The National Architecture Awards are a chance to reflect on the state of the art. By Naomi Stead.

Who made the shortlist for the National Architecture Awards?

It’s that time of year again, when we ponder the cream of the architectural crop: the finalists in the Australian Institute of Architects’ National Awards. The calibre of the field is always superb, and the competition invariably fierce.

Anyone who has worked in architecture knows how hard it is to bring a good building into the world. There is talent involved for sure, but also tenacity, intensely hard work, and a dose of luck. The planets need to align: the right client with the right site and brief and budget must find the right architects and – if they form the right collaborative alliance of trust and respect and shared values, and the architects use all their creative skill and knowledge to design the right building, and this is realised in the right way by the right engineers and the right builder – you might end up with a pretty good building.

But even if all these things line up, the course of good architecture never did run smooth. Design and construction are seldom without conflict and drama – why else are they such a popular scenario for reality television? As one of this year’s jurors, Brisbane architect Ingrid Richards, puts it, the awards are always a search for “the projects which were able to excel despite the grenades thrown at them”.

The awards are judged by a nominated jury of prominent architects and commentators who would, in usual times, winnow down a longlist of winners of the various state and territory awards to a shortlist of finalists, and then travel all over the country visiting these projects, enjoying long deliberations and thinking deeply about the state of the art. This year the jury didn’t get their apotheosis. Instead, it all happened by videoconference. They still “visited” the shortlisted projects – describing a somewhat bilious experience of being walked around on wobbling hand-held phone cameras. These virtual visits were important, since sumptuous architectural photography can oversell – or sometimes undersell – the actual experience of a building.

The jury is naturally tight-lipped about their deliberations, and nobody will know their thinking until the winners are announced on November 4. But we do know what they were looking for, since the awards’ core evaluation criteria are consistent, and set by the institute. They cover the main things we’d expect in exceptional built work: a sophisticated conceptual framework; a contribution to public and cultural benefit; an appropriate relationship to context; an outstanding functional performance; value for money; enacting the principles of sustainability; and responding fully and generously to client and user needs.

These criteria hold across all 14 of the award categories, which range from small projects to urban design, across types of work from heritage to interiors to “enduring architecture”, with building types from residential, public, educational and commercial sectors. The residential projects have a people’s choice award – voting on the new house and alterations and additions categories closes at midnight on October 31.

There are many highlights across the finalists: from one of the smallest – Licht Architecture’s floating sauna near Derby in Tasmania, to one of the largest – lahznimmo and Aspect Studios’ Sub Base Platypus, a former naval base now opened to the public as a series of linked parks on Sydney’s Neutral Bay.

Every state and territory is represented this year with the exception of the ACT, and although the field is dominated by New South Wales and Victoria, Tasmania punches above its weight – in part because of multiple nominations for the Cradle Mountain Visitor Centre by Cumulus Studio. In fact, visitor centres appear an increasingly significant kind of architectural commission, with no fewer than three shortlisted in the public category, including Cox Architecture’s expressive Waltzing Matilda Centre in outback Queensland.

In the commercial category it’s hard to overlook Melbourne’s Collins Arch, a megaproject by Woods Bagot and SHoP Architects occupying a whole city block with mixed-use retail, hotel and commercial offices. But it faces stiff competition from the MOSS 25 boutique hotel in Hobart by Circa Morris-Nunn Chua Architects, a special project that exemplifies a theme running throughout, of buildings that do just enough to pare back layers of accretion and reveal the character of existing fabric and materials.

We see this in Welsh + Major Architects’ Hat Factory, which adapts a building with a diverse history of use – as the eponymous hat factory, a printers, a squat – into two dwellings, preserving as much patina as possible. On a grander scale, “Project Discover” at Sydney’s Australian Museum is a highly assured work by Cox Architects and Neeson Murcutt + Neille that carefully extracts from and rearranges the museum building to create a new sandstone Grand Hall at the institution’s heart.

Other projects explore the opposite extreme, engaging in audacious new formal experiments – at the Western Australian Museum Boola Bardip, for instance, Hassell has collaborated with the Dutch firm OMA to wrap a series of heroic new geometries around and over the existing historic museum. At a much smaller scale, Edition Office’s Federal House is a highly controlled and disciplined form that reads as an enigmatic object in the round, a black artefact positively humming with strangeness in its landscape setting.

Across all the categories, I was fascinated by the ongoing renaissance of brick: so many of the projects share this ancient and consummately versatile material, using it in wildly diverse and exuberant ways. Not many of these experiments are structural – an exception is the brick catenary vaults of the “caretaker’s residence” at Smart Design Studio – a series of long, self-supporting thin brick shells: a highwire act of virtuoso structural daring surely only possible because the client and architect were one.

The main residential category is also full of clay – from the fine hit-and-miss brick screens and crafted outdoor rooms of Studio Bright’s 8 Yard House, to the burrow-like, curve-walled spaces of Simon Pendal Architect’s Beaconsfield House, to the remarkable parabolic brick observatory of Peter Stutchbury Architecture’s Night Sky – feature walls never looked so good. Several of the multiresidential projects employ the material on an even more ambitious scale. The 152-apartment Arkadia project in Sydney’s Alexandria, designed for Defence Housing Australia by DKO Architecture with Breathe Architecture and Oculus, reuses a jaw-dropping half-a-million recycled bricks in its massive, sculptural facade, making it reportedly the country’s largest recycled brick project to date.

Meanwhile, Kennedy Nolan’s multiresidential Lothian in Melbourne is a brick construction in a different mould, an elegant building with an austere, almost archaic, formalism that reminds me of a Giorgio de Chirico scene. Director Patrick Kennedy suggests that the industry’s return to bricks is related to a “reaction against smooth undifferentiated surfaces”, a move back to “things that have been made by people”. It’s surely also a turn away from cheap manufactured materials liable to burn, crack, leak, fade or fall off.

Educational architecture has a long tradition of using brick – its humility, durability and decorative potential have always lent themselves well to school buildings. Sure enough, this year John Wardle Architects brings its characteristic subtlety and sophistication to Geelong College Junior School, recasting brick as knitted argyle, while one of the highlights of the whole awards is McBride Charles Ryan’s joyful Penleigh Essendon Grammar School Music House – a sinuous, built soundwave, intended to inspire children with an interest in both music and architecture. As director Debbie Ryan says, “I do think in architecture we’ve got a bit too serious lately … it’s important to offer something else, a relief from grim times.”

Ryan describes the national awards as “the biggest pat on the back you can get in Australian architecture”. This year, the winners will be announced via a live stream on YouTube. The fact that it’s now all free online and available to a much broader audience than before might be one of the pandemic’s silver linings. I hope it will be a moment when the nation tunes in: turning its attention to architecture and what it might offer in environmental, social and cultural terms. 

The shortlist for the National Architecture Awards is on view at the Australian Institute of Architects website,


Arts Diary

CINEMA Sydney Film Festival

Cinemas throughout Sydney, November 3–21

VISUAL ART The Lester Prize 2021

Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until November 29

CULTURE Ten Island Stories

Furneaux Museum, Flinders Island, until December 25


Venues throughout Adelaide, November 5–28

MULTIMEDIA Dennis Golding: The Future is Here

Carriageworks, Sydney, November 3–28

Last chance

MUSIC Play On Victoria

Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne, October 30

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 30, 2021 as "Building cultures".

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Naomi Stead is The Saturday Paper’s architecture critic and a professor at RMIT.

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