Ideas and inspiration from around the world.

Coin Street

Coin Street Builders have created an inspiring waterfront precinct on London's South Bank: one that combines commercial activities with social housing, heritage buildings with contemporary architecture and well-designed public space with high-density urbanity. The restored Oxo Wharf looks like a perfect example for what the former Herd St Building could have become: craft and design studios on the lower levels, affordable housing in the middle, and an upmarket restaurant on top (there have been some class conflicts, but it has generally worked well). Some of the new flats (Iroko House by Haworth Tompkins) adapt the typology of Regency Squares to contemporary architecture, with an interesting blend of of public and private space.

This development grew not from a developer's plan, but from community activists opposing office development. Some might find it strange that I support waterfront development in Wellington, whereas the development that this group opposed sounds superficially like the Lambton Harbour proposals. However, the original proposal for Coin Street was for a monoculture of offices that blocked access to the river and displaced a working-class population. On the other hand, the Wellington Waterfront developments are mixed-use, retain access to the water, and replace desolate carparks and empty buildings rather than an existing community. The overall scale and density of the local plans will be closer to the actual Coin Street than the proposed offices. If only the Wellington City Council would drop their insistence on "highest and best use" (i.e. most lucrative sale) and promote mixed income as well as mixed use, our waterfront could be as lively and socially inclusive as Coin Street.

Trastevere

The Roman neighbourhood of Trastevere (literally, "Beyond the Tiber") is a maze of narrow, winding streets and alleyways, with the occasional small plaza around a fountain or church. Some people would find the narrowness of the streets (often little more than a car-width across, between five-storey walls of buildings) oppressive, but it's one of the liveliest and most attractive districts of Rome.

Many writers extol the virtues of Sixtus V's monumental Baroque planning, but much of Trastevere's charm is due to the fact that it escaped his attentions and retained its intricate mediaeval scale. At the moment, it's on the cusp of gentrification, so long-term residents and small furniture workshops jostle with touristy trattorias and fashionable bars.

Given that contemporary New Zealand is not noted for its mediaeval mosaics and roman relics, what can we learn from this district? It exemplifies the joys of density and mixed use, demonstrates the importance of walkability and human scale, and proves the value of quality public space, which doesn't need to be extensive and open, but benefits from compression and intimacy.

Melbourne

Melbourne exhibits the best and worst of urban design. Many of its outer suburbs exmplify the dullness and mediocrity of unrestrained sprawl, but the CBD and inner suburbs have qualities that make make it one of the most liveable medium-sized cities in the world.

The popularity and usability of the tram network proves that this transport solution is not limited to dense old European towns, but one that can work in relatively low-density Anglophile cities. The CBD is threaded by a network of lanes and arcades that bustle with life, showing that intimacy and enclosure are often better conditions for urban life than wide-open spaces. Inner suburbs like Fitzroy, Carlton and St Kilda have enough life and character to be destinations in their own right, rather than dull dormitories.

One of my favourite things about Melbourne (apart from the restaurants and the shopping, of course) is its mix of traditional and breathtakingly cutting-edge architecture. It's surprising that a city with such a tendency towards conservatism has allowed (though not without controversy) such daring designs as Federation Square and Storey Hall.

West London

Some people love districts like Notting Hill, Kensington or Pimlico for their architectural style, but personally I find that acres of white Georgian stucco can get boring very quickly. What I like is the urban typology, which proves that high density can be attractive and popular.

A mixture of main streets and narrow mews with occasional squares provides suprisingly high density (over 200 people per hectare) without the downsides of high-rise living (shading, wind effects, loss of connection with the ground). Townhouses of between 4 and 6 stories, with mews of 2-3 stories, provide a variety of streetscapes and living options, yet still allows for plenty of greenery, both public and private. They are also highly adaptable for mixed uses, as ground floors can easily be turned into shops or restaurants or upper floors into offices or studios, thus allowing the neighbourhood to evolve.

Of course, these weren't originally multi-family housing, but townhouses for large wealthy families with servants and horses. Their limitations as high-density living (access problems, poor soundproofing between flats) largely stem from the difficulties of adaptation. However, new neighbourhoods based on a similar arrangement could avoid these issues, and add improvements to suit the New Zealand climate and lifestyle (more balconies, better orientation for sun and views) as well as sustainability (passive solar heating, roof gardens, recycled materials). The basic typology also lends itself to a range of architectural interpretations, and above all, respects the street as the primary urban space.

