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Hope and aspiration at the National Architecture Awards

The Zelman Cowen award for Public Architecture was won by ARM Architecture for the Geelong Library & Heritage Centre. John Gollings

Architects around the country are still abuzz, discussing the outcomes of the Australian National Architecture Awards, announced last Thursday. My Instagram feed that night was all jittery, as the nominees gathered at a packed ceremony in Sydney.

These awards really are a big deal in the architectural community, and they provoke high emotions: inspiration and aspiration of course, but also hope, vindication, relief, as well as some less pleasant sensations: bitterness, disappointment, and professional envy.

Only a tiny proportion of all architects will ever win a national award, which means being recognized by their peers, but also proving (to themselves and to others) that it is actually possible to make good buildings: an idea which, regrettably, is not always obvious.

The fact is, it’s incredibly hard to get a good building up – almost unbelievably hard, much more so than non-architects might realise.

It’s not just about money. There are many examples of amazing buildings emerging from an incredibly limited budget, and/or an intricately difficult design problem.

But on those rare occasions when the planets align and an architect does actually manage to secure the commission, collaborate seamlessly with an adventurous and trusting client, procure an adequate budget, on a site which has promise, with a local government that is amenable, with a great builder and consultants – well even then it can still so easily all go wrong.

Naturally, good design is the key, but getting a good design, even a brilliant one, off the drawing board (or out of the computer, these days) and into the world is a truly gargantuan task.

So: looking at the projects recognised at the awards this year, it’s encouraging to see such fine work – buildings which are variously as sophisticated, bold, and whimsical as those you might hope to see anywhere.

The awards represent a kind of “best of the best”, nominated upwards from the respective Australian Institute of Architects state chapter awards, held throughout the country over recent months. The judging process this year was, as always, impressively rigorous – this jury visits almost all of the shortlisted schemes in person: a huge logistical challenge considering the number and far-flung locations of the nominated projects. Across two separate weeks, the jury crossed the country, visiting 65 projects in all, and selecting 32 winners and 12 commended projects across 14 categories.

A slow dream in concrete

Two awards in particular always have the architectural community holding its breath: the big ones, the Sir Zelman Cowen Award for Public Architecture, and the Robin Boyd award for new residential architecture.

This year the Robin Boyd award went, perhaps not surprisingly, to Indigo Slam, the house designed by Smart Design Studio for philanthropist and art collector Judith Neilson in Sydney’s Chippendale. This is a really outstanding house – a kind of slow dream in concrete, from the curling light scoops of its façade, to the tall austerity of its central space, it’s a once in a lifetime commission, and it richly deserved the award.

The jury citation noted that Neilson had decided during the construction process to “reduce how much of her permanent collection would be hung on the walls”, having realised that “the house itself is as much a part of her collection as the art.”

This kind of realization is highly unusual for a house, and the jury was right in concluding that “it is an exceptional and rare privilege to engage with architecture at this level”. This is a building which does far more than fulfilling a practical end – it has aspirations and ambitions well beyond functionality.

Unexpected and audacious

The Zelman Cowen award for Public Architecture was won by ARM Architecture for the Geelong Library & Heritage Centre (pictured above) – a truly remarkable building, formally unexpected and audacious and, by all accounts, also fulfilling its purpose beautifully.

The word “landmark” is bandied around too much in relation to architecture, but in this case, the jury’s description seems appropriate – it really is a landmark in the old sense, of a highly recognizable urban feature which becomes a point of orientation in its locale. The project is also an exemplar of the new generation of library-as-social condenser: a machine for community-building and urban regeneration, architecture as gift to the civic realm.

Sometimes the architecture community grumbles that major institutional projects always get a guernsey at the awards, because such projects themselves are so rare, high-status, and important.

The Condensery - Somerset Regional Art Gallery by PHAB Architects. Manson Images

But in this year’s awards the modest was recognized along with the grand – another of the winners in the public architecture category was The Condensery - Somerset Regional Art Gallery by PHAB Architects, which turns part of a former condensed milk factory in country Queensland into a regional cultural facility. This building, while highly confident and assured, is also fairly humble – showing that even small projects can contribute to the public realm, and the social and cultural life of their location.

