Vote Flinders Street: part 2

What is it?

The long awaited release of the shortlisted entries for the Flinders Street Station Design Competition. Public voting on the entries opened early last week, with our assessment on sixth, fifth and fourth places published yesterday. We have marked each project out of 5 in the four criteria that underpin both the original design brief and online voting process:

1. Overall design merit
2. Transport function
3. Cultural heritage and iconic status
4. Urban design and precinct integration

Continuing in ascending order:

3. NH Architecture

nh architecture aerial

nh architecture queen street

nh architecture melbourne room

nh architecture canopy

The works of NH Architecture are fast reaching saturation point in Melbourne, and with good reason. They are able to juggle the complex and competing demands of large projects with apparent ease, and hold onto early design visions through the arduous waters of contemporary contract procurement. This proposal is no different: despite its fluctuating massing, programme and site occupation, NH Architecture have created unity across the site via the employment of the simple angled line. The jagged hole in the eastern canopy over the train platforms, the zig-zag of the western tower and the diamond patterned floor surfaces belong to the same formal family, and carve a campus out of the site.

Programmatically, this project impresses. The Urban Green is a sensibly proportioned parkland around which the transport functions, art space and Melbourne Room are arranged. The campus urban strategy is at its most visible here, generating a strong sense of community and functional overlap. It would have been good to see this extend to the denser and curiously isolated western end of the site. This end appears to be a hotel and health spa of some description, but is unusually absent in the documentation. The Urban Green is enticing and well appointed, but like Velasquez and team it misses out on the opportunity to truly engage with the river: terraced steps running parallel to it are optimised for circulation over congregation.

NH Architecture’s animation sequence is the cheekiest of the six, making subtle but poignant reference to “George’s Restaurant” within the Melbourne Room building volume (as in George Calombaris, one of the competition jurors) and their own Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre as a historic precedence. The animation does reveal however how carefully the gutsy waffle concrete canopy has been sculpted; its height, edges and jagged hole perfectly shaped to frame views of the administration building dome, clock tower and Hamer Hall across the river.

In context, we can easily visualise this project coming to fruition. It fits well within the lineage of practices like ARM, LAB and Denton Corker Marshall, whose significant projects within Melbourne are prolific. For large building sites like the the Melbourne Theatre Company, Federation Square and Melbourne Museum, we have come to expect assemblies of smaller buildings instead of monolithic form, a characteristic exemplified by NH Architect’s entry. Ultimately however, we have ranked it third due to its limited engagement with the site’s edges and its strangely familiar form making. Perhaps like our reaction to ARM’s entry, we’re ready to see how someone else will make their mark on the city.

Overall design merit: 3
Transport function: 4
Cultural heritage and iconic status: 3
Urban design and precinct integration: 4
TOTAL: 14 / 20

2. Herzog & de Meuron + HASSELL

herzog + de meuron aerial

herzog + de meuron river

herzog + de meuron market

herzog + de meuron gallery

Herzog & de Meuron have successfully juggled the monumentality of Hadid and low-scale density of Velasquez and team, roofing the entire site in a sublime roof of interlocking vaults. Taking clear inspiration from both the original Swanston Street facade and existing brick vaults along Banana Alley (both popular departure points it seems), this project manages to be both international and contextual.

We like the way the vaults squeeze and jostle along the asymmetrical contours of the site and, in particular, the way their form is revealed and accentuated by the subtraction of the central plaza. This plaza achieves three important outcomes for the project: it acts as buffer between the hustle of the train station and market to the east, and hush of the gallery to the west; it provides a sympathetically scaled civic space framed by the lush curves of the surrounding vaults; and, with its terraces down to the south, provides the only open space amongst the shortlisted entries that engages with the Yarra as destination and theatre. While the competition guidelines gave liberty to develop land beyond the confines of the station, the low likelihood of such programme actually being built meant it could not be intrinsic to the design proposal. Herzog & de Meuron have deftly sidestepped this issue by proposing a floating platform stage, one we can easily see being utilised during warmer months by the surrounding arts precinct for evening performances.

