Personal reflections on urbanism, urban life and sustainable urban design in Wellington, New Zealand.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Urbanism Down Under: in review, part 2

Recently I reviewed the early sessions of Urbanism Down Under. Here is the second instalment, covering the keynote speech by Hank Dittmar.

Dittmar is CEO of the Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment and chair of the Congress for New Urbanism. Both organisations promote urban values to which I think most urbanists would adhere: walkability, connectivity, mixed use & diversity, mixed housing, quality architecture and urban design, traditional neighbourhood structure, increased density, smart transportation, sustainability and quality of life. I especially like their emphasis on the street as the most important part of the public realm.

However, I've always felt uneasy with both groups because, whenever their principles are translated into built form (Poundbury, Seaside), there is an undeniable nostalgic tweeness. Very little of their published manifestos explicitly condemn modern architecture, but there are occasional vague uses of terms like beauty, aesthetics, decoration and timelessness that hint at their tastes.

Dittmar called for design that "celebrates local history, climate, ecology and building practice", while also claiming that this "transcends issues of style". I certainly agree that architects can learn a lot from vernacular architecture, particularly in terms of typologies that respond to climate and ecology, although it's difficult in New Zealand because we lack an established tradition of high-density residential architecture.

When he presented some slides of good and bad urbanism in Wellington, I noticed that all of his "good" examples of major buildings were in imported styles such as neo-classical, gothic and art deco. I asked him why he thought that these styles were any more "local" than high modernism, and he replied that modernism is now just another style, and that it too can become part of the local. So it's now official: the Prince's Foundation thinks modernism can be OK! Right, bring on the monstrous carbuncles!

On the other hand, Dittmar considers "decoration" to be essential, and showed a slide of the Rutherford House extension as an example of a building that "we would all agree" is dreadfully lacking in this regard. I objected that it was one of my favourite buildings, and that I considered its façade to be beautifully complex and detailed. He said something vague about how wonderful it was that there are different opinions in the world, but I still got the impression that he sees classical detailing as the only acceptable form of decoration, and that other ways of bringing complexity and scale into architecture just don’t count.

I still believe that a building's contribution to the public realm is more important than its aesthetic appeal, and that the best way to "decorate" and animate a building's façade is to populate it! There are beautiful classical buildings that close themselves off from the street, and austere modernist buildings (Plischke's Massey House, the Umbrella Park apartments above Felix) that address the street with respect and liveliness.


At 10:28 am, August 28, 2005, Blogger David said...

Sorry to arrive at this post late, but...

Could you list some of the specific Wellington buildings that Dittmar named as being good or bad? I'm kinda curious to hear which he thought were worth mentioning.

At 9:32 am, August 29, 2005, Blogger Tom said...

Some of his good examples:

- Parliamentary library

- St Mary of the Angels

- Prudential building, though without the ugly extension

- traditional hillside suburb (might have been Mt Vic) as an example of neighbourhoods with a good sense of place

"Bad" examples:

- Rutherford House (his slide was very closely cropped to show a small bit of glass and concrete at foot level, missing all the clever details above)

- close-ups of various bits of poorly-maintained 60s modernism (one might have been the Cuba St side of the James Smith market)

- street level of the Boulcott St side of the Majestic Centre. I agree that it's not a friendly facade now that Buoy's gone upstairs, but he picked on the verandah, calling it "crushing and opressive". Personally, I've always been grateful for a bit of shelter when running down Boulcott St on a rainy day!

- a post-war suburb (might have been Tawa) as an example of "placeless" development.


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