Plug in City!! 2014, 2000, 1961…

Modulated housing, building on infrastructure, cities in transition…issues confronting many of the world’s great cities right now.

I recently stumbled across the work of artist Alain Bublex and his project ‘Plug In City’ which began in 2000.

Since 2000, artist Alain Bublex has been exploring the idea of modular additions to existing infrastructure in his work. He even takes it to the nth degree with the image above manipulating the Eiffel Tower with a series of modular additions!

His images are evocative of a moving, changing, dynamic urban world. A construction process that is never-ending, emphasised in his work by the cranes and helicopters flying in modules.

The idea he shares in his computer rendered photomontages is a utopian one he relates back to the ideas of Archigram, a group of British Architects working in the 1960s led by Peter Cook. The Archigram team explored the idea of modular building and super structures based on infrastructure as a response to the post-war housing shortage and the need to rebuild cities. The concept of modular building and its opportunities were highly popular in the post war period but Archigram in particular explored this concept through drawing and model making. In a few of Peter Cook’s sketches below we can see the origins of many of the forms in Alain Bublex’s work.

Source: ad-classics-the-plug-in-city-peter-cook-archigram
A ‘Plug in City’ as described by Archigram was one that grew through the additional of modules attached to existing and new infrastructure that created a highly visible super structure to support the functioning of the city.

The idea that Archigram and Peter Cook explored has influenced many architects and planners. The Pompidou Centre, Paris, exhibits some of Alain Bublex’s work, designed by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano (1971-1977). The building itself explored the idea of modulation and controversially the supporting elements of the building formed the highly visible structure (a micro level exploration of the ideas). Fittingly in another if Bublex’s explorations above he shows the Pompidou Centre and its outer structure being extended and forming part of the super structure of the city.

Today, maybe modular building as an underpinning concept for urban planning has got a somewhat jaded name for itself and often in the same sentence as repetitive, cheap and boring, but oh the possibilities!!!....

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Walkability and vitality with one small change

The planners in San Francisco have come up with a simple way to promote alternative forms of transport (like old fashioned walking) while meeting the urban design mantra of creating an ‘active frontage’ at street level in commercial areas… and all by changing one small thing in their planning schemes. They’re allowing existing private garages to be converted to shops, housing and service spaces.

The format of dwelling construction in suburbs like Castro probably makes this concept more effective given the proliferation of row housing with garaging at ground level in these old neighbourhoods. We think it’s a great concept though, by simply removing a couple of barriers in the Planning Schemes there is potential to have a significant impact on the walkability and vitality of a place.

If this concept sounds a bit familiar, that’s because it is. This concept isn’t that dissimilar to Melbourne’s now famous laneways where the Melbourne City Council encouraged conversion of former service lanes at the back of shops to lively spaces full of art, café culture, bars, restaurants and music venues. Perhaps there are some other suburban centres around Melbourne where this approach may also work?

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Banner source: Tom Radulovich on Streetsblog SF

The missing link

As more and more people live in cities, the need for natural spaces and landscapes has become a self-evident truth. The search for greenery or the longing for ‘greenification’ (like the Dutch put it) is intensifying but not fast enough to catch up with urban expansion and the rise of towers.

There is no denial that the concept of sustainability is acknowledged in most global cities with initiatives, strategies and objectives (although often on paper) integrated into larger plans. We grow accustomed to seeing parks, rooftop gardens, vertical walls and other green technological advances, which are all contributing to the making of a responsible urban environment.

However, what we call nature is merely the result of human intervention. Melbourne’s natural landscape itself was man shaped, as is apparent from the creation of two islands in the Yarra River.
“Measures such as sky gardens or vertical greenery leave a veneer of green, but don’t create the spaces needed for interesting encounters with nature.” said landscape architect Andrew Grant.
So how can people feel good in a city? Are human beings able to connect and be inspired by an urban landscape or is it time to truly reconnect people with nature? Some suggest that we are able to go beyond these elegant landscaped facades and let the wilderness take over what was once its own.


