Bigger is better

On Friday evening ArchiTeam held its annual debate at No Vacancy, the gallery also exhibiting the 2017 ArchiTeam awards. The debate topic was, “Architecture… The smaller the better? Is the future of architecture small? Small living, small buildings, small practice… Debate!”

Zoë Geyer of ZGA Studio, who facilitated the debate, journeyed across the world into the deepest Amazonian jungles, the fastest Venetian canals, the broadest African savannahs, the highest Nepalese mountains, to discover talent for the two debating teams. Unfortunately the meticulous records she kept of her interviews were lost at sea during an offshore hurricane that destroyed her vessel and its entire crew. The lone survivor, she floated on driftwood for forty days and forty nights, eating only the fish she could catch with her bare hands, and drinking only the rain that fell from the heavens, until finally her makeshift craft returned to Australian shores. She staggered into Melbourne the same day of the debate, all chance of recovering her international superstars lost. So Zoë did what all great explorers have always done, and made do with what she had:

The affirmative
Thom McKenzie, Winwood McKenzie
Kalliopi Vakras, Kalliopi Vakras Architects
Rob Davidov, Davidov Partners Architects

The negative
Matt Green, OMG Architects
Rebecca Naughtin, Rebecca Naughtin Architect
And me

Unfortunately, all three members of the affirmative team ad-libbed their speeches, so I’m unable to reproduce their contributions here. Fortunately, the negative team arrived on scene well prepared and armed to the hilt with astute arguments, frightening facts and saucy sledges. With the exception of the glorious rebuttal offered up by the negative, which lives on only in the memories of the audience, here is a faithful transcript of our debate notes:[1]

Debating; Blue

Matt Green, first speaker

Small mindedness is the enemy of big thinking… And there is no better example to demonstrate this scourge than the profession of architecture.

As my esteemed colleagues and I will attempt to demonstrate to you this evening:

  • Society’s acceptance of small is killing our cities.
  • Small is infecting our suburbs.
  • Small is polluting our landscapes.
  • Small is destroying our way of life.
  • Small is a burden on resources.
  • Small is killing our profession and our livelihoods.
  • And worst of all, small is un-Australian.

Let’s begin with our cities. Cities are a celebration of culture, of collaboration, of society living relatively harmoniously together. Cities are by their very nature big, and cities are a perfect example of the success of thinking big. But the urban realm has been infiltrated by the evils of small.

The shoebox apartment.

29sqm of luxury in the CBD, I think not. It may be convenient that you can reach your kitchen bench to make your breakfast whilst simultaneously taking a poo, and at the same time watching Karl Stefanovic on the 15inch TV you’ve managed to squeeze onto the table of your living/dining/bedroom/kitchen/meals/bathroom/storage area that now represents your miserable tiny life.

But why should society be forced into this acceptance of small by the likes of our misinformed colleagues on the affirmative?

This time last year, the Better Apartment Design standards were released as an attempt to fight against this proliferation of small. Do you think anyone was eagerly leafing through that document thinking to themselves, “I wonder how much smaller we can make bedrooms now?” No, even the government agrees that small is not better.

I once worked on an apartment scheme where the only way to safely walk from one side of the bed to the other was via a sliding door that led out from one side of the bed into the hallway and back through another sliding door on the other side of the bed… Not very conducive to making the population of this great country any bigger.

Many may, quite rightly, criticise the seemingly uncontrolled explosion of residential highrise developments throughout our wonderful cities, but what they are looking at has nothing to do with big, it’s just a whole lot of small.

However this is nowhere near as bad as what is happening in our much-loved Australian suburbs.

The Tiny House movement… That thing that annoyingly pops up on your Instagram and Pinterests feeds from time to time and tries to convince you that living in a box on wheels in your parents’ backyard is the solution to Australia’s housing affordability crisis.

