March 30, 2016 marked the 200-year anniversary of the appointment of Francis Greenway as the first NSW Civil Architect, a position that in turn became the Colonial Architect (CA) (1822–1890) and after restructuring in 1890, the Government Architect (GA). The bicentenary of an important public office is celebrated by a major exhibition at the Mitchell Library for their contributions to this state. Amongst a number of interviewees in a film screened at the exhibition, Richard Johnson, although not himself a former GA, most lucidly set out the agenda and scope, in short the imperative for a Government Architect.
In contrast to many of the enduring works showcased in the exhibition, we live in a period when governments seem to have decidedly lost their sense of purpose and direction. With major urban projects like Barangaroo, Darling Harbour and the Bays area there is a stunning inability to conceive of the city in the best interest of all, to demonstrate what I would call ‘public imagination’, enriching initiatives that prise open future opportunities.
Instead, outsourcing and downsizing are the ideological obsessions of successive governments since the 1980s, particularly across the Anglo-Saxon world. When it comes to architecture and the city, this has led to the gutting of government as the agent of public good and instigator of enlightened intervention, with the capability to conceive and act, as opposed to weakly regulate, flog or rubber stamp.
Just follow the recent peregrinations of the Government Architect’s Office (GAO), from the long-time bastion within Public Works, then shopped under an unsound fee-for-service model into an impoverished Department of Commerce, and now hoicked to a nook in the Department of Planning and Environment – an agency not hitherto noted for either strategy or action. That Planning just waived away the polite critique by the Government Architect’s Panel of the casino application at Barangaroo is a bad portent.
During my working life, there has been a sharp decrease in architects working in the public sphere, across all tiers of government. Contrast this with our allied professions of planning and engineering, which retain whole ministries. This obviously weakens our influence in shaping the built environment and bargaining power as a profession.
As an architecture student in the early 80s, undoubtedly the best place to land a job was the Government Architect’s Branch (GAB) as it then was, in the venerable Department of Public Works. It offered three clear advantages: the pay was up to fifty per cent higher than private practices, it boasted the then revolutionary flexi-time, and there was a pool of talented architects working on outstanding projects (my predecessors in the previous year’s intake were Virginia Kerridge and David Haertsch, now respected award-winning architects). As Richard Johnson reminded us, in the period from 1962 to 1990, of a total of twenty-three Sulman Awards given (in ten of those years no award was given), twelve were won by the Government Architects’ works. This illuminates not only their skills and capacity but also successive governments’ manifest commitment to the quality of public institutions.
Working in a public agency also attracts the idealistic and the principled. Consider the ethical stand of the GAB staff who, at the height of the Opera House controversy, signed a letter to the NSW Government to bring back Utzon.
This great institution that has served Sydney so well over two centuries has recently been diminished to a point of weakness not seen since the 1820s and 30s, when Sydney was but a juvenile town. The GAs have weathered and rebounded from other barren periods such as between the wars, and after 1988. The leading 19th century Colonial Architects Lewis and Barnet both left under a cloud, while Vernon was engaged to outsource public work, only to agilely renege and grow the office.
Today the GAO’s capacity and influence have been wantonly savaged, their workforce shriveled from hundreds to three currently, with the hope of nudging back to perhaps fifteen. ‘Strategic thinking’ is peddled as today’s best course. But the CAs and GAs right back to Greenway, always provided strategic thinking, to Sydney and the State’s enduring benefit. But they didn’t so limit themselves to that as they effectively realised their strategies in city-making projects. Greenway’s composition of brick solids gave form to the southern end of Macquarie Street and definition to Hyde Park, celebrated in many early paintings. Lewis’s foresight extended the city’s street grid to the new semi-circular quay – you can’t imagine contemporary Sydney without this most strategic of physical plans. Barnet’s great GPO spawned Martin Place, while Vernon was a commissioner on the 1909 Royal Commission into the Improvement of Sydney and its Suburbs and champion of major urban schemes including the new Central Station. Another particularly fruitful period was from the post-World War II era until the end of the 1980s, when Parkes, Farmer and their successors rebuilt the GAB into a wondrously productive instrument of Government and progressive public projectsli, such as the State Office Block, Macquarie Street and Circular Quay revitalisations.
‘While advocacy, strategic thinking, design review and expert advice all should be essential aspects of our work as architects, it is unwise to confine a role to these without undertaking projects in parallel, for actual projects are where we interrogate, test and learn from experience. Without delay, we must rebuild the GAO so they can create outstanding design into the 21st century rather than just talk around it – to act not chat’
The GAs have long been protectors of the public interest, advocates for high-quality design in architecture, urban projects, landscape and heritage. And they built most of the distinguished public buildings in Sydney up until the 1980s. Consistent quality and civic memory are amongst the Office’s greatest legacies.
While advocacy, strategic thinking, design review and expert advice all should be essential aspects of our work as architects, it is unwise to confine a role to these without undertaking projects in parallel, for actual projects are where we interrogate, test and learn from experience, where we extend ourselves as architects. Without delay, we must rebuild the GAO so they can create outstanding design into the 21st century rather than just talk around it – to act not chat. Think of their recent initiative for Sydney’s Green Grid – such clear-sighted and well-researched projects need time and skilled resources to develop, then sustained advocacy to disseminate and implement over years through a plethora of means to activate inert agencies.
A way of rebuilding the prestige of the GA could be to draw on the outstanding expertise and experience of recent AIA Gold Medallists (and NSW now has a particularly rich resource of such eminent architects) either as the next GA, or to play a Harry Rembert-type role leading a revitalised design office charged with producing remarkable architecture.
For as architects we face the twin challenges of producing good work and of articulating architecture’s enduring place in the public culture of city making. In both resonant action and enlightened advocacy, a substantive Government Architect’s Office remains as essential as ever.
Philip Thalis is principal of Hill Thalis Architecture + Urban Projects and co-author with Peter John Cantrill of Public Sydney: Drawing the City (Historic Houses Trust and UNSW Press, 2013)