Can we create an emotional bridge between people and cities?

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Places for playing games

Getting people moving and playing in public was one of the objectives when game designers set out to reclaim some of the streets of Glasgow as part of the Glasgow 2014 Cultural Program.

Glasgow has been undergoing a significant regeneration in preparation for and as a by-product of hosting the recent Commonwealth Games. As one of the key objectives in any city hosting a Commonwealth or Olympic games is finding ways to get the local community moving and active with physical activity leading to more healthy lifestyles over time… not just sitting and watching the athletes do it.

But the group developing Scotch Hoppers as part of the cultural program discovered there are some barriers you need to overcome to get people comfortable enough to play on the streets. In particular you need the games to be familiar, make it clear it’s not just for the kids, be flexible in how the game can be played and make things safe.

As Game Designer Holly Gramazio explains “Play is a unique and compelling way to relate to your environment, a way of being at home and at peace.”

Around the world there is a growing trend of gaming developed in an urban environment, including international street games festivals. Groups like the Invisible Playground in Germany, partner with cultural organisations and incorporate music, digital gaming, street theatre to “create site specific games using cities as platforms for play”.

In Australia there are plenty of examples of ‘pop-ups’ – perhaps these are our version of getting people active in their places.

The Fresh Air festival at Fed Square in Melbourne involves a pop up playground bringing together international game designers for outdoor games and new sports.

Source: Dandenong Pop Up Park from the Department of Justice

In a Penrith trial, the objective is to create a better urban environment to attract investment, whereas Dandnenong’s pop up park has more socially based aims. Government funded and run by Mission Australia, the park provides a range of flexible access to sporting, gardening and recreational facilities that people in the area may not have built into their environment at the outset.

Good urban design will encourage people to utilise their places for all kinds of purposes – looking at how people use the streets for play perhaps gives us some pretty good ideas of the ideal approach to urban design.

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Getting engaged

I went along to one of the City of Sydney’s Design Excellence forums this week, the topic being Cultural Precinct Planning. This session explored the upcoming cultural precinct development and ways in which it should, if done right, re-energise Sydney, improve visitor experiences and better connect its cultural assets.

One of the recurring themes was connectivity – between cultural precincts and most importantly to the rest of the city. No longer are we talking about isolated ‘islands’ of cultural snobbery, but the word of the evening was: porosity!

Bruce Baird AM, Chair of the Tourism and Transport Forum, made some interesting and ‘on the ground’ observations in the panel that followed. One of the biggest issues for tourism in Sydney is way finding; visitors arrive at Circular Quay and get lost in the labyrinth that is the Sydney CBD, likely missing many of the city’s more memorable landmarks and attractions.

This sounds simple, ‘get more signs’ you cry – but in this international city how many languages should they be in? How many signs are too many? How do we balance the visual clutter?

So the conversation turned to technology – free Wi-Fi in the city, having App’s for tourists to download and use to showcase the best Sydney has to offer with easy-to-follow directions to get there – in every language. In theory this is excellent, but does it rule out the non-technologically advanced demographic? And what happens when technology fails us? All interesting points for further discussion.

But an initiative called ‘Hello Lamp Post’ that kicked off in Bristol is an interesting take on literally engaging with the city. It’s an interactive system offering residents and visitors an opportunity to talk to the locals – all facilitated by physical infrastructure in the city. The aim of ‘Hello Lamp Post’ is to ‘give people the chance to rediscover their local environment, to share personal memories of the city and discover the stories that others leave scattered. The project represents a chance to slow down, reflect and indulge with permission to play’.


‘Hello Lamp Post’, developed by PAN Studio, Tom Armitage and Gyorgyi Galik, won the 2013 Playable City Award. The international award encourages entrants to use creative technologies that surprise, challenge and engage people to explore the city from a different point of view.