This project is very good, but the reason we’re ranking it second stems from its remarkable whiteness. A small detail one might argue, however we’ve visited projects with similar austerity around the world – Santiago Calatrava’s arts and science precinct in Valencia, and Alvaro Siza’s ministry in Porto – and even in the middle of the Mediterranean they were international, out of their place. A gallery, no matter its oceanic or contemporary aspirations, carries the same austerity and feels unnecessary within the site’s arts dominated precinct.

We admire the singularity of this project’s vision, one whose DNA is strongly European but nevertheless manages to pay its respects to local history and culture. We think its vaults, dappled roof patterning and central plaza are stunning. But could the gallery programme perhaps be swapped out for something more lively? Would it be better clad in bluestone? Really, we ask, how will an all-white gallery fare amidst the bluestone and red brick grit of Flinders Street Station?

Overall design merit: 3
Transport function: 3
Cultural heritage and iconic status: 4
Urban design and precinct integration: 5
TOTAL: 15 / 20

1. John Wardle Architects + Grimshaw

john wardle axonometric

john wardle mirror

john wardle deck

john wardle park

john wardle river

john wardle vaults

john wardle queens street

And the winner is.

Of the six shortlisted projects, it is interesting to observe that the John Wardle Architects + Grimshaw entry is the only alliance between two practices recognised for their design expertise. It could be argued that HASSELL have been improving their design work in recent years, however it is difficult to see their touch on Herzog & de Meuron’s vaults, and BNV Donovan Hill are essentially invisible caretakers of Zaha Hadid’s cruise ship.

This design-based collaboration is an approach JWA have pursued previously, notably on their success with NADAAA on the University of Melbourne’s new Architecture Building. Despite the collaborative intentions, John Wardle is clearly the form maker of both projects; his angled surfaces, sliding volumes and rich material juxtapositions all evident in abundance. But perhaps Grimshaw had more impact on the Flinders Street Station design competition in other design areas: urban design or siting strategy for instance. According to one Grimshaw insider, the two practices collaborated extensively on their entry, with ample agreement on design. It’s possible that Grimshaw’s strongest presence is in fact the absence of a roof, an area of exploration for which they are generally renown.

This absence is significant and for us represents one of the proposal’s strongest characteristics: instead of a roof, it has a roof deck on top of which a series of buildings, walkway connections and parkland are arranged. Even more than the NH Architecture entry, it achieves a strong campus environment, with amongst the best treatments of the heritage administration building. Duplicating the Flinders Street walkway within the site confines, the transport functions are expanded into generous civic space, leaking around a new Design Museum, platform access and park.

These programmes are complemented at the west end of the site by a creative incubator, residential and commercial precincts, council office building, market and hotel: a rich, varied and genuinely interesting mixed-use strategy. The site’s edges are activated nicely, missing the front-on river relationship of Herzog & de Meuron’s amphitheatre, but gaining nooks, crannies and flexible usage possibilities. The project is carefully crafted, but gives the strong impression of adaptability and uses that cannot yet be envisaged. We particularly like the Design Museum, “part grandstand and part civic landmark,” which offers a clever relationship to Federation Square, augmenting its theatricality and celebrating one of the world’s busiest transport hubs.

Formally, the project has drawn much from the existing heritage conditions of the site, achieving a level of detail missing from the other entries. The Flinders Street Station steps, long a popular meeting place, have been expanded into the city’s largest outdoor seat; the Banana Alley vaults are extended and reinvented, continuing along the river’s edge with subtly nestled programme; the floral patterning in the pressed metal ceilings of the administration building is abstracted into lighting elements that appear and reappear across the site.

JWA + Grimshaw have understood the site and the city with unparalleled thoroughness, extrapolating existing usage patterns and establishing new ones in a powerfully compelling proposal that boasts great urban engagement, is programmatically inventive and formally stunning. For us, it is the pick of the bunch.

Overall design merit: 5
Transport function: 4
Cultural heritage and iconic status: 5
Urban design and precinct integration: 4
TOTAL: 18 / 20

john wardle light fitting

What have we learnt?

