Rory Hyde ProjectsWriting ←
A New Practice for the Fringe
Rory Hyde
Architect Victoria, 2017
At a press conference in 2014 celebrating the opening of his soaring glass museum for Louis Vuitton in Paris, Frank Gehry famously raised his middle finger to a journalist and declared 98% of architecture to be “pure shit.” It was a peculiar statistic for Gehry to employ, not least because one shouldn’t throw stones while promoting glass museums. “We are the 99%” was the rallying cry for the Occupy movement across the world, protesting the extreme consolidation of wealth of the richest 1%, epitomised by Gehry’s patron Francois Pinault. But more tellingly, as RIBA statistics show, 94% of new homes built in the UK do not have an architect involved [1], with similar figures for North America and Australia. Presumably then, it is the architect’s absence that is to blame for so much pure shitness. Intended as a defence of the architect-auteurs like himself and his fellow starchitects (they are all fellows), Gehry inadvertently shined a light on how irrelevant architecture has become.

Architecture today is overwhelmingly focussed on the bespoke over the reproducible; on the urban over the suburban; on the specific over the generic; the new over the preexisting; on the deep and narrow over the broad and synthetic. In Melbourne, friends with small practices presumably in need of work, turn down projects worth less than $150,000 – an eye-watering amount of money for most people – claiming “it’s not worth the trouble.” We have hitched our wagon to the top income bracket in the metropolitan centres, neglecting the reality of where the vast majority of people really live, or the daily challenges they really face. In short, architecture is in its baroque phase, and it’s imperative we find a way out to reclaim public trust and rebuild the social contract.

To overcome this irrelevance, I argue we need a new practice for the fringe. A practice that is able to address the broad challenges of today: climate change, wealth inequality, housing crisis or global migration. A practice that can make things cost less, run on time, and reduce complexity. And above all – with 300 people arriving in Melbourne each day, some 100,000 per year [2] – a practice that can operate at the scale of these challenges, by developing a means to serve more people.

This practice for the fringe is already being developed out of necessity by those on the fringe. We can see it in the work of the late Paul Pholeros, whose decades of work with remote indigenous communities measurably improved the lives of tens of thousands of people. Using a basic checklist, Pholeros’ organisation Health Habitat would improve people’s ability “to wash children, wash clothes and bedding, remove waste water safely, improve nutrition, reduce the negative impacts of crowding, reduce the negative impacts of insects and animals, control dust, control temperature and reduce minor trauma.” [3] Central to Health Habitat’s success is their ability to scale. Rather than making a small number of beautiful demonstration projects, they tackled the overwhelming scope of the problem head on, surveying and conducting repairs on more than 7,500 houses across Australia since 1999. By comparison, Herman Hertzberger, one of Holland’s most successful, prolific, and socially-engaged architects, with a long career during a period of great economic expansion and development, completed 400 projects in toto.

The RVIA Small Homes Service, established by Robin Boyd in 1947, offers another precedent of a practice model able to operate at scale. Developed as a means to promote good design in the rapidly-expanding suburbs of the post-war boom, Boyd set up a design studio within the State Electricity Commission (SEC) at 238 Flinders Street, where he managed a small team of architects and draftspeople. Each week, they would produce a design for a modern house which would be published in The Age newspaper alongside a column by Boyd, advocating for modern design and the new ways of living it allowed. Plans of these houses could be bought from the service, ready to be built by a local builder on a plot of land in Melbourne’s expanding suburbs, made accessible by the widespread adoption of the private car. In his biography of Boyd, Geoffrey Serle notes that some 5,000 homes were built directly from Small Homes Service plans, an estimated 15% of homes in Victoria at the time. [4] This was a practice literally for the fringe. A practice for the suburban fringe of the city, and for what was - and still is - considered the fringe of architecture.

Despite all appearances of an urban renaissance and apartment boom, 83% of Melbourne’s population growth is accommodated on the fringe, in poorly-connected and poorly-resourced auto suburbs or exurbs. [4] Architecture can no longer choose to ignore the reality of the majority of Melbournians, repeating the metropolitan mantra of the Copenhagen-style urban checklist of density, walkability bike lanes and so on. The suburbs we have are here to stay, so instead of decrying them as the places which will drag us all under, shouldn’t we develop new ways to retrofit them to be socially, environmentally and economically sustainable places in their own right? To put it another way, if the RVIA Small Homes Service sought to improve the quality of the new-build suburbs, what would a program look like that could retrofit these same suburbs today?

Finally, to return to design research, the subject of this edition of Architect Victoria, this is where the academy can lead. There is much work to be done to develop new practice models able to operate at the fringe, but few incentives for private practice to invest in entering this space. This work will include devising new economic models, like that of the local GP, charging by the hour, writing prescriptions for ten clients per day, instead of ten per year; new design tactics specifically geared to working with face brick, stud wall and cement sheet - the material of the suburbs today; new open source design systems that enable residents to undertake adjustments to their own homes with confidence and ambition, without the need of an architect, as a means to reach scale; new collaborative models that encourage pooling of resources at a neighbourhood level - such as energy, water, waste, and food; new living and working typologies that break down the conservative gender roles that the suburban home implicitly reinforces, and much else.

This is a chance for research to come first, and for practice to follow. To define the parameters of a truly public-service practice for the future. Right now, we seem to train every architect to be Frank Gehry, but how many Frank Gehrys do we really need? One is enough. It’s time for an architecture of the 98%.


  1. Figure quoted in the RIBA exhibition ’At Home in Britain’, May 2016. Thank you to Finn Williams for pointing out the similarity between Gehry’s figure and this statistic 
  2. Royce Millar and Ben Schneiders, ‘4 million, 5 million, 8 million: How big is too big for liveable Melbourne?’, The Age, July 1 2017
  3. Paul Pholeros, ‘Housing for Health’, Architecture Australia, September 2008 (Vol 97 No 5)
  4. Geoffrey Serle, Robin Boyd: A Life, 1992, p.92
  5. David Gordon, ‘Is Australia a Suburban Nation?’, Alexandrine Press, June 30 2016,