Innovation is a strange word. Its use usually brings out the cynic in me and I rank it up there with “trend”, “cool” or “classy”. It’s usually used by someone trying to sell something, and when combined with words such as “strategic” or “solutions” I’m out the door.
In urban terms, this kind of language is often used in marketing parlance when discussing the form of the building, or what it looks like, rather than how it’s put together or how it works. Fundamentally, does it improve the lives of those who have to occupy it?
It seems to be a uniquely Melbourne thing to differentiate buildings radically with external form and ornamentation. If you visit an international architectural awards ceremony, you can usually spot the Melbourne projects. We are in a time of radical formal experimentation, arguably as important as what occurred during the 50s and 60s with residential work in this city. Much of this came out of RMIT and has its roots in the early 1990s. One concrete block monolith after another fell victim to the spread of another “me too” building.
I personally think this is a great thing for our city. The fact that these buildings are not only built, but celebrated (and sometimes reviled) says a lot about the openness of our culture and the courage of some decision makers. But are we just putting a new funky facade on top of the same old 1960s building technology? If you strip away the facade of most of the buildings in the city, most of them would look the same. The same concrete slab floors and beams, concrete lift cores and columns in a grid designated by the spacing required to make an efficient carpark in the basement. Air conditioning ducts in the ceiling or floor, rows and rows of fluorescent lighting. It reminds me of a line architect Sean Godsell used to describe Federation Square, stating it was “the most cutting edge building of 1967”.
One of the biggest issues facing us and our built fabric at the moment is that most of it is built to consume huge quantities of energy just to make it habitable. Turn off the power and our buildings quickly become hot and dark hellholes. Things are built to a formula that is about maximum efficiency of cost rather than habitability. Our building technology has been allowed to become lazy because of cheap electricity. This is of course, changing. It has to.
The old CUB site, the location of last month’s tragic accident, contains two buildings at opposite ends of the block that are doing interesting things in building technology, facade engineering and ultimately climate control. One is Godsell’s RMIT Design Hub which I have discussed in a previous article. The other is the Pixel Building, by Studio 505. This building is particularly interesting because it pushes building technology to be effectively grid neutral, with devices to mitigate climatic fluctuations, limit water use and reduce excess solar ingress, while promoting natural ventilation. It is also built at a scale that relates to human beings. You may love or hate the facade, but it serves more than just an aesthetic purpose.
Perhaps some of the most exciting developments are in the technology of building. Centres such as Boston’s MIT have a building technology research program that is looking into topics such as building materials that repair themselves, materials that allow air to pass through but not pollutants or water, super thin panels that provide huge insulation benefits and structural solutions that build themselves or respond to immediate weather and climate. There is a revolution underway challenging the fundamentals about how we put buildings together, which will ultimately have a positive effect on the liveability of our cities. None of this however mitigates the need for good design that responds to local context and climate.
My good friend Dana Tomik Hughes, who runs the well respected design blog yellowtrace.com.au recently sent me a link to an article that was titled “Can we please stop drawing trees on top of Skyscrapers” by Tim De Chant, from the blog “Per Square Mile” (the link is here persquaremile.com/2013/03/07/trees-dont-like-it-up-there/). The piece refers to the current “trend” (there’s that word again) for architects to show foliage, trees and greenery on skyscraper designs in a bid to be more sustainable. This is little more than marketing tokenism – often it’s the same air-conditioned, sealed skyscraper sitting under the foliage (unless of course, the foliage is actually used to filter the air before it enters the building).
Design is ultimately problem solving. It just turns out that the nature of the problems have changed. It’s time our building technology did too.