The jury vote has already been cast, locked in before the public vote was launched to protect the jurors from public opinion. Our main concern is that the jury might have instead been unduly influenced by political agendas. Hadid’s glamorous name and signature design could very well prove irresistible to the policy makers, spin doctors and money men. Ironically, her entry might likewise win not because her curvaceous form is liked but because they make her proposal the least affordable: an inevitable and easy escape clause for a State government commonly understood to have neither intention nor means to build the winning proposal.

Our general distrust for the architectural attention span of Melbourne’s general public makes us fear that Hadid might also take out the public vote. The immediate and seductive impact of her project’s form trumps the other five denser, more subtle entries. Whatever the decisions, we will be paying close attention to both results and will be fascinated by the media attention that is surely to follow a split decision.

It will be important to remember the context of the two announcements however: the jury and public decisions will be the culmination of a vast collective design effort, as much reliant on those 111 projects that weren’t shortlisted as the six that were. This was a significant labour of love undertaken by many individuals passionate about architecture, urbanism and Melbourne. If we are to gain insight from the comments of one JWA staffer, who queasily admitted that the $50,000 Stage 2 purse offered scant reimbursement for time spent and the $500,000 first prize money would permit them to barely break even, countless hours were dedicated to this competition by architects across the world, expended willingly but for most achieving little.

There is a deep and extremely problematic issue at work here: as a profession, why are we all selling ourselves so short? Is there any other single professional body – lawyers, engineers, doctors – that gives away so much for so little? It is a topic discussed widely within architecture circles, most recently by the president of the Victorian Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects at this year’s State awards, but one as yet without resolution.

Let’s hope the people of Melbourne understand and appreciate the gift they have been given by this competition. Already, the release of the entries has sparked ample media coverage and significant Twitter buzz (grouped under #voteflindersst). With luck, this interest will translate into a broader awareness of the importance of our city’s architecture and the vision of its architects.

Vote Flinders Street: part 1

What is it?

The long awaited release of the shortlisted entries for the Flinders Street Station Design Competition. Public voting on the entries opened early last week, with full documentation now available on each of the six projects. In addition to the project boards, we are able to access drawings, area summaries, project descriptions and digital animations.

After ten months of secrecy, it is a relief to finally see these design proposals, however it remains puzzling to us that competition organisers Major Projects Victoria elected to keep them and the 111 unsuccessful entries under wraps for so long. How much positive media attention was missed in discouraging public discourse? Also puzzling is the decision to keep the jury and public votes separate from one other. While the former will ultimately decide the competition and the $700,000 prize money still to be awarded, the latter will have no influence on the jury decision. A more cynical commentator might suggest that this strategy is archetypically political: appearing to involve the public without really having to involve them.

Minister for Major Projects, David Hodgett, has made the dubious promise that public feedback will “be used to refine the design belonging to the winner.” How this will be achieved and whether such a strategy is even desirable remains to be seen: should Zaha Hadid add a green roof to her organic white cruise ship? Will NH Architecture be encouraged to incorporate brick vaults beneath their jagged canopy? Hodgett also cemented our tentative disregard for his understanding of architecture with his flippant remark, “a lot of architect’s [sic] designs are wonderful things but they still have to be built and feasible.”

What do we think?

Criticism of the competition organisation aside, our lengthy involvement with the first stage of the competition has left us indelibly intrigued by its ambitions and fascinated by its potential outcomes. It would be remiss of us therefore not to take this timely opportunity to review, contrast and rank the shortlisted entries. We have marked each project out of 5 in the four criteria that underpin both the original design brief and online voting process:

1. Overall design merit
2. Transport function
3. Cultural heritage and iconic status
4. Urban design and precinct integration

Having had difficulty viewing the animation sequences for each project on the Vote Flinders Street website, we were able to successfully access them directly via YouTube (listed alphabetically):

