Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Take a mirror to our public face and be shocked at what you see
It’s tempting to see the refusal of this year’s Royal Australian Institute of Architects jury to make the big award, the Sulman, as an indictment of Sydney design culture. Bad boys, no Sulman, straight to bed. But it’s not as simple as that. In fact, it’s not simple at all.
“These days, being on the jury is a tough gig.” So began the chairman’s report from the 2001 Gold Medal winner Keith Cottier. Being a juror is tough when there’s an abundance of brilliance; from the first cull to the week of crisscrossing the state in building visits to the passionate, often divisive and sometimes irresolvable debate. But it’s tougher still, emotionally at least, when the quality just isn’t there.
Then, being a design juror is like being a contemporary academic: reluctant to fail the no-talent brats since they’re the ones paying the fees. In the same way, an institute jury generally feels some obligation to its customers; a moral pressure to make an award in each category, if only because not to do so gives the profession a bad look.
The Sulman is the award for public buildings and although most architects are more focused on, houses, the Sulman is still the big one. So to withhold it – which has happened a dozen times in 75 years – is to take something of a stand. Cottier concedes disappointment in the quality of this year’s public category entries, one of them from his firm. The jury wasn’t limited to official entries, however, but could have invited buildings not formally entered, such as FJMT’s new University of Sydney Information Technologies building or Bligh Voller Nield’s L5 for the University of NSW. (This, as luck would have it, was receiving an international award from the Royal Institute of British Architects in London at the moment it was being snubbed here.) They didn’t do that. And yet, says Cottier, the jury’s point was less about a “crisis” in design culture than a broader comment on the “kind of world we live in”.
What kind? Well, a post-Thatcher one, where public values automatically come second to private ones and governments compete, badly, to ape even the most idiotic attributes of the private sector.
This is particularly ironic in NSW where the quality of public buildings, from its substations and schools to its hospitals and post offices, has long been a source of pride. “Twenty years ago,” Cottier says, “the Government Architect used to win all the awards. Now they don’t even build schools, but outsource them to the private sector.”
In part, it’s about procurement. About the dominance of the bean counters and the box tickers over the flaky creatives; about the deliberate distancing of “design” from the building process. That NSW’s Government Architect now sits within the Department of Commerce means such priorities are not likely to change in a hurry.
It’s also about money. Cottier and his fellow jurors noted the pathetic budgets devoted to contemporary public buildings, compared with “the vast amounts spent on private houses”. But that’s not a complete explanation. Money, after all, is simply symbolic. To say we spend more on our houses is just to say we value them more, still raising the question: why? There’s also the architect’s habitual line that decent architecture shouldn’t cost more.
In public buildings, decent architecture depends enormously on quality of material and detail, and these cost. You need only compare the colonial architect James Barnet’s GPO in Martin Place with the ghastly flesh pink job in Cleveland Street to get the point. Sandstone colonnades and hand-carved grotesques on the one hand; low-rent, spec-built, plastic-carpeted non-space, on the other.
Which returns us to the “why” question. Why are we so loath to embellish the public realm in which we spend so much time and by which we are all affected? Traditionally, time, and energy and money – love, if you will – were lavished on built institutions because they meant something. They said something significant about aspiration and civilisation.
A post office was a declaration of a society’s beliefs, its public systems and its intention to endure. Now, a post office is just a tacky and badly stocked stationery shop that happens to carry stamps and passport forms, inhabiting an office building like any other; the cheaper and more anonymous the better.
“There’s no room for any grand statements,” Cottier says. “There just isn’t the money.” And yet our era of threadbare public culture is an era of unprecedented private and corporate wealth. So it’s not really about money, but priorities. We choose not to make public statements, not out of any sense of modesty or refusal of ostentation. Hardly.
Rather, it’s our narcissistic insistence that what ostentation we can muster reflects exclusively on ourselves. Companies that happily spend millions on packages for executives most of us wouldn’t feed, penny-pinch on their head offices. And governments, far from countering such reductivism, can think of nothing more glorious than to copy it.
This is Thatcher’s real legacy. Or perhaps it’s just life in the detritus left by the tsunami on which she surfed, a gargantuan wave of solipsism guised as corporate smarts. We all bought it. The architects are right. It’s not their fault. It’s ours.