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  • Writer's pictureJulian Raxworthy

WRITING: "Australian Non-Urbanism" from SUNBURNT

Updated: May 12, 2019

In 2011, SUN Publishers in Amsterdam published SUNBURNT: Landscape Architecture in Australia, which was edited by Sue-Anne Ware and myself. The book was developed from an exhibition of the same name, and the following is the uncorrected proof of my introductory chapter from the book.


Speaking about urbanism in Australia seems like an oxymoron: urbanism is a European expression that is almost entirely abstract in the Australian context, despite aspirations toward ‘European-ness’ in some markets. While Australian cities were built in the 19th century, often with very fine neoclassical architecture on interesting and surprisingly perceptive city layouts, in the 20th century Australia, like America, became suburbanized. The history of suburbanization reads like a textbook litany of modernization: changes in labour forces due to industrialization, together with immigration, leads to a massive influx of population which, combined with the improved financial situation of much of the population, particularly in the post-war period, becomes dispersed from the urban core thanks to the automobile and the availability of cheap land. With this dispersion comes an erosion of what has traditionally been European urbanity, and with little real regulation from government and a decline in the funding and meaning of civic institutions, the market has become responsible for creating what are really just icons of the public realm rather than real and enlivening public spaces that lead to a rich community life. In response the design industry fluctuates between two poles that every thinker, including this author, switches between regularly, particularly as they travel to other cities in the world, wondering: ‘Why can’t Australia be like this?’. Those poles are at opposite ends of a scale of density (high to low), but the contrast is really between figure and ground, or between constraint or lack of constraint. Australia loves exemplars, which leave what Leon van Schaik has called ‘dim resonances[1]’, and so it is useful, particularly after a period of travel, to think of Australian cities in relation to the others that ‘Australia could be like’, even while we love, and in that typically Australian way, hate, Australia as it is.

Australian cities operate differently because of particular foundational constraints, which immediately differentiate them, on the whole, from European cities. Australian cities were laid down by British surveyors, in highly utopian moments, using the best colonial thinking and pattern-making. They took a took a chance on what was required, what the place would be in the future, what would be worth keeping, what to orientate themselves with or against. In the European city, as time passes, the constraints that informed the founding of the city, or that the city reacted to tend to be overcome, either smoothed out of existence by subsequent development or worked around in particular development typologies. As time passed, the city began to provide its own constraints, which its own physicality had to be negotiated around, which obliged all the urbanists discussed by Bacon[2], from Sixtus V, to Le Corbusier, to cut into it, to treat it as plastic and to intervene. Constraint tends to be the friend of the designer; without a mass there is nothing to cut.

The tension between founding constraints, particularly geology and the founding pattern remains one of the wonders of Australian cities. As well as affecting the cost premium of development it also creates a direct spatial containment of the city. In this sense we can divide up the cities in Australia quite easily: Sydney and to some extent, Brisbane are geographically constrained cities with a dramatic geology and topography that forced the development of a level of eclecticism in urbanization, while Perth and Melbourne are both flattish cities on plains that allowed for a more consistent spread. Focusing initially on the poles of Sydney and Melbourne is useful in discussing this, even though this polarity has been generally negative in Australia’s history. As an urban design teacher I have been trying to work out how to deal with these two paradigms and find the great European urbanists Colin Rowe[3] and Aldo Rossi[4] useful base models. They set out their paradigms around the figure-ground relationship and how it shapes space in the city. The dominant pre-modern paradigm of the European city is one in which space is shaped by the figure of the dense housing stock and a tight perspectival condition is achieved along the street. In this model there is more figure than ground. The second model, which is discussed by Rowe as more modern but by Rossi also as monumental or sculptural in a neoclassical context, is where there is more ground than figure and a building sits in the landscape. Landscape theorist Patrick Condon calls these two modes Volumetric Space and Cubist Space, respectively[5]. The value of all these thinkers ceases when it comes to proposing solutions for Australian suburbia, even though their models identify the problem: Australia has too much Cubist Space. In foundational terms Sydney is a Cubist Space place while Melbourne is a Volumetric Space place.

