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Australian architecture

Glenn Murcutt, Marika-Alderton house, Yirrkala.

Glenn Murcutt, Marika-Alderton house, Yirrkala Community, 1991-94. Photograph by Glenn Murcutt. Courtesy of the Pritzker Prize Jury Media Office 2002.

Architects in Australia have created some of the most unusual and outstanding buildings in the world. Internationally recognised Australian icons include buildings like the Sydney Opera House (architect Jørn Utzon) and the new Parliament House in Canberra (architect Romaldo Giurgola).

Distinctive Australian architecture is also recognisable in the rural icons of 'the Queenslander', the 'wool shed' and the 'beach house' which have developed in response to climate, history, place and identity. Characteristically, these designs used local materials as well as corrugated iron and emphasised space and light as well as a connection to the landscape.

These classic qualities were often sacrificed in the development of the Australian suburbs where 85 per cent of Australians have lived since 1900. Australian architect and critic Robin Boyd once described the Australian suburbs as Australia's worst failing. Australian architects like Boyd and Roy Grounds have argued for the importance of modern Australian architecture as an expression of a local identity which balanced the ideals of art and architecture against local climate and social realities.

Architecture ... one word ... countless possibilities. It can delight or disturb, change our lives, and finally outlive us .. So with a leap of faith, we put our trust in the mind of the architect.
Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Program Transcript of episode 1 of Keeping the Faith

Early public buildings

Royal exhibition building interior.

Under the dome in the Great Hall, Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne. Photograph by James Lauritz. Courtesy of Museum Victoria.

Many of the first buildings in Australia were constructions associated with the immediate needs of the colonies. Port Arthur settlement and Point Puer (juvenile prison) were designed by the convict architect Henry Laing. The Round House in Fremantle, built in 1831 as a gaol, was the first permanent building in the colony of Western Australia.

In Sydney, one of the first permanent buildings was Fort Phillip, built by Governor Phillip in 1804 in the area known as The Rocks. Both a military hospital (1815) [later Fort Street School (1850–1974)] and also the Sydney Observatory (1858) were later built on this site.

Early public buildings were constructed around the importance of influencing community and civic identity. There was a sentimental attachment to the idea of public space with a city square ringed by great civic buildings 'to the glory of god and humanity'.

In the founding of the first buildings in Australia, a duality of approaches existed: those which dominated the landscape and those designed to blend in. In 1789 Governor Arthur Phillip placed himself firmly in the first group when he wrote:

... there can be few things more pleasing than the contemplation of order and useful management arising gradually out of tumult and confusion ... by degrees, large spaces are opened, lands formed, lines marked, and a prospect at least of future regularity is clearly discerned.

Convict architect Francis Greenway, from the second group, was responsible for the Macquarie Lighthouse on South Head, the forts at Dawes Point (blended into the folds of the landscape) and Bennelong Point (raised on platforms of local sandstone) as well as the large female factory at Parramatta, Hyde Park barracks, the District Courts and St Matthew's church, Windsor. Hyde Park Barracks is regarded as one of Greenway's best works, and was heritage listed in 2007.

The Royal Exhibition Building was constructed in 1880 to house Australia's first international exhibition of cultural, technological, and industrial achievements. The design reflected Melbourne's position as a prosperous city basking in the wealth from the richest gold rush in the world. On 1 July 2004 it became the first building in Australia to achieve World Heritage listing.

The Arts and Crafts movement

Photo of Blackwood House.

Blackwood House. Image courtesy of the State Library of Victoria

The English Arts and Crafts movement had an influence on the architecture of Australia, from the late 1800s, where the style of building was adapted to the Australian landscape and conditions. English Arts and Crafts houses in Australia feature strong lines and some subtle gothic touches with a high level of attention to detail.

Several English Arts and Crafts style houses have been built in neighbourhoods around Canberra. Blackwood House in Melbourne was designed and built in an Arts and Crafts style by Butler and Ussher in 1891. Redleaf is a large house in Sydney, built in 1899 to an English Arts and Crafts style by Howard Joseland. After several alterations over the years that did not fit with the English Arts and Crafts style, it was restored to its original style and is now heritage listed.

Photo of Maryborough Town Hall.

Maryborough Town Hall designed by Robin Dods. Image courtesy of the Maryborough City Council [amalgamated into the Fraser Coast Regional Council].

Australian Arts and Crafts churches

Some Australian churches of the early 1900s also reflect the English Arts and Crafts style. These include the All Saints' Church, Tamrookum and the Maryborough Town Hall, both in Queensland and designed by the architect Robin Dods.

Alexander North (1858–1945) was also influential in designing churches around Australia, particularly in Tasmania, such as St Stephen's Anglican Church in Wynyard. He developed an individual style similar to that of his English Arts and Crafts contemporaries and used native flora and fauna for many of his motifs.

Modern architecture

In Australia in the 1900s, the use of new materials and technology coincided with a flood of utopian ideas about what it meant to be modern. While physical function was seen as important, it also needed to be balanced by an emotional, spiritual and social sense, often influenced by the ideals of the Australian Arts and Crafts movement to reflect on something that was uniquely Australian.

