The Fine Grain;
March 31, 2011 § 1 Comment
These are some thoughts on the future urban quality of Sydney, and how it will be shaped. Using the Parramatta Ideas competition as a platform I hope to explore ways in which the following points can be addressed, through the lense of architecture.
The term ‘Fine grain’ seems to be thought of as a miracle tonic when it comes to talking urban design. Pour it down the throats of our tired modern cities and they will bubble with a Parisian vitality; or at least this is what is portrayed by optimistic master-plans such as Sustainable Sydney 2030. Places where clever policy have encouraged fine grain design do exist; one only has to look to the successes of Melbourne. However, Sydney has been neglected throughout its teenage years and has grown to be all suit and little substance, leaving us with the complex task of splicing urban design theory onto a bloated body that stresses a firm attachment to the auto-mobile. In a city that demands growth yet has precious little space, we must understand the critical urban opportunities that rare large-scale projects provide – and realise that we only get one chance. Let us not waste these valuable sites on an architecture that lacks a desire to lift our expectations of what Sydney can be.
Essentially, ‘fine grain’ is the quality of the product. It implies that the more you observe, the more is revealed. In urban design, fine grain and pedestrians are fundamentally linked – detail is lost at speed; which means fine grain is probably not an appropriate term to use when discussing the city from behind a windscreen. A fine grain public space should compare to a favourite song; you can hear it many times, and each time it provides something fresh and intriguing, yet old and comfortable; it inspires you, brings forward memories, sensations, feelings and emotions. It encourages the present to manifest while consolidating the flow of time, which allows a dialogue with the past and future to be drawn closer. I believe the architect Steven Holl grasps this concept of the fine grain and the intergral importance of architectural projects, through his detailing of experiential phenomena in his book ‘Urbanisms’ –
“The huge scale of the Roman monuments packed into the ochre walls shapes the sky in slices and wedges in a way that alters the light. Light defines the urban walls and facades in a particular way found only in Rome. Shiny black paving stones smoothly join the bottom of each facade. After a fresh rain, the streets of Rome have a particular magic in their reflections. Time, light, stone, history and urban geometry inter-mesh to form a unique impression”i
Councils and city planners are beginning to weave their notion of fine grain into planning policy, but these are naturally long term objectives, whereas in comparison architectural projects move relatively quickly –
“Large, privately initiated urban developments may ave more potential than master plans to shape new public space in the city. Civic masterplans, endlessly debated and politically positioned, move too slowly to be effective and are, usually, either altered beyond recognition or shelved. Master plans should be conceived with integrated elements of architecture as their initial catalyst.”ii
At the city scale, planners can put forward strategies and controls that encourage a level of quality for pedestrian spaces (Jan Gehl’s assessments of cities worldwide are prime examples of this) – these can often be sensible manoeuvres to encourage pedestrians and cyclists back onto the streets and into public places. However, it is ultimately architecture that shapes these public spaces and hence it is architecture that must complement the desire for a pedestrianised urbanism with its own fine grain quality. It is the role of the architect to bring to the streets the “visceral, intellectual, and physical experience that demands descriptive words such as amazement, wonder, poetic revelation; words not found in planning documents.”iii
While this insight could conjure up nightmarish visions of the Barangaroo for Sydney-siders, it does reinforce the fact that it is often these large architectural projects that are poised to impress definitively upon the urban realm. Ironically, it seems to be such projects that make the least of the opportunities available – folding under pressures of time, budget, and a lack of desire for inspiration. If we truly want the Sydney of 2030 to be something memorable in the mind of locals and travellers alike, we must imbue these projects with the fine grain from the outset; a quality of design that invigorates the urban realm beyond those tiresome funky facades, choked green-spaces and tokenistic attempts at mixed-use. We must demand that it is foresight, not simply extruded floor plates that shape the quality of these critical urban spaces. An urban place that truly brings a fine-grain experience – not just floor space to sell – will establish Sydney as a city to remember; rather than as just a few tourist icons.
i Steven Holl, Urbanisms; Working with Doubt (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2009), 17
ii Ibid, 16
iii Ibid, 17