Although not directly marketed for tourists, this concept has the potential to aid a tourist’s navigation of the city – the ability to ask questions of the city is also something I’m intrigued about. How interesting/revealing would it be to record the curiosities of international tourists for your city? This could also lead to recognising and solving some of the most common problems tourists face in a city…. the possibilities are endless.

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Banner source: Creative Sydney

Blank walls, not so blank

Side walls are a canvas on which anything can be drawn, you name it.

This is certainly not a new concept unveiled by a trendy street artist, for example, the trompe l’oeil technique was used as early as the medieval time and flourished throughout the Renaissance especially on churches’ walls. On a less spiritual note, walls were also used in our growing capitalist societies using ghost signs (hand-painted advertisements on blank walls of buildings) to promote businesses, from the local butcher to Coca-Cola. These have now been replaced by printed ads on walls or gigantic screens on top of roofs. And sometimes walls are simply left blank…
Coca-Cola ghost sign
Mural by Robert Hass (1975)
Fake facades
Yes, too often naked walls sit sadly on a boundary waiting patiently for another wall to be built next door, but how long can this take? And who wants to stare at a plain concrete façade for years? (Maybe Le Corbusier would have enjoyed the view of such a façade!)

All walls have a purpose and when they are not used to provide amenity to the residents of a building, they can mesmerise the eyes of local pedestrians or tell us a story.

Breathing life into a wall is not an easy task however there are a multitude of techniques and materials out there which will add a touch of eccentricity to a conventional development, brighten a gloomy rundown building or completely transform a streetscape. Even concrete has managed to win us back by offering some original designs and take the idea a step further.

Photoengraving - Edison residence
Montreal designers came up with the innovative technique of photoengraving images on concrete using original blank and white photographs of Montreal’s fire department and juxtaposing them on the walls of a residential building (

No more excuses for boring blank façades!

Urban provocations - apologies to lovers of the Big Merino

Apologies to lovers of the Big Merino.

Our colleagues at David Lock Associates in the UK collect examples of what they call ‘urban provocations’ – featuring some of the most provocative examples of urban development – and turn them into a series of postcards.

And by provocative, we think they mean terrible! 

Essentially people haven’t looked at the big picture or seen the possibilities (or maybe the risks) in the way they have built or developed their bit of the world.

A recent call for some local input had us rifling through the photo collections and we found a few amusing examples (unless of course you happen to live in the area!).

Billboard in Southbank 
Melbourne, circa 2006
Always consider the rear interface
The Big Merino (Sheep), Goulburn NSW, circa 2012
Infrastructure Priority (instead of Pedestrian Priority)
Dandenong VIC, circa 2006
Where's the lift? (Dumb leading the Blind)
New Thomastown train station, circa 2012 
Working around the problem
South Melbourne, circa 2007 
Our UK team will soon have a new set of Urban Provocations postcards and we suspect there might be a few Australian examples. If you’ve seen something equally silly or appalling, post it on Twitter and tag us with @DLA_Australia or send it to us by email

The team also looks for examples of excellence too, so if you’ve seen good examples we’d also love to see those. David Lock Associates in the UK also post their examples on Twitter every month, so you might want to follow them for ongoing examples

Photo Credit: Alastair Campbell



As Melbourne was once again ‘awarded’ the world’s most liveable city by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the discussion reignites about how relevant the index really is.

Sure it’s an excellent tourism angle, ‘one-ups’ us to our northern neighbours (see, you don’t need sunshine to be liveable!), and it certainly fuels the self-congratulation of Melbourne’s planners, bureaucrats and politicians.

With some of the world’s best education, healthcare, sporting, cultural facilities, there’s no denying that Melbourne has some amazing assets. In 2011 CNN’s travel team outlined ‘50 reasons Melbourne is the world's most livable city’, highlighting the coffee, the football, the shopping and the live music. And tourists flock by the millions to participate in this unique city.

But what about actually living here?

What about getting public transport from Kensington to Fitzroy? The 5km journey will take you more than 30 minutes using a train/tram combination, and much longer after 7pm.