Ashton Raggatt McDougall
Eduardo Velasquez + Manuel Pineda + Santiago Medina
Herzog & de Meuron + HASSELL
John Wardle Architects + Grimshaw
NH Architecture
Zaha Hadid + BVN Donovan Hill

So, our judgement in ascending order:

6. Zaha Hadid + BVN Donovan Hill

zaha hadid aerial

zaha hadid river

zaha hadid atrium

zaha hadid plaza

Of all the projects, this is the least sensitive to its context. It could be anywhere in the world, indeed it has more in common with Hadid’s projects in Rome, New York and Leipzig than it does the streets and laneways of Melbourne. It is part of a fragmented diaspora owing great allegiance to Hadid’s singular artistic vision but none to its people or place. Its dramatic sculptural form will always be an alien presence along the river, distinct from rather than part of the city.

Yet again, Hadid reveals the fallacy of her reputation as one of the great urbanists of our time. Where is the connection between city and river? The urban porosity? The civic space? The human scale? This project may very well address the transport requirements of Flinders Street Station, but its footprint is dominated by private space: a multi-storey hotel / office building that takes up the western half of the site and leaves room for only one public plaza, both vast in scale and meagre in amenity.

The project’s relationship to the Banana Alley vaults reveals how hostile it is to the heritage of the site, its mammoth proportions pressing heavily on the delicate brick arches as it crushes them into the ground.

We are deeply unimpressed by this project. Its imagery is dangerously seductive, lavish in its glamour and undoubtedly a ready-made icon to make politicians and private developers drool. However, Melbourne is no Bilbao: we have no need of icons. The qualities we need – urbanity, humanity, richness – are all but absent in yet another illusory offering from Zaha Hadid.

Overall design merit: 2
Transport function: 3
Cultural heritage and iconic status: 2
Urban design and precinct integration: 1
TOTAL: 8 / 20

5. Ashton Raggatt McDougall

arm aerial

arm river

arm riverwalk

arm platforms

This project has a lot going for it: the best understanding amongst the six entries of the historical contexts of Flinders Street Station, the Yarra River and surrounding precinct; an engaged programme arrangement including a high school and beautiful rooftop garden; a series of delightful spaces across the site; and all of it designed by architects with a proven history of successful integration of new urban functions within heritage fabrics.

Special mention must also go to the digital animation sequence produced by 21.19 and Marcus Skinner: it offers tantalising glimpses of ARM’s narrative without surrendering all its secrets. Its production values are as high as we have seen in any animation festival, and equally alluring.

Unfortunately, and we are surprised at ourselves in saying this, to our tastes ARM’s vision is just too ugly to support. Using the original but never built vaulted elevation to Swanston Street as their departure, they have developed an organic series of forms that squelch and contort their way across the site. While any given moment might hold great promise, taken as a whole they are uncomfortable and alien.

Unlike Hadid, ARM have chosen to occupy only parts of the site, leaving much of the rail tracks open to the air. This offers the likely benefit of more modest construction costs, but still manages to provide a dense tower footprint at the west end of the site for private development. At the same time they have enlivened the edges of the site, locking in activity along the river, existing administration building and Swanston Street frontage.

This project is grounded in a strong understanding of place, but it sits awkwardly along the river and up against the administration building. Perhaps clad in a different skin, we would love it. Or perhaps we simply feel that ARM have had their fair share of major commissions in Melbourne. It’s time we see how someone else’s ideas might impact on the city.

Overall design merit: 1
Transport function: 3
Cultural heritage and iconic status: 4
Urban design and precinct integration: 3
TOTAL: 11 / 20

4. Eduardo Velasquez + Manuel Pineda + Santiago Medina

velasquez pineda medina aerial

velasquez pineda medina atrium

velasquez pineda medina office

velasquez pineda medina ballroom

The clear underdog of this competition, significant kudos must go to Velasquez, Pineda and Medina, three Columbian students studying at the University of Melbourne, for progressing through to Stage 2. Win or lose, over coming years they will certainly be architects to watch.

