Putting lipstick on the gorilla?

Clare Newton investigates the roles of, and possibilities for, government architects.

This is an article from the Architecture Australia archives and may use outdated formatting

New South Wales and Queensland each have a government architect.

The ›› Victorian Chapter of the RAIA is currently lobbying for one. In Western Australia the ›› debate waxes and wanes. With a newly elected government, Bob Allen (RAIA Chapter ›› councillor) is confident that the issue will again be raised. In South Australia, Mary ›› Marsland, the director of building management, DAIS, argues for a government ›› architectural advisor who can work across government departments. She expects ›› increasing public debate, as the Adelaide Festival director is an outspoken advocate for ›› the importance of public architecture. The scenario is slightly different in the ACT ›› where a brilliant piece of legislation has allowed the National Captial Authority relative ›› autonomy alongside government. The cheif executive, Annabelle Pegrum, is able to ›› fulfill much of the advisory and policy development roles of a government architect.

Design review panels exist in various forms around Australia, and part of the ›› discussion in Victoria is deciding whether design review panels should be the preferred ›› option rather than the appointment of a government architect. Design review panels ›› can take a crucial interventionist role in ensuring that minimum standards are not ›› compromised, but can they ensure excellence? Unless their brief is extended beyond a ›› policing role they are, in the end, limited to putting lipstick on the gorilla.

Other countries have a range of strategies. In the Netherlands the Federation of ›› Aesthetic Control (Federatie Welstand) has promoted public debate on the quality of the ›› built environment since 1931. As the name suggests, the Federation and its ›› committees for aesthetic control have a policing role and can recommend against ›› designs on aesthetic grounds. But the Federation also undertakes broader roles in ›› research, policy development, training, dissemination of information both locally and ›› internationally, and communication between government sectors. During design, an ›› expert committee can be consulted to test plans. The committees’ assessments carry ›› enough authority to overcome rules that are too directive or constraining on designs.

In the UK, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) was ›› established to champion architecture using a range of strategies including design ›› review panels. CABE is a proactive, nationally based body that offers advice on design, ›› brief development, selection of architects and choice of building procurement method.

“Project enabling” is particularly aimed at helping public bodies toward improved ›› performance as clients, so that public buildings become beacons of design quality.

CABE also has research and education arms. CABE believes that high quality design ›› can have an impact that not only reduces whole-life building costs but can reduce ›› other costs to society by improving health and education and reducing crime. CABE ›› has now commissioned the Bartlett School of Planning to undertake research aimed at ›› benchmarking the social value of good design. The rousing press statements call for ›› investment in landmark buildings that send clear messages and that will help attract ›› visitors and investors from abroad: “CABE is seeking to inject architecture into the ›› bloodstream of the nation.” ›› So what is happening in Australia? Here, as in every European country, our society ›› has changed from a government dominated one into one driven by market forces.

There have been dramatic reductions within government architectural sectors, along ›› with the sale of many public buildings from post offices to town halls. Compare this ›› with the increasingly vocal demands by communities arguing for improved design, for ›› respect for our heritage, and for commitment to environmental issues. As the RAIA ›› President in Victoria, Ian McDougall, states, a gap is developing between community ›› demands and the ability of governments to take informed action. In Victoria, the voice ›› of the government architectural sector has been reduced to a whisper. Some ›› government bodies are following a triple bottom line approach to building procurement ›› that attempts to balance social, financial and environmental benefits. Other government ›› projects are still driven by safe mediocrity – perhaps not surprising given the onerous ›› demands for financial accountability. Great architecture requires the tenacity to resolve ›› conflicting requirements, without losing sight of our design ambitions. A design ›› symposium, supporting the idea of establishing a Victorian government architect was ›› held last year. The focus was on the positive contribution that architects and ›› architecture can make to communities. In an eloquent plea, Dimity Reed spoke of the ›› courage that is required by government if we are to achieve great architecture that ›› inspires and moves us.

In NSW, Chris Johnson is the twenty-first in a lineage of government architects that ›› began with Sydney’s first architect, Francis Greenway. Chris Johnson’s recent ›› publication, Shaping Sydney, describes his interest in an ongoing architectural theme ›› of “civic decorum” which encompasses ideas of respect, conviviality and polite ›› behaviour as they might be transferred into city architecture. There is a romantic image ›› of the government architect as both policy driver and hands-on designer. Shaping ›› Sydney recalls stories of James Barnet standing in the bow of a small rowing boat in ›› order to best site a lighthouse. The NSW government architect’s web-site includes an ›› illustrated design discussion between Chris Johnson and Shelley Penn, resolving issues ›› to do with apartment design. The web-site is intriguing in its scope and detail, and in ›› the transparency of the decision-making process. Chris Johnson is also standing in the ›› bow of the boat. He is able to shift between working on the implications of detailed ›› design decisions and developing policy advice.

Professor Michael Keniger was recently appointed into the new position of ›› Queensland government architect. Michael has a whole-of-government focus and ›› advises on the built environment, urban design and heritage issues. The initial ›› overriding task was to establish a profile for the Queensland government architect as a ›› position that government agencies can trust and get help from on matters to do with ›› the built environment. Working with and between government agencies while linking ›› with the private sector and professional bodies, Michael has been effective in ›› identifying and resolving a range of projects and issues. Within a 20 percent ›› appointment he has had to be strategic about the issues he has tackled and has been ›› trying to find the most sensitive points in the political fabric by asking, “If a bit more ›› pressure were applied there, could I get more of these things understood?” ›› Michael Keniger and Chris Johnson have each established effective roles as ›› government architects. Their success is largely due to the personal attributes they ›› bring to the positions. An ideal scenario for Australia would be for a network of ›› impeccably qualified government architects across Australian states supported by a ›› range of services and instruments such as expert design review panels. Within a ›› transparent decision making environment, such as the CABE model, we would be ›› able to watch and participate in the gradual transformation of the gorilla that is our ›› built environment.

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Published online: 1 May 2001

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Architecture Australia, May 2001

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