And what about buying a beer, or renting an apartment?

The Economist Intelligence Unit also puts out a bi-annual Worldwide Cost of Living Survey, which Melbourne ranked as the 6th most expensive city in the world. Clearly the liveability and cost of living surveys are not cross-referenced.

Urban Gateway recently questioned if the index was ‘biased and racist’, noting that the top ten most liveable cities largely white British Commonwealth countries: Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary, Adelaide, Sydney, Perth and Auckland. Only Vienna in Austria and Helsinki in Iceland are not former British colonies and they, too, are white.

In their discussion of last year's EIU survey, the author from Future CapeTown quoted Paul James, the Director of the Global Cities Institute (and a resident of Melbourne), on the EIU ranking which placed this city at number one last year as well:
“Melbourne by any measure is a bloated, sprawling, congested and completely unsustainable city. On sustainability measures such as urban footprint we rank as badly as London and worse than New York. For every person in the city, we own almost one petrol-consuming vehicle, and that figure includes all the babies who do not yet have a licence and all the elderly who have stopped driving.”
But of course this debate about what it means to be liveable ultimately adds value to the concept, and it certainly helps to sell magazines.

What do you think? Is Melbourne’s re-crowning warranted? And does it help or hinder our domestic planning and design challenges?

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Ping Pong activation

Public Outdoor Ping Pong offers a unique place-making focus that provides dynamic, long-term improvements for community spaces.

Public Outdoor Ping Pong, a Perth-based company pairing communities with permanent, weather-proof and free-to-use outdoor table tennis tables.

Known as POPP, they make, paint and install 700kg, steel tables that are designed as both sporting infrastructure and art installations. POPP has now installed over 120 tables across Australia, in a diverse mix of locations, and for each we have seen great success in how they have activated open spaces and engaged communities.

RMIT Urban Square
Source: POPP

Source: POPP

Craning for a look at Barangaroo

Barangaroo – there probably isn’t much we don’t know about ‘Sydney’s largest redevelopment project this century’ given the scale and the publicity it has received. Not to mention the controversy around James Packer’s casino resort proposal….

But did you know the name of the development, selected as part of a competition, is taken from a woman believed to be the wife of great warrior Bennelong, a significant figure during the time Sydney was colonised?

The waterfront site on the western edge of the Sydney CBD was previously 22 hectares of disused container wharves until excavation started in 2012. It is now in full blown construction mode proved by the permanently installed tower cranes (at last count ten) inhabiting the city’s skyline.

Aerial of Barangaroo
As a quick overview, the precinct is made up of three redevelopment areas - the 6 hectare Headland Park, Barangaroo Central and Barangaroo South.

Barangaroo Central is the cultural and civic heart of the site for recreation, events and entertainment. While Barangaroo South will accommodate the commercial centre supported by residential living.

The headland park is just as the name promises, but what excites me is connecting the missing piece of the puzzle to the rest of Sydney’s waterfront through a foreshore walk onto Walsh Bay and Darling Harbour.

The NSW Government has charged the Barangaroo Delivery Authority to make this $6 billion project happen which by its anticipated 2023 completion will accommodate over 23,000 workers and residents. The brief for Barangaroo as set out for the Authority is:

  • Be a precinct that will be studied for generations to come as a world benchmark for its bold and inspiring design, architecture and public domain, awarded for its authenticity, integration and diversity; 
  • re-establish a dynamic place for all of Sydney's people which is integrated, connected, secure - defined by its waterfront and CBD location; 
  • operate as an exemplar of the next generation in sustainable development by being climate positive. Barangaroo will uphold community wellbeing including health and fitness, and will value what matters to people and the planet; 
  • be financially viable with continuing profitability, maximising public returns and value to the people and businesses of Sydney; and 
  • add a new dimension to Australia's financial capital by integrating mixed use commercial, residential, retail, educational, civic, cultural and entertainment activities into an extended financial hub. 

So no pressure then….

