STUDIO C / Threads

Threads - Studio XXII - Melbourne School of Design

As largely an urban species, we exist in symbiosis with the urban realm. A relationship in flux; of multiple possible futures all existing at the same time. These futures represent different threads of potential that course through the city and its suburbs, influencing and being influenced by its infinite assemblages. These threads emerge as trends and typologies; a series of patterns written into the urban fabric.
'Threads' focuses on unearthing and speculating on the trends embedded in our suburbs. The geographical site for this speculation was the middle ring suburbs of Melbourne, Australia.
The 'totems' presented below are visual artifacts; the visage of speculations and provocations designed to expose the sometimes fantastical, sometimes mediocre and often delirious futures that our community, geography and regulations affect.
The single family home on a quarter acre block once represented the Australian dream. A patch of turf that could be called your own. In recent decades, and despite its continued proliferation, the suburban house has been exposed as being an unsustainable urban typology. Its reliance on the car as a mode of transport has fragmented the urban environment, it maintains a reliance on fossil fuels and, as data shows, is associated with higher levels of chronic disease and social disadvantage. As the sprawling suburbs die, how will we remember their passing?
The future thread presented in Suburban Death explores the decline of the suburbs through a monument that expresses the impacts suburban living is having on our health. Every millimetre of the monument represents a person impacted by chronic disease living the typical fringe suburb. Each block on the monument represents a different disease or health issue. The monument is capped by the black house, a symbol of death.
One of the prevailing aversions and arguments against infill development centres on height. The NIMBY cause has focused on increased heights as being detrimental to urban comfort and character. Recent policy decisions in Melbourne, motivated by the loudest community voices, have focused on capping building heights in the middle ring suburbs areas. This is manifested in the New Residential Zones which, through the imposition of the new Neighborhood Residential Zone, caps heights at around 2 standard levels. This capping of heights is beneficial to the few that can afford ownership in the middle ring and forces development out to the fringes that suffer from a lack of easily accessible, essential services. If we demand more sustainable cities than we must also accept that this growth cannot be relegated to the fringes. If these Zones are adopted then what new typologies of residential develop must we explore? If we can’t go up, then we must go down.
All architecture happens in place and time; being inseparable from, and a product of both equally. In urban settings this can be manifested through the idea of embodied memory. Where Calvino in his book Invisible Cities describes the collective memory as being written physically into the city, as a patina; embodied memory describes the aggregation of physical, documented and remembered history. All architecture happens in and on the earth and as such occurs on sites that have borne witness to the passage of time. In urban centres this passage of time has brought with it a passage of human occupation and expression. Despite the removal of a building or the change of tenants there is a memory of their passing.
With developments in virtual technologies and the advent of augmented reality there is a possibility that we could more readily tap into and explore this embodied memory. The abstract notion of memory and its stratification in place becomes more visceral and accessible. Perhaps this is a new way of reading and expressing urban data; as a visual stratification in place.
Extending on the idea of embodied stratigraphy this thread focusses on designing a built outcome that explores collective memory by drawing upon local vernaculars. The stratification in this case is a sedimentation of styles over time. The design elements of these styles have been stripped down to symbolic representations that make up the façade of the building. Designing in this manner turns the urban environment into a document ripe for cutting and collage, a composition available for sampling and remix. By referencing a local vernacular is it possible to realize a building that is both new and inherently of its local area?
The current typology of residential apartment development within the middle ring suburbs has been dominated by a massive, bulky, “Phat” architecture. This type is symptomatic of development proliferating in the absence of best practice urban planning. Developers will build to the envelope, the minimum of regulatory measures, in order to maximize yield. This results and a heavy, ugly vernacular that dominates the street. By the time the architect has input on these buildings the configuration has already been decided; the architect is the fashion designer, clothing the structure in purely formal expressions. Mediocrity rendered vivid colours reigns supreme. If this type persists, what can we expect when it is pushed to its limits?
Several of the totems presented in this project emphasize the restrictions existing regulations have on development, and the ways building types can adapt to these regulations. Counter to these threads; there is a possibility that the absence of regulation also fosters the emergence of new typologies. Unlike other planning jurisdictions, Victoria does not have minimum standards for the configuration of residential apartments like New South Wales with its SEP65 guidelines. Without these standards we have seen a proliferation of poorly designed and increasingly smaller apartments which have attracted the ‘dog box’ moniker. Is it possible that these dog boxes may be pointing towards a metabolist renaissance in Melbourne? In the absence of apartment design regulations perhaps we have the perfect environment to re-explore the idea of the plugin city.
Heritage preservation is one of the primary concerns in the middle ring suburbs. Unlike the capping of heights, heritage protections are not just concerned with preserving scale, they also have a focus on preserving a common urban heritage that provides connection to place through time. As this culture of preservation inflates more building are being protected, not only the best examples of a vernacular, but all examples of that particular style, both good and bad. If we must preserve then how can we accommodate projected growth. Apart from the fringe perhaps there are also latent opportunities in, on, and above heritage properties. If we must retain all of the old then what about the airspace above. Putting height restrictions to one side; how could we build in this airspace? If we want to minimize impacts on surrounding properties such as overshadowing, what would these structures look like?  
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