Universality in Architecture: A Perspective from Sydney

Sydney_ivy03-from-Urbanwalkabout

Universality in Architecture: A Perspective from Sydney
by Selwyn Lemos

While I have not been actively involved in much architectural design since leaving Singapore to live in Sydney some years ago, I still try to keep up with developments in both cities and elsewhere.

In this globalised and increasingly inter-connected world that we live and operate in, international collaboration is inevitable. But the challenge remains as to how we make such collaborations work, especially when meeting the expectations of clients who like to refer to benchmarks and trends from other countries around the world.

So, how readily does a particular design solution adapt itself to a site anywhere in the world? Good architecture responds to its particular context, implying that a thorough understanding of the localised design parameters is essential. And this is often heightened when we involve design teams that cross geographies.

While there are certainly quite a few determinants that impact on our approach to designing architecture in varying locations, I believe the three main ones are:

1. Climate

In one of its functions – that of a climate modifier – a building has a significant role to play in responding to its physical setting in order to ensure environmental and occupational comfort for its users. This factor is relatively straight-forward as the effect of weather-related parameters can usually be predicted. However, how this impacts directly on particular building elements may not always be fully understood, especially when dealing with built forms and materials that are untested in new and unfamiliar environments. Having previously been involved in an overseas embassy project, I recall much attention being paid to addressing extraordinary rainfall patterns and working out special drainage details and technical solutions to deal with potential flooding in plant rooms located in the basement. In another project I worked on many years ago (in the capacity of signage sub-consultant for an educational campus), it became evident upon building completion that the internationally renowned lead foreign design consultants (who came from a temperate climate) had underestimated the impact of heavy tropical downpours on the double-volume, open-sided main circulation concourses. Perhaps one could attribute this unfortunate outcome to cultural politeness but it was apparent that no one from the local project team saw fit to “correct” a flawed design by this foreign design master until there was absolutely no choice but to find a post-occupancy remedy in order to make the building actually function as intended.


Australian shopfront vernacular – Kings Street, Newtown (image source: Beerken’s Blog)

A shopping high street in Australia would be typified by its distinctive add-on, suspended awnings. What was probably an improvised but practical solution to make a directly transplanted European built form more suited to its adopted climate featuring much heavier rainfall has now become a unique expression of Australian vernacular architecture.

2. Unique Building Legislation

We are often reminded of how local building legislation can be a creative driver of architectural outcomes. A famous example of this would be the way in which the building codes in New York City (which sought to ensure adequate sunlight penetration at the street level amongst ever-increasing height of buildings) resulted in stepped-in high-rise towers which made the NYC skyscraper so distinctive and provide the city skyline with its unique sense of identity. For me, nothing seems to have demonstrated this idea more than the recently changed anti-smoking legislation here in Sydney. Around two years ago, drinking establishments were renovated en masse in anticipation of the new codes. A new typology has emerged, with its semi-open areas, which has effectively displaced the old image of enclosed, dingy pubs or hotels (as these drinking establishments are called here).


Interior view of the central atrium at The Ivy (image source: UrbanWalkabout website)


Exterior view of The Ivy from George St (image source: World Architecture wesbite)

The Ivy, an award-winning development in the heart of Sydney’s CBD, is a case in point which seems to have successfully responded to this piece of legislation to produce what is now a new spatial experience for the after-hours and weekend clubbing set. Marketing copy for The Ivy reads: “Unlike anything Sydney has ever seen, The Ivy, with a distinct 1950’s glam, offers a dazzling constellation of bars, dining facilities, shops, lounge areas and lifestyle indulgences. It’s a night out, a meeting place, function venue, an escape from reality. Located in the heart of Sydney’s tight urban fabric of George Street, the 20,000 m2 building offers a public landscaped oasis within a predominantly commercial domain.” So, in trying to meet the natural ventilation requirements to allow smoking to still take place “internally”, the designers have indeed created an unexpected arrangement of urban space that breaks with convention to great effect and popularity.

3. Social and Cultural Context

In its other functions, a building serves as organiser of human activity as well as a symbolic and physical embodiment of culture, aspiration and social history. Architecture therefore would, and should, be different when placed in different social contexts. It is particularly fascinating to see recently built spiritual buildings in Singapore (such as temples, mosques, churches and even crematoria) beginning to find their own unique and contemporary expression which is clearly in response to, and a testament to, the unique social and cultural situation that has evolved in modern Singapore over the past few decades. In my final year architectural design thesis at university, a military institute, I departed from convention in making the dining hall a light-filled, cathedral-like, inspirational space instead of adopting this for the “chapel” as is typical of other Western military academies. This deviation was justified, so I thought, given the ecumenical and secular nature of the Singapore Armed Forces. But I could only laugh along when one of the visiting members of the examination panel remarked that this was rather appropriate for Singapore, seeing how food is almost treated like a religion! One would therefore expect that a prison, a food court or a court of law located in China, Sweden, Iran or Australia would be very different from one found in, say, Indonesia, the UK or Brazil.


Assyafaah Mosque by Forum Architects (image source: URA’s Singapore 1:1 website)


Church of St Mary of the Angels by WOHA Architects (image source: URA’s Singapore 1:1 website)


Choa Chu Kang Crematorium by CPG Consultants (image source: URA’s Singapore 1:1 website)

In the Global Cities conference that I was fortunate to have attended in Sydney last year, the keynote speaker, Sarskia Sassen (a Dutch, sociologist who is attributed as having coined the term “global cities” way back in 1991) made this point when comparing the densities and other aspects of a series of global cities around the world. She said that the character of a city is ingrained in its socio-political history and regardless of its interconnectivity with other cities of the world. This was meant to assure the sceptics who fear that the universality of architectural styles and pervasiveness of multi-national institutions (such as McDonalds and Starbucks) were causing these global cities to merge into a bland, universal homogeneity. A particular city and the individual buildings that make up this city will inevitably reflect a certain localness which is driven by its unique socio-political “DNA” and history. Singapore, for example (according to Sassen) can be characterised by an efficient organisational culture that is founded on its formative social history – that of a shipping and container port which has subsequently been extended to being an international aviation and financial centre as well. Such social drivers will be different elsewhere and would differently shape those cities accordingly.


Cover of “The Global City” by Saskia Sassen (image source: Amazon.com)

So in endeavouring to work successfully across geographies, it would serve our architectural designers well to recognise and respond appropriately to these three groups of design parameters, including having a reasonable understanding of the social DNA of each place.

Selwyn Lemos – Business Development Manager (Consulting) – Downer EDI

First posted on 21 May 2010

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