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Banishing the 1940s mindset from our buildings

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Earlier this month, Chief Minister Andrew Barr blasted the “small-town, backwards, 1940s mindset” of some Canberrans when it comes to height restrictions of our buildings.

Speaking during a Legislative Assembly debate, Barr argued that people the world over would “laugh at you if you said a 12-storey building was high rise”.

Our height “phobia” has delivered perverse outcomes, with “short, squat buildings that fill up all the available space,” Barr said.

These short, squat buildings undoubtedly encourage urban sprawl. They are also ugly.

But are they any uglier than the solitary sentinels of high rise architecture that blight Canberra’s town centres?

My argument is yes.

Tall buildings can be beautiful. Think New York’s Chrysler Building, the Shard in London or the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. In Canberra, we’re just doing them all wrong.

Around Australia, we have more than 300 buildings that are more than 30-storeys in height – with a further 270-odd in the pipeline. But compare this to China, where more than 50,000 skyscrapers will stand tall across its cities by 2035. This is mind-boggling – and not something we are ever likely to want to emulate in this country. But it does serve as a sanity check.

Philosopher Alain de Botton argues that idea of beauty in urban settings is not in the eye of the beholder. Beauty is objective and there are fundamental principles common in any attractive city.

The first of those principles is order. “It’s not skyscrapers we mind in a city, it’s skyscrapers that have been dumped without planning,” de Botton says.

This explains why we love the postcard-perfect skylines of New York or Hong Kong, and why so many people hate Paris’ Tour Montparnasse, Sydney’s UTS tower or our own Lovett tower in Woden.

It’s not the towers, but their dominance on the landscape, that we dislike. As de Botton says, we object to “high rise towers that look like as if they have been placed at random like teeth in a gaping mouth”.

Interestingly, UTS’ brutalist tower, built in 1964, was rated Sydney’s ugliest building for decades. But as more high-rise towers surround it, the design doesn’t look as inhumane.

As much as the human eye craves order, it also wants variety. Researchers have found that humans are healthier when they live among variety. We want a clash of bars, boutiques and book shops, not a monotonous series of monochrome streets.

In the Taxonomy of Thrill and Thrilling Designs, professor Brendan Walker argues that humans are “programmed to respond to thrill”. And one of the ways to thrill the senses is through complexity.

“Humans want a certain element of turmoil or confusion. Complexity is thrilling whether in an amusement park or architecture,” Walker says. Visual variety is good for the psyche.

And so, back to Canberra and our tall buildings phobia. There wouldn’t be many Canberrans that love Lovett tower. Who hasn’t braved Woden’s windswept square in winter and wondered: can’t Canberra do better?

And the answer to that? Yes, we can.

Imagine filling that desolate piazza and grim open car parks with tall towers teeming with life? Instead of emptiness and ennui, we could have narrow laneways buzzing with energy.

Of course, this concept isn’t new.

The Tuscan town of San Gimignano once boasted 72 late-medieval towers, some of them up to 50 metres in height. Admittedly, that’s half the height of Lovett tower’s 93 metres. But the people of San Gimignano understood that tall towers could create a wind-tunnel effect, so they designed gently-curving streets, as well as balconies and arcades that provided shade and shelter.

Now, that’s the type of city design that’s worth looking back to.

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