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Humanise the dehumanised
Public art in global cities has made an incredible contribution in addressing contemporary urban issues by enhancing the quality of the urban environment, defining the city’s identity and improving the aesthetic quality of urban settings. The amalgamation of art in the public realm is also responsible for bringing together buildings and people; without it, we would be left with a dehumanised and desolated urban space.

Public art can take various forms, from historical visual art, street art manifestations to art performances or can even be reduced to a pure non-visual form such as sound.

With rising popularity and worldwide acknowledgement, public art has gone further into the abstract territory where our perception of art is challenged, where we are left stunned.

Public art installation in a western inner suburb (Footscray)

'Human Structures' in Vancouver by artist Jonathan Borofsky 
Photo credit: Jonathan Percy
Public art does not necessarily have to be provocative or controversial, its functional aspect has the ability to transform urban environments and bring life into monotone central business districts. 

The business precinct of La Defense is a good example. This CBD is internationally renowned for its uniqueness: an overlaying structure with high-rise buildings standing on a man-made horizontal elevated slab on the edge of Paris. The city’s innovative vertical structure had created an unfriendly environment dominated by concrete, sky-scraper like buildings and concealed open spaces however major transformation has turned public spaces into multi-functional spaces. 

La Defense, ‘La Grande Cantine’ installation by Talking Things and Jean Baptiste Hardoin (2012)
Photo Credit: Jessica Guirand 
Since 2010, a series of street furniture interventions have been added to respond to contemporary needs while initiating a conversation on the role and place of street furniture in the built environment. The latest edition of Public forms features 8 concepts created specifically for the residents, workers and visitors of La Defense.

The human scale of Public forms has multiple social, cultural and economic benefits on the urban environment. And obviously, there’s no need to be an art curator to get your head around it!

Slides by Alexandre Moronnoz
Dune street furniture system by Ferpect Collective

Know thy neighbour

It is difficult to foster a meaningful sense of community in high rise developments – in reality, dense vertical living can be socially isolating.

Even if you live in a building with scores of other people, the likelihood of you getting to know any of them is vastly diminished if the architecture encourages you to stay in your own apartment. Towers often lack common spaces that give people a reason to bump into each other or informally mingle - there's only so much interaction that can happen as people move directly from a foyer into a lift and then straight into their apartment.

Proposed mixed use development, Antwerp 
As densities are on the increase in our major cities, wouldn’t it be nice to know that design is legitimately taking into consideration the fostering of a greater degree of social interaction among its inhabitants. That a sense of community will not be lost in translation as housing moves ever skywards. Well one such Belgian architecture firm, C.F. Møller Architects in collaboration with Brut Architecture & Urban Design, have put this theory into practice in a high rise development in Antwerp. Social interaction has formed the underlying mantra of this new mixed use development. 

C.F. Møller & Brut’s 24-story building is grouped into ‘mini-communities’ – they have clustered similar apartment types together, such as family or student housing, opening up into balcony spaces and winter gardens. Residents share an inner courtyard, a roof terrace and a triple height indoor garden located on the upper most floors of the building. There’s also an onsite bike repair facility – so no more excuses for not exercising! And a communal dining area if you don't want to eat alone in your apartment. See you at dinner! 

It sounds like a winning blueprint to me.

Residents share an inner courtyardSource: Fast Code/Slicker City


‘Happy City: Transforming our lives through urban design’, by Charles Montgomery, 2013

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The CBDs creating prosperity

The CBDs of Sydney and Melbourne generate almost 10 per cent of all economic activity in Australia, and triple the contribution of the entire agriculture sector, according to the Grattan Institute’s latest report.

‘Mapping Australia’s Economy’ reports our capital cities are the drivers of prosperity for Australia as the economy has gone through significant change, moving to more knowledge intensive work.

Jane-Frances Kelly and Paul Donegan, who wrote the report, found 80 per cent of the value of all goods and services produced in Australia is generated on just 0.2 per cent of the nation’s land mass. CBD and inner city businesses are also more productive.

