Sunday 19 August 2012


Brisbane from Mt Cootha looking east

This text was written as a response to a ‘think tank’ evening for architects arranged by the Brisbane City Council in 2002 to discuss subtropical design issues and potentials for our city. Brisbane lies 500 kilometres south of the Tropic of Capricorn that crosses the east coast of Australia at Rockhampton. The city has a population of about one million people. It is located on the Brisbane River, with the CBD about twenty kilometres from Moreton Bay and approximately eighty kilometres from the Gold Coast. Brisbane enjoys a pleasant subtropical environment.

Poster-like invitations were sent out to members of Brisbane’s architectural profession to encourage attendance at this design Forum. While this meeting occurred over ten years ago, the response remains of interest today because the issues have not gone away. Indeed, a review of the response offers a good opportunity for the impact of this evening on our city to be gauged. The document was forwarded to the Council officers who organised the evening.

 Dear Sirs,

I must first apologise for my advice to Council that I did not receive the invitation to the ‘Think Tank’ of 18th July. I did indeed receive it, but it was my response to the publication that made me believe that my initial advice was correct. It was after Council’s reminder call that I remembered, with some quiet embarrassment, opening the envelope, looking at the contents and flicking them aside as more colourful, professionally produced propaganda.

The PR marketing game has become so adroit at producing clever, attractive documents that one has become immune to their impact. Within the architectural profession, this self-promotion has become an art form that indulges in the power of the image that then in turn becomes the driving force for new works. It is this superficial attractiveness that I have hoped to shield myself against by ignoring the clever glossy photographs, all carefully framed, filtered, flipped and fashioned into the smart sheen of oversized sheets smothered with extraordinary, unusual, graphic distortions. Our world is filling with this insincere exaggeration that trivialises meaning and disguises falsehoods. What architect has not seen the transformation of ordinary, (and less than ordinary), works into the extraordinary by the smart shot that is admired for its dazzling amazement rather than its representation?

So it was that I flicked the ‘new’ publication aside, even after noting the ‘new subtropical design’ heading that generated only more cynicism. The BCC has so aggressively promoted our place as the ‘Most Livable City’ - (should it not be the less American ‘liveable’?) - in repeated and exaggerated euphemism, shine and colour that I put this promotional paper aside as more of the same twaddle.

Need I say more in critique of this document? It does help me articulate my response to the Forum: if we hope to have an impact on design in this city, then we must remove ourselves from the indulgent, special, professional images and engage the humble and the ordinary. We must bridge the doubt of disbelief in the importance of design and the reading of our profession as arrogant, expensive, exclusive ‘artists’. In this way we might reach the extraordinary that is never achieved by hyperbole, distortion or concerted, conceited effort, no matter how pretty the outcomes might be or how effusive the profession is of its own qualities.

We first of all need to understand ‘design’ as something that is not special or unique, or even ‘new’, in the way that the publication is so clumsily titled. If the city is to change, we must engage everyone with the understanding that every man is a special sort of artist, not that every artist is a special sort of man, as Ananda Coomaraswamy explained in the context of understanding traditional art. Further, we must work not with the idea that design is unique or constantly ‘original’ in the sense of an ever ‘new’, unique, aesthetic self-expression, but that design has to do with origins and facts, remembering that nothing can be beautiful if it does not work. More complexity is involved here, but the concept will still make sense even if the ‘origins’ are perceived only as the facts about building in the subtropics.

So first of all, the BCC, if it is indeed serious about this proposal, should look at promoting the facts and support the promotion of research, debate - (yes, even critiques that might raise negative matters) - and a broad, easy understanding of issues with this ‘subtropical’ strategy in mind. Just who the audience is should be made very clear – it should be ‘everyman’. To consider this an exclusive, elitist issue for the profession to pass on to the ‘remainder’ of the population will only alienate folk who already think architects too self-interested, flippant and indulgent with others’ money and time.

It is also essential to start this work with another understanding beyond that suggested in the gloss that speaks of Brisbane as ‘a dynamic city, and a great place to live and work’ – ‘livable’ comes to mind – all when there remain serious unresolved issues across a variety of civic and urban matters. There seems to be a sense of wanting to believe this textual embroidery – as if by saying it, it will become true. In this sense the publication touches on the political statement that overemphasises the positive beyond reality in order to smother it. Killing perceptions with kisses comes to mind.

