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Modern Australian buildings are unfriendly – and here’s why

Are there examples of inspiring contemporary architecture in Australia? mugley

What makes one space adorable and engaging? What makes another unfriendly and inhospitable?

You might think that after two millennia of architectural discourse, we’d have ready answers. And not just answers but plenty of beautiful and adorable spaces to match.

Sadly, I struggle to think of Australian examples of inspiring contemporary architecture that create a beautiful space for conversation. For instance, there are few, if any, in Canberra.

But I have no difficulty thinking of examples from the past – almost anywhere in the world – whereby gorgeous ceremonial spaces have been created by handsome façades in streets with a processional rhythm, as if the architecture figuratively accompanies us as pedestrians and magically stops when we pause.

The Queen Victoria Building in Sydney. Craig Cullum
The interior of the Queen Victoria Building, Sydney. AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

Old buildings, from the façades of Rome to the Queen Victoria Building in Sydney, have a quality of public engagement that comes from their design.

I think of this conviviality as the social presence of architecture. The architecture not only communicates its joy in occupying space by flamboyant ornament but makes a concerted gesture to pedestrians that proposes some form of reciprocation.

The buildings look as if they want to be on the street – not as if they want to withdraw from the concourse or launch into space – and they also seem to signal that people could come together in front of or inside the building.

A New York City building on a corner that says: I want to be here. Robert Nelson

How, you might ask, does any building send out these magic signals? And if there’s a formula, why don’t more architects employ it today?

395 Collins Street, Melbourne. Wikimedia

The standard method for 2,500 years was to build the façade in a system of agreements, sometimes described as articulation.

Think of a post, which is more or less a cylinder. Ancient architects hit upon the idea that the post could be articulated in three meaningful moments which somewhat express its function: a base, a body and a head. The cylindrical shaft sits on a base, which provides the bearing upon a platform.

The same is true of the head (the column capital) which would cap off the post and prepare it for another function, propping up an entablature.

The triple agency of putting pressure on the earth, soaring upward and having a purchase on a load-bearing lintel above are all spelt out by the form. Often, the base would itself be split up into three parts; and so would the shaft and so would the capital.

All of these stages of articulation bolster one another and the whole column takes on a robust presence, where every level corroborates the muscular thrust and pressure of every other level.

Happily, the configuration of base-body-head also relates to human proportions. So the column has great presence in itself which simultaneously flatters human presence.

Any number of columns support any number of levels on this New York City building. Robert Nelson

By the same logic, a whole building composed of such columns, brackets, lintels and arches, takes on a marvellous conversational air, because each articulated member seems to have something to say in supporting another.

The architecture acquires social presence because it first socialises itself. Its members actively participate in one another’s business. Each part, by the great metaphor of articulation, is socially connected to every other part.

Talkative New York architecture – almost garrulous. Robert Nelson

I’m grafting the term “social presence” from common language, where it’s used to describe people with an outgoing disposition who signal an interest in others. This genius of reciprocation is installed in the very fabric of old architecture, where you feel looked at or psychologically acknowledged by the building that would equally address itself to every other person sharing the space.

Buildings talk to the street when they talk to themselves. Robert Nelson

Summing up the ingredients that used to make for social presence, old architecture often:

  • narrates and celebrates function in discretely articulated parts
  • makes correspondences between all elements and human proportion and
  • metaphorically talks to itself, with a conversational engagement in its very fabric.

These principles largely disappeared from architecture after the second world war, from which time many buildings acquired a weak social presence if any at all.

A New York building managing its mass: a visual formula for lightening the carriage of weight. Robert Nelson
Collins Street, Melbourne.

There’s no reason contemporary materials and modes of construction cannot economically accommodate the three principles of social presence.

It’s only a case of whether we can still identify the charms of architecture with social presence and then whether we want it or not.

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