Call for greener planning
The new RAIA president won’t win instant friends among bureaucrats with his call for a longer- term planning outlook, Sue Williams reports
THE new president of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects is unlikely to win many popularity contests with governments. And that’s not just the federal Government either; he also has his sights firmly set on the state and local tiers.
But Alec Tzannes isn’t in the game winning fair- weather friends.
He’s far more interested in pushing for change within government, to ensure the environment has a far greater profile in planning decisions in the future, and architects have much more of a say.
‘‘ This is a time in history when we have to rewrite our plans for the future and redraft our cultural framework,’’ he says.
‘‘ We have to redefine the public domain that we need and want, to create environments that are both sustainable and beautiful.
‘‘ We’ve known this now for many, many years, but now government is listening. We need big changes, but at some point we’ve got to introduce them. Otherwise, there’ll be even bigger problems in the future.’’
No one could ever accuse Tzannes, 56, of aiming too low. Not only does he want to engage politicians at every level with his vision of an ecologically sustainable future for our cities, he also wants to make sure they understand how vital it is to redraft the entire system of planning processes to ensure it can become a reality. He’s making some headway, too. The RAIA is currently in talks with the federal Department of Finance and Administration about how they could become a better architectural client, and the position of government architect has been re- created in Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, while it’s being strengthened in NSW.
It’s all very well individuals and architects taking to heart so many of the concerns about climate change, believes Tzannes, but it’s government where the real power resides.
Only they have the capacity to tear apart the old ways of making decisions about what’s needed and where, and architects have the real responsibility for showing them how.
‘‘ Leadership is a hard one because governments of every persuasion and at every level have chosen to abandon their responsibility as the custodians of the public domain,’’ says Tzannes.
‘‘ They have privatised it and gone into public- private partnerships with often disappointing results. They’ve built infrastructure
of poorly — when did anyone last look at the water system? And the public transport system makes its users feel like third- rate citizens.
‘‘ But who else is there to create an authentic, viable public domain, and manage it properly, if not government?’’ It’s hard to argue against Tzannes. After 30 years as an architect, the first six of them as an associate with Glenn Murcutt and the last 24 at the helm of his own firm Tzannes Associates, and with numerous awards to his name and an extraordinary array of homes, public works and commercial buildings across the country, he knows what he’s talking about.
In his own career, before taking over as president of the RAIA at the end of May, he proved his worth at making sustainability concepts central to planning.
Some of his best- known projects in Sydney include Aria Restaurant, the Federation Pavilion and Federation Place in Centennial Park, the new senior school, junior school and gymnasium at St Catherine’s School, Waverley, the Fort Denison Restoration and Cafe, Bistro Moncur and Woollahra Hotel.
He also undertakes major urban developments such as the Carlton and United Breweries mixded use master plan at Broadway, just on the outskirts of Sydney’s CBD.
In Melbourne, there’s the Watermark Apartments, in South Australia the Parker Winery, and there’s the Community Centre for the Aged at Rivett in Canberra.
Nationally, two of his residential projects — the Snelling House and Henwood House — have received the nation’s top residential award, the RAIA Robin Boyd Award, in 1997 and 1988 respectively, and he was runner- up on two other occasions.
As a result, many of his projects have been widely published in magazines and journals in Australia and overseas, and he is regularly invited to exhibit and lecture, as well as to compete in design competitions.
Fellow architect Richard Johnson of Johnson Pilton Walker Architects is an admirer.
‘‘ He always produces marvellously wellconsidered work that’s beautifully crafted and fits into the context every time,’’ he says.
‘‘ He’s one of those rare architects where I’ve seen a lot of his work and never seen a thing I didn’t like.’’
With 60- 70 per cent of Tzannes’ 50- person practice involved with residential and mixeduse developments, he has ended up with some big high- profile jobs.
Love it or hate it, one of his best- known projects is John Symond’s house at Point Piper, Sydney, which is estimated to have cost more than $ 50 million to build, and is among Australia’s most expensive privately owned homes.
Symond, the Aussie Home Loans founder, also rates his work very highly. ‘‘ Alec is a man of great architectural integrity, who adheres to his design principles but has the flexibility to adapt to the wishes of his clients and the challenges faced in each project,’’ he says.
‘‘ He has a very strong mindset, but is creative in the ways he adapts his classical architectural thinking towards his work. I believe his body of work will be viewed as a very important chapter in the history of Australian architecture.’’
So when Tzannes announced a sabbatical from his work to concentrate on the RAIA presidency, he’s quickly proved a formidable figure, both to chastise government and to urge politicians to change their ways.
With a steely determination hidden behind a soft, gentle manner, he’s pushing for all the old ways of making planning and development decisions, in which environmental concerns were merely an afterthought, he says, to be scrapped.
In their place, he suggests a framework of legislation which moves sustainability to the foreground, with all other considerations fanning out from that core.
‘‘ Some of these messages I’m talking about are a long way from being heard, like this rewriting of the legal and planning framework,’’ says Tzannes.
‘‘ But hopefully not too long. I would say it’s a 10- year project, max.’’ He smiles. ‘‘ I’m very optimistic.’’
Sabbatical: New RAIA president Alec Tzannes wants environmental sustainability in the foreground of planning decisions