Is there more to architecture than sustainability?
I think itâs time to stop treating sustainability in architecture like itâs the precocious child that needs to be singled out and lavished with constant attention for fear it will shrivel up and die.
We donât single out many other performance attributes of buildings for special consideration â for example, structural integrity, economic efficiency, or user safety â but we keep treating sustainability as if it should be in the special needs class.
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Consider the first para of the Barangaroo Delivery Authorityâs description of Barangaroo South:
Setting new standards in sustainability, Barangaroo South will be a true mixed use precinct consisting of commercial office buildings, residential apartments, international hotel, shops, cafes and restaurants, waterfront promenade and cultural facilities
Sustainability is extremely important so itâs a good thing the project will set new standards on this score. But quite frankly we should be able to take that for granted, in the same way we assume buildings wonât collapse or let the rain in or make the occupants sick or send the owners broke.
Astonishingly, thereâs no mention of the architectural or urban design qualities of Barangaroo South in the blurb. And while itâs pleasing thereâll be a mix of uses, thatâs very basic information â it tells us nothing about how this place will work. It could almost as easily be a description of Melbourneâs lamentable Docklands redevelopment.
The design and civic qualities of a one-off site like this should be the key driver. With 7.5 Ha on Sydney Harbour, Barangaroo South is one of the worldâs great redevelopment opportunities and warrants exceptional activities and outstanding architecture. Itâs not Bennelong Point but itâs still an outstanding site – and Barangaroo was the (long-suffering) wife of Bennelong.
Rather than give sustainability sole billing, Iâd like to see the Authority focus on how the architecture and urban design will contribute to making Sydney a better and more interesting place. Iâd like to see some very special activities in the precinct rather the usual suspects (and Iâm not thinking âcasino”!). Iâd like to see something with a sense of place, thatâs unique to Sydney.
Treating sustainability as something out of the ordinary is deeply entrenched in the design industry. For example, the Australian Institute of Architects has been running a Sustainability Award (under various names) as one of a number of awards since 1993. Thatâs almost 20 years, virtually a generation.
Thatâs time enough, I think, to acknowledge that architects should treat sustainability as a given, not something unusual or, worse, optional. I know the Institute is seeking to recognise outstanding work, but this is the only performance-related award it offers â the rest all relate to descriptive categories like type of use, age or location of the building.
If the Institute had multiple performance-related awards my concerns might well be misplaced. But it doesnât. Interestingly, an Access Award was instigated in 1994 but was dropped in 1999, hopefully because providing access for handicapped users had become the industry default by then.
Now itâs time to âregulariseâ the idea of sustainability in architecture. Itâs time to make it normal rather than treat it as an unusual, difficult and exceptional achievement. The facts are itâs not hard and itâs not a wonder. It should be treated as “a given”, just like we take it for granted buildings wonât fall down.
It doesnât follow that making sustainability unremarkable means it would lose importance. It should be one of the key criteria on which all buildings are evaluated â the idea that there is a separate, small category of âsustainableâ buildings and another (very large) one with all the other buildings needs to be jettisoned.
Consider this: excepting two buildings that won awards in the Sustainable Architecture category, 36 buildings won an award in the NSW Institute of Architectâs 2011 Awards. However sustainability was cited as a serious reason for the Jury’s decision in only 5 of those 36 cases. That could suggest sustainability is implicitly seen as the exception, not the rule.
Making sustainability routine also doesnât mean architects shouldnât capitalise on it as a means of creating a buildingâs visual character. Climate control has been a key definer of the way buildings look since well before anyone thought there was such a thing as an âarchitectâ. Youâve only got to look at buildings as diverse as the traditional Queenslander, the much-maligned Le Corbusierâs use of brise soleil, or RMITâs new Design Hub, to see how the quest for energy efficiency has shaped the appearance of buildings.
As for Barangaroo South, if that rendering is accurate, all I can say is: âunderwhelmingâ. I know the nationâs financial centre believes it needs large floorplate buildings in the CBD to be competitive, but the city of the Sydney Opera House can surely do better than what looks a little like a throwback to Kenzo Tange âmetabolismâ. Â It’s like Sydneysiders have been fooled into thinking architecture can’t be both sustainable and great.
Architecture can be both. It’s time toÂ stop treating sustainability as something extra-ordinary and put the architecture back in architecture!