Financial Review's "Boss" magazine, February 2000 - article by Harry Seidler

Financial Review’s “Boss” magazine is addressed to developers and corporate office users.

The quality of excellence in city environments and the design of buildings has always been felt to be the responsibility and ambition of those in financial power and the patrons of Art and Architecture. They left us the great edifices of the past, the palaces of Florence and in our time a Seagram Building in New York.

Do the business leaders and investors today look beyond short term profits, or do they have intuitive or educationally acquired sensitivity to exert influence on our politicians and their bureaucrats to enable only works of lasting aesthetic value (as well as profitability) to come into existence?

It is revealing to compare the planning and building procedures in our cities with those in Europe – specifically Vienna, where I now work and build and which I visit frequently.

Vienna, like, for example, Sydney, has buoyant building activity. The noticeable difference is the environmental cohesiveness resulting from European planning procedures as against what we call “urban planning” – a misnomer. Our result is increasing congestion which is being added to with every new oversized building. Whether well or badly designed, it is visually strangulated by new, huge ill-related neighbours. Buildings become parodies of their former selves, standing in an intensely hostile environment.

We base our “planning” on restrictive rules, what not to do, rather than what to do, so that a wholesome totality can predictably result. European cities’ development is guided by centralised planning departments staffed by specialised top professionals. They plan the city’s growth comprehensively; its density, its traffic, its public transport and its infrastructure of all services. They encourage excellence in progressive architecture through a special department that encapsulates architectural design of every project in dedications which have the permanent force of law. They produce realistic three dimensional visions to guide city growth into a healthy future. We have no such planning, but rather allow aimless responses to market forces to govern what gets built in the vain hope that restrictive rules will result in viable city growth.

What predominates in our restrictive rule making is the obsession with heritage. It is everywhere to an absurd degree. This rash of backward looking is enforced mindlessly and mercilessly and amounts to nothing more than fakery. The dictum is “if you can’t keep the building, just keep the front”. Architecture is reduced to two dimensions with remnants of the old stuck on new buildings like postage stamps. This regressive mode is a main source of the city’s ills. Every new building must be built to the edge of the footpath, covering the whole site.

There is a futile attempt to recreate 19th century “street architecture”. If there is no old facade, imitate one. Copy an old-looking neighbour. Build a podium of deep windowless spaces and make your tower grow out of its top. Make it look old so we feel closer to history. Never mind the overcrowded resulting footpaths and traffic.

The resulting sham environment is evidence of a deplorable cultural insecurity that besets much of the “new world” in America, Canada and Australia. This does not emerge in European countries where people live with superb monuments of the past which they love and spare no effort to maintain in pristine condition. They do not try to imitate bygone imagery. They encourage the best new design to stand next to the best of bygone eras. The results are vibratingly stunning.

Progress and encouragement to build the best of today is unencumbered in contrast to our procedure of misguided grass roots democracy which delegates town planning power and aesthetic control to untrained average citizens who inhabit local councils, all acting independently. There are no equivalents to our quasi courts of law anywhere in the western world in which architects have to fight to have their building designs declared innocent. In a new millennium, one can only ask why this needs to be so?

Harry Seidler
February 2000