I recall typing some notes after the first Forum and earlier recording thoughts on Brisbane after thinking about irrational matters concerning cyclists. I have attached these documents for your information and in order to explain and expand my position – see Town Planning Concerns  and  Brisbane does have problems, and these go beyond the matter of Tim Quinn’s, (Tim Quinn was Lord Mayor at the time), preferred footpath awnings. On pondering this tale, I immediately thought of the new Brisbane Powerhouse Centre where the promising covered way approach leads to a large, open, uncovered area that leaves the entry location to be guessed at, making it seem like a distant mouse hole that exposes all visitors to the challenge of the elements. There are no efforts for any continuation of protection in this BCC project beyond the false beginning that finally leaves one alienated in the void, to fend for oneself.

I really did not pity Tim Quinn, because I did wonder if he has ever used the BCC buses rather than his private car. On buses, the new computer information that appears on the curved post near the local bus stop is interesting. Buses that are scheduled sometimes never appear – they just fade off the list like old soldiers. Other programmed items declare arrival times that are constantly modified as the bus gets later and later, only to eventually arrive ‘early’ when compared to the revised time. One wonders if the whole is not merely a grand undertaking for the enjoyment of the supervisor. At least it gives some amusing entertainment during the frustrating delays.

Once on the bus, there is the problem of getting fresh air. Windows are often jammed closed, or have broken or no catches, giving the same outcome. The overhead air vents are frequently unable to be adjusted for redirection or, like the windows, are stuck closed. The newer buses  have fixed glass with air conditioning that is under the control of the drivers who often express their preference for a stifling, stuffy environment by leaving this ventilation off until one is nearly suffocated or until the driver has been alerted to action by a loud prompt or a rude complaint.

If one can survive this trauma, there is always the filth of the bus to annoy. The graffiti decorated with chewing gum; the food scraps left in spite of the ‘no food’ sign; and the general grime all test the satisfaction of the ride and its convenience. After sunset, the challenge is to find a seat under a light that works if one wants to take pleasure in the opportunity to read during the journey. It is often so dull on buses that reading becomes a chore rather than a delight, all because the tubes are not replaced immediately on failure or regularly at the end of their efficient lives.

I always find it a sheer joy to step off a bus into the open, fresh environment – even if it is pouring rain – such are the problems of BCC transport. The lack of awnings fades into irrelevance. One can only be pleased about the new efficiency of the busway, not because of its urban characteristics, (these only make one shudder), but because one is able to get to one’s destination by spending less time in the surroundings of these neglected vehicles.

I recall during the early stages of Expo 88 when Brisbane transport lost control of its services, I was once given a questionnaire on a bus asking for a response to several standard questions and for general comments. My comments spoke of the late bus, the rubbish at my feet and the lights above me being out. Some weeks later I was again asked for comment. Again, I found myself in exactly the same circumstances, as I still do today.

I find it silly to talk of this great, liveable city and of the need for awnings when simple things are ignored. And why cry for art works to decorate our public places when the demolished, core Boardwalk entry sculpture, (to the  riverside boardwalk along the Kangaroo Point cliffs), remains dumped, scrapped against a wall in full public display all without any discussion and in spite of complaint? You will understand my position from the attached texts (see Town Planning Concerns if we are serious, we should take on the little tasks and get these right so that eventually they might give us a growing conglomerate impact of substantial improvement – real beauty. So often reaching for grand gestures in an effort to give us quick, grandiose changes only becomes frustratingly counterproductive, or gives rise to outcomes that are too self-consciously shallow, even though they might generate a lot of noise and gain attention.

I agree with the idea outlined by the BCC, but must emphasise the importance of carefully and properly managing the effort to give real outcomes rather than ones that can look good in annual reports and CVs. Clean, efficient buses will be a good start, as will be the little improvements in urban and suburban spaces that can eventually give us a city to be proud of. Political overemphasis and indulgent propaganda will only leave folk dismayed and despondent, as the present ‘demolish rather than maintain’ strategy of the BCC does. The alarming policy is that if something is vandalised, rather than repairing it, it is removed.

So with this understanding, the subtropical design thrust needs: affiliation with other bodies; an open, public face; an easy, inviting accessibility; a true grasp on reality; a real grasp of facts; a reputation for endurance and quality; an avoidance of pretty images and meaningless texts; and the stamina and rigour to allow open debate.

How to start? The late Jim Woolley of QUT designed a computer programme that he saw as a design aid. Make this clever, attractive and useful programme available to everyone in a public place – the first Centre for Subtropical Design. Why not a shop front in the mall? It would be an appropriate beginning and a wonderful outcome in memory of Jim who was passionate about design for climate in all its true subtlety and potential richness. Call it the Jim Woolley Centre for Subtropical Design? Do not call it the Jim Soorley Centre, (Jim Soorley was once Lord Mayor of Brisbane), etc., not because it is an unworthy initiative but because it is too important to be touched by politics, even if it is the politicians who are driving it. The politicians could gain more credence if they keep remote while maintaining total commitment.