The immediate context of Sydney’s centre is sandstone, which has led to a dramatic topography of ridges and gullies. Grids have been imposed on Sydney but tend to be distorted meshes that produce steep streets and big changes in elevation across blocks. In Sydney’s late 19th- and early 20th-century boom, housing typologies developed, particularly close to the city, which saw larger, more expensive and often free-standing houses with harbour views located on ridge-tops, in lower density subdivisions, and terrace houses on slopes down into gullies for workers, maximizing yield through density on difficult land. Because the harbour is seen and marketed as a ‘lifestyle asset’, over time, except in the wealthiest areas, the larger ridge lots became sites for larger blocks of flats in order to maximize the financial value of the view, while the terraces were gentrified for a cosmopolitan upper -middle class. The constraints of the physicality of the geography, as well as its psychological and social creation of view and a sense of lifestyle, have made the centre of Sydney dense. The landscape not only creates Volumetric Spaces but also forces Volumetric Space housing typologies. Where apartment blocks stand on the ridge tops they act as topographical features rather than simply as objects, a fact well recognized and utilized by Harry Seidler[6]. To see what it might become we can look at Rio de Janeiro, and Copacabana specifically, where tight blocks of flats create lush sub-tropical microclimates with trees and where the landscape is a vibrant other to the city in amongst it. Or we can just see Sydney as its own model, attractive and known the world over.

Melbourne is a city that you have to get to know but once you know it, you love it. In many respects it sets the tone for what an Australian urbanism is, and with it, what an Australian intellectual culture might be, when there is no harbour or beaches to fixate on. Melbourne’s grid was laid out by Robert Hoddle in 1837. It is oriented just off true north perpendicular to the river and the edge of the bay, and its grid interval, together with careful planning, has meant that it has been occupied at the right level of density for a rich pedestrian experience and a cosmopolitan city life with great functional and activity differentiation. Because of the relatively flat basalt plain on which it sits, Melbourne has spread outwards rather than being contained by its topography like Sydney. In Melbourne key topographical eccentricities were kept as open space, such as Flagstaff Gardens and the Domain. As the city spread in the late 19th and early 20th century, it seemed that the rationality of the grid was in the blood of the city and simple but strict infrastructures provided a clear, robust but also adaptable framework for housing stock. As in the city centre, the dimensions of the infrastructure and subdivision system were in a useful proportion for human occupation. Streets were wide but housing density was high on small lots. The city kept expanding but in doing so it created an attractive space with amenity at a density that could sustain local communities and economies. Melbourne’s answer is to use the Cubist Space model to create Volumetric Space, and it is a model that could be mobilised for current suburban development.

All Australian cities have ‘problems with suburbia’, including Sydney and Melbourne, even though those two cities have cores that are recognized as noteworthy urban centres in international terms. But what exactly is the problem with suburbia? Hugh Stretton presciently recognized in the 1970s that Australians WANTED to live in the suburbs, despite purveyors of good urban design not wanting them to, or rather, not liking suburbia themselves[7]. He quite rightly pointed out that suburbia offers some real benefits for people: physical space for families, both inside and outside the house; infrastructure for cars to allow family mobility; access to other centralized facilities in shopping malls. All of these things still exist, and are still attractive to the market. The problems associated with suburbia are not necessarily problems caused by suburbia but rather the problems of society that suburbia demonstrates, amplifies or at least fails to mitigate. These problems are diverse but there are two that I will deal with, the first compelling, and the second fickle but real.

