Interviews with Eco Building Specialist - Paul Downton, principal designer at Ecopolis
Interviewee: Paul Downton
Visnja from 3green talks with Paul Downton, principal designer at Ecopolis Architects about the Christie Walk Eco Housing Development.
In my travels I have discovered a wonderful eco village / new urbanism model community called Christie Walk in the centre of Adelaide. It is a charming enclave of whimsical medium to high density earth coloured buildings close to the Central Market. Each building is replete with water saving and energy efficient designs and there are quirky and productive community gardens. Here is an online interview with one of its key creators – eco architect and new urbanism guru and author Paul Downton from Ecopolis Architects. I wanted to find out more about the architect himself, and what inspires his designs.
Christie Walk Eco Housing Development
V. Paul, looking back at your childhood, what are some of the earliest clues that you would become an architect and urban planner? Is there an early memory of something dawning when you looked at a building or public space and you thought, “wow, this works!”
I've always been fascinated by buildings and I was drawing as soon as I could hold a pencil. I remember, at the age of 8 or 9, drawing a skyscraper and being stopped by my mum from painstakingly drawing in each window because she was worried about my eyesight! I was given a little drawing board as a present when I was maybe 10 or 11 – it had a T-square and set squares, I've lost them, but I've still got the drawing board! My dad was an engineer and he designed our house at about the time I was given that drawing board. It was a modest house and I remember going out to the site, in an old English country village, and being there when dad cut the first sod and began the process of setting out the foundations. I loved all of it. And I was always drawing – freehand, not on the board. I loved Art at school and I knew that what I wanted to be was called 'an architect' from about the age of 13, as I recall. I always enjoyed buildings and where we lived at that time there was a cathedral and fabulous old medieval buildings – but I really got excited when I found a book about Frank Lloyd Wright in the school library, must have been around the age of 15, and when I won the Engineering Drawing prize at the school I chose books about Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe.
Next stop was the Welsh School of Architecture in what is now Cardiff University, which turned out to be a great place to go. I was exposed to the decidedly non-English culture of the Welsh and the school was not only one of the best in the country but focussed heavily on 'human factors' and what we now talk of as 'sustainability', and that was back in the early 1970s.
V. Paul, why are we so lucky to have you in Adelaide? What brought you here, and what do you like about the city? What do you dislike?
I didn't really choose to come to Adelaide, it just sort of happened. It's a long story but it had a sense of inevitability about it. I came here, with my family, after teaching for two years at Yarmouk University in Jordan, initially to teach at the old South Australian Institute of Technology. Adelaide has been a good place to raise our three children (who now all have kids of their own) and hard to leave. I like the weather and the ease of living here. What do I dislike? Frankly, the complacency of the place, which is the flip-side of a comfortable life. It has so much potential but it gets bogged down in ordinariness. I've described it elsewhere as a 'two cheers' kind of place – but it doesn't have to be that way.
The downside is this lack of oomph. The upside is that, if you're determined enough and persistent, you can do things here that would be difficult anywhere else, you can sort of fly under the radar... but then you still wake up in Rann-land.
V. I look around and see so many boxy, grey townhouses devoid of character and life popping up. Is this happening because it is the genuine taste of the modern person? Is it the taste of the property developers? How can we sell the use of earthy colours and more curves in buildings to the masses? Your buildings seem so much easier on the eye and on the soul. Many people like ultra modern buildings, but I don’t see why this has to mean grey and austere.
Modern doesn't have to be grey and boxy. The best modern buildings are anything but! But a lot of architects and designers are scared of colour and earthiness, and the people who are attracted to property development are mostly excited by the prospect of making money I'm afraid, not making great places for people to live in. There's a contradiction there. What the market has to offer is 'normalised' product that is designed to be unsurprising and easy to build and sell. 'Difference' is confined to the colour of the taps. Housing, in particular, has been more and more turned into commodity. The housing industry's preferred model would be to sell houses like car dealers sell cars. I think it's a dreadful way to go and condemns the average punter to a world of chronically restricted choice, unimaginative design and soul-less environments. It really doesn't have to be that way, but all so-called 'choices' in modern society are being entirely constrained by consumerism. It's a dead-end, we know it is. But it's getting harder and harder to break through the glittering shroud of grey that consumerism casts over real life.
V. What building in the world inspires you the most? What project of your own makes you most proud?
P.D. The building that most inspired me at an early age was Frank Lloyd Wright's 'Fallingwater', although I've still only ever seen it in pictures! I've seen a number of Wright buildings 'in the flesh' though and they do inspire me, the man revolutionised the domestic dwelling and he did it with an approach to being modern that brought in colour, texture, light, space – and a real concern to fit the local environment. I love Bruce Goff's work too, it's like Wright on steroids and he was so outrageous that it's only in recent years (and since his death, of course) that the architectural establishment is prepared to admit the brilliance of his buildings. I've always liked Gaudi and I think Hundertwasser was pretty cool. But they were never 'respectable' in mainstream design.
One of the most inspiring architects living today is Ken Yeang, who originated the concept of the 'bioclimatic highrise' which has hugely contributed to the growing popularity of the idea that tall buildings can support masses of vegetation and be seriously 'green'.
Gothic cathedrals still inspire me too.
But it's really hard to say which particular building in the world inspires me the most.