In the same way as we look up to those with accents from another land, we have become too used to having the ‘serious’ Centres for Tropical /Subtropical Design located in London and other unlikely places – like the surfing school, (yes, PhDs and all!), that is located in Portsmouth, England! We should grasp the opportunity that the BCC has creatively and generously opened and make this a centre for worldwide reference; a real core of strength and quality, with a reputation to match. This will involve the Internet; publishing; the promotion of ideas and publications; a reference library (or easy access to others); research. It will involve a continuing commitment and proper funding. It will need a way of reaching out with significant results that hold status, in the same way that the universities offer degrees – (I do not know how yet). It does not require a political input, just a committed support to open opportunity and quality outcomes.

It must touch everything in the BCC. Planning must be involved – serious planning that can and will say no rather than sit down and negotiate any possibility into reality. We do not need the ‘1946’ strategy - (the city tries to preserve pre-1946 buildings to maintain character) - that allows 99% of a place to be removed in the name of keeping heritage; or for homes to disappear in favour of half-million-dollar worker’s cottage look-alikes, complete with all the original problems of proximity in areas that knew no such cottage construction. We need to keep the Brisbane that is good, not for mere nostalgia, but with creative wisdom.

And we do not want spin. The great danger of such glossy BCC publications is that they become the source of the words that prove the stupid, irresponsible project complies with everything the BCC wants, as if the saying of the words creates the reality as a phantom that never can or will be. Alternatively the words become fodder for the legal mouth to chew over and spit out just to smother any rejection. It is like the case of the smartly coloured, cheaply sheeted ‘boxes’ with a skillion roof and a few slats, (of course all of the same height of the 1920 neighbours), that become the ‘lightweight materials’ and ‘screens’ that supposedly ‘match’ these older giants of traditional housing made from ‘lightweight materials’ and also have ‘screens’. Many other more subtle matters are involved. These circumstances need to be addressed if Brisbane is to become anything beyond a rehashed, fashionable, developer’s profitable mess. Squeezing four, three-bedroom homes on to a 35 perch block in a sprawling, subtropical, older suburb comes close to being a nonsense – even if it can apparently be ‘justified’ with words and ‘rational’ logic.

So it is that a real effort is required ‘across the board’ if a genuine result is sought. If this Subtropical Design Forum is only a political promotional effort, then keep going with the same. It looks very good, sufficiently impressive to alter some perceptions. If not just a political game, then the real work has yet to be done. But congratulations on the start. We need more debate.

And as I re-read this text, I think: if the city is to change we need to clearly state what is wrong with the city rather than exaggerate what we think is or could be right with it. Let us begin even this analysis, for only good can come from it. So it is that we should drop the ‘livable’, even if we spell it as ‘liveable’!

Thank you for the invitation.
I hope you are interested in further developing ideas and issues touched upon in this communication.


Spence Jamieson

typical inner Brisbane suburb 

After pondering on how a Centre for Subtropical Design might gain international stature like a university (apart from being locally popular):
It could gain a reputation for consistent, quality research.
It could publish this research and other material to do with the subject.
Perhaps there could be an annual research grant that has to be applied for?
This would require a substantial sum to be invested or a regular budgeting for this grant – or a sponsor.
Perhaps a ‘subtropical’ house could be built as an ‘exhibition’ home? – every two years?
Regular design competitions (regional/international) with substantial prize money – and with the plans to be sold or home built?
Publish the competition results every year?
There could be awards for inventions to do with subtropical living?
Perhaps the publication could be an amalgam of competition entries, research, references and inventions?
One essential factor in all of this is the long-term funding of this enterprise and its management and implementation. All of this should show an energy and creativity that could set the tone for the whole identity of the centre.
The centre should be aligned with as many prestigious centres as possible, but it should always retain its own core identity. It should not become part of a tertiary institution no matter how alluring this might be. These tertiary centres should, in part, themselves become a section of the Centre for Subtropical Design.
Quality and commitment are the core issues here.


 circa 1920 Brisbane residence

Alas, no. The BCC was not interested in doing anything. The communication was ignored. No response was ever received. Nothing happened from what seemed to be a good start. Nothing – not one thing! It turned out to be just a waste of time – a ‘talk-fest.’ Ten years later the city is still struggling on, managing developments in the same ad hoc, random manner, while developers are becoming more sophisticated, clever and cunning. What hope is there when a Council advises that it still prefers to negotiate outcomes rather than insist on the strict implementation of a rigorous Town Plan? Sadly, the current Town Plan is written to describe and define only ‘performance criteria,’ turning development into what looks like a puny word game.

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