Making the 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. By John Denton.

Major project design quotas

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

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.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 8, 2018 as "Making ourselves at home".

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John Denton is director of Denton Corker Marshall architects and the former Victorian government architect, 2006-08.

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