With a boom-fuelled surplus, Perth architects want the state government to take the bull by the horns and provide some vision for the city.
A few months ago at one of his first public outings as premier, Alan Carpenter was cheekily asked whether he might commission a “grand yet frivolous” building so that his descendents would know “how prosperous these times were”.
While Mr Carpenter neatly deflected the question, the point was timely.
Throughout history, periods of abundance have spawned lasting and often staggering monuments in the form of man-made wonders.
It is a point that seems to resonate among Western Australia’s architectural community as the state basks in the resources boom.
WA is tripping over money, according to CMP director and architect John Colliere, and this offered the state a chance to truly engage Perth’s waterfront as well as design a variety of civic gestures.
“We could be equal to the attractions of Sydney and Melbourne, in a very short space of time,” he said.
“We’re trading too much on our natural beauty and not enough on architectural and civic gestures.”
FORM director Lynda Dorrington said Perth had a chance to create an environment for people to explore and should not be complacent.
“We need to think about leaving a brave and outstanding legacy from this boom time,” she told WA Business News.
Perhaps, in the background, many have noted the lost opportunity of the minerals boom in the 1960s, when the most lasting architectural legacy was the razing of the grand buildings of St Georges Terrace in favour of the skyscrapers that now dominate the city skyline.
In part, this feature of the city has contributed to the dullsville tag that has been persistently attached to Perth.
Warren Kerr, director of Hames Sharley and a former president of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, explains that architecture is an inescapable art, and any decision made on built form must be lived with.
“If you have a painting on the wall, you can choose to turn it around, or not look at it, but each day we walk down a street, whatever is there, it affects us,” he said.
Mr Kerr, who also chairs the Australian Council of Building Design Professions, believes WA has an enormous opportunity to capitalise on its good fortune by improving the way in which it plans, designs and constructs its built environment.
To avoid the opportunity slipping through our fingers, he said, we have to develop a strategic plan for Perth and a vision for the future and have the community reach agreement on long-term outcomes for its city, rather than be subject to a series of ad-hoc decisions.
Hames Sharley executive chairman and architect, William Hames, said there had been positive improvement in the quality of WA’s built environment, but it was a slow process.
“It’s going to be a long, difficult and controversial journey but as long as we’ve got the passion for our state and city, we’ll ultimately get what we want, or what we deserve,” Mr Hames said.
The difficulty lay to some extent in the whole lifecycle costing of buildings and infrastructure.
“If our city is cheaper to run, then the state has more disposable income to channel into areas such as health and education,” Mr Hames said.
Hassell managing principal and architect Tony McCormick said having a holistic vision of what the city may look like with another million people living in it was very important, and believes a “site by site” strategic plan should be foremost in our government’s priorities.
“The response to our natural setting is not there, we’ve walked away from it…we should be celebrating our location and diversity” Mr McCormick said.
“The problem with architecture here, is that it could be anywhere, and not within one of the most unique climates of the world.”
A strategic vision for the built environment was a consistent theme among many of the top Perth architects who discussed this matter with WA Business News.
Many of these are players at an international level, working in places such as the Middle East where governments are almost competing with each other in terms of grand visions and innovative design.
Far from that, though, in WA there appears to be a very provincial attitude to major buildings, which often results in vehement public opposition – encouraging our political masters to steer well clear.
Mr McCormick’s colleague at Hassell, principal Chris Melsom, who is an architect and urban planner, said Perth had tended not to respond to things unless there was a problem that needed to be solved, as opposed to grasping an opportunity to do something wonderful.
“You can only bring about change if there is courage or a willingness to start the process,” Mr Melsom said.
The state government has sought to come to terms with this issue to some degree, he said, noting Planning and Infrastructure Minister Alannah MacTiernan’s Dialogue with the City process, out of which the Network City scheme was born.
However, 15 years of failure on the city’s Swan River foreshore shows how overdue this process is.
To this day, only the Barrack Square precinct and the Bell Tower, erected in 2000, during Richard Court’s era, have been completed. Both have courted controversy for different reasons.
Mr Melsom suggests that Perth was not an urban city, but a suburban city, and its heart was still developing.
“Our city is set back from the water all the way around by wide open space, which is a great public gesture. However, there needs to be some strategic view of where and how people can interact with the river in a meaningful way through a series of connection points,” Mr Melsom said.
Another project with a link to this area attracting controversy is the planned cultural centre, which the City of Perth would like used as a link between the Concert Hall and the river, while the state government plans to build it in Northbridge.
Mr Kerr suggests these two major players must work cooperatively and consult with each other to devise a coordinated plan.
Otherwise, perhaps, it may be another 15 years before anything happens along the foreshore.
Architect and town planner Ken Adam, who supports the City of Perth’s proposal to extend the Concert Hall site and develop high-density apartments along Victoria Avenue, said Perth loved its river from a distance.
“The city foreshore is a part we don’t engage with because climatically, it’s not a comfortable place to be,” Mr Adam said.
Architect Jean-Mic Perrine felt Perth needed to retain large areas of open space and warned against developer emphasis on getting to the water.
He preferred a passive, low-scale development incorporating board-walks and cafes along the foreshore that could be visited all year round.
“Cities are not about river views,” he said. “Our heart is in Hay, Murray, King and Barrack streets, and the sooner we energise this precinct, the sooner our heart will slowly creep outwards, towards the river.”
Government architect Geoffrey London is one of many architects who believes the city foreshore represents a wonderful future opportunity. However, Professor London said it was a question of resources with government funding directed towards infrastructure and major healthcare projects.
It’s a telling comment from one of the major decision makers in this field.