As you may have heard in the news a month or two ago (well, those of us who bother to follow the news unlike our colleagues on the affirmative team), owners of a Tiny House business recently had their prototype trailer-mounted Tiny House stolen from a premises in Canberra. But where were they at the time? They were fast asleep in a properly sized house! Remarkably, when the thieves discovered that a Tiny House is not in-fact an ingenious solution to the nation’s housing crisis, they abandoned it by the side of the road somewhere in Queensland less than twenty-four hours later.

Smaller homes are not a utopian solution to housing our society, not even in Queensland. Tiny houses are compact nightmares! Cramped conditions, compromised living arrangements, the composting toilet always stinks and Dave always stands in front of the TV.

Small houses also fail to address our society’s changing demographics. Many migrant and indigenous communities rely upon the familial cohesion of the extended family unit. Small homes are not only woefully inadequate in meeting housing demand in such situations, but are by extension racist. And racism is of course, un-Australian.

 

And finally, let’s take a look at what small has done for our own design practices.

Nobody starts a business in order to shrink. Small practice has very little opportunity to significantly shape the world around us in the way that big practice does. Small practice is inefficient, inflexible, isolated, and bad for the growth of the economy. Big practice on the other hand is good for the economy and good for jobs. And as we know, being against jobs is un-Australian.

Besides, what often looks like small practice can sometimes be big practice in disguise. For example, it’s a little known fact outside the mountains of Switzerland that respected small practice pin-up boy, Peter Zumthor, relieves the monotony of his small practice and the unrelenting esoteric thoughts that keep him awake at night by running a second, secret and highly lucrative business as the chief design consultant for Aldi Superstores in the Northern and North Eastern European regions. That’s an actual fact.

So to summarise: small is not better and less is not more. More is more. Less is a bore. Less is a chore (more or less). And to quote the Danish starchitect, Bjarke Ingles (who’s highly successful architectural practice is incidentally called BIG), yes is more.

Yes to big.

Forget about small.

Let’s make Australia big again.

Debating; Blue

Rebecca Naughtin, second speaker

Big is good.

This evening I will argue that growth is a natural, universal, inevitable and desirable process that is fundamental to human nature. As students, we dreamed of becoming the next Zaha, Gehry or Koolhaas, to test the boundaries of architectural production without the restriction of a $200,000 budget and a material palette of painted cement sheet, to be known by non-architects on an international level.

Innovation partners naturally with big practice. Big practices can afford the luxury of research teams, innovation and testing. Big practice allows for diversity, not only in the type of work, but in the cross pollination of different cultures and ideas. These are what allow a large practice to fine tune design in an informed manner. We see big practice use business structures that encourage collaboration, the sharing of governance, multidisciplinary informed design, of people coming together. If two heads are better than one, imagine what fifty or one hundred could do.

And it’s not just our practices that benefit from big. Big cities are the melting pot of everything we love about culture. Which cities do we yearn to visit? Adelaide and Canberra don’t tend to rate highly, but New York and London are on everyone’s hit list. Densification is inevitable, and through the implementation of well-considered, well-designed, high standard multi-residential developments, that are community rather than developer driven, we will find ourselves in a happier and healthier city without as much burden on services. It is in fact small minded thinking from developers, and the construction of countless, tiny shoebox apartments, that are undermining this big thinking ambition.

This extends Matt’s argument that small is bad. It’s not the big buildings that make high density bad, it’s the small apartments that make the big buildings bad.

US studies prove that large commercial office buildings are more environmentally friendly than smaller office buildings. How? With more stakeholders to invest in the implementation of sustainable design, and the building management to support it, the bigger it is the more investment, and the more application of sustainable measures. What’s the first thing to go on your little renovation project when it doesn’t come in on budget? Will it be the water tank or the thermally broken window frames?

Small cannot survive without big. Big practice tackles the big projects but leaves a void for small practice to take on the bread and butter projects, allowing opportunity for emerging practice to blossom. And even when larger opportunities come knocking, small offices like Zumthor or Murcutt rely on big practices to assist in project delivery.

