An interview with Brian Meyerson of MHNDU
Constraint vs Aspiration
You would be excused if you read the title of this article and let out an imperceptible sigh; it’s picking at a wound that runs deep within the industry. The starry-eyed graduate leaves architecture school, pencils blazing, only to be met with the cold reality of budget constraints and Council controls. The private client, falls head over heels for a halcyon render, only to see a gradual whittling down of their most coveted details, until what remains bears little resemblance to the original vision. Indeed it has appeared that, in general, commercial markets are where artistic aspirations go to die. But according to Brian Meyerson, director of MHN Design Union, times are changing.
From the implementation of legislation to improve design standards to the sudden inﬂux of global capital, as well as a revival of public interest in the arts, a combination of factors now drives the leading edge of architecture and development. Developers can no longer get away with the
brick box of the 1970s: all utility and no character. Contributing to the urban form now carries many more responsibilities, as well as opportunities.
As wealth continues to concentrate within our cities, developers are recognising that to buyers, aesthetic consideration is paramount. According to Brian, a renaissance is afoot. “There is an emergence of a new appreciation for participation from the general public.” he explains.
“…artistry as mere
luxury is an opinion
that is quickly fading for
The negation of artistry as mere luxury is an opinion that is quickly fading. For a contemporary demographic of renters and homebuyers alike, art and design are increasingly seen as intertwined with one’s values, lifestyle and sense of wellbeing —or “Hygge”, as the dutch put it.
As Brian suggests, this rising aesthetic awareness naturally extends into the world of architecture. “I think there is a greater awareness and a higher consumption of art by a broader group of people, and that obviously leads to greater expectations. People are not going to accept ordinariness any more.”
While increased awareness may be one reason for the rise of artistry in architecture, Kevin Ng, Principal and head of single residential housing at MHNDU, sees the Sepp 65 legislation, brought in nearly two decades ago by Premier Bob Carr to raise the design standards of apartment buildings, as being the primary catalyst for change. “Prior to the Sepp, pretty much anyone could build an apartment block. Since then we’ve seen a shift as people are recognising the value of good design.
No longer is an apartment block just an apartment block; there has to be an emotional attachment, and it’s usually related to good design, good architecture, and good interior design, which lead to faster approvals and better returns for developers.”
In addition to legislation to manifest change, dense urban environments have become places where people most desire to live. The cosmopolitan offerings of Sydney are making it one of the most coveted cities in the world, with prices to match. Perhaps to the chagrin of the late Jane Jacobs and other detractors, the City Beautiful movement is very much alive, this time driven by the markets; and arguably, it’s just getting started.
Skilled Architects Bridge Worlds
As global markets continue to form greater interconnections, so too are architects busy bridging the worlds of artistry and commerce, bringing these two often opposing forces together to work synergistically. In the hands of an experienced and visionary architect, artistry can serve to enhance commerciality, and in turn the natural constraints of commerciality and the implicit editing process therein can serve to manifest and enhance creative solutions. The greater the skill of the architect, the more successfully these two worlds intersect.
Brian: “Artistry is often what gets a project over the line with council. There may be people who dispute that, but when I’m sitting in a court case, and I’m looking at the commissioner’s body language, and they look at a design — you can see if they are responding to it or not. To me that’s artistic impact having a commercial result for a client.”
“Ultimately,” he says, “we are a service industry. The difference between an artist and an architect is that you are answerable not only to your client but to the community, and you’re balancing tight budget constraints and so on; but I think every architect sees themselves as an artist in some way, and is there to express something.” However, in order to do so, an architect must be highly inventive.
“Most of our projects are on very difﬁcult sites, and Sydney is one of the most high-pressured real estate markets in the world” but from adversity comes artistry: “We have honed our skills under such demanding conditions that the only way to come out alive is to develop artistic solutions that transcend the problems of too small a site, too difﬁcult a council, too tight a budget, and too hurried a client.” The result has been a legacy of projects that bring a clean, bold aesthetic to Sydney’s built environment, and loyal clients.
What’s in it for them?
The dynamic of artistry as a commercial imperative is increasingly at play in the world of multi-unit development. From council approval to ﬁnal sale, creative aesthetic consideration is quickly gaining ground as a primary asset, perhaps even superseding one of the traditional top spots on the podium — the million-dollar view.
“Iwan Sunito, head of Crown Group development, is an architect himself who has a very keen eye for design and for taking architecture to a higher level,” says Brian. “His branding for his projects is that they’re not just ordinary apartment buildings, but that they’re artistically compelling. The theory is that he’s selling those apartments at better rates per square meter. So if you invest more in the artistry of the design, your returns can be higher; and this was born out by our design of The Viking project for Crown Group.”
The other element that has recently come into play is competitions where design excellence is rewarded. “Particularly with the City of Sydney, the projects that tend to win are the ones that have that artistic angle to them, not just technical competence,” explains Brian. “In addition to inventive spatial solutions to maximise efﬁciencies, architects have to comply with a long list of standards and controls; but to win a competition you need to go beyond that. Notably, if a design wins based on design excellence, including high artistic merit, the developer automatically gains an extra ten per cent of ﬂoor area.”
The economic impact of art as architecture is hard to ignore when considering the iconic buildings of Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid. “Some may question the relevance of art in their case,” says Brian, “but you can’t question their commercial success. That artistry has resulted in unbelievable proﬁts for the Guggenheim in Bilbao; it has revitalised and transformed the entire region with a single intervention. Economists could probably quantify that if they had to, and you could pin it down to that one architect’s work of art, amazing as it might seem.”
Brian concludes, “That has happened in Sydney as well with the Opera House, and there are hundreds of examples like that, and there are little ones happening every day in all parts of the world, in every city. I suppose that’s one of the nicer aspects to being an architect, it’s probably why we pay for the privilege of doing it.”