Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Quiet achiever wins architecture’s top award
THE RAIA Gold Medal hasn’t always got it right. Most gold-medal listings – and Australia is is no exception – include the occasional, “Uh, sorry, who?” This year, however, there will be few dissenting voices, for Richard Johnson is one of our most accomplished and intelligent architects.
Johnson is no doubt right to argue that Sydney needs “selfless” buildings to heal its road-torn fabric. But selflessness and architecture seldom go together, and where they do, the result is not award-winning or even attention-getting but the polite, the undemanding, the colloquial – Mykonos at best, Minto at worst.
Selfless, then, Johnson is not. A better word for his own architecture, and his professional persona, is understated. The work has a disciplined quality that bespeaks not absence of ego so much as ego held in check. The name of the discipline – abstract almost to the point of austerity – is not Marxism, but modernism.
Apart from a brief flirtation with the square grid – as popularised by architects such as Hans Hollein and O.M. Ungers in the 1980s and apparent in, for example, the two Australian embassies he designed with the Melbourne firm Denton Corker Marshall in Beijing and Tokyo – Johnson has remained one of modernism’s True Believers.
Later works, like the Governor Phillip and Macquarie Towers, along with the Museum of Sydney, which Johnson designed from Denton Corker Marshall’s Sydney office, show modernist discipline (the flat plane, the glancing light) worthy of Mies van der Rohe, but warmed by a postmodern concern for urban connectivity.
In establishing his own firm, Johnson Pilton Walker, with its own design footprint, Johnson managed to sustain the mix of warmth and discipline, as major works like the luminous new Asian Wing at the Art Gallery, the handsome Hilton on George and the more ambitious but less successful Westpac Plaza on Kent Street attest.
All of it is disciplined, but none of it selfless. Perhaps the most selfless of Johnson’s engagements is simultaneously the highest profile: refurbishing the Opera House under the mantle of not one Utzon, but two. Which also means it will likely prove his least remembered.