Dangerous places

Walsh Street House by Robin Boyd, 1958

What are they?

The antithesis of the contemporary urban environment, whose sturdy handrails, warning decals and fluorescent yellow strips are tenderly coddling us in bubble wrap, anxiously protecting us from every possible bump, scrape and bruise. By dangerous, we do not so much refer to cliff edges nor shark-infested waters, rather the more quotidian places which return to us a sense of our own bodies, the understanding that our safety is our responsibility and ours alone.

Walsh Street House by Robin Boyd is one such dangerous place.

We had the good fortune to attend the awards ceremony for the AA Prize for Unbuilt Work that was held there last week (into which we entered our project, SafetyNet City, discussed here and viewable here, that did not win). At the entrance, a gracious host warned us to watch our step down the stairs, as the handrail is not enclosed, and our footing on the balcony, as its sides have no handrails at all. Later, taking the photo below, we almost fell off said balcony, but were thankfully saved by the helpful tendril of a well-placed shrub.

What did we learn?

It is true that one of the fundamental prerogatives of architecture is to protect us, to bring us in from the heat and the cold and the lions. But having achieved commendable lion-protection across most Australian cities, our national building code and local councils have with misplaced good intentions turned to making sure even the smallest of dangers is extinguished.

Our steps are festooned with fluorescent yellow strips. Our windows are adorned with warning decals. Our balconies and stairs are ensconced in handrails. Our train platforms are decorated with tactile indicators. Our swimming pools are barricaded by fences. And we suffer unwittingly as the result.

There is such a thing as too much comfort. Our overly safe Australian cities ruin us for other, foreign cities – they soften our bodies, dull our senses and reduce our immunity to the cracks, unevenness and small surprises found elsewhere. It is worthwhile noting that across billions of years of continuous evolution and refinement, good Mother Nature has not found it necessary to grow handrails.

Now, we do not suggest that you tear out your balustrades and burn your fluorescent strips in protest against this gross injustice (though should you choose to do so, we would be delighted to hear about it). Rather, we simply wish to acknowledge the pleasant respite we enjoyed from all this unrequested over-protection at a stunningly-designed house that returned to us an acute awareness of self. It is called proprioception – the awareness through one’s muscles and nerves of one’s own body. Living in so much comfort, we could all do with more of it in our daily diets.

Silhoettes on the roof of Walsh Street House

3 thoughts on “Dangerous places

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  1. hi warwick!

    love your blog, as always, but thought that this post warranted a response in defence of those that the handrails, tactiles and decals are designed to protect – that being people with disabilities.

    i too used to curse the DDA and AS 1428 for ‘ruining’ my designs. But through my good friend, who is now an OT and does a lot of volunteer work and fundraising in support of disability groups, i’ve come to realise that the codes are just designed to be more inclusive for those in our society who may not have the same physical abilities as the majority.

    the real issue is that the safety and access products currently available in the market are terribly boring and limited. noone makes hot pink tactiles, and maybe they should.
    and i believe that architects should be the ones driving the market for better designed accessible products, and better integrating them into the design, so that one day the future robin boyd houses of the world (perhaps a future mihaly slocombe house?) will be not only beautiful and stunningly designed, but also fully accessible and enjoyable to all members of the community.

    hope you and erica and bubba are doing well, catch up soon

    p.s. hey, that’s kate and nat from my office standing on that roof, ha!!

    1. Hi Wendy,

      Thanks for the positive feedback and taking the time to craft your well-considered comment. I apologise for the lengthiness of the following response, but you have touched on a topic of great interest to me.

      The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) and its inexorable list of regulations has long been on my mind, most sharply when I was documenting the Warrnambool Yacht Club while at Perkins Architects and had to comply with its every whim. Even ignoring the mundanity of the DDA solutions generally on offer, I still struggle with its fundamental premise.

      The aim of the DDA is to ensure those with physical disabilities can enjoy equal access to the built environment as the able-bodied general public. This is a wholly commendable aim and without fault. My problem lies not with the DDA’s goal, but the means by which it hopes to achieve this.

      Let me give you an example: tactile indicators are designed to assist those who are blind or vision impaired, however they hinder those who have had a stroke yet can still walk. The DDA can never hope to achieve its goal, because the people it is trying to serve have differing and sometimes mutually exclusive requirements.

      Moreover, the cost of upgrading the built environment is mind-boggling. Don’t quote me on this, but I’m sure I’ve heard talk of figures in the tens of billions of dollars, if not more. And we haven’t even properly started on the building stock that already exists.

      Now, I understand why the Australian government introduced the DDA and why architects and other built environment professionals have been tasked with the job of executing it. It makes sense to make equal access the responsibility of people who are designing new buildings anyway – it costs the government very little, utilises relatively simple building technologies and is easily enforceable by authorities that already exist.

      However, it would be naive to suggest that the developers financing new construction have been content to absorb the costs of DDA compliance. No, they’ve passed them onto the public via increased sale prices or tenancy costs. So as a country, the bill to upgrade the built environment, sporting more zeroes than a box of doughnuts, is being paid for by us, the Australian public.

      So we have a system in place that is extremely expensive and can never hope to realise its ambition anyway. Is there an alternative?

      This may sound crazy, but how much would it cost to develop hi-tech, electronic and robotic devices that are tailored to each individual’s needs and supply them to every disabled person in the country? I’m talking about mechanical suits for the paralysed, sensory augmentation for the blind, and thought-controlled wheelchairs for the elderly.

      Would it cost tens of billions of dollars? Maybe. Would there be a time lag between research and development, and deployment? Certainly. Would we end up at the other end with a highly-specialised, immensely exportable tech industry? Definitely. Could we leave our built environment alone? Please, let it be true.

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