Of my own projects, the one of which I am most pleased is Christie Walk, not because I think it is a particularly impressive aesthetic achievement, but because it has been the focus of a terrific creative community effort and if I'm proud of anything it's that I contributed to that effort. I'm always wary of pride though, it's too easy to get it wrong!
V. I’ve admired your sketches on your Ecopolis website – are they of your own hand? Tell me, is being an architect a way to be an artist and actually have an income?? I’ve met visual artists like Alan Lee whom I think could be an amazing architect as well. He was conceptual artist for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and draws such divine buildings.
P.D. Yes, the sketches are mine. I'm fortunate to always have been able to draw and I really enjoy it! The downside, though, is that over the years I've found a lot of people focus on the drawing, rather than what the drawing represents – which is the architecture and urban design. There is a lot of content in a 'design' that people don't always seem to understand, you know, to them it's 'just a drawing'. I still get asked if I "draw plans" and have to say no, I design buildings!
It's not that hard, I think, to make nice images of built environments, it's quite a different thing to know that what you draw can actually be constructed, and to be able to imagine the spaces and places and occupy them, move through them, live in them. It requires a heap of technology to make that capacity to envisage three-dimensional space available to non-specialists but a good architect, I've always believed, does that in their head. And for me, everything I draw is realisable and it is informed by, and is designed to work with, the living environment. For me the holy grail of design is to fit our architecture and cities seamlessly into the dynamic processes of the living planet on which we all depend – some level of that thinking is always embedded in the process of creating my drawings but you wouldn't necessarily know that just by looking at the images!
V. Cheeky question: Mr Downton, do you indeed like hobbits? I’ve read that the occasional new visitor to Christie Walk asks to see “the head hobbit” How can they not notice the convivial atmosphere...
P.D. Yes, I like hobbits, but not especially, I like Gandalf too! I'm intrigued by the implied sub-text that the peaceable, pleasant nature of hobbits and their organic earth-connected lifestyle is somehow flawed and unrealistic... but then, I think that Tolkein invented them in order to tell an epic tale about ethics and purpose in the face of violent self-interest. He wanted us to extrapolate!
V. Are you like me – do you find major roads like Grand Junction Road utterly bleak and depressing? I wonder how we can let roads become so ugly – a cacophony of industrial buildings, garish shops, no trees etc. Sometimes I wished I never knew about aesthetics, because I am quite sensitive to my surroundings. Do you think the average Joe is as well, but doesn’t even realise it because such subjects are not taught in schools etc?. Should we just get on with surviving and block out the ugliness like some people can, or do we educate them about a better way? I’m with Prince Charles – I think Aesthetics and drawing should be taught from primary school.
P.D. I don't think you need to be educated about aesthetics to appreciate what is beautiful and what is ugly, although education can certainly skew one's sensibilities. I know that architect students LEARN to like things that they initially dislike (hence the grey, brutal aggression in some modern design) and developers LEARN to like images that are facile when depth and complexity would be more appropriate and people LEARN to accept what they get, with the result that their imaginations are trampled and damaged.
Education, properly understood is not to do with telling people things but the means by which the abilities of a person are 'drawn out'. We need much more of that kind of education. If the intrinsic sensitivities and capabilities of 'ordinary' people could be encouraged, enhanced, released, places like Christie Walk would not be rare – but then maybe that's what the big grey centre is scared of.
V. Is there a way of making good design accessible to low income people? I think it’s easy enough to buy energy efficient and beautiful, well proportioned buildings if you’re well off. Any cute little dwelling with something going for it seems to cost an arm and a leg.
P.D. It's a truism that good design doesn't have to be expensive, but consumerism is all about making things desirable by making them 'special' and thus being able to charge more for them... There is a perverse vested interest in having lots of boring, cruddy buildings as the standard product so that 'design' can be sold at a premium. Trouble is, this is systemic. And any effort made to buck that system is not rewarded.
V. Disproportionately broad, almost monolithic, automatic double garage doors staring at us blankly in the streets. No light shining therein, speaking of ultra convenience and laziness. Please discuss. Would you put one in if your client wanted it? Am I being too harsh? They make me very stroppy.
P.D. Buildings and cities are the most complete expression of our culture. What gets built now reflects the concerns, the priorities and the economics of consumerism. It's bound to be ugly and unsatisfying. Cars are king and the garages are their castles. It's all going to end in tears...
V. I enjoy reading commentary about architecture. A couple of my favourites are Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson and The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton. What books have you found inspiring, or validating of your own beliefs?
P.D. 'How Buildings Learn' by Stewart Brand. It tells the story of how buildings really work and how much they often get changed, adapted, extended and modified compared to what the original architects intended. Organic reality. Great cities happen like that, not by being prissy and precious but by having dynamic communities that evolve, learn, adapt and reflect that in the environment they build. That could be our city, but we'd need some cultural shifts first.
V. Paul Downton, if there is a gig for taking more control of the design of "urbs" and suburbs of Australia, I hope you get it! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.
P.D. Thank you. I'll take that gig if it's going!
View a series of short videos featuring Paul Downton.
Info about Christie Walk http://www.urbanecology.org.au/christiewalk/
Buy Ecopolis: Architecture and Cities for a Changing Climate, a book by Paul Downton