planners? Between a rock and a hard place for the most. That’s where the idea of architect-as-movie-director comes in. No longer the egomaniacal artist who must control every aspect of a particular development (Austrian architect Hans Holhein’s obsession with every last detail down to the rivets is infamous), the architect acts as a creative production manager, coordinating the efforts of a large number of professionals working in concert.

With a little more direction and stage management from the architects and urban designers, and a little less from the developers, bureaucrats and politicians, our cities have a good chance at being smash hits for more than fifteen minutes.