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WAF explores positive alternatives to an endless built sprawl

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Can you get density and open space without endless towers? The answer is yes, writes Paul Finch

This column was written on a sunny Sydney day, in a hotel room overlooking the Opera House. Following three days of intensive chairing of conference and judging sessions at the World Architecture Festival in Singapore, this was a great city to relax in before taking part in an event co‑hosted by KPF, discussing the future of Sydney as a world city.

Cities in the era of globalisation was a theme underlying several of the festival’s presentations, in particular the keynote lectures by Ole Scheeren, Rocco Yim, Saskia Sassen, Richard Rogers and Moshe Safdie. Among the points that stick in the memory was the question of whether you could get density and open space without endless towers. The answer is yes, and Scheeren has proved it on the spot in Singapore with a wonderful housing scheme called Interlace. This is a series of ‘towers’, stacked horizontally at angles which, far from being arbitrary, are calculated to provide shade, openings, aspects and prospects - a wonderful demonstration of a truly architectural masterplan.

Yim had flown in from Hong Kong where street protests were still raging, not least around the government complex designed by Yim himself. His theme was connectivity: what unites rather than divides us, and how that might be expressed architecturally. Like a good plan, the talk was clear, understandable, and somehow inevitable.

Sassen treated us to a horror story of expropriation, climate change, and the growth not so much of cities, with their values and urban characteristics, but of ‘densely developed terrains’, devoid of civil values or joy; just endless built sprawl - unless we seize the opportunities to transform this into something more positive.

Safdie and Rogers talked about their work in cities, the former having just completed a giant book covering much of his urban work over the past six decades. Rogers reflected on compact cities with reference to past, present and future work, over much the same period. His influence, as a mayoral and government adviser, and now as an active member of the House of Lords, is a reminder that architects can contribute both as designers and citizens.

As usual there was a multiplicity of delightful presentations by architects shortlisted for WAF and INSIDE awards, producing an excellent crop of winners. The completed building winner, A21 Studio’s chapel in Ho Chi Minh City, shows that it is not just big buildings that contribute to urban life. A short story can sometimes have more effect than a grand novel.

Of all the conference sessions I chaired, the one that sticks in the mind most concerned the future of housing for the relatively poor. Three quite different sets of comments came from a trio of panellists: Rahel Belatchew Lerdell (Sweden), Murat Tabanlıoğlu (Turkey) and Jonathan FP Rose (USA).

In combination their message was: you cannot make proper housing provision for poorer people without subsidy; this has to be an area determined by national and local politicians and policies; there is no point in selling off public land for maximum returns if social/mixed housing is to be built on it, since this simply means that subsidies will need to be greater over a longer period; and if land is free or very cheap, it is possible for the private sector to deliver homes at a profit, working with other agencies.

From an architectural point of view, mass housing programmes might offer an alternative to the endless sleek towers, designed with the overseas investor in mind, becoming the default design in cities across the world - elegant but answering the wrong question.

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