What does the future hold for architecture and construction with rapidly increasing populations

South Australian Museum by GHDWOODHEAD


Healthy lessons for the future by understanding the past

So what does the future hold for architecture and construction with rapidly increasing populations, concentrated in mega cities, with associated water, food, energy and environmental challenges?  One scenario includes greater use of the building stock that we already have – restore, reuse, repurpose, reinvigorate. This counterintuitively requires more creativity than designing new buildings and places. 



To assist energy conservation, and therefore to assist in maintaining a healthy planet for us all, we should in the first instance always seek to reuse existing structures and to revitalise existing urban precincts.  This isn’t a call for greater ‘conservation’ but for much more radical architectural interventions into the existing townscapes. It does however challenge clients to more fully assess all costs of their buildings, not simply the initial capital costs of construction.  This includes the costs of the embedded energy in existing structures versus the energy, transport and environmental costs of any new construction.


This isn’t a new approach, for example Brunelleschi and Michelangelo produced some of the finest architecture of the Italian Renaissance period by reinventing existing structures, and the Louvre Pyramid is a more recent example.  We should challenge the need for new construction at the earliest stage and look for low-tech or no-tech alternatives.   A collateral benefit of this approach will be reduction in the amount of architecture as sculptural expression that has dominated major civic buildings over recent decades.  We can similarly create better and healthier places.

In the 1980s, there was much discussion of so-called sick buildings syndrome. This involved the inter-connected environmental problems caused by issues such as radon gas, poor air conditioning, solar gain etc. Psychological concerns were also at play when workers couldn’t control the temperature nor open windows in the hermetically sealed offices of the 1960’s and 70’s. Many problems have now been addressed through retro-fit. The debate has moved on to the creation of healthy places rather than solving sick environments.



Concept of a Healthy City //

Over the centuries the greatest human minds have created models of ideal cities. The concept of a Healthy City is first explored by Plato. Early in Republic, he depicts two cities, one healthy and one with 'a fever' (the so-called luxurious city).  The citizens of the luxurious city "have surrendered themselves to the endless acquisition of money and have overstepped the limit of their necessities". The luxury of this city requires the seizure of neighbouring lands and consequently a standing army to defend those lands and the city's wealth. The main character, Socrates, says that war originates in communities living beyond the natural limits of necessity. 

In short, the healthy or true city is sustainable, limiting its consumption to actual needs, while the luxurious city is not, and is in a perpetual quest for more. Plato spends the rest of the Republic attempting to reveal the political organization and virtues such as moderation that become necessary for the luxurious city to be more just, more healthy, and thereby sustainable.

Healthy City Model 1 // Leonardo da Vinci

While Leonardo da Vinci was living in Milan, much of Italy and the rest of Europe was struck by plague. Leonardo felt the high number of deaths was partially due to the condition of the dirty, densely populated cities where germs spread rapidly. He saw garbage thrown out onto the narrow streets and there was poor sanitation.

Leonardo designed an "ideal city" where the streets were wide, underground waterways carried garbage away and a paddlewheel system could clean the streets. His city was based on 2 levels, the top level was for the foot traffic and the bottom for carts and animals.   In this city, Leonardo hoped that improved living conditions would help to avoid the spread of contagious diseases. While the ideal city was never built, he did help to improve the Sforza castle by designing a smaller version of his plumbing and drainage system which proved to be both clean and efficient.

Similarly the pre-existing landscape topography defines the city as much as the imposed plan. Any city is inseparable from the landscape in which it is set and can only be understood in terms of its geographical situation, its climatic and meteorological facts, its economic bases and its historic heritage.


"Town plans are therefore no mere diagrams; they are a system of hieroglyphics in which man has written the history of civilisation, and the more tangled their apparent confusion, the more we may be rewarded in deciphering it." - Patrick Geddes, Cities in Evolution, Oxford University Press, (1950)


Healthy City Model 2 // The Garden City

In 1898 Ebenezer Howard founded the Garden city movement in England. The cities were intended to be planned, self-contained, communities surrounded by greenbelts, containing carefully balanced areas of residences, industry, and agriculture. His initiative was inspired not by Plato but by the Utopian novel Looking Backward written by American Edward Bellamy.

Howard’s idealised garden city was planned on a concentric pattern with open spaces, public parks and radial boulevards. The garden city was intended to be self-sufficient and when it reached full population, a further garden city would be developed nearby. Howard envisaged a cluster of several garden cities as satellites of a central city linked by road and rail.


Healthy City Model 3 // Le Corbusier

The Ville Contemporaine was an unrealised project to house three million inhabitants designed by the French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier in 1922. The centrepiece of this plan was to be a group of sixty-story cruciform skyscrapers. These housed both offices and the flats of the most wealthy inhabitants and were set within large, rectangular park-like green spaces.

At the centre of the planned city was a transportation centre for buses and trains, as well as highway intersections and at the top, an airport. Le Corbusier, like Leonardo, segregated the pedestrian circulation paths from the roadways, and glorified the use of the automobile as a means of transportation. As one moved out from the central skyscrapers, smaller multi-story zigzag blocks set in green space and set far back from the street housed the proletarian workers.


Ideal Models versus Indigenous Landscape //

Over the years our towns and cities were built on whatever land could be purchased, on a field-by-field basis. In this way the streets retain the field pattern. The twists in the landscape which had become land divisions became translated into the urban form as a memory.  This kind of growing, organic, self-repairing city fits into a view of architecture and urban design where intuitive decisions are valued as much as grand visions, where the specific place is more important than the general location. This view has been given intellectual rigour and structure by theorists like Christopher Alexander.

Society has changed; complexity has replaced simplicity. It is time once again to repair and renew our cities. The lesson of the past is that this should not be a grand gesture. What is needed is a whole series of small acts of intuitive and appropriate design. Every act of building should be an act of repair, a part of the much larger process, in which several acts together regenerate the whole city into a healthy place.

Michael Hegarty is National Practice Leader of GHDWOODHEAD

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