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Modern Australian architecture

Adelaide stock exchange

Adelaide Stock Exchange. Photograph courtesy of Mijo Consulting.

Modern Australian architecture reflects both new ways of thinking and new forms of expression as well as the fact that in the twentieth century buildings did not need to be made of stone any more. Buildings could be made of steel and glass which opened up endless possibilities for space and light, and moving between the outside and the inside.

It was a conviction that what man's eye seeks in our era, in our time, is not the ponderous solidity of traditional architecture where everything was built to four walls around a room and spaces that were finite. But rather our eyes seek transparency, lightness... being able to look through things.
Harry Seidler, Australian architect

The use of new materials and technology coincided with a flood of utopian ideas. For much of the 20th century, architects fought over what it meant to be modern. Some argued that while the early modern architecture was dominated by physical function, it also needed to be balanced by an emotional, spiritual and social sense. Recent debate centres around how our relationship with the built environment contributes to our sense of wellbeing.

Today, one of the most significant areas of change in architecture is in the choice of materials and designs which will make use of passive energy. This is reflected in the development of an alternative model for public spaces and urban living based on social architecture and the 'green' apartment. Australia's modern residential architecture also reflects this change with architects using new environmental materials and producing designs that address social needs.

Modern public spaces

Public buildings help us to define ourselves. In the past, ideas of civic identity in Australian architecture centred on public squares, whereas it has been argued that today's public space can be experienced on the move as well as in quiet repose. Much of the innovative architecture being produced in Australia at the moment is being driven by large public infrastructure projects.

Public transport interchanges

The freeway or public transport interchanges are the gateways to the modern city, leading to the city civic squares. The Melbourne freeway is a modern public infrastructure, built with private money, and decorated by an architect - 'a piece of art to be absorbed at the speed at which we live our lives' (ABC).

Another example of architecture designed public spaces experienced on the move is Parramatta rail station and bus interchange in Sydney. The interchange is linked by a 70 metre long art wall designed by McGregor Westlake Architecture. The result has been described as 'a rare example of urban coherence' (Paul McGillick, Indesign). The wall is seen as both intriguing as an artistic form as well as serving a number of utilitarian functions including acting as a retaining wall, platform edge and as a mask for other services.

Collecting institutions and heritage centres

Similarly, new designs for public resources, libraries and heritage centres are often a combination of public space and commercial opportunities. It also reflects an attempt to reflect both the physical and social needs of the community, utilising new digital media and reflecting upon spiritual as well as physical heritage.

Shark Bay Interpretive Centre

Woodhead International, The Shark Bay Interpretive Centre at Denham, Western Australia. Courtesy of Woodhead International.

Located in the town of Denham, Western Australian, the site where Dutch mariner Dirk Hartog landed in 1616, and situated in the World Heritage Area of Shark Bay, the new Shark Bay Interpretive Centre showcases the region's history and natural heritage through interactive design. The project was a whole-of-government collaboration with design by Susan Freeman of Freeman Ryan Design and architect John Nichols of Woodhead International. The local materials and design acknowledge the harsh physical environment.

Group GSA's design for a new library at Narellan, New South Wales reflects its hybrid status as a library, civic square, youth centre and community space (Laura Harding, Architecture Australia). Bold artwork and super graphics announce the building's function. Creative resources include a darkroom for photography and a sound lab, meeting rooms and community facilities. The scale of the vast space is softened by suspended lighting systems, extensive natural light and sculptured ceilings. A pavilion area allows readers to take books outside.

The heritage listed High Court - National Gallery Precinct in Canberra is an integration of buildings, terraces, courts, paving, gardens and water features. It provides a grand panorama of public buildings reflected on the lake, in a landscape setting with a clear Australian identity.

Federation Square

Federation Square is an attempt to create a new civic square in Melbourne which is a square for the future, unlike any public space that has been seen before. It embraces digital media to create a new experience of the public realm.

The public moves through it and up staircases or escalators, across through the plaza and along the site. It is also a public thoroughfare that takes you through and across the plaza, and the atrium space is effectively a covered street that takes you down to the river.

There is a kind of blurring of when are you in it, and when are you out, but it also means from our point of view that its a kind of living organism that meshes itself into the living city. ... public spaces are like gifts. You give them to the future. You don't determine how they're going to be used.
Peter Davidson

Federal Court

The federal court was seen as a perfect opportunity for a modern architect, as it was a chance to use modern building materials as well as reflect upon modern ideas.

It was seen as 'a chance to reflect the big ideas of Australian law and democracy ... These law courts see decisions from Mabo and land rights, to the daily dramas of broken lives. It was 'a building that was to be full of light and the light [and] ... also to have the symbolic reflection of access to justice, openness and transparency'.
Michael Black, Chief Justice

Commercial architecture

In contrast to public infrastructure which emphasises the a common good or ideal, commercial buildings are commercially driven. Commercial architecture is usually designed around economic constraints and maximum returns to the limit of the planning guidelines and legislation.

East Circular Quay

East Circular Quay. Courtesy of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Commercial architecture is foisted on the public whether they like it or not ... a client or ... a patron who wants a building built who really doesn't care very much what the public think except for the glorification of themselves or their particular organisation.
Philip Cox

An example of a commercial development which caused great controversy in its relationship to public space was the project at East Circular Quay near the Sydney Opera House in the 1980s. After initial rejection of plans, respected public architect, Andrew Andersons, was selected by the city and the developers to produce a more acceptable design, under new guidelines.

