JOHN DEN­TON

Ar­chi­tect John Den­ton makes a case for restor­ing con­fi­dence in the qual­ity of Aus­tralian de­sign by stip­u­lat­ing that for ma­jor projects, half of all de­sign ten­ders or com­pe­ti­tion en­trants be lo­cal.

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page - JOHN DEN­TON is di­rec­tor of Den­ton Corker Mar­shall ar­chi­tects and the for­mer Vic­to­rian gov­ern­ment ar­chi­tect, 2006-08.

Per­haps Aus­tralian ar­chi­tects are medi­ocre. This, at least, seems to be the mes­sage from gov­ern­ment. There is a per­sis­tent view among se­nior lev­els of gov­ern­ment that Aus­tralian ar­chi­tects are not up to it and that you need an in­ter­na­tional “star ar­chi­tect” for ma­jor projects.

I first en­coun­tered this as Vic­to­rian gov­ern­ment ar­chi­tect 10 years ago, on pro­pos­als for ma­jor pub­lic– pri­vate part­ner­ships and other ma­jor projects. On one oc­ca­sion – The Royal Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal in Melbourne – the pro­ject man­ager sent me the ad­ver­tise­ment that was about to be placed, which said the bid­ding con­sor­tiums should have in­ter­na­tional ar­chi­tects to lead the de­sign of the pro­ject. When I queried this, I was told it was what the minister wanted. I asked what the minister had ac­tu­ally said and re­ceived a re­sponse that gets close to the con­fu­sion in our in­dus­try: “The minister wants an ‘iconic’ build­ing.”

Af­ter a con­ver­sa­tion, the text was changed. In the end, the pro­ject went to Aus­tralian ar­chi­tects – Bil­lard Leece Part­ner­ship and Bates Smart – who did an ex­cel­lent job. In 2012 the de­sign won the Vic­to­rian Ar­chi­tec­ture Medal, the Melbourne Prize and the Wil­liam Wardell Award for Pub­lic Ar­chi­tec­ture.

There is a nexus here on ma­jor projects, es­pe­cially gov­ern­ments’ big cul­tural projects and other ma­jor projects by pri­vate de­vel­op­ers seek­ing a bet­ter plan­ning out­come: in essence they see over­seas “star ar­chi­tects” as good, and Aus­tralian ar­chi­tects as lesser and in need of ex­po­sure to what the in­ter­na­tion­als are do­ing.

But to down­grade the pro­fes­sion in Aus­tralia to sec­ond rate fails to un­der­stand what is go­ing on around the world and is de­press­ingly dam­ag­ing to the health of the pro­fes­sion. We had al­ways strug­gled with the “tyranny of dis­tance”, crys­tallised by Geoffrey Blainey years ago, but these days the in­ter­net has col­lapsed that idea. Also, Aus­tralian ar­chi­tects are no longer look­ing just to Europe or the United States with a long­ing eye as the source of all good things.

Gov­ern­ment agen­cies and pri­vate de­vel­op­ers are fail­ing to un­der­stand this re­al­ity, and still be­lieve there must be bet­ter things on of­fer from over­seas.

Surely one of the pri­mary roles of gov­ern­ment ar­chi­tects is to pro­mote Aus­tralian ar­chi­tects as de­sign lead­ers. They should be work­ing proac­tively at a high level, talk­ing to politi­cians, de­part­men­tal sec­re­taries, deputy sec­re­taries and heads of de­vel­op­ment com­pa­nies to push the qual­ity of lo­cal ar­chi­tects. Get­ting lo­cals on the shortlists is the key.

Gov­ern­ment ar­chi­tects around Aus­tralia need to be chang­ing the minds of the de­ci­sion-mak­ers, and this should be high-level stuff, not too pre­oc­cu­pied with the de­tail. Is it be­ing de­signed by good Aus­tralian ar­chi­tects? Does the de­sign look good? Tick it off and move on. It­er­a­tive long­winded re­views have their place, but the key to im­prov­ing the lo­cal ar­chi­tec­ture scene is en­sur­ing good ar­chi­tects are ap­pointed.

It is in­ter­est­ing to look at the re­cent pre­sen­ta­tion

of the South­bank by Beu­lah com­pe­ti­tion in Melbourne for a $2 bil­lion mixed-use precinct – it stip­u­lated in­ter­na­tional ar­chi­tects as lead de­sign­ers, and all were asked to come up with new ideas that stretched the rules. That’s all good – de­vel­op­ers are en­ti­tled to choose their com­pe­ti­tion pa­ram­e­ters and their de­sign as­pi­ra­tions. How­ever, my view is that the gov­ern­ment ar­chi­tect should not agree to be a judge, as was the case for Beu­lah, if there are no Aus­tralian de­sign ar­chi­tects. Nor should gov­ern­ment ar­chi­tects be ju­rors if it means en­dors­ing untested pro­pos­als – ones that may in­fringe plan­ning rules – be­fore any gov­ern­ment plan­ning dis­cus­sion or re­view, as that com­pro­mises them in later for­mal as­sess­ments.

Can lo­cal ar­chi­tects ben­e­fit from the re­cruit­ment of these in­ter­na­tion­als to our ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments? Maybe, but no more than they might by fol­low­ing on­line mag­a­zines such as Dezeen or other pub­lish­ers of world ar­chi­tec­ture. Let’s face it, Beu­lah’s de­sign com­pe­ti­tion and pre­sen­ta­tion, sup­pos­edly a fo­rum on the de­sign of cities, was re­ally a ma­jor mar­ket­ing ex­er­cise aimed at gov­ern­ment (the Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­ment, Land, Wa­ter and Plan­ning and the Of­fice of the Vic­to­rian Gov­ern­ment Ar­chi­tect) to help get a plan­ning per­mit.