If you listen to James Lovelock, the world is on the verge of an inescapable environmental catastrophe, which is climate change[8]. The continued use of fossil fuels, regardless of whether a peak oil crisis occurs or not, will accelerate the greenhouse effect, and while this can be ignored before the environmental crisis, once the crisis occurs, it will no longer be possible to ignore it. Lovelock has a range of sensible but radical suggestions, but one point he makes is that when the temperature increases, populations will move to more agreeable areas, for Australia, this means effectively abandoning the bush. There will also be an increase in environmental refugees to Australia. At the same time, those areas that have an agreeable climate and rich soil, for example, those on the edges of the country, will have to be used for agriculture to feed the increased population. If those areas are occupied by suburbia, the potential area for agriculture would be scarily reduced. Add to this the distances suburban residents have to travel without their cars and its easy to see that suburbia is in trouble and a more centralized and dense situation is required. While there is a current in society that Lovelock terms ‘green’, which is seeking ‘think global, act local’ solutions, Lovelock is effectively proposing the opposite: ‘think local, act global’. The local implications are so socially and politically complex that only global solutions are possible. While there are discussions of guerrilla gardening and urban agriculture, these do not address the scale of what is going to be required. Lovelock suggests that when the crisis occurs, and he believes that it will be sudden, that it is happening now and that it isn’t fixable, governments will have to operate in a totalitarian way to deal with it and there will be a significant loss of individual civil liberties. Serious stuff for suburbia – just as well this scenario has a lighter side.

In the 20th century, as capitalism took unprecedented control in a context where democracy came to equal capitalism, the real estate market completely took over the shaping of the landscape. When ideology became a dirty word to the extent that legitimate government was embarrassing, and when the municipal sector was downsized to be simply facilitators of the private sector, one of victims was urban pattern. Interconnected grid layouts that allowed expansion, division, consolidation and connection were forsaken for interiorized layouts like the cul-de-sac that could suck that extra lot out of the landscape. While the cul-de-sac is almost gone, and most developments now have an occasional through road, the basic modality is still interiority, which is required for branding. In physical terms, too, suburbia just doesn’t look like a very nice foundation for the future. With street corridor width minimized, density sufficiently low, and buildings freestanding, there is little or no spatial definition from the buildings. It is Cubist Space hell. While American suburbia mitigated this effect somewhat with the use of dense plantings of large trees, paranoia about trees in Australian precludes this.

There are a range of ways for dealing with suburbia in the collective consciousness of urbanists, urban designers, architects and landscape architects. An excellent, recently published series of debates at the University of Michigan covers the gamut of approaches, which can be roughly divided into three categories: Interventionist;, Complicit; and New Urbanism. All have their merits, which I have explored in my urban design teaching (though even admitting that about New Urbanism can get you in trouble) and all have severe limitations. All have a disturbing sense of fantasy since they are all dominated by the real estate developers, who though claiming to be led by the market, actually condition what the market will accept.

The interventionist, who could also be called the Utopian, operates by imposing an abstract model on suburban space, ostensibly by re-considering the constraints, often in radical, typology-changing ways. Some of these can be effective or become effective over time. An example would be the Ville Radieuse or Plan Voisin, which was implemented in the Unité buildings. By reconsidering plot ratio, Le Corbusier created high-density apartment blocks with lots of open space. Over time the Corbusian model has become accepted and varied, mostly in countries where either physical space was at a premium, or where regulation is an expected part of civic life, in Scandinavian countries for example. In Australia, high -rise housing has really only become acceptable, outside a public housing context, in Sydney, where height allows a view of the water. The Interventionist model has a recent history in the Netherlands with the work of MVRDV, who in some of their studies exploit constraints to develop new models, for example in their Pig City study where they proposed towers for the purpose of farming pigs as a way of reducing the ground area occupied by agriculture[9]. In a similar manner in Australia, Richard Weller has undertaken studies of suburban growth in Perth and redesigned suburbia using a series of scenarios that focus on particular possibilities of constraints in the next 20 years[10]. There could be as many models for intervention in the suburbs as there are ways of living and indeed there have been many such proposals in the history of architecture and urbanism that have sought to intervene behaviourally in the way people live. Occasionally the market is ready for innovation, as in the 1970s when post-hippy models of communal living became popular and innovative housing estates, such as those provided by Merchant Builders in Melbourne, where architecture, landscape and the maket were aligned with commercial and innovative success[11]. Such interventionist models generally require some control over the legislative or financial framework to deliver, both of which are at odds with how the market and government currently work. It would take a formal crisis or paradigmatic change in governance to implement an Interventionist model of urban design in Australia, even though this may be the best option, considering climate change. Interventionist approaches are seen as the most appropriate and courageous by designers, who ‘know better’.

