Communal living

I have been walking past the giant (and ageing) public housing buildings in Fitzroy over the last few weeks, marvelling at their ugliness to some extent – but also the vibrant community that lives there, the lovely eucalypts that they had the foresight to plant, and more.

But these towers, surrounded by park during the day, turn unsafe feeling at night… not to mention that the un-human scale of the towers at all times is so incompatible with the pedestrian scale of the surrounding neighbourhood as well as the residents who enter and exit by foot.

These types of towers are everywhere, a mid-to-late twentieth century answer to cheaply confining as many people as possible in one urban block. They are in Waterloo in Sydney, Morningside Heights in New York, the outer suburbs of Paris… Nearly fifty years later, they are generally accepted as a poor solution to public housing, leading to all sorts of social problems and disastruous to any kind of community building. And yet, glamour versions abound everywhere in my home city of Sydney, as developers go for maximum profits and governments shy away from more nuanced planning controls. Aargh. (I’m looking at you Barangaroo.)

In general, I wish there was more investment in mid-size communal dwellings. Why is there not? I love the 12-apartment building I live in. My building is from the 1930s and there are many great models for human-scale apartments from the early twentieth century. There are also some innovative projects going on now – although not enough. A few years ago I read about a development in inner-city Surry Hills, where a corner terrace was turned into a stack of five floor-through apartments, one on top of the other so that everyone got light from three directions, with flexible floorplans that made and disappeared rooms with sliding panels as needed. Searching for it now, I can’t find anything about it.

In Fitzroy last week, I thought what an amazing opportunity that block on the corner of Gertrude and Brunswick Sts provides to test some new ideas. It is really wonderful to have this large population of public residents in the increasingly gentrifying area – keeps it sane; but could it not also be a place for saner and humaner public housing? Five to eight story small buildings intermingled with gardens, shared rooftops, knitting into the streetscape and providing pocket parks? This interview from Assemble Papers with Geoffrey London gives some interesting thoughts on building for collective living:


At the same time, I just noticed this hideous ad for “the art of living” down the street: I mean, actually, the rendering looks fine, something different for the neighbourhood, formally. But it is on the site of a small-scale 70s public housing development that was demolished several years ago, the tenants (some of whom had lived there for ages) controversially moved out west, then left vacant for ages, the topsoil blowing away to reveal a moonscape of bedrock. The state government justified the demolition by saying it would still be public housing; no surprise that now it quotes all the hallmarks of social inequity prosecuted by the Sydney housing field: London and New York urban geography and culture detached from any original meaning of place and appropriated for consumption in the antipodes (so neo-colonial!); sold to those who don’t just live, but can consume the “art” of living.

It’s all a little gagful, but I really do think we can do much better. I’d like to.

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