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Inside The City Structure, Outside Of Daily Life. How Can We Post-Occupy A Vacant City?

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Spacemarket perform the fewest possible architectural interventions required in order to quickly return vacant city buildings to local creative types. The architects, Dr. Beth George and Nic Brunsdon, despite their familiarity with conventional architectural practice, have defined a new role for themselves as urban facilitators. Their tagline ”pairing disused spaces with useful people” represents a creative process that is simultaneously political, regulatory, capitalistic and utopian; as much as it is architectural. They demonstrate comprehension of, and a willingness to participate in the processes and power structures of urban decision-making; suggestive of a healthy prototype for future architectural practice, in which others are challenged to participate. Their work is unsolicited, adaptive, opportunistic and theatrical; a provocative laboratory for explorations of urban post-occupancy. Excerpts of the interview are presented here, offering glimpses of the understandings they have developed in practice, applicable to any distant attempt at urban renewal.

Existing condition. 12 years vacant.

Existing condition. 12 years vacant.

Perth is an infant city, a linear city, a thin city. It’s now some one hundred kilometres long and with a preference for development, perhaps over revision, is rarely a hundred years deep.

We have only recently territorialised the core. Perth’s unlikely centurial building stock, erected in an unrestricted era of fiscal optimism, had no regard for its own temporality, the imminent human exile. The initial grandeur of our city buildings betray a failure to predict the strictly suburban urbanity which would quickly proliferate, a pattern of consistent expansion fuelled by the same broadly spread affluence upon which its masters hoped to capitalise. Perth City-proper is comparable to a cheerful one-storey strip mall, only its ambitious anchor retailers and effortlessly lucrative parking behemoths have attempt to lure the shopper-pedestrian-citizens above terra-firma. 

If they did ascend, for the sake of curiosity or their latent ruin-fetish, they may prefer to equip a dust-mask. The abandonment is widespread. Generally speaking, the upper floors of much of our urban structure are vacant, idle, whatever you may prefer to call it, awaiting purpose.

Few knew how to approach this problem in Perth, lethargy was business-as-usual. As it so happened, atypical buildings require atypical solutions for which our planners, city officials, architects paid as a percentage of construction cost and the building owners themselves were resoundingly ill-equipped and unmotivated to deal with.

Nic Brunsdon and Dr.Beth George compose the enigmatic workhorse that is Post- Architecture, and its nebulous socio-digital conjoined sibling, Spacemarket. Together they have popularised an important urban conversation, how can we post-occupy a vacant city. Their MOANA Chambers renewal project identified the latent potential in a 19th century dance hall, described at its time of construction, as the finest example of its kind in the Commonwealth. In the interim, it has assumed the guise of supper club, tea room, Ezy Walkin Boot Store, Sanity Record shop and most recently and consistently, as vacant space, just a single flight of stairs above a section of Perth’s most desirable high street retail frontage. The Chambers have been stripped, cleaned and quickly revived into a celebrated café, gallery, and creative co-working area fostering local talent.

“The gallery is a solid object, one that swells, almost in a grotesque manner, to occupy the gap like so much silicone squeezed into a joint.” – Beth George

“The gallery is a solid object, one that swells, almost in a grotesque manner, to occupy the gap like so much silicone squeezed into a joint.” – Beth George

Conducted 23rd July 2013 at the MOANA Chambers in Perth, Western Australia.

D: I think the brave move, as architects, might come in that we generally derive our fees from percentages of construction budget. To go into a situation where you don’t need to do a new building, there’s a sort of radical side to that.

B: It’s kind of hilarious isn’t it, to call it radical, when it’s sort of tweed wearing…

N: It’s also the only kind of sensible way of doing things, because you can’t just hit delete every time you want to do something new. Then what’s left of a city?

