Many year before the world read, or listened, to Alain de Botton or Kevin McLoud you had an interest in architecture. It started when you were at school and it was heightened when you commenced tertiary study. At that time you found the most effective way to study was to swot in the civic library because it was only a few block from your dorm.
But you are no swot and you were too easily distracted by the variety of books, and magazines available.. You spent too much time on those magazines; Architecture Today , and Design. So much that the intention to swot and assemble the information of the lectures of the day was forgotten. Perhaps it was your academic interest however you had the sense to recognise the limits of your poor record at school and you dabbled at the edges in these publications rather than commit to certain failure.
In the sixty years since then you have remained interested in good design and style as an interested bystander and you are incandescent with rage at what is happening.
The source of most fundamental of human rights is found in the UNHCR. On housing it states,
“The human right to adequate housing is more than just four walls and a roof. It is the right of every woman, man, youth and child to gain and sustain a safe and secure home and community in which to live in peace and dignity”
“I love you.” These were the first words spoken to me by a girl in grade 4. She said them as I walked around on playground duty on my first teaching round. (I am reminded of her words a few months short of sixty years ago.) The school was overflowing with children. I am now guessing the Tate St Primary School in East Geelong class had children from thirty different language groups then.
This child lived in an area of social housing. Geelong was an industrial hub for the greater western district of Victoria. The city was a distribution centre for wool, wheat, timber, oil refining, tractors, carpets and cars. Victoria was the centre of the country’s wealth in post WW11. Consequently it had an insatiable need for workers. These workers needed immediate housing, and the State stepped in to help.
The need for housing and classrooms was overwhelming. Holmesglen Technical School, later to become Holmesglen technical college, taught building. This place developed new building processes that enabled the government to quickly build new suburbs of social housing. East Geelong had its share of mid height brutalistic flats built in the Baurhaus style. It also built hundreds of independent bungalows of light timber construction and concrete kit homes.
The residents, from all corners of the globe, became the backbone of the country because they worked in repetitive factory jobs others rejected. It happened, regardless of their previous occupations, because an absence of skills in the English language held them back. The government took a small percentage of their wages as rent – so they quickly became financially secure as many families had both parents working. Some even worked two or more jobs.
What their suburbs did not have were centres for socialising. Life for our migrant cohort was relentless. It was isolating and this caused family disruption, and in time, social problems. Certain suburbs became notorious, are still notorious, for antisocial adult behaviour. (For instance, in Geelong people still think badly of Corio, Norlale)
That was yesterday. In the past government played a leading role in housing. It accepted it was best equipped to fill this basic need quickly. Times change – the government sold off much of its stock over the years. This was because most had become dated or uninhabitable. Once most Victorians (around 80% owned their own homes. The state, and some charities, now provided housing for around 3 – 3.5% of all housing. Alarmingly many people are homeless today.
The rental market is mainly in the domain of private investors. Government policy has allowed tax breaks for investors and they invest with self interested motives. Cheap rent is a thing of the past. Tenants have fewer rights than owners so many people pay big rents for unsuitable premises.
It has reached the stage the breaks given to investors have the effect of locking out new homeowners from old suburbs.
The upside is interest on loans have never been cheaper. The downside is the affordability is steeper. (Once a family could pay off principal and interest on a home loan in twenty years with the initial loan taking about 25 – 30% of the average weekly earnings. Today with at 20% deposit it will take 55 x-60% of the average weekly wage and 45 years to own a home.
Today a new home buyer can (usually) only buy a home in a distant suburb. Profit is the motive at every level of what comes next. This new suburb is the sole responsibility of a developer who has purchased a tract of farmland. Before any development starts the developer denudes the topsoil, installs drainage and basic infrastructure and commences a scheduled selloff of home allotments. The actual building is done by a bevy of selected national builders.
The nearest development is Armstrong. If you read the development brief it reads like a new Camelot. https://www.geelongaustralia.com.au/armstrongcreek/armstrong/article/item/8d3dd7069eb92cd.aspx
Despite all I read, all I understand is the motive remains profit. Although it is designed to become a new city unlike Corio or Norlane once were. It will take fifty years to assess whether it has worked any better than the government plan did years ago. Housing persons is a first right, nevertheless once they have a roof over their head they need to feel loved as that loveless child once made clear to me.
Armstrong is really just a dot on the map. Australia currently has hundreds of similar dots all over the country. Pick a city and it will be being developed this way.
Is the new way going to end with the horrific results of another Grenfell Tower Fire? Many of the buildings look fine but are they? Few if any meet the design factors the owners really want because the house they buy is a compromise of affordability and style.
Don’t get me started on (largely) unoccupied city towers that are basically vaults for the surplus capital of the wealthy. Capital has no interest in the unmeasurable things like style, structure, design and substance found in magazines like Architecture Today and Design.
If I had become an architect I would be like many of today’s architects. I would be caught trying to satisfy the greedy wants of my clients instead of the humble need for aesthetics.
Alain de Botton and Kevin McLoud have tried to teach us good architecture is worth the investment and not to count the cost of anything less.
Thanks for reading. Now please have your say. You can educate me to open my mind.