A key leader in the property and construction industry in Australia has called for major change in the role of the New South Wales government architect, saying the context surrounding the built environment has changed over the 200 years since the architect’s role had come into play and the focus should move beyond public buildings and more toward the overall picture of the built environment.

Following the passing of the 200th anniversary of the inception of the role on March 1, Urban Taskforce Australia Chief Executive Officer Chris Johnson said the surrounding the position had shifted significantly and that the role should therefore move beyond public buildings toward a more strategic focus upon the broader built environment.

“It is 200 years to the day on the 1st of March that there has been a government architect in New South Wales,” Johnson said. “Substantially over that period of time, the role has been a doing role – actually designing schools and houses and hospitals and TAFE Colleges.”

“But what’s been happening over the last couple of decades is a scaling down generally of the roles of governments across the western world and a greater use of the private sector. So it’s in that context that governments think it’s more efficient to get the private sector to do a lot of the things that the traditional role of the government architect has been doing.

“So that’s where I am saying therefore, that there is a different opportunity now for a key person in the government of NSW that is expert in the area of design and architecture and aesthetics to help lever up a bigger scale not just government buildings but the whole built environment and help strategically in the quality of the overall built environment.”

Asked about how the role should look like going forward, Johnson says there are three key areas.

First, with an increasing volume of high rise apartments being built, there was a role for the government architect to help manage the overall quality of the built environment in terms of matters such as preventing overshadowing, ensuring adequate levels of public space through a design review type process similar to that envisaged under State Environmental Planning Policy No. 65.

Second, more innovation in design for individual buildings and developments could be encouraged having the government architect review some individual development applications, especially those which demonstrate considerable levels of innovation.

At the moment, Johnson says innovation with regard to individual projects is being stymied as applications are being reviewed by council planning officers, who whilst being skilled at their tasks do not have the same level of expertise as the government architect with regard to three dimensional design related matters and who can tend to opt for a ‘ tick the box’ type approach which may frown upon applications for buildings which may be of different colour, shape or size compared with neighbouring buildings.

Third, as community angst about population growth and the changing form of the built environment within cities grows, the architect could become an advocate for change and increased diversity in the way we respond to how people are going to live and work through, for example, putting out opinion pieces and editorials describing how things could move forward.

Johnson’s comments follow recent moves on the part of the New South Wales government to shift the position of government architect from the finance department to the planning department – a move he says is welcome amid a greater focus upon broader strategic outcomes on the part of the latter department.

Johnson says the public will be better served by the role if some of the above changes are made.

“They are the sort of areas that I think a modern day government architect needs to be undertaking to really help drive forward the future of our cities,” he said.