Australia's modern residential architecture also reflects this change with architects using new environmental materials and producing designs that address social needs.

Residential architecture and discrete climates

Family with car & Queenslander house.

Sam Hood (1872-1953), Family with car & Queenslander house, 1920's. Courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales. PICMAN PXE 789 (v.10).

Early Australian residential architecture was a response to the Australian landscape and the climate with its unique flora and fauna, intense sunlight and dappled shadows. Early buildings needed to respond to these discrete climatic elements.

Queenslanders, beach houses and wool sheds

The early houses of Queensland were characterised by broad verandas shaded by gracefully curved expanses of corrugated roofing iron, tall stumps, lattice, and roof ventilators. These qualities had the effect of cooling the house, allowing for breezeways, and allowed for the run off of tropical down pours. Shutters were also effective against the rages of cyclones.

Constructions which had fully opening walls were often essential for cooling down the buildings. This was developed in early beach houses. Similarly the pitch of a roof varies according to the latitude and climate of the region. Overlapping layers of roofs are used so that air can move between the layers.

Like lattice-work verandahs on 'the Queenslanders', slats can be found in many 'wool sheds' or 'shearing sheds' to prevent the sun heating up the building. In modern day constructions, slats are set at particular angles as screens for sun control allowing for entry of light in winter or cool seasons and excluding it in the heat of summer. Slatted floors used in wool sheds were also used as verandahs in tropical areas to encourage air flow.

Modernist Australian architecture has also used these innovations for their design and practical appeal. They can be seen in sub-tropical and tropical Australia in northern New South Wales and throughout Queensland, the Northern Territory and the Kimberley. The Australian architect Glenn Murcutt has adopted all these practices 'in building houses that float above the land'—buildings which 'touch the earth lightly'. This phrase, an Aboriginal saying from Western Australia, is used by Glenn Murcutt to convey the idea that buildings should not disturb nature more than necessary. Murcutt was named the Pritzker Architecture Prize Laureate 2002, the only Australian to be so recognised.

Federation houses, bungalows and post-war housing development

Federation stucco home in Carins with encircling verandahs, timbered gables and a small turret. The front boudary is marked by distinctive ironwork railings.

Federation house in Cairns, 1914. Image courtesy of the State Library of Queensland: 196394.

The ornate Federation house, built mainly between 1900 and 1914, was a sign of prosperity—an Australian version of the English Edwardian house. Federation houses were detached, with gardens, and with Australian motifs and a roof of terracotta tiles with detailed fretwork in the roof gables and windows. Many houses had a sunrise motif in the front gable as a sign of the dawning of a new century. Add-ons and renovations with heritage restraints were a constant experience of living in a federation house.

By the First World War (1914–1918), there was a shortage of tradesmen and materials. The cost of houses had to be reduced, so the ceilings were lowered to create 'bungalows', houses which were built between 1915 and 1940. Gone was most of the detail, and a plainer style lead lighting was put into the front windows.

Post-war housing (1950s and 1960s) could be made from anything, varying from either weatherboard, asbestos cement or brick veneer. Redevelopments were anything from three storey, walk-up flats to town houses, villas and dual occupancies. It was this development which the Australian architect and critic, Robin Boyd referred when he described the Australian suburbs as 'the ugliness of bad conscious design'.

Structuring an Australian architecture?

The desire for people to express their identity through a building is very powerful but understanding and describing who we are is never easy.

Mainstream Australia has this problem of its own identity ... what, who are we? They desperately hold on to the English model of housing for example, and this fascination that they have, or obsession with this Federation. (Dillon Kombumerri, architect)
Uluru - Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre.

Uluru - Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre. Courtesy of the Department of the Environment,

Gregory Burgess, architect for the Kata Tjuta cultural centre at Uluru, described his design process as both listening and collecting stories from different Anangu people who each carried a different fragment of the same story and also 'listening to the wind in the casuarinas and ... the desert oaks'. This process continued until one of the elder men said, 'you've got all our stories now, we've rounded them up, got them in the yard for you, you're inside, now do it, draw it.'

Burgess responded by building massive walls that linked the project parts and making all the walls from the sand at the site. ' The columns are small ephemeral shade structures, often made with an upturned desert oak trunk with the roots above.'

You know, if we set out to design an architecture that's Australian we're in trouble ... The important thing is that we address the issues, we address the landscape, we address the brief, we address the place. If we address those things and do them rationally and poetically at the same time, we must be getting somewhere. (Murcutt)

The history and scope of Australian identity can be seen in the range of its buildings—from both the austere and also grand regent style colonial architecture through the practical minimalism of Australian modernism to a post-colonial world which incorporates the Indigenous experience of country.

This is reflected in the 2006 submissions from Australia to the Venice Biennale. These buildings range from 'industrial woolsheds to shipwreck lookouts, from riverside apartments to rural art spaces' - of different scales, types and uses. 'The projects were selected to highlight eight different aspects of our contemporary urban landscape and demonstrate creative architectural responses to Australian conditions.'

Useful links

Colonial architecture

Colonial architectural history

Twentieth century architectural history

Contemporary Australian architecture

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Last updated: 13 January 2016

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