Residential stars

The residential (Alterations and Additions) category was, to my eye, a standout this year, as will likely become more the case as our cities become denser. Special architectural invention is required to squeeze dwellings into ever more scarce inner-urban land.

Interestingly, the winners in this category are also quite characteristic of their respective cities. The Darlinghurst Rooftop by CO-AP (Architects) is an idyllic new garden and dwelling settled on top of two existing apartment buildings in dense inner-urban Sydney, looking out at the skyline and up at the sky.

The Darlinghurst Rooftop by CO-AP. RossHoneysett

Meanwhile Austin Maynard have made a more inward-looking space by reworking a Victorian terrace house in Melbourne, opening up the interior and folding the floor plane to produce Mills, The Toy Management House.

The main award in this category was won by perhaps the most subtle of the three: in Tasmania, Jenny’s House, by Rosevear Stephenson, adds a new open plan living space and garden on the back of a historic brick cottage – with a highly refined level of singularity.

Exceptional educators

Another group of exceptional projects were awarded in the education category, which is quite a recent addition to the awards, having only been established in 2015. It was prompted by the fact that in previous years, educational projects were tending to dominate the winners of the “public architecture” category, which produced a dilemma.

As well as having their own particular design challenges and requirements, education projects – university buildings, schools, child care centres – might be conceptually public, but they’re not exactly publicly accessible in an everyday sense.

The decision to give educational buildings a category of their own was therefore judicious, and the recognized works in the past two years have been truly noteworthy – this year’s winner, the University of Queensland Oral Health Centre, by Cox Rayner Architects with Hames Sharley and Conrad Gargett Riddel, is a case in point.

The UQ Oral Health Centre by Cox Rayner Architects with Hames Sharley and Conrad Gargett Riddel. Christopher Frederick Jones

It’s also notable that, since its inception, awards in the education category have most often gone to university buildings, less often to private schools, and not yet once to a public school building. One hopes that this is will shift in the future – both as an index of the valuation of good design in producing rich learning spaces, and a hoped-for celebration of public education.

Architecture generally has the bad association of being elitist, only accessible for the wealthy. But good design doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive, and for some people educational buildings are likely to provide their main opportunity to benefit from the skills of an architect: in the careful, considered, and joyful design of space and its uses.

The Enduring Architecture award has always interested me, and this year was as fascinating as ever. This award works against the fetishization of that singular instant when a building has just been finished: when it’s captured in images, entered into awards, and recorded for posterity, long before it has actually been fully occupied and used.

So an award for buildings which have “stood the test of time” (excuse the cliché) is a fascinating counterpoint to the cult of the just-completed – buildings which are not only still standing after 30 or 40 or 50 or 60 years, but that still offer a rich experience, fulfill their purpose, and still look good. This year that honour went to the Perth Concert Hall by Howlett and Bailey Architects.

Perth Concert Hall by Howlett And Bailey Architects. Courtesy City Of Perth

Polite activism

The jury also engaged in a little polite activism in this category (as much as you can within the decorum of the awards process) – arguing that it’s crucial that the value of such middle-aged buildings be recognized, in order to save them from demolition.

Citing the now-condemned Sirius apartment complex in Sydney, and Dallas Brooks Hall in Melbourne – both on eye-wateringly valuable land, hence both marked for demolition and development – the jury argued for these and other such buildings to be recognised and valued as “key to our nation’s architectural story”.

And this brings us full circle. A society gets the architecture that it allows to happen: that it’s willing to support with the public purse, that it’s sophisticated enough to commission for its commercial, educational, or residential buildings, that it will usher through regulatory approval processes. This architecture could be good, or it could be terrible – we see plenty of both in our cities today.

A developed architectural culture springs from a population that is educated in design, understands the value of good design to everyday life, and will demand a lot from its architects, but also let them do their best work.

Such a culture will mitigate against the worst excesses of rapacious property-market profit-takers, value the common good, and give rise to ever-better buildings.

So awards like these are certainly valuable in rewarding the good work of some architects, and offering hope and succour to others.

But the far more important purpose is to show the rest of the population what buildings we could have, if only we were brave, foresighted, and mature enough to invest in them.

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