Adelaide, Australia’s fifth-largest city, gracing the continent’s southwestern quadrant, has almost 10 times the population of the city of Providence but the same perceived needs. Manufacturing having vamoosed (you can’t say headed south), Adelaideans seek to develop medical services and high-tech research. So says Architect Journal’s Paul Finch, who visited recently and then asked himself “Why do cities try to be more like somewhere else?”
Ah, the sixty million dollar question! And let me assure you, while he asks the right question, Finch does not know the answer.
That design decision is a good example of what cities can do if they only encourage architects and developers to answer the following question: ‘How can we make this city more like itself, rather than more like somewhere else?’ Assuming that the city in question is not a lost cause, this is surely the attitude that should prevail in the inevitable debates that take place in relation to heritage and regeneration.
Sure, but first a reader must wonder about “that design decision.” Finch refers to the Adelaide Oval, a new stadium that nicely opens up to a hillside of fig trees, but otherwise seems (to my eyes, at least) to have nothing to do with making Adelaide “more like itself.” At the same time he complains of the proposed demolition of a modernist (or as Finch suggests, “postmodern Gothic”) house of God. It is the church pictured at the top of his article. Maughan Church is not that bad as such things go, but it is certainly not what makes Adelaide Adelaide.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record (a risk I take all the time, and proudly), a city’s historical architecture is the model for what a city looks like. The buildings were designed by its own architects using local practices that augment classical and traditional design practices often imported from Europe. They incorporate structural and ornamental elements nurtured by traditions that local architects have developed by trial and error, generation after generation, to cope with the quirks of local climate and local materials. Those methods are as freely available to local architects practicing today as they were a century ago. So the solution is elementary, my dear Finch.
It’s not that cities require the beauty that arises from staying true to their own selves. Many cities of dubious allure are pleasant places to live, as Finch reports is the case with Adelaide. Beauty is not everything. But beauty is one element of a nice city that is easy, cheap, free to experience, and much more conducive to happiness than most design elites are likely to admit. And, oh, did I mention that the beauty achieved by traditional architectural methods is intrinsically local?
So, as Finch puts it, “assuming a city is not a lost cause,” that’s the answer to the question. Paul Finch is not going to like it because he is an architecture critic and so he is used to applauding design initiatives that are not so simple-minded as “the old way of building.” But if Adelaideans want their city to be more like itself – more like themselves – the solution is not exactly rocket science. Locatecture, anyone?