The New Urbanist model is the least palatable model for designers and urban design thinkers, particularly because of its use of historical typologies. New Urbanism sprang up in the face of rampant suburbanization in the United States as a call for humanism in the suburbs, for a creation of meaningful spaces. Its catch-cries are community, transport and open space, and many of its recommendations in this sphere are sensible and have already become policy and best practice in the housing industry, which accepts the innovations of New Urbanism because they have a clear market attractiveness while also seeming to deal with other issues. Key policies of New Urbanism concern the creation of centralized open space with community features, organizing the residential layout around generous and articulated infrastructure that is not driven by the car and that is connected to walkable transit zones, and the consideration of the role of housing stock in shaping the street and open space. All of these are things that make sense to anyone who thinks about suburbia. The issues start to arise from the formal outcome of these policies, which is rightly criticized as nostalgic and backward, but which has stuck because it is this nostalgia that has been attractive to the market. Because New Urbanism arose as a legacy of Venturian post-modernism, historical precedent and analysis have driven New Urbanism. While a similar analysis by modernist architects Team X in the 1960s abstracted these constraints to offer different typologies and public space types, some of which became Interventionist strategies such as megastructures, much New Urbanism has directly copied past precedents or at least their formal configurations. Peter Connolly analysed in design research the tendency of New Urbanist developments to use the bilateral symmetry of baroque urbanism[12], particularly for infrastructure and public space. Further studies of other, more complex forms of baroque symmetry and their configurations, demonstrated that the New Urbanists approach to precedent is sometimes simplistic copying. Despite its Venturian roots, there is little irony or self-consciousness in New Urbanism’s use of precedent. Market appreciation for direct historical precedent is demonstrated in the extreme in the Netherlands in the surprising projects of ex-Superstudio member Manfredi Nicoletti, whose Florentine -inspired, not -quite -abstract -enough mega-structures are very popular[13]. Such nostalgia can be dangerous in the hands of politicians and public figures who copy historical precedent rather than learn from it, demonstrated by Prince Charles in England in his Poundberry Estate. Despite the formal excesses of New Urbanism, it has set the stage for much innovation in suburbia, even if its principles have become a non-specific litany of universal ‘good principles’. New Urbanism has been the only innovator in the market.

In my urban design teaching I have explored Complicit approaches, which lie somewhere between Interventionism and the New Urbanism, a position informed by architect Shane Murray and his urban design teaching, as well as that of Harvard urban design academic Margaret Crawford[14]. A Complicit approach to urban design is one where the market is recognized as a very real force, but also one with an element of democracy led by the preferences of the public. In some sense a Complicit strategy is like a popular culture approach. Crawford writes that she ‘likes her car’, rejecting the numerous (though often untested or unproved) good urban design guidelines. Politically a Complicit strategy rejects high design as the imposition of good taste on a public that presumably has none. Jeremy Till has recently focused on this view in his writings, discussing design culture as effectively an extension of the class struggle and as an expert discourse that is often distant from users’ requirements[15].This is a familiar discussion from the 1970s, and designers are rightly suspicious of it because it deferred critique of design outcomes if they were seemingly about users. Till is quick to acknowledge that an interest in community, the user or pragmatism does not preclude a real interest in form. My own approach in urban design teaching, after all these precedents, is to try to exploit, or, like Pop Art, focus just this side of the surreal or the sublime the interesting tendencies latent in the existing urban design market-place. As well as the Pop artists, architectural figures from the 1960s like Archigram, and thinkers like Rayner Banham were able to do this[16]. The architectural innovation of commercial buildings in the 1950s and 1960s has been discussed by Steve Izenhour in his studies of the White Tower[17], an approach he developed further with Scott Brown and Venturi in Learning from Las Vegas[18]. Mega mall designer Jon Jerde is also discussed by Sorkin and Crawford in these complicit terms[19], and some of his commercial work moves into a scale and a level of opulence and baroque complexity that is also recognized by Rem Koolhaas as a type of spatial production that characterizes late capitalism[20]. In my teaching I have tried to encourage students to see abstract design potentials in freeway buffers, strip malls, entry features and hybrid public space types that emerge from the convergence of these elements. Visiting Brisbane or Los Angeles, however, it is clear that the market is already advancing with these hybrids faster than critical design culture can keep up, with yoga studios in car parks and cafés everywhere, anywhere. Recently I had a heated discussion with a Penn academic (the home of Venturi) who noted that ‘our students do not pay for their education to learn to design strip malls’, to which I replied ‘well maybe there aren’t enough post-industrial parks to go around’. Being complicit is tough, boring work and even Crawford notes that a Complicit approach is just the best available where there is little regulative control. After years of head-scratching , Complicit urban design teaching I yearn nostalgically for the Interventionist, that may just happen anyway if Lovelock’s environmental crisis does eventuate.

