In the past, Australia used to invest heavily in the design of its public buildings.
These were not monuments to big egos but an expression of community pride and an investment in a sense of permanence, substance and importance to the life of Australian society. The most obvious were centres of Government; State Parliament buildings, City and Town Halls, centres of administration all tended toward a design quality that reflected the best of the era, even if much of that mimicked ‘traditional’ European styles at the time.
But the investment in public building design was even more widespread. Train stations, libraries, fire stations, police stations, schools and even electrical substations were structures that featured quality design efforts by designers of the day and a level of investment in public buildings which said “we are proud of these things.” That sense of pride has lasted; many of these structures are now heritage listed and the community would be horrified to see them demolished or radically altered.
Haven’t times changed? Today, driven in part I suppose by a public which is increasingly cynical of overspending by governments at all levels, the brief for public buildings tends toward the lowest cost solutions possible. Low-cost materials, quick construction and elementary design mean that new public buildings are rarely things to excite community imagination. Indeed, tendering by governments rarely focusses on achieving the best design outcomes, and instead focusses on lowest cost proposals – however often this might be denied.
As a result, a growing nation is designing and building the new public structures needed to service our growing community with little thought to the design legacy they might leave us. Think of any number of new public structures in your local community and whether there are any that would make you say to yourself “I’ll be happy to see that building still around in another 50 or a hundred years.”
I also wonder whether taxpayers have ever really been given much choice in this. In terms of community spirit, an enhanced sense of place and shared ownership, quality design of public buildings and public spaces can make a significant difference. By the same token, low-cost designs that fail to inspire people will only tend to depress the sense of community. Are public officials wrongly assuming that taxpayers will automatically reject well-designed proposals that will leave a lasting legacy because they assume that we all want the cheap solution?
Or is it that our collective commentary on urban design – via social or mainstream media – is so confused and opinionated that this highly charged topic is one that governments prefer to avoid by choosing the least controversial - or vanilla - option? If this sort of thinking, combined with cost-driven priorities, is what really determines our approach to the design of public buildings, I doubt we will ever see another Sydney Opera House again. Think of the design controversy and cost criticisms which greeted Shane O’Riley’s ambitious concept for the Perth Concert Hall. Rather than welcoming these bold and place-defining ideas, we seem to collectively bark out derision and howl at the costs without pausing to consider the long-term positive impacts memorable designs can bring.
Sadly, I suspect this has become a permanent feature of political life in this country. Few leaders possess the ambition to see design quality expressed in public buildings, and governments are always quick to refer to tight budgets as the reason. As a result, it is increasingly left to the private sector to champion architectural design quality and leadership. This is not a bad thing at all, but it might be better if the responsibility for investment in the public domain were more equally shared.