Andrew's plan, while it still concealed the Opera House from the Quay, was based on the idea that it was not a problem 'if the experience of approaching it, was a very memorable one'. Andrew's opinion was based on the his experience of great urbanism in Europe where 'often you come across a Cathedral or a wonderful building in a public space, by surprise'.

The Commonwealth, through Prime Minister Keating, intervened to ensure public benefit and access by reducing the height and having a colonnade. The compromise was to have the colonnade 'arches to touch the ground heavily' to create a 'sense of solid civic public space' (Elizabeth Farrelly). This has had the effect of opening up the quay for a public space.

Social and regionally-based architecture

Social architecture is concerned with creating precincts that respond to social needs rather than individual buildings, as well as meeting sustainability goals such as 'green' and 'blue' rules. Social architecture attempts to address the balance between city and landscape, and creating precincts that respond to social needs which are 'the public zone to the city ... the seed bed of the community spirit' (Richard Leplastrier).

Regionally-based practices

Troppo architects - Kakadu visitor centre

Troppo Architects, Kakadu Visitor Centre. Courtesy of Troppo Architects.

Troppo Architects, based in Darwin, are an example of modern 'regionally based practices aiming to develop regionally responsive architectures'. Their motto is to promote a sense of place in each project through 'an architecture that responds to climate and the local setting based on a belief in sustainability.

Their design projects respond to place and purpose with a simplicity and constraint that are evident in the iconic early Australian wool sheds, 'dongas' and beach houses. A whole-of-site approach is taken with the heritage and social purpose of their projects such as Pee Wees, a restaurant at Darwin's East Point Reserve, which incorporates World War II mess structures. This was a winner at the RAIA National Architecture Awards 1998.

The architecture is sensitive to many existing relics and gathering places of heritage significance; particularly the Sidney Williams Huts, which inspired the new building's shed aesthetic. The scheme incorporates many environmentally sensitive strategies and tropical treatments for passive cooling and ventilation, and there is an on-site sewerage treatment system using worms as a composting agent.
Commercial Award, Environment Citation, RAIA Awards, Architecture Australia, November/December 1998

Parramatta, the second-oldest established town area in NSW after 'The Rocks', is developing a new town centre proposal based on its history and the Parramatta River, and to develop a sense of place that is local. Archaeological diggings in Parramatta are showing evidence of pottery production and inns of emancipated convicts dating from the 1790s. It is one of the most significant archaeological finds in the Sydney metropolitan region in a decade - and possibly the earliest remains of a pub in Australia. The Council is committed, as part of its urban planning, to expose the archaeology. This is part of a plan to stop Parramatta from becoming a ' boring town of government and commercial office space'. (Sydney Morning Herald, 14-15 April 2007).

Going green

Architects and builders are challenged to make new and old buildings environmentally friendly and sustainable. The OECD reports that the construction industry consumes 32% of the world's resources with builders consuming 12% of fresh water, and the sector overall accounting for 40% of total energy consumption. The blue rule is an attempt to account for the use of water in a sustainable way in new projects. This means buildings and sites will need to collect rainwater, store it and re-use it. Buildings of the future dominate NSW Architecture Awards. In 2007 the IDEA Awards introduced sustainability into every category of their design awards.

Australia now has a green ratings system based on five different ratings established by NSW and Victorian state government building codes, the Green Building Council of Australia, the National Australian Built Environment Rating Tool (NABERS) and the Australian Building Greenhouse Ratings (ABGR). While each is different, all work towards a rating of 1 to 6, with 6 being world's best practice. To be assessed or rated as a green building, buildings may feature wind turbines, vertical planting, shading and lighting, exhaust systems, chilled ceilings, rooftop energy and healthy air. In 2006, the Australian Government mandated that it would not occupy space which was not rated at least 4.5 stars.

Photograph of Queensland Gallery of Modern Art

Architectus, Queensland Gallery of Modern Art. Courtesy of Queensland Art Gallery.

At Green Square, the South Sydney Development Corporation (SSDC) is working hand in hand with South Sydney Council to change a low-lying swampland covered in industrial sheds into a new, high-tech town centre based on the green and blue rules. In Victoria, all new houses and apartments must have a rating of 4.5 stars, and since July 2005, all new houses must have a rainwater tank and solar hot water system installed. In Melbourne, the National Australia Bank has grown 300 plants to help the air at its headquarters.

The new Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, is designed by Sydney-based firm Architectus. The building is regional in its influence, characterised by an inventiveness with modest materials, transparency, modulation of strong subtropical light and engagement with the outside on a bank of the Brisbane River. A broad and cantilevered roof unites the facade. The materials in the gallery are polished concrete floors and white walls. The insertion of zinc panelling at gallery thresholds, timber and stainless steel nosing to concrete stairs contribute to a more sensitive design. ( Art & Australia, Autumn 2007.)

Useful links

Public spaces

Commercial architecture

Some social and regionally-based architecture practices

Contemporary Australian architecture references

Architecture departments

Awards

Print references

  • 'Going Green', in Asia Pacific Legal Developments Bulletin, vol. 21, no. 2, October 2006.

Last updated: 10th January 2008

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