 

LandCare Research Tamaki Building

As a high-profile New Zealand example of sustainable building technology, the LandCare Research building is a great step in the right direction. It uses a wide range of water-management techniques (rainwater harvesting and stormwater treatment) and energy efficiency measures (solar water heating, thermal mass, insulation, natural lighting and even a small wind turbine), as well as using many recycled and sustainable materials in its construction.

The only downside is that it continues with the "office park" typology, which with its separation of uses and profligate use of land, is inherently opposed to sustainability. Unfortunately I don't know of any local buildings that use sustainable design principles to such an extent in a truly urban context.

Trash Palace

Porirua's Trash Palace is a recycling centre that practices what it preaches. As well as rescuing materials that would have gone into the landfill and running courses on sustainability, the building itself uses sustainable timber, reused windows, doors and fittings, and uses onduline (a material made from organic fibres and bitumen from used oil) for roofing and cladding. The Melling:Morse aesthetic of humble materials and vernacular forms is perfectly suited to the role and location of the building.

Niigata Performing Arts Centre

This shows that it's feasible to have a theatre with a roof that is not only green, but a publicly-accessible park. Perhaps this could be an inspiration for the Music School on Jack Illott Green. See the article on the HECAR foundation website for images and a description.

30 St Mary Axe

Also known as the Swiss Re building, but best known by its nickname "The Gherkin", 30 St Mary Axe provides proof that skyscrapers can be exciting and environmentally responsible. Norman Foster's design reduces wind-tunnel effects on the surrounding streets, uses half the power of a conventional building of the same size, and has been described as "the most widely liked new building in Britain for decades".

Wellington Heritage Buildings

Without explanation, the Wellington City Council removed the Heritage Building Inventory from their website, so this link points to an old version at http://web.archive.org.

 

Jane Jacobs

A great observer of and advocate for urban living, Jane Jacobs has clearly, concretely and passionately outlined the benefits of density and mixed use. Her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities is a classic of both analysis and polemic.

Friedensreich Hundertwasser

He may have had some odd ideas, and his buildings have an idiosyncratic fairytale quality that makes them difficult to recommend as a universal model, but he also had some creative ideas for humanising the city. In particular, green roofs and tree tenants are concepts that could readily adapted to a wide range of architecural styles. Here are links to his Biography and to images of his architecture.

Bill Dunster

Bill Dunster's ZEDfactory site abounds with creative sustainable architectural solutions for a range of urban contexts. In particular, his BedZED development is an outstanding example of a medium-rise neighbourhood suitable for high-density suburbs. See also the article in Gabion.

Richard Rogers

Some of Richard Rogers' buildings are demonstrations that outstanding architecture can still be poor urbanism (Lloyd's of London springs to mind), but it's his recent urbanist ideas and advocacy that make him inspirational in this context.

His book Cities for a Small Planet is accessible and well-designed, full of specific ideas for making cities "sustainable and civilising environments", with an emphasis on densification, re-use of brownfield sites and transit-oriented development. Cities for a Small Country (with Anne Power) is more specific to the UK, and a little heavier on statistics, but these are essential as they show a frightening vision of the future unless urgent measures are taken to arrest sprawl and car-dependence. His role with the Urban Task Force (including the report Towards Urban Renaissance) gives some hope that the political will might eventually be found to make these happen.

 

Local transport pressure groups

Transport 2000 and Campaign for a Better City are both pushing for alternatives to private cars for urban transport, with particular emphasis on fighting the "bypass". The Green Party is championing Initiative 21 as an alternative, and Brent Efford's WELL-TRACK site promotes light rail for Wellington.

The Sierra Club

The Sierra Club has an extensive and informative site, with a particularly useful section about fighting sprawl. Don't miss the Community Transformations section, with step-by-step renderings showing how barren streetscapes can be transformed into attractive urban environments through intelligent infill and public transport.

Operation Green Thumb

Community gardens in Wellington.

 

urbanism.org

www.urbanism.org has links to articles on a wide range of urban issues.

Arcaid Picture Library

Arcaid is a photo library specialising in architecture and interior design. You can browse their images by criteria such as location, type or period, and they have some spectacular photographs of 21st century architecture.

Gabion Gabion is an archive of Hugh Pearman's critical writing on architecture and related topics. Many of the well-illustrated articles have previously appeared in London's Sunday Times.