Their project offers a magnificent green space to the city, its rooftop parkland the generous glue that binds the large site and its disparate functions together. We like the way it ramps up from Swanston Street, tapping into the steady pedestrian thoroughfare there and marking its place alongside Federation Square. We also like how it ducks and weaves across the site, successfully integrating transport and commercial functions with continuous civic space. The sliding roof plane connects neatly with adjacent thoroughfares, though could have made more of its proximity to the river.

While our competition entry suggested a rooftop park also, we wonder now whether it is sufficiently meaty for this site. Two full city blocks make it much more than a mere train station: does such a significant slice of Melbourne demand more intensive or imaginative programme? The choice of a rail museum inside the heritage administration building is similarly prosaic: obvious and curiously conservative.

At three storeys in height, the glass atrium is suitably lofty, making interesting use of expressed steel structure and advanced plastic membranes developed by the CSIRO. Its heritage aspirations are more shaky however: appearing to smother the administration building instead of protecting it.

We like an underdog as much as anyone, but ultimately we don’t think this project is as sophisticated as its competitors. The undercover spaces below the parkland fail to inspire: far too modest for this site and lacking either the bravado of Herzog & de Meuron’s monumentality or confidence of John Wardle’s formal sculpting.

Overall design merit: 3
Transport function: 4
Cultural heritage and iconic status: 2
Urban design and precinct integration: 3
TOTAL: 12 / 20

In the interests of brevity, we will publish our assessment of the top three projects tomorrow morning. Stay tuned.

Bad architecture drives out good

sir thomas greshamSir Thomas Gresham by Anthonis Mor van Dashorst (1565)

What is it?

A paraphrasing of Gresham’s Law, an economic principle proposed in the 16th Century by adviser to Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Thomas Gresham. The law, bad money drives out good, described the devaluation of the precious metal content in circulating coins. When new, low precious metal content coins were issued by the Queen, Gresham observed that older, higher precious metal content coins quickly disappeared: either hoarded by the public as a primitive form of savings, or retained by the government to melt down and create more of the new.

We first came across the principle in 2004 while studying The Political Economy of Design under Professor Paolo Tombesi at the University of Melbourne, a subject and a teacher we recently discussed here. Now only offered sporadically within the Master of Architecture program, the subject “seeks to position and discuss architecture in relation to the world of production, economic interests and community benefits, at a local and global scale”. As evidenced by this article, written nine years after we took the subject, it has imparted lasting influence over our interests and values.

If you are a student at the University of Melbourne and The Political Economy of Design is offered in coming semesters, it would be a crime for you not to enrol in it.

Gresham’s Law may be a simple observation, but it has sophisticated ramifications that describe the devolution of production in almost any corner of industry, architecture included. The analysis that follows owes much to Michael Benedikt‘s excellent article on the subject, Gresham’s Law and the Logic of Efficacy.

Bad architecture drives out good, an illustrated story

A house comprises 1,000 qualities, set N, which collectively enable it to function. These qualities include things like bedrooms, insulation, robustness, waterproofing, solar orientation and timber benchtops. Each quality costs its builder $1,000 to produce, equalling a total construction cost of $1,000,000.

total qualities

As is true with any product the world over, the purchasers of the house are cognisant of fewer qualities than it contains, set n. The qualities of which they are not aware are hidden from their layperson’s sight, like the thermal mass of its concrete slab, the anti-rust properties of its stainless steel hinges or the acoustic insulation in its internal walls. The precise size of set n varies between purchasers, however in all cases n < N. If there are say 600 qualities the purchasers appreciate, each worth $1,000, they are prepared to pay only $600,000 for the house.

appreciated qualities

Thus the builder of the house faces a dilemma: the gap between its total and appreciated qualities, N – n, represents a financial shortfall. While the house costs him $1,000,000 to construct, its purchasers are only prepared to pay $600,000.

quality gap

So how does the builder address the financial shortfall? According to Benedikt, there are two basic solutions.