B: It does feel like a significant thing to be doing, in that way, because a lot of buildings in Perth have a fifty year lifespan at best. What’s funny about working in this vein, for us, is that it’s something that we kind of stumbled across, or fell into, by doing Spacemarket. It’s quite a hilarious conundrum because my research and my architectural interests are big stuff, radical stuff, urbanism, giga-structures even; and yet we’re doing this very dainty work in practice which is about exposing buildings and making small moves, and a sort of interiority.

N: My background is small stuff, tiny interjections and projects, so Spacemarket became the nice melting pot between the grand urban stuff and the small moves. Moana where we’re sitting is that.

B: That’s something that we’ve developed a philosophy around; we now believe those two things to be entirely necessary. The grand project, has merits in its own right for recomposing the city; but without pairing it with the small moves and the fleshing out and I suppose, the continuous writing and re-writing into the existing city, each of those things fails in its own right and has to be coupled. You need the city to dream big, but also act small.

Moana Chambers – Floor Plan

Moana Chambers – Floor Plan

D: What really impresses me about Spacemarket is this grand civic agenda, or built agenda, and then you talk about the small interventions such as the Moana Chambers, are they the public advocacy for these alternative urban design philosophies?

B: I think the most pleasurable part of this particular project is a consciousness that rooms like this actually exist in the city. These buildings are completely inside of the city’s physical structure, and outside of its daily life. Within the public path that people take through the city and the activities that they partake in, these just don’t factor in and I don’t think there’s a public perception that Perth is in any way a historical city.

N: The stuff that we see, and the stuff that comes up at the awards and the other realms that people are working in, the big mega-projects where you’ve got hundreds of millions of dollars being thrown at heritage and restoration because it sells or it’s seen as a nice gesture to the public rather than a necessity in the urban space.

Hot-desks, spacial divisions marked by the repeated arches of the building structure.

Hot-desks, spacial divisions marked by the repeated arches of the building structure.

D: The Perth master planning strategy seems to be that we do one, two, three, four big projects, and that will be the solution; whereas you’re offering smaller, more numerous experiments trying to create opportunities.

N: In twenty years, what happens if we’re the ones doing the big projects? Do we try to consciously stay in the fine grain stuff, to keep that street level stuff going on?

B: No, I want to be the bad guy; I want to do the big projects. I could talk about this for hours, it’s one of my favourite things to observe about Perth. I’ve tried to think about this, you know how psychologically people have patterns, you do things that you’ve learnt, you learn things that work for you and you repeat those things. I wonder, Perth’s development history has been so consistently outward in terms of its physical structure. If you want to find new structures, you look to the periphery. The city itself has quite rarely been rewritten and I think that judging only on the quantity of high-visibility vests you see around the city, we are a construction city. We deal very easily with blank sites, new sites. I find it really intriguing that each of the main grand projects for the city right now are on the periphery of the city proper. I wonder to what extent does our ease of constructing in new territory rather than revising the old stuff lead us to do these projects around the perimeter. I find it really intriguing that they’re not in the city proper, again they’re on the edge, they’re outside of the city’s daily life, you would have to go to them as destinations in their own right.

Transparent separation of public and private space.

Transparent separation of public and private space.

D: A concern that similar creative projects have had is gentrification. And it sounds like you’re not importing talent. It’s like it’s already here, and you’ve just given it a place?

B: We’re against nepotism: we don’t want to do a project and just have people who we like and who are our mates come in to it, that’s not the idea at all. Part of the beauty of Spacemarket itself is while creatives do seem very keen to get on board with these projects, we’re certainly not in the business of only fostering creative industries.

The really cool thing about Spacemarket is we had expressions of interest from dentists, milliners, bakers, within the first week of putting it online. Each project will have a suitability to different enterprises – we couldn’t put a baker in Moana, but it may well be that they’re well suited to our next project, and we hope to have enough diversity in the briefs that we have to make a really good mix. We don’t hand-pick the people, but we do try and get a balance.