Considering that the current volume is a book about landscape architecture projects, it is interesting to note that the selected projects do not deal with the kind of issues discussed in this essay. Indeed, despite landscape being such a broadly defined entity, landscape architects tend to operate on the most limited definition. This is partly the result of the relative lack of power the profession compared to other parts of the development industry. However, interestingly, outside the realm of projects that tend to be regarded as ‘design projects’, are a whole range of other project briefs that mitigate the effects of development. Development produces lots of landscapes though little gets designed by landscape architects, and even less of that gets published. If it were possible, through a combination of the above approaches, to bring better design thinking, but perhaps not formal design, to the generic landscapes of the city, landscape architects might redeem the middle landscape, as Peter Rowe defined it[21], and create value for many more people.



[1] An expression Leon adopted from Neil Masterton.

[2] Bacon, Edmund, Design of Cities, Thames & Hudson, 1992.

[3] Rowe, Colin & Koetter, Fred, Collage City, the MIT Press, 1983.

[4] Rossi, Aldo, the Architecture of the City, the MIT Press, 1982.

[5] Condon, Patrick, ‘Cubist Space, Volumetric Space, and Landscape Architecture’, in Landscape Journal, vol. 8, no. 1, 1988.p1-4

[6] Particularly his Kimberley Apartments in Dover Heights.

[7] Stretton, Hugh, Ideas for Australian Cities, Georgian House, 1974

[8] Lovelock, James, The Vanishing Face of Gaia, Basic Books, 2009

[9] Morel, Phillippe, ‘We’re All Experts Now’, in Véronique Patteeuw (ed) Reading MVRDV, NAi Publishers, 2003. pp.122-137

[10] Weller, Richard, Boom City 2050, University of Western Australia Presss, 2009.

[11] Mackay, Ian &, Living and Party Living: Housing in Australia, Thomas Nelson, 1971.

[12] Connolly, Peter, ‘Negotiating with Suburbia: Exploring the Centrifugal Nature of Public Space’, in Shane Murray (ed) 38 South 2, RMIT School of Architecture and Design, 2000. pp.96-101

[13] Byvanck, Valentijn (ed), Superstudio-The Middelburg Lectures, De Vleeshal Zeeuws Museum, 2005

[14] Kelbaugh, D., Ed. Everyday Urbanism: Margaret Crawford vs. Michael Speaks, University of Michigan Press, 2005.

[15] Till, Jeremy, Architecture Depends, the MIT Press, 2009

[16] Banham, Reyner, Design by Choice, Rizzoli, 1981

[17] Hirshorn, Paul & Izenour, Steven, White Towers, The MIT Press, 2007

[18] Venturi, Robert, Scott Brown, Denise,, Learning from Las Vegas, the MIT Press, 1977.

[19] Crawford, M. ‘The World in a Shopping Mall’ In M. Sorkin (ed), Variations on a Theme Park, Hill and Wang,1993

[20] Koolhaas, R., J. Inaba, et al., Eds. Project on the City 2: Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, Taschen GmbH. (2001).

[21] Rowe, P. G., Making a Middle Landscape, The MIT Press, 1991

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