Builder #1 pursues the first and simplest: the strategy of contraction. This strategy reduces the number of qualities built into the house so as to reduce its construction cost. By eliminating the 400 qualities unappreciated by the purchasers, he need only spend $600,000 in production and will thus recoup all costs upon sale.

quality contraction

Builder #2 pursues the second and more complex: the strategy of education. This strategy maintains the full number of qualities built into the house, but seeks to inform the purchasers of their importance. Once the purchasers appreciate all 1,000 qualities, they are prepared to pay the $1,000,000 production cost and, once again, he will recoup all costs upon sale.

quality expansion

The two strategies do not promise equal success. Contraction enables builder #1 to reduce the cost of production up front, diminishing his financial risk. It also permits his house to be sold more cheaply than the house of builder #2, an easy and effective marketing advantage. In contrast, builder #2 must bear the risk of a more expensive production cost, together with the additional cost of educating potential purchasers. Further, there is no guarantee that once suitably educated, they will indeed purchase his house.

This imbalance is magnified when extrapolated over time. The strategy of education is a long-term approach, with better educated purchasers interested in houses containing all 1,000 qualities at best a distant benefit. The strategy of contraction promises much faster returns: the cheaper house of builder #1 attracts more purchasers more often. Soon enough, the market is saturated by his houses and the better quality houses of builder #2, unable to compete, disappear from circulation.

It doesn’t matter that the purchasers benefit from the 400 discarded qualities, nor are disadvantaged by their absence, only that they don’t appreciate them. Presented with two houses side by side, with nothing discernible to distinguish them, the cheaper house inevitably wins. Ultimately, Gresham’s Law prevails: education is expensive, risky and time-consuming; contraction is cheap, virtually risk-free and fast. Bad architecture drives out good.

What do we think?

Our contemporary built environment has been shaped over recent decades by no force more influential than Gresham’s Law. We see it everywhere. It is the reason volume housing, which represents around 95% of all new housing construction, is of poor quality. It is the reason for down-skilling in young tradespeople. It is the reason that the majority of new building systems and materials substitute quality for efficiency. It is the reason that McMansions exist; that housing estates are filled with poor-performing, flimsy buildings.

A commercial timber window fabricator told us recently that his company abandoned solid timber jambs in favour of finger jointed pieces around 3 years ago when his competitors made the change first. It doesn’t matter that solid timber offers a more uniform finish and superior durability to finger jointing, only that the purchasers not know this. Since the downgrade, not a single customer has complained.

Gresham’s Law is also the reason that architects and boutique builders are incapable of competing with volume housing construction rates. We regularly encounter potential clients who weigh up our bespoke design services with the contracted services of draftspeople or products of volume builders. Despite our strident efforts to explain the unevenness of this comparison (in which we make ample reference to the analogy of the suit), we find ourselves on the losing side of an ongoing and long-lasting battle. One recent potential client was outraged that our proposed fee could possibly be 6 times more expensive than that of a draftsperson. No amount of frank discussion explaining the services we provide could sway them: we missed out on the commission.

Our experience is evidence of the depressing but not surprising truth that the Australian public does not appreciate the value of good architecture. Gresham’s Law has been at work for far too long here, the lure of cheap houses having displaced for decades the benefits of true quality. One need look no further than any of the new housing estates springing up on the fringes of Melbourne to see the truth of this.

merndaMernda, a Metricon community 30km north-east of Melbourne

Dear reader, can you imagine one of these houses, or any of the thousands like them, serving generations of inhabitants in the way that the worker’s cottages of the early 1900s have? Can you imagine them being renovated and updated for changing tastes through the decades, but being essentially retained? No? How about the idea of them being demolished in 10 years, dumped unceremoniously in landfill and replaced?

This is the legacy of almost 500 years of Gresham’s Law, and it all started when the Queen discovered that a coin with negligible precious metal contact can be worth its face value simply because she said it was. Translating this concept into the realm of architecture reveals that marketing and spin are more important than the truth, that the Australian public desire quantity over quality and precious few can tell good architecture from bad.

What can we do about it?