I have chaired City of Syd­ney com­pe­ti­tion ju­ries, in­clud­ing for a ma­jor ($600 mil­lion) pri­vate de­vel­op­ment. For that pro­ject, there were pro­pos­als from five in­ter­na­tional ar­chi­tects and one lo­cal. The clear out­come of the com­pe­ti­tion was that the lo­cal was ev­ery bit as good as the in­ter­na­tion­als and their pre­sen­ta­tion the best of them all.

The re­al­ity is that there are good Aus­tralian ar­chi­tects ca­pa­ble of com­pet­ing equally with in­ter­na­tion­als, and the re­cent World Ar­chi­tec­ture Fes­ti­val Awards show it. In 2018 more than 50 projects by Aus­tralian ar­chi­tects were short­listed, with four go­ing on to col­lect ma­jor awards. That’s im­por­tant in­ter­na­tional recognition but, more gen­er­ally, com­pet­ing for and win­ning ma­jor work is also about build­ing pride in our pro­fes­sion and im­prov­ing how gov­ern­ment and oth­ers per­ceive us.

Den­ton Corker Mar­shall gets in­vited into in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tions and has won ma­jor ones, such as the Manch­ester Civil Jus­tice Cen­tre, as well as smaller com­pe­ti­tions such as the Stone­henge Ex­hi­bi­tion and Vis­i­tor Cen­tre. We have won in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tions lo­cally in the past – Melbourne Mu­seum, for ex­am­ple.

The mu­seum goes back a decade or two. Some­thing pro­found has shifted since then. Put sim­ply, the re­spect that once ex­isted for lo­cal ar­chi­tects is gone. There is no longer con­fi­dence in some­thing that does not al­ready have in­ter­na­tional ap­proval. We are mak­ing build­ings out of cul­tural cringe.

Take the Adelaide Con­tem­po­rary art gallery. No mat­ter how you wrap it up, the gallery wanted an “in­ter­na­tional” de­sign and in all short­listed groups the de­sign lead was from over­seas. I know that at least one

of those short­listed would ar­gue they are co-de­sign­ers, along with Aus­tralians, but the in­ter­na­tional de­sign ar­chi­tect is there, front and cen­tre.

The com­pe­ti­tion or­gan­iser has stated that no­body com­plained about the com­pe­ti­tion’s guide­lines, but I know there was a lot of dis­cus­sion about the se­lec­tion process and there were a lot of an­gry lo­cal ar­chi­tects. Yet, sadly, I think most ar­chi­tects here have given up try­ing to change the way things are be­ing done.

If you ex­am­ine the en­tries for Adelaide Con­tem­po­rary care­fully, you will see a range of de­signs – some a bit silly; oth­ers care­ful, mea­sured re­sponses; none that couldn’t have been bet­tered by lo­cal ar­chi­tects. A safe out­come. I would have hoped that Adelaide would want to get out there and be no­ticed on the in­ter­na­tional scene with some­thing ex­cit­ing that grew out of the cul­ture of the city and Aus­tralia. I be­lieve that could have hap­pened if half the en­trants had been Aus­tralian.

It is to­tally wrong to sug­gest Aus­tralian ar­chi­tects are not up to it – they can com­pete and should be al­lowed to com­pete with over­seas ar­chi­tects. I be­lieve in quo­tas. Gov­ern­ment should take the lead and in­sist that for ma­jor projects, at least 50 per cent of all short­listed ar­chi­tects are lo­cal. Ar­chi­tects here are not afraid to com­pete with in­ter­na­tional prac­tices – we just need the chance. This is not about ex­clud­ing over­seas ar­chi­tects from work in Aus­tralia but en­sur­ing lo­cal pro­fes­sion­als are not ex­cluded from ma­jor Aus­tralian cul­tural projects and de­nied the op­por­tu­nity to com­pete.

In Europe, it is com­mon for coun­tries to ap­ply a 50-50 rule to en­sure half the en­trants are lo­cal.

I be­lieve that the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria, for ex­am­ple, should take note for the NGV Con­tem­po­rary pro­ject. Melbourne ar­chi­tects are un­likely to be silent, as was the case in Adelaide, if de­sign pro­pos­als are re­stricted to in­ter­na­tion­als. I haven’t spo­ken to Tony Ell­wood, the di­rec­tor of the NGV, but would hope the NGV un­der­stands this. The gallery’s ven­ture into cu­ra­tion of de­sign as part of its re­mit should in­flu­ence its at­ti­tude.

It is not just in­sist­ing that lo­cal ar­chi­tects be in­volved in some way – that tends to pro­duce to­ken as­so­ci­a­tions, which don’t en­cour­age lo­cal de­sign­ers. What needs to hap­pen is that they lead the de­sign.

Clients should also en­sure the pre­lim­i­nary ex­pres­sion of in­ter­est (EoI) process doesn’t in­tro­duce re­quire­ments that ex­clude Aus­tralian ar­chi­tects. For ex­am­ple, one of the re­quire­ments for the Adelaide Con­tem­po­rary EoI was a list of all the ma­jor art gal­leries the sub­mit­ting prac­tice had de­signed in the past five years. This is one of many cri­te­ria that op­er­ate to ex­clude most Aus­tralian ar­chi­tects, so that the short­list for the de­sign com­pe­ti­tion at­tracts the in­ter­na­tional firms the client has pre­de­ter­mined they want. It doesn’t open the field to new and ex­cit­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties.

Aus­tralian ar­chi­tects should not be de­nied the op­por­tu­nity to show what they can do. We need to re­sist

• be­ing bur­dened with a man­tle of imag­ined me­di­ocrity.

In­te­rior of the Royal Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal in Melbourne, de­signed by BatesSmart and Bil­lard Leece Part­ner­ship.

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