To be delightful, suburbia requires so much road, generates so much carbon, devours so much land, destroys so much biodiversity, forgoes so much beauty and produces so much social isolation, depression and obesity that the city you produce is sensory deprivation in built form. You end up with two soulless extremes, a puddle of sprawl surrounding clusters of towers that are a form of vertical sprawl. Stokes’ Sydney.
Housing patterns that offer survival, equality and delight lie between the two extremes. (By equality, of course, I don’t mean sameness. It’s towers and burbs that produce dull uniformity. I mean the critical part housing plays in both equality of opportunity and generational justice. We need houses that enable the flowering of talent without destroying climate.)
There are many traditional examples, from Vienna’s glorious 18th century courtyard apartments and Barcelona’s 1920s version to London’s six-storey garden squares, San Francisco’s three-storey villas and Sydney’s inner-city terraces. All combine the community, health and eco-benefits of urban living with the garden joys of suburbia.
There are also more recent reinventions of the type, mostly from the 60s and 70s when the high-density low-rise ideal became a grail, attracting some of the best – and highest – minds in the business.
Atelier Five’s lovely, greenery-draped, three-storeyed concrete Halen estate near Berne (1961) was an early and brilliant example. Another that rightly achieved cult status was the Alexandra Road estate in the London Borough of Camden (1968) by Neave Brown, who wisely argued tower-living should be reserved for the wealthy. Similarly, the 1970s Philadelphia housing by American architect and theorist Louis Sauer (who now, at 93, lives in Launceston) was very fine, dignifying work.
Recent versions are fewer, especially in Sydney. There’s Moore Park Gardens, Redfern, designed by Peter Stronach in the 1980s. With its intricate byways, varied form and luscious planting, this is still one of the best. And there’s Hassell’s lovely Flour Mills development for EG in Summer Hill. Like Moore Park Gardens, this involves adaptive re-use of old fabric to enrich its feel. But it is also a fine piece of design and of community-making, with handsome architecture, loved public spaces and a park that is used night and day.
These are developments you can look at and think, yes, that could be home. Why so few? Not because they are inherently unviable. The brilliant Peter Barber does similar and better things in the uber-expensive London, like the lovely Moroccan-feel Donnybrook Gardens in Tower Hamlets. Some, like his Ordnance Road housing, Enfield, is social for-rent housing, but still lovely.
High-density low-rise housing is rare because we’ve swallowed the furphy articulated by my anonymous heckler: that it’s somehow unviable. Wrong. Viability is an artefact, a made thing, a product of government policy. If you zone for 30 storeys, land value rockets so of course low-rise becomes unviable. Similarly, if you hand-wring in favour of medium density but shove responsibility onto councils, for whom it is a political nightmare, it’s not going to happen. But all this is entirely in government control.
Thanks for your pale-roof greenwash, Mr Stokes, but forcing Sydney into a choice between squitty apartments and godforsaken suburbs betrays our humanity, our city and our future.