N:  We’re not importing skill sets, these skills are definitely latent in Perth. When I returned to Perth in 2010, I was out working in the suburbs, and it’s a desolate place if you’re trying to run a business there. It feels small, you feel isolated. You feel like there’s nothing going on, and it doesn’t feel like the city you want it to be.

As Beth was saying, Perth has that really long, thin periphery that just goes for ever. But the nature of industry and enterprise is that we all need to be in somewhere close together, to trade and share and meet, and so the whole notion of this is to try and find those places where everyone can suck in from the periphery, and come and be.

B: Urbanism is very often a de-sciencing, or a working backwards from things that have already occurred naturally. A process of gentrification, for example, happens where you’ve got cheap land where people don’t want to be in, artists will tend to be a group that will territorialise that space and make use of it, then what follows art is cafes and galleries, and then people start going to the cafes and galleries, and then that’s now a trendy place, and now I want an apartment there.

D: Oh no, it’s next!

B: Yeah, but you see what I mean – it’s a phenomenon that’s occurred in many cities around the world, and the point where it gets quite shady, and I think really terrifying, is where it starts to be used as a political device to establish new communities.

N: ‘Place-making’.

B: That’s my most hated term in the world of architecture and urbanism. Because people have studied those things historically, and can put them into a set of stages, those are then stages that can be then implemented. So there are projects where people have deliberately said, ok, let’s use artists as part of a process of deliberate gentrification, to change the social structure and value of an area. And we certainly would not want to be part of any such process. I don’t think we’re in any danger of that, because we’re not talking about a territory here, we’re talking about piecemeal rooms in different places, and part of our job is to make those available to people who really want to be in them, not people who can simply afford to be in them. That’s where the co-working space model comes across.

Moana Coffee.

Moana Coffee.

D: You have spoken before of the fire extinguisher versus the sprinkler system, minimising the barriers that capital create for these interventions. Could you elaborate?

B: A lot of projects in this vain are difficult, there’s such an air of difficulty and challenge around working with existing building stock, regardless of its age or style, it’s always fraught. One of the reasons for that is really a popular misunderstanding of expense, and that’s not a deliberate thing, that’s not an evil thing. No one’s out there saying “Oh I’m going to spread a myth that it’s expensive to modify old buildings.”

N: It’s just, not human nature, but business modelling and risk and feasibility. It’s atypical buildings and atypical solutions, so it’s not something you can look at and go “yes it’s going to be this…” Every day something jumps up that you’re not going to have expected. You need a bit heart, it’s not a sprint it’s a marathon and a lot of people shy away from that.

B: For really pragmatic reasons. Big numbers are thrown around. There are standard ways to approach a difficult building, one of which is to have to put in a new lift-core, stairs that have too many treads in sequence need perhaps to be replaced, there’s problems with addressing fire, there’s problems with addressing sound, access, egress. All of that stuff, does generally, make for a pretty substantial brief. I think a lot of building owners are quite reasonably nervous about doing anything with their premises. As we have found, it comes from a risk-averse position. Whereas for us, in that example you gave, the trade-off was that we can cover up all the Jarrah in the floor, we can hang a ceiling, we can suspend a sprinkler system and have a new pump put in the mall; or we can pay an external fire consultant to tell us what the bare minimum we can do to be deemed to satisfy provisions.

N: Or we can forget about it, leave it vacant and put our money in the stock market. Putting those two things towards an owners group, and that’s the way the decision goes. We’re not trying to beat people over the head with it and say that this is the solution and this is what to do or this is what everybody needs, we just keep going about our business.

B: We’re talking about this in a way that seems like we have some sort of picture of what we are and what we do but, we really don’t. We’re sitting in a project, this is one project, and we hope to do more. We’ve got philosophies about the architecture that we want to do, we have an aspiration to make our city the kind of city we want to be in, but beyond that we’re not coming with a recipe. I don’t know exactly what it is that we’re doing, we just want to work project by project and see what these things amount to.