The interesting thing is that even in industries such as mining, many of the knowledge jobs are housed in the city. More than a third of WA mining jobs are in Perth CBD – roles like accountants, administrators and even some engineers.

But with this significant change in our economy, comes the requirement to have the workers close at hand. Too many people live too far away from the CBD to really help us achieve the most of our economic prosperity and to become truly efficient.

This is a major driver of much of the development and planning changes we see in our capital cities as we speak; the need to have the people where the action is and ensure we are as productive as possible. This is not just about apartments and housing, but also about transport and better infrastructure.

Read the report to better understand these trends:

Melbourne's urban forest visual tool

In a follow up to the heat island effect tool, the City of Melbourne has again come up with something really comprehensive. They have developed an Urban Forest Visual tool, which is an interactive map that allows you to explore Melbourne’s tree data (location, lifespan and genus). Both these tools are used as part of Urban Forest Strategy developed by council.

The main vision of the Urban Forest Strategy is to increase canopy cover in the city to make it greener, more liveable and sustainable. It outlines six strategies with clear targets that will contribute to achieving the vision. One of the targets is to increase public realm canopy cover by 18 per cent by 2040.

The tool maps all the information for 10 precincts in the City of Melbourne. It includes CBD and surrounding inner Melbourne suburbs like Carlton, Docklands, Southbank and others. They have used technologies like lidar and orthophotography to get accurate measures for canopy cover across the city.

We complete a visual comparison between trees planted in the last decade and trees that have less than a 10 year life expectancy in the CBD. It is shocking to see that the trees planted in last decade will not cover the loss – there are fewer than half what there should be to replace the canopy. If the ratio was at least 1:1, we could maintain the existing green infrastructure.

Trees having less than a 10 year life

Trees planted in last decade
The Canopy Graph demonstrates what the future will look like if we stop planting trees and what will happen if we plant new trees at a rate of approximately 3,000 trees per year to 2040 for all precincts. We would see a 19 per cent improvement if we planted these trees – a far better outcome for Melbourne’s future.

Trees not only contribute ecologically and environmentally but they have wider positive impacts in terms of social and economic values.

Melbourne's canopy graphed: with & without tree planting

One of the major issues stated in the Urban Forest Strategy is urban intensification and population growth. With growing development there is less control over the extent of vegetation on private land, reduction of permeable surfaces, lack of sunlight on streets and increased pressure on public spaces to accommodate more uses. It is vital for all new developments (major and small scale) to accommodate green spaces within their design where possible, like green roofs and walls.

The Council is also conducting workshops with the community. The next workshops will be in Parkville, Fishermans Bend, Southbank and South Wharf. If you are interested in receiving any further updates you can visit the website or email

Futuristic cycling

The bike design project is a competition that has recently been undertaken to develop the next wave of ‘urban utility bike’. High level design firms from around the US have teamed with specialist bicycle craftsmen in an attempt to take out the title that will see the winning design moved from concept to production, hitting bicycle shops by 2015.

Contestants were asked to develop a fully functioning, road tested prototype with Seattle based Teague + Sizemore Bicycles taking out the coveted prize with their ‘Denny’ design. The design provides an ‘all in’ cycling solution to meet safety, security and convenience needs of the commuter conceptualised from the premise of ‘an everyday bike that removes the barriers to becoming an everyday rider’.

The design includes a removable handlebar lock system, automatic gear shifting, electric power assist, and removable battery for easy charging and even comes with a cargo platform to strap down your tray for coffee. On top of this the bike comes complete with fully integrated turn signals, head and brake lights that react to natural conditions and safety lights that flood onto the road around the bike.

The Denny is the perfect bike for the environmentally conscious. However, if you are looking at leaving the car behind and jumping on the ‘Denny’ to strip away those extra kilos, the design may be somewhat counterintuitive with its automatic-gear shifters, and motors making it very similar to a standard moped. Nevertheless the sleek futuristic design sets an intriguing platform for the future of commuter cycling.