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Enduring beauties: when buildings look good for their age

McIntyre House, a 60-year-old building, is a prototype of a well adapted response to the Australian climate. AIA

This year’s Australian Institute of Architects’ (AIA) 2014 National Architecture Awards – to be awarded on November 6 – include a category called “Enduring Architecture”.

Where a fast-paced “build and publish” cycle often becomes an architecture firm’s mode of operation, this award gives pause to consider the slow and deliberate, the longer view, the greater good.

First appearing in 2007, this category is a relabelling of the “25 Year Award” first given in 2003. Separate from a heritage award, the institute’s policy specifically precludes adaptive reuse projects. Rather, it recognises the “enduring features” of a sufficiently aged building.

Aside from allowing the flows of fashion to pass and an award year’s stronger competition to take the recognition, 25 years tests the material endurance of the building. Some architects anticipate the slow transformation of surrounding environments and the inevitable decay of materials: raw hardwood takes months to grey, sandstone buildings can take a few years for their colour to dull, bronze roofs take years to green evenly.

Years must pass before their material intentions are apparent. Buildings where gardens are deeply integrated into their design can take a decade to mature.

Is architecture an act of public good?

Endurance is one of the classical virtues of architecture praised in the earliest architectural text by Roman architect Vitruvius called Ten Books on Architecture, probably written around 15 BCE and dedicated to the Emperor Augustus.

A 1684 depiction of Vitruvius (right) presenting De Architectura to Augustus. Wikimedia Commons

Vitruvius’ often quoted triad of architectural value: beauty, commodity and firmness is augmented in the text by more subtly expressed preferences.

Possibly mirroring the architectural sensibilities of Augustus, Vitruvius clearly valued public architecture above private architecture. Although he believed that an architect should be trained to act in the public interest, Vitruvius recognised that many architects were not so generously inclined.

He even went so far as to admire householders who build their own homes rather than entrust them to a possibly self-serving and money-hungry architect.

All of the values expressed by Vitruvius 2,000 years ago have remained the principle values of the profession.

Whether or not a work of architecture acts toward the public good, however, can be rather difficult to assess at any moment in time. Innumerable projects with public components have had their public function surreptitiously removed by the building’s owners after the building’s opening.

Freed from the pressure of assessing a building only when it is new, or reviewing the function of a building in its first year, the Enduring Architecture award has consistently recognised buildings whose public functions have been retained or even enhanced in the years after their completion.

Masterful residential projects

Of the 11 projects that have received this award since its inception as the 25 Year Award, almost all buildings include large areas of public space.

The majority are public buildings: three theatres, two courthouses and a parliament. The two awarded commercial towers, Australia Square in Sydney’s CBD and the former BHP House in Melbourne’s CBD, both sacrificed the potential of profitable ground level rental to include large public areas, greatly improving the amenity and value of the districts they inhabit.

The exceptions to the award recognising architecture with a public spirit are three private houses.

Magney House at Bingie Bingie on the NSW South Coast designed by Australian Architect Glenn Murcutt. AAP/ Anthony Browell

One is architect Glenn Murcutt’s Magney House at Bingie Bingie on the NSW South Coast, arguably the most distinctive and recognisable Australian house, it has been the subject of a unprecedentedly large amount of international media attention. As a summer retreat, the house belongs to the purely private interest that gave Vitruvius cause to doubt.

Yet the extraordinary international attention that its iconic elevation has brought to Australian architecture justifies it being considered a true exception.

The two remaining residential projects, Glenn Murcutt’s Kempsey Farmhouse in NSW and Robin Boyd’s House II in Melbourne’s South Yarra, are also exceptions. Both were designed and built for clients, then bought by the architects themselves who performed the final renovations.

Those are masterful examples of the architecture that Vitruvius deeply respected, householders building for themselves.

The Kempsey Farmhouse by architect Glenn Murcutt won the AIA 25 Year Award in 2004. AAP/ The Royal Australian Institute of Architects

Considering the general trend of this award, we might congratulate the AIA for continuing to recognise architecture that produces public space not only for the attention of press releases and annual awards cycles, but maintain that public space across decades of use.

We also might suspect that those other remarkable architect’s homes, such as Richard Leplastrier’s House at Lovett Bay will, as they come of age, take their turn in this award.

Of this year’s shortlisted entries – the Apostolic Nunciature by Enrico Taglietti (in Canberra’s Red Hill), the CB Alexander College (in Newcastle) by Ian McKay and Phillip Cox, McIntyre House by Peter McIntyre (in Kew, Victoria) and Troppoville by Troppo Architects (in Coconut Grove, NT) – the work most in keeping with the award’s history is the house Peter McIntyre built for himself and his family (main image).

Like Murcutt’s houses, at first glance this extraordinary design is difficult to date. Looking many decades younger that it is, this 60-year old building still functions as both archetype and prototype of a well adapted response to the Australian climate.

Many contemporary buildings struggle to reach this level of environmental awareness, and recognition of this house may assist turning the attention of Australian residential architecture toward the enduring necessity of being placed sensibly in their landscape.

Vitruvius knew as much, and wrote of cities, streets, public buildings and houses arranged according to sun, wind and rain.

Yet Australian architecture has long been without this instinct for the elemental. Slowly, after the colonial style and then an [international style]( (characterised by unadorned geometric forms, open interiors, and the use of glass, steel, and reinforced concrete), architecture is turning to its rough ground.

Read further analysis of the 2014 National Architecture Awards.

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