Recent Media: Geoff Baker in Profile, Architecture & Design
Stephanie McDonald from Architecture & Design recently spoke with Geoff Baker about his time as an urban designer in New York and Hong Kong, his opinion on Australia's urban spaces and the challenges he faced while working on the re-zoning of Times Square.
You relocated to Hong Kong for a while. What drew you to Hong Kong?
I am always attracted to big international cities, particularly those which are culturally diverse. I first visited Hong Kong in the mid 90's, but got to know it better when we secured an urban design commission there in 2006. I love the energy of the people, the particular blend of east and west and of course the drama of Hong Kong island with its linear urban form sandwiched between mountains and sea. The central district is essential Hong Kong, with its narrow vehicular streets running along the contours and steep, mostly pedestrian, streets and laneways descending towards the harbour.
What could Australian urban designers learn from their design approaches?
Hong Kong boasts superb transport infrastructure, with a fast train from the airport to the city, the clean, air-conditioned, reliable and frequent MTR subway system, buses, trams and ferries. And of course inexpensive taxis. From where I lived towards the eastern end of Hong Kong island I could travel by MTR, bus or tram with no need to own a car. I took the MTR to work and never once experienced a delay. And the air-conditioned trains and platforms made the trip comfortable.
The quality of the MTR system requires funding and this comes in part from the sale or lease of land above the stations. Why aren't we doing more of this? On the cautionary side, we shouldn't follow Hong Kong's propensity to infill its harbour. This may seem obvious, but needs to be said in Sydney at least, given the current proposal to build a new hotel over the harbour at Barrangaroo. Different I know, but a worry none-the-less.
You have also been involved with urban design in New York and Times Square. What were some of the challenges you came across with that project and what were your solutions?
The re-zoning of Times Square was a really interesting and difficult project because of the large number of stakeholders, including some of New York City's biggest and most powerful developers and the owners of the Broadway theatres, who wanted to be able to sell their unused air rights to the developers. Large available development sites were the attraction - an unsafe and degraded public realm was the obstacle.
Whilst City Hall addressed policy issues, our remit at the Planning Department was the urban design character of the space. We started with a very thorough analysis of the existing built form and signage and presented this in a highly graphic way. Signage became particularly important as one of the elements that made Times Square unique, and we were able to convince City Hall that it should be mandated on new projects, even though developers objected strongly. The new developments, and in particular their signs, turned the space around and new signs also started to appear on existing buildings. The new look Times Square has been a great success. At one point the NY Times wrote that the most interesting public art in the city was to be found in the signs in Times Square.
What is your opinion on Australia's urban spaces? Are they generally well designed or poorly designed?
The answer of course is both. I would prefer not to dwell on lesser spaces. If popularity is a useful measure, waterfront spaces such as east Circular Quay stand out, and whilst it may not be of a uniformly high quality of design, the relationship of this space to the harbour really works well. Maybe a lesson for Hong Kong here.
If you could re-design one urban space in Australia, where would it be and why?
There are many existing town and village centres in cities and the bush which would greatly benefit from the creation of a central urban space, or town square, but can't afford to make this happen. It would be a truly visionary strategy if the federal government or state governments created a fund to purchase appropriately located land and design and build such spaces.
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