How can architecture exist in a world of reduced growth?

A new set of behaviour will define the future of the built environment in the post-pandemic world, writes Caillin Howard of Australian multi-disciplinary firm Hames Sharley.

by Caillin HowardPublished on : Dec 16, 2020

With population movement and tourism affected by the global pandemic, growth in the architecture and building sectors has slowed to match. Is now the time for architects to steer towards a more sustainable approach to the built environment?

In its recent release, Measuring the Impact of the Pandemic, the Australian Institute of Architects (AIA) highlighted “a substantial slowdown in projects and measurable shifts in employment”, based on data supplied by 430 members of the Institute. In fact, 64.87 per cent of respondents to the AIA’s survey said they have had projects stalled as a result of the coronavirus, and about the same number reported a loss of earnings. The concern, writes Institute CEO Julia Gambage, is that “the pandemic will continue to have a significant negative impact on jobs beyond the short-term pain currently being felt”.

Caillin Howard, the Managing Director of Hames Sharley, writes that it is a great time to consider the bigger picture:

This energy is fantastic; this process is exciting but we are putting it in the wrong direction.

The fundamental idea is the building industry is going to be busy, so architects are going to be busy. Fixing existing residences up to be more environmentally neutral is terrific, but that requires minimal architecture. And it is really valid to talk about a higher percentage of affordable housing and dealing with those crises, but again it is not going to drive an economy or a development.

Working in the public sector – education, defence – that is going to be the easy way to keep alive if you are an architect, because you are pivoting to where the activity will come from. It is not going to be from the private sector, it is going to be from the federal and state governments, or areas of the private sector that are stimulated by government. There is a massive chunk of residential subsidies, which means the residential market is currently amplified – especially Perth, where it is doubled due to the state matching the government stimulus. So, there is this momentary expansion that, at some point, will need to return to a non-stimulus market.

The pandemic has affected international and interstate migration and tourism | Hames Sharley | STIRworld
The pandemic has affected international and interstate migration and tourism Image: Courtesy of Hames Sharley

As a profession, we should be talking at a higher level and contributing to the government in regard to white papers and policies about how you manage without population movement or growth. Our development and economy rely on growth and we may not have that to the same level which we have become accustomed to. The pandemic has affected international and interstate migration and tourism – if you don’t have moving people, you don’t have moving needs.

Every 50,000 people we get, we need another couple of schools, we need another shopping centre, we need another hospital. The Sydney market has relied on north of 100,000 people population growth per annum, year on year. The boom in Perth, 10 or 15 years ago, was based on 40,000 to 50,000 people a year.

That is what actually drives us. And that is frightening, because we are talking about overpopulation – at some point the planet has to have too many people on it. We are working on an economy which is all about growth predicated by more people, and that will eventually not be as sustainable.

Right now, we need to climb out of this little nightmare. But the minute we have climbed out of it, we need to start questioning an economy that actually values something different.

For architects to stay busy and relevant without growth, therefore, would require a reappraisal of the purpose of architecture and those who create it.

It is what we actually do. So, let us get together and think about the drivers of change; find opportunity out of the new set of behaviours that increased technology and the pandemic have forced on us.

Our role is that we study human behaviour. – Caillin Howard

What does working remotely for eight months do to the Melbourne workplace market? What does it do to the largest food and beverage foundation in the country on the other side of it? What are we prepared to lose? What are we prepared to fight for? What role does architecture have in that? Let us get our heads around what we need to do from a built-form perspective to build confidence back in retail and public spaces.

Key to this process will be proving the naysayers and the economists wrong. They say we will never mix together, again, we will never go back into an office again. And that is nonsense. We all get a little bit of rest in the cave by ourselves, but most of us, after a short space of time, start to go crazy. We are tribal people, we get value from bouncing in and working with one other. Fundamentally, the human condition relies on a degree of social interaction.

A design proposal by Hames Sharley in collaboration with Khoa Do, Associate Professor of Architecture and Deputy Chair of the Curtin Academy | Hames Sharley | STIRworld
A design proposal by Hames Sharley in collaboration with Khoa Do, Associate Professor of Architecture and Deputy Chair of the Curtin Academy Image: Courtesy of Hames Sharley

At the moment, no one can define the needs of a future building or a future place off the back of this pandemic. So that is what we should be talking about and that is what we should be investing time in. From that, we can give clearer instructions and clearer vision to governments, to banks, and to all the things that are going to hold back investment or confidence to make the change.

For this to succeed, would require a change of perspective and the development of a new approach, a skill set for creating opportunity in a recessive economy.

Look at places like Detroit that have had negative population growth and have had to reinvent and rebuild themselves. Adelaide, too, has been working off negative or very small population growth for quite some time, and yet it has still got an economy, it has still got a healthy building market, it has still got healthy design and architecture. It is about repurposing, reusing, rethinking, as opposed to expanding and growing.

In a negative market, the skills to reinterpret and create new value out of something that is existing are as honourable and as beautiful as creating something afresh. And much harder. Economies that have gone backwards need design leadership. It is not just about the beauty of repurpose, it’s about the use on the inside and the activation, and I think, in the future, architecture needs to be far more encompassing in not just creating the space, but also the mechanism of activating it. That starts to cross over into events, into who to work with to actually create the activity to test that space and how it works.

When you are building in a negative market, it really is the re-creation of value where value has been lost. Things that have become representative of neglect or negativity need to be refaced or repositioned to create hope and prosperity. And I think that is up to us.

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