Government architects in New South Wales and other states over the last 200 years have often dived into controversy to deliver real solutions. In New South Wales, Francis Greenway, almost 200 years ago did this at Hyde Park Barracks and St James Church – they still confront each other across Macquarie Street. The Barracks is about control and discipline and the church is about enlightenment and salvation. Sixty years later, in the 1880s, James Barnet who served as Colonial Architect for 28 years, re-imaged the City of Sydney with the GPO and the Chief Secretary’s Department and the miraculous Garden Palace – the sixth biggest dome in the world – built in a staggering 10 months and burnt down in only a few hours.
Even today, government architects are chipping away at the bureaucratic system. In Sydney, we have re-designed the new Conservatorium of Music against the odds of National Trust rallies and Union green bans. In Brisbane, Queensland Government Architect Mick Kenniger has steered the new Gallery of Contemporary Art through a rigorous selection process. In Perth, WA Government Architect Geoffrey London is driving change and in Darwin, the newest Government Architect Bob Nation is setting agendas for a new look to our northern most city.
While Government Architects are often involved in important one-off projects, the real potential is to impact into the production system. In New South Wales, we have influenced the design of residential flats through a State Environmental Planning Policy that now requires only architects to design these buildings. We are also beginning to look at the production of project housing, all with the aim of lifting the bar of design quality. Most architects are involved in one-off projects, but the role of Government Architect gives a great potential to link across many systems. This includes the areas of planning, urban design, community relations and, importantly, understanding the politics of change. Given the right support, Government Architects across Australia can act as very useful go-betweens, between the profession and the political world, in ways that move our industry into new areas.
Chris Johnson is the NSW Government Architect