The Saturday Paper’s architecture critic looks back at the highlights of 2023. By Naomi Stead.

Best architecture: accolades flow as housing policy steps up

The interior of 19 Waterloo Street, Surry Hills, Sydney, designed by SJB.
The interior of 19 Waterloo Street, Surry Hills, Sydney, designed by SJB.
Credit: Anson Smart

For many architectural folk there were two related highlights in 2023. First was Kerstin Thompson’s receipt of the Australian Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal, the profession’s highest accolade. It caps off a fruitful few years for Kerstin Thompson Architects (KTA), with the Bundanon Art Museum and Bridge, Melbourne Holocaust Museum and Kerr Street Residences all applauded. Thompson was a popular winner – both respected and liked, she is a thoughtful champion of how architecture can “elevate the everyday” and dignify even the most prosaic place or purpose.

The second highlight was the correction of a historic injustice. Twenty years ago the Gold Medal was awarded to much-lionised Melbourne architect Peter Corrigan, excluding Maggie Edmond – his partner in life and work, fellow director in Edmond and Corrigan, and equal collaborator. This has finally been made good, with the 2003 medal retrospectively awarded jointly to Edmond and the now-deceased Corrigan. Sadly it’s not even close to the first time a woman architect has been erased and ignored, written out of the credits. What is unusual is for such wrongs to be remedied. Much joy has ensued.

Housing policy is at its most interesting in years – in September the Housing Australia Future Fund bill passed, guaranteeing $10 billion for public and community housing nationwide over five years. It could be a moment of hope in the face of a dire housing crisis, or a big, rolling shemozzle of labour shortages, construction delays and developer greed. But at least there is a national conversation about housing quality, equity and affordability, and politicians have been beating a path to Nightingale Village, to study its alternative model of design-led, collective and co-operative housing. This can only be a good thing.

It’s a truism that the most sustainable building is the one you don’t build, with some calling for a total moratorium on new building. In other quarters a culture of disposability persists, making it fine to scrape a carbon-intensive building off to landfill just for being “tired” or “dated”. When the then premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews, announced all 44 of Melbourne’s public housing towers would be knocked down and replaced, there was a collective gasp of horror from sustainability advocates. It’s hard to believe every one of these buildings is as irredeemable and irreparable as claimed; architects can do an awful lot with retrofit and refurbishment, they just need to be given the chance. Likewise, currently the most interesting construction industry groups are engaged with re-use: Revival Projects, with its large-scale salvage and custodianship of to-be-demolished materials; and environmental consultants Finding Infinity, who, working with architects Kennedy Nolan and others, have produced Wilam Ngarrang – purportedly Australia’s first “plus energy retrofit of an apartment building”.

Engineered mass timber buildings continue to grow in scale and complexity, a stand-out being Boola Katitjin for Murdoch University in Perth, by Lyons with Silver Thomas Hanley, The Fulcrum Agency, Officer Woods Architects and Aspect Studios. But this year’s MPavilion has raised some eyebrows – the first Australian building by cult Japanese architect Tadao Ando, it’s a painstakingly refined space of contemplation, a paean to the sculptural qualities of concrete. But what does it mean to build a supposedly ephemeral, temporary structure out of this most enduring and carbon-dense of all materials?

Elite private schools continue to be fabulous clients, with a strong sense of the value of design. It remains endlessly jarring, however, that the glorious palaces of learning they build are available only to those who are already over-endowed, while the denizens of the public system are largely left scratching in the dirt. I can’t think of a more telling index of the rank inequity of our school system than the disparities in quality of its built environment.

For my money, the building of the year is 19 Waterloo Street, a tiny-footprint residential tower in Sydney’s Surry Hills, sitting in the weensy “backyard” of a refurbished corner terrace. Designed by SJB’s Adam Haddow for himself and his husband, it has a level of character and delight that we rarely see in residential architecture. With design as loveable as this, Australian architecture is looking okay.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 23, 2023 as "The year in reviews".

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