‘Bigness is no longer part of any urban tissue. It exists; at most, it co-exists. Its subtext is fuck context’ – Rem Koolhaas
Scale is a battleground issue in architecture and urban design, whether it’s debate over the supposed density suggested in the new Unitary Plan for Auckland City, the size of a proposed skyscraper on the city’s Elliott St or the intrusion of Bunnings big box retail into the quiet suburban streets of its Arch Hill neighbourhood. How do buildings interact with the scale of the street, or fit within the context of a suburban environment? Scale is an issue that provokes anxiety over the uncontrollable potential of adverse effects on context and community. Yet big buildings are not a new invention. Italian cities, for one, have a long history of being successfully hinged around large-scale buildings such as churches, often seen as vital ingredients both to the city’s landscape and the community in which they sit.
Written in 1994, architect and cultural commentator Rem Koolhaas’ manifesto of Bigness has a tone of cynical observation about the current realities of architecture and urban design. His intention is to understand the possibilities inherent in the current mode of architectural production – consider, for example, Dubai’s skyscrapers, megamalls and airports. In the manifesto, Koolhaas describes bigness as becoming detached from the modernist dictum of ‘form follows function.’ No longer does a building’s exterior relate to its interior. Bigness becomes detached from the realities of the city, its only connection being through ‘locations of maximum infrastructural promise.’ Bigness doesn’t have a relationship with the city, it is the city.
Koolhaas accepts ‘bigness’ as an implication of progress; no regret, only opportunity. His manifesto can, however, be critiqued as being based around the Laissez-faire, developer-driven model of city building that prospered under the free market policies of the 90s, which led to the increased privatisation of public space.
I am often torn between an interest in the compounding realities of how cities have and are developing, and the loss of intimacies and detachment that this causes. Koolhaas’ observation of the realities of modern cities promotes the idea of insular objectivity, while leaving the street interface up to the designers of infrastructure. This disjunction between buildings and the streetscapes that connect them is where the opportunity for reinvention and speculation lies.
The street is the only place left to the public, controlled by urbanists, politicians, traffic engineers and occasionally by marginal occupation. The street has all of the same possibilities that Koolhaas requires of bigness: ‘programmatic hybridizations / proximities / frictions / overlaps / superpositions.’ In Auckland (NZ), an increase in pedestrian numbers on Queen St has increased the number of street vendors (legal and illegal); shared zones such as Fort St allow pedestrian ownership of the road; the stairs in St Kevin’s Arcade offer a convenient space for teenagers to pre-load; small-scale tenancies on Karangahape Rd offer resilience to commercial failure. The spatial composition and grain of the street becomes an important space for trade and social interaction, overlapping events and episodic intimacy.
The same ideas that are prevalent in the urban environment are also mirrored at a different scale within the suburban environment: the sentimental longing for a lost social connection that was part of the frontyard and villa veranda that overlooks the street is neutralized by fear of the road and a requirement for privacy from a ‘risk society’. The interface of the house to the street is, however, an opportunity for connection and community, not fear and retreat. The layering of road, footpath, boundary fence and driveway offer opportunity for many of the same eccentricities that we want from our city streets, but at the scale of the community.
We are constantly faced with changes to our environment and the challenge of scale. As architects, clients and users we need to reframe our engagement with our built environments and its relationship to context and community. Accordingly, we need to seek out and embrace the opportunities inherent in the scale of the street; the grain of spatial composition, diversity of functions and possibilities of intimate interaction. This is not a call for regressive nostalgia, but an understanding that – as with the Duomo, a big building that is grounded in the language of its immediate context – the streets that surround us can be the perfect mediator of scale.
Dominic Glamuzina co-owns Auckland-based architecture firm Glamuzina Paterson Architects. He also teaches architecture and design at the University of Auckland.