Australian architecture:
are our architects leaders or followers?

Are our architects leaders or followers?

Young and free. That’s our Australia, as proclaimed by our national anthem. But when it comes to architecture, does youth equal freedom? Being a young country might be a double-edged sword. With arguably fewer traditions and established thinking to shackle design, we have the freedom to be truly innovative. But with a total country population roughly the same size as Shanghai, there is the potential for Australia to suffer from youngest child syndrome – always looking to its bigger, older siblings to follow in their footsteps.

So does Australian architecture pave its own way or follow the crowd? We asked Katelin Butler, Editor at Houses, Tim Ross, social commentator and mid-century architecture obsessive, Ian Innes, Director of Heritage and Collections at Sydney Living Museums, Betty Wood, Editor of The Spaces, and Chris Bosse, architect and co-founder of LAVA, the Laboratory for Visionary Architecture, for their views.

Australians are masters of context

For Butler, Australians lead the world in understanding the context of Australia’s unique built environment. “While Australian architects are often inspired by what is happening abroad,” says Butler, “They are definitely leaders in making a contextual and sensitive contribution to our own built environment – in a way that goes beyond following international influences. Although,” caveats Butler, “It is difficult to compare what is happening in Australia to what is happening in European or Asian cities, for example, due to the differences in density, historical and climatic circumstances.”

Ross agrees. “If we are talking about, say, Modernism; everyone followed the Europeans. But what we did with Modernism locally was very inventive and very climate and location sensitive.  Similarly, I believe that today’s architects are doing inspiring and very Australian work that has a style of its very own. This is evident in areas where they are responding to local conditions and climate. For example, I love the stuff going on in Brisbane at the moment.”

Australian architecture takes a kaleidoscopic approach

Wood lends us her international perspective: “Australian architects are a bit like magpies: they’re very good at cherry-picking the best elements of international styles – particularly Japanese architecture and Modernism – and applying them to a meet the demands of the Australian context, creating something fresh and unique to the locale.”

Butler adds: “Australian architecture offers many different ways of being “at home” – from living in a tiny apartment or worker’s cottage, to residing in a courtyard house or a home that fully embraces a serene landscape setting. Our architects are intelligently and cleverly responding to a variety of contexts, opportunities and restraints.”

Unique environment necessarily forces Australians to pave their own way

In Butler’s opinion, the world looks to Australia to understand how our architects are responding to environment. Says Butler: “In terms of residential Australian architecture, our architects are generally very good at responding to our natural environment and climate – an appealing aspect to many viewing our work from overseas.”

Innes agrees. “Australian architects have been leaders in establishing their own local language in response to climate and location, such as Gabriel Poole in southeast Queensland in the 1960s and 1970s, followed by Lindsay and Kerry Clare, and the amazing work of Troppo Architects in Darwin, not to mention the quintessentially local forms and expression of houses by Glenn Murcutt – these architects have been recognized worldwide for their originality.”

Wood views Australian architects as masters of celebrating the Australian outdoor lifestyle through architecture. “Where Australia’s architects have been most innovative is in presenting new models for indoor/outdoor living: I’m thinking particularly of the works of Richard Leplastrier and Peter Stutchbury, who are brilliant at creating houses that really celebrate and work with their contexts.”

From followers come leaders

From Innes’ perspective, at different times in our history, Australian architects have been both leaders and followers. “Australian architects have been followers, in the sense of observing and picking up current themes in architectural discourse or practice from other parts of the world and presenting them in Australian building design with an idiomatic local expression that responds to our climate, landscape, culture and places. This can be seen in quite early colonial buildings where the British settlers imported building forms and types from other parts of the world that were quickly adapted through the addition of elements like verandas and loggias, shutters, screens and other sun-shading devices, and in particular, in Sydney the use of sandstone as the main building material.”

Innes continues: “In the 20th century, Australian architects evolved strongly local and regional expressions of Modernist ideas then being explored in many other parts of the world, giving them a particularly Australian inflexion that is highly recognizable. Looking at, for example, the early work of Harry Seidler, an architect who trained in North America – his first house in Sydney designed in 1948 is a white box on stilts with huge areas of glazing facing east and north without any sun-control or eaves overhang. Fast forward a few years to his own house in the mid-1960s we see him adapting to Sydney’s light and heat in a design with enormous overhangs shading the glazing, extensive sheltered outdoor living areas and a masterly integration with the steeply sloping topography of the sandstone site. So many other architects of that period including Russell Jack, Ken Woolley, Don Gazzard, Bruce Rickard, Peter Muller, Peter Johnson and Michael Dysart translated international trends in design into idiosyncratic local forms; in the process producing works of striking originality and innovation.”


The final word

In answer to the question, ‘Are Australian architects leaders or followers?’, Bosse lent us a succinct, if somewhat enigmatic, response: “Followers.”

And with that, we will leave you to ponder and share your own thoughts on the matter. Let us know what you think: are Australian architects leaders or followers? Share your thoughts on our Facebook page.