Opposing the relentless forces of contraction is a time-consuming, expensive and risky undertaking. Asking individual architects to do this within their practices is an almost impossible task. The sheer numbers are against us here: 140,000 new houses are built each year in Australia, but architects are involved with only 7,000, or a mere 5%. One cannot fight cancer one damaged cell at a time.

Gregg Pasquarelli observed in his recent Dean’s Lecture at the University of Melbourne that the most environmentally sustainable action available to an architect is to “create buildings that people love, that don’t get torn down every 10 – 20 years.” This is certainly a significant part of the equation, but it is a philosophy most architects are already practicing. Perhaps in areas of dense architectural involvement, specifically the city and inner suburbs, this has already translated into an appreciation of good design. Such is not the case the further out one travels however. How can we pursue the difficult strategy of education amongst the vast majority of people – from Mernda to Caroline Springs – who are ignorant of architecture and disinterested in its value?

We have three suggestions:

Media advocacy. In public forums and across all forms of media, advocacy provides the opportunity to talk to people about architecture. The Architects radio show on Triple R is a shining example of this approach, as are Houses magazine, Melbourne Open House and the Robin Boyd Foundation. The most striking shared quality of these enterprises is their appeal to laypeople. 70% of attendees at the Robin Boyd open days are non-architects, while the MOH weekend last year recorded 135,000 visits.

As such, a key quality of successful advocacy is accessibility: it is not avant-garde theory or collective back-patting; it is a concerted effort to engage the public with their built environment. Despite its mandate that asserts otherwise, the Australian Institute of Architects is not good at advocacy. It expends great effort in lobbying government but neglects popular media. Every time Jon Faine discusses an issue concerning the built environment, an AIA representative should offer an opinion; daily newspapers should provide more visibility to the AIA and seek quotes as a matter of course; and television shows about design should involve architects more heavily and celebrate them in the way reality-TV cooking shows do chefs.

Beyond design. We came across a blog article recently noting that in the past 50 years only one United States federal politician was an architect.[1] The article associated the marginalisation of the architecture profession with our conspicuous absence from roles of public office and common interest. Having government architects at state and federal levels is a good start, but we need to step up into positions of wider responsibility: in politics, universities, major institutions and company boards. In our practices, we seek creative solutions that are long-term, wide-ranging and socially responsible. If this rare paradigm can work for buildings, why can’t it work for government portfolios?

Perhaps our undoing in this regard is, ironically, our love of architecture. Being an architect is so rewarding that we are not prepared to leave it for elections, committees and policies. Certainly, there is ample evidence to suggest we love the practice of architecture sufficiently to put up with being paid terribly to do it. Nevertheless, public office is a serious responsibility in which we are obliged to take part: more of us need to accept its burden.

School education. Finally, the education of young minds. Every individual in his or her life will engage with architecture more frequently and meaningfully than he or she ever will with calculus, sound waves or organic chemistry. Why then is architecture not taught at school level? Why does every student not graduate from high school with a basic knowledge of sustainability principles, the history of Australian architecture and the innovations of the Sydney Opera House?

A number of years ago, we successfully introduced a term of architectural design into Year 11 Visual Communications and Design at Caulfield Grammar School. Though we are no longer involved, we believe the subject is still running. Looking back on the experience, we realise that an arts subject is not necessarily the best place to learn about architecture: after all, our agenda is not to create more architects but to inspire more interest in architecture. If we are to reignite our teaching involvement at school level, we will aim to do so not just through the arts, but science and history also.

With an entire socio-economic framework founded on the principles of Gresham’s Law, it will be no small task to reverse the status-quo of architectural ignorance. Working as individuals, we cannot afford the time to educate every potential client that walks through the door, nor accept the risk that once educated he or she won’t go elsewhere. If we are to have any success at all, we must work together as a profession. We must also realise that our design work is not in itself sufficient to affect fundamental change. To do that, we’ll have to step well beyond our comfort zones and accept positions of responsibility in the wider community.


[1] We were able to discover two, Richard Swett, a Democratic congressman from 1991 – 1995 and Eric Johnson, a Republican senator from 1994 – 2009. Not since Thomas Jefferson has a President of the United States been an architect.