Palace of the Soviets by Boras Iofan (1932)
What is it?
Michael Gurr wrote an opinion article in The Age recently condemning the Footscray Station Precinct development by SJB and McBride Charles Ryan as Stalinist. “If the communist bloc still existed, Footscray’s apartment buildings are what their security headquarters would look like. These buildings are big, grey and black… [without] a kind line in them. They seem to refuse human involvement.”
Disturbingly and inexplicably, Gurr widened his attack to encompass the entire architecture profession. Comparing us to owners of vicious attack dogs and methamphetamine dealers, he claimed we’re the bad guys, the real bad guys.
Offended by Gurr’s non-specific vitriol but wishing to remain constructive, we wrote into The Age with a letter of rebuke. The letter was published the next day, its full text reading as follows:
Michael Gurr’s criticism of recently built Footscray apartment buildings is fair and reasonable, relying as it does on his first hand negative experience of their impact. His attack on the entire architecture profession as a result of this one development is both unwarranted and unsubstantiated. On the back of one poorly written novel, would he dismiss every author everywhere?
Architects are not the bad guys Gurr makes us out to be. We believe in humane experiences within the urban environment and work hard to achieve them. We fight against a vast array of interests aligned against this aim, from developers wanting to make a quick dollar, to neighbours crying NIMBY, to builders wanting to build as cheaply as possible, to planning regulations that discourage innovation. On larger projects, we take on the unpopular and improbable role of attempting to reconcile every competing aim presented by these diverse interests, and are in too many cases the only ones at the table interested in a quality outcome that improves the built environment.
I suggest Gurr delve more deeply into the processes behind building developments around Melbourne before he starts throwing stones.
While we are happy to leave Gurr’s personal taste undisputed (despite any credible connection between the pompous monumentality of Stalinist architecture and the activated streets and articulated facades of the Footscray Station Precinct) we could not leave unchallenged his clearly misguided understanding of the procurement processes behind most large scale developments. He pleads for us to sit down at a development meeting and “say something radical such as, ‘Let’s build something friendly. Let’s build something the neighbourhood might like'”. We wish architects had the power to steer large developments with nothing more than a suggestion. The sad truth of our era is that, sitting at the table with the developer, project manager and builder, we often have the smallest voice.
Ultimately, Gurr’s opinion article raises three separate though related concerns: first and foremost, that architects do not unfortunately enjoy the unchallenged authority he attributes to us; second, that such a misinformed, incendiary article defaming our entire profession could have even be published; and third, that the best rebuttal our community could muster was the above short letter.
As already elaborated in a past article here, where was the Australian Institute of Architects on this issue? Why did our representative body once again leave us all to our own devices to defend ourselves?