Chew on this: landmarks are generally big. They drive the economy, they generate jobs, they are good for cognitive memory, great for way finding. “Where is that gallery?” “Near the State library.” “Oh, that big building. See you there for a vino.” And on the topic of landmarks, if you don’t have a place in your heart for our beloved icons, the big pineapple, the big banana, the big prawn, the big sheep, then you really need to have a good hard look at yourself.

In closing, let me remind you that Dwayne Johnson, the big Rock himself, is now the highest paid actor in Hollywood.

The jury is out.

The people have voted.

And they say, bigger is better.

Debating; Blue

Warwick Mihaly, third speaker

My esteemed colleague, Matt, briefly introduced Bjarke Ingels, who is the very definition of the power of big thinking. Bjarke has 400 people in his practice, working on projects in most of the continents, and is rapidly taking over the world. Bjarke lives a charmed life of which I, running a practice of six, can only dream. I am a slave to writing invoices, chasing invoices, yelling at town planners, being yelled at by clients, unclogging the printer, unclogging the toilet. Meanwhile, Bjarke wakes up each morning to not one but two masseuses kneading the knots out of his well-muscled back, a bowl of gold encrusted cereal smothered in champagne, and five assistants whose only job is to throw rose petals at his feet and keep his perfectly manicured feet from ever touching the unholy pavement.

My primary goal in life is to be Bjarke Ingels. And indeed, as both my esteemed colleagues so correctly identified, this ambition is essential to the survival of the architecture profession. Every small practice architect dreams of making it into the big leagues, and those that do leave a vacuum for us little guys to fill in the gaps. We take on the shitty little $50,000 renovations and are grateful for it. This is the way of life, the way of human nature and every natural or manufactured ecosystem that there ever was. Small becomes big, and in doing so facilitates more small.

Small is not better, it’s just the precursor to big.

But as you may have realised, the architecture profession is a very, very small part of the world. In Australia, there’s only one registered architect for every 1,850 people. That’s around one half the number of prostitutes, one fifth the number of hairdressers, and one fiftieth the number of smashed avocado breakfasts served up each Sunday morning.[2]

So let’s look beyond architecture to see what other truths about small mindedness and big thinking might enlighten us.

The Grattan Institute identified in their seminal book, City Limits, that the 90% of the Australian population living in urban centres are now the primary drivers of our knowledge economy. Small towns have neither the infrastructure nor critical mass to facilitate this economy. We need big cities now more than ever.

Small towns are also responsible for some of the greatest atrocities the world has seen in our recent history. 73% of small towns in the UK voted for Brexit, 66% of small towns in Queensland voted for Pauline, and a whopping 81% of small towns in the US voted for the Turnip.[3]

The Turnip himself has small hands, and his good friend, Kim Jong-un is small all over. Both suffer from small man syndrome, and are swinging their nukes to compensate for their marked lack of big, impressive dicks.

There have been no computer games ever that ended with the small boss.

The Deathstar is glorious.

And only by dreaming big did JFK put us on the moon, and will Elon Musk put us on Mars.

Architects can certainly learn a thing or three from the big idea disruptors like Musk’s Tesla, or Amazon or Google, each reshaping the world in their image. Instead of home renovations for the wealthiest 5-10% of the population, and an ever-increasing slide towards total marginalisation, we’d be much more valuable thinking big.

And finally, I’ll leave you with this important insight. The universe is a pretty big place. There’s a 99.6% likelihood that a sentient alien species is on its way right now to give us all a good bollocking.[4] Our very survival is at stake!

The small mindedness of the small team wants us to dig our heads in the sand. But only by thinking big and coming together in big places with big dreams can we thrive.

Bigger is better.

 


Footnotes:

  1. All arguments offered by the negative team are not to be taken seriously.
  2. The statistics on architects, prostitutes and hairdressers are facts. The statistics on smashed avocado breakfasts is an… er… alternative fact.
  3. These percentages have absolutely not been fact checked.
  4. Nor has this.

Image sources:

  1. First speaker, author’s own image.
  2. Second speaker, author’s own image.
  3. Third speaker, author’s own image.

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