John Denton told UDF that the working model will focus on industry, rather than being academic in its approach and, given his wide architectural and urban design experience, it is a style to which he is very well suited. He has had extensive experience with major government projects (such as the Museum and Exhibition Centre in Melbourne), as well as working with the private sector and contractors. Shelley Penn, who worked with the NSW State Architect before coming to Melbourne, brings a complementary perspective from her experience in working with smaller scale projects, as well as understanding the big picture. She is also design advisor for a number of large projects, and regularly writes on design.
The ‘State Architect’ role has two main aspects. Advice will be given from a the whole of government perspective, and is likely to be more effective because the office is situated in the Department of Premier and Cabinet (rather than a ‘Department of Planning’, or similar). The other aspect is advocacy, selling the intent of better design in industry and the overall community and, particularly, in developing trust through both formal and formal processes in interdepartmental cooperation.
Impact on the public realm
John sees little differentiation between architecture and urban design, citing his formative experience with Bill Corker with Canberra’s NCDC, where the emphasis was on buildings and their impact on the public realm. He sees this as being more important than iconic architecture. John recognises the importance of public/private partnerships but is also exploring other models, including some used in the UK, to achieve better architecture and design.
Clearly, the role of the office is not that of ‘chief architect’ for Victoria, which would involve a massive workload. The emphasis will be on influencing and supporting the fundamentals of good design, reinforcing ideas rather than getting involved in design details. The office will receive referrals from government, but will also have a role in identifying projects and being involved in the preparation of briefs and project initiation. John sees this as being very important, where his experience with high quality design can provide credibility and confidence in managing the bureaucracy’s traditionally risk-averse approach.
Over the first six months, John and Shelley intend to have half a dozen projects to show how they can assist, to provide regular advice to the Premier and Ministers, to begin one or two serious research exercises on how to achieve better architecture and design, and of course, deal with spot fires as they arise.
Despite precedents in other states, it took a long time for the Victorian Government set up the Office of the State Architect, but now it has occurred there seems to be general enthusiasm that the fresh approach has real potential to make a difference, and expectations are considerable. As usual, the proof of success will come in both better projects, and a better understanding of the benefits of good design.