architecture and eco-scepticism

You don’t need to look far to find the most extravagantly wasteful design paradigm in contemporary architectural practice: the ecological aesthetic effect. Just like the fad for wings on the bums of suburban peoplemovers (limited by law to 110kph), in Canberra the contemporary office building sports flamboyant enhancements just for the sake of appearance. But worse, they pretend to be useful…


The ACT Magistrate’s Court (Cox Architects) sports a giant corrugated iron tank on its roof. What on earth was the architect thinking? This is how we harvest water? Answer: it’s a fence which hides all the messy bits. Or it’s a reference to suburban vernacular. Either way, surely this is no place for gratuitous humour. Or does it signal that all those who enter this place will take a bath? Bad humour.


Just down the road, the #7 London Circuit building (Woods Bagot) faces east. It sports a massive loggia that looks as if it might control the fall of sunlight into the upper floors of the building. Except it faces the wrong way, and, surprise, the sunlight falls on the rooftop service structure. It’s highly decorative, “designed to make a strong visual statement”, but worse, it give the impression that the building is designed to be solar-efficient.

“Passive design measures were central to the design concept in a strategy to minimise energy consumption and create a healthy workplace. A veil folds from the roof to the west façade and increases the insulation to the western aspect of the building as well as reducing the extent of glazing to this façade. The roof was conceived to act as a fly roof does on a tent. It is open at its lower end and its form encourages the passage of air beneath it resulting in a further cooling of the shaded roof deck below.”

Roof deck, aka smoking area. Or for executive drinkies on Friday afternoon. Awarded a Highly Commended.


Similarly the ANU’s UniLodge (architect unknown) is peppered with brightly coloured decorative elements which do no more than modulate the surface of the otherwise box-form building. Does it have any effect on the fall of sunlight on the western wall? Minimal. Again, it fakes solar-efficiency.


#1 Uselesslines on 09.14.09 at 2:59 pm

Mmm very curious indeed.

#2 vanessa on 09.15.09 at 11:08 am

there really is no hope for eco-anything is there!

#3 Greg on 09.16.09 at 9:38 am

The above are quite restrained compared with the pretentious ‘hey look at me’ office buildings at Canberra airport. We are drowning in green wash.

#4 Nigel on 09.22.09 at 5:17 pm

(from Neil Hobbs) Over many years I have been continually intrigued at public perceptions of favoured landscapes. Ask the question on Canberra, and inevitably it is the Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery of Australia. I have heard this from politicians, architects and the general public. This much-contested landscape has essentially grown itself in the intervening years following the insightful design by the landscape architects and a happy few years of close collaboration with a committed parks manager. Over that time it has continued to impress locals and visitors, and for whatever reasons holds a special place as a distinctly Australian landscape in what had become a distinctly Australian (ie bush) Capital. It would seem that the use of native planting has had an influence on this perception, and also the apparently random design of the pathways and asymmetrical disposition of the spaces. Environmentally it works, with minimal impervious materials promoting ground water infiltration, and very limited irrigation. I have to excuse the fog sculpture, which does produce a specific microclimate, if only for a couple of hours a day.

Contrast this with two recent and ongoing developments in Canberra – The Brindabella Office Park (surrounding the airport) and Childers Street/City West.

The commercial development at the airport purports to be 5 -6 green star development, all well and good, (though the landscape is irrigated with bore water) but on a ‘sense of place’ scale it does not rate. It is the same as any other business park developed anywhere internationally over the last two decades. The only pointer to anything remotely Australian is a temporary road sign to ‘Queanbeyan’ – (Queanbeyan of course has a sense of place – while there are many variations on ‘Kingston’ around the world, there is indisputably only one Queanbeyan!). The landscape consists of deciduous trees, irrigated grassing and blocks of generally exotic shrubs and ground cover. It is from everywhere, but creates a non-place.

Childers Street/City West has been developed and promoted as an ‘engaging connection of the Australian National University with the western edge of Civic’ (A kind of ‘Newtown meets Gown’ or something like that). It is still a construction site, but is rapidly filling with student accommodation, commercial space and multi level carparks. Trouble is, someone forgot to plant trees. There is a lot of colour and movement in the buildings, and again, they have been designed to meet Commonwealth mandated green star ratings for commercial office space, and wonderful water sensitive reed beds and stormwater management systems, but half the landscape is missing. The scale and proportion of the street corridor demands more than buildings and artworks. On a ‘sense of place’ scale, Childers Street would edge out Brindabella Office Park, but it is a marginal call.

It gets worse – Brindabella Office Park just won an AIA award for Urban Design in June….

#5 vanessa on 09.23.09 at 10:54 am

I think your comment ‘It is from everywhere, but creates a non-place’ is particularly poignant. Hence the success of NGA’s sculpture garden. Accommodation would logically lend itself to food gardens fed by water tanks, and park lands to the re-creation of natural Australian ‘habitats’.

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