Michael Rayner is one of Brisbane’s most high profile architects and contributor to the city fabric. After the recent floods he has also come up with strong ideas about how to interact with the city’s “snaking river.”
6 May 2011 – It was an unfortunate irony that Brisbane architect Michael Rayner’s family home was damaged during the January floods. As the man who has done most to promote Brisbane as the River City, it was a moment of reckoning as he sat and watched the rising water swirl through his barely six-month-old West End home.
Unlike those across the city who have fled the waterfront, Rayner has welcomed the challenge of rebuilding. Despite a steely determination to restore his own home to its pre-flood perfection – right down to matching the grain of the panelling – he says Brisbane now has the opportunity to reconsider how it can co-exist peacefully with the snaking waterway.
“My biggest wish for Brisbane following the floods is that we design our future to be more resilient to any kind of natural disaster. I would hate to see us rebuild exactly what we had,” he says.
It’s the kind of statement he’s known for – robust, honest, critical, experienced.
These same qualities have seen his influence extend beyond the built environment to infiltrate Brisbane’s future development plans. And while his may not be a household name, there would be few people in Brisbane unfamiliar with his work.
Michael Rayner AM graduated from the University of NSW in 1980 with first class honours in architecture before joining Sydney firm Cox Architects.
Three years later he was made a director and in 1990 he opened the Brisbane office, Cox Rayner Architects. Since winning its first major commission – the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre – in 1994, the firm has gone on to build a portfolio including the Kurilpa and Goodwill Bridges, the Brisbane Magistrates Court, the redevelopment of the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, the recently finished office tower known as 400 George Street and the prestigious new corporate building One One One Eagle Street, due for completion later this year.
The firm’s success has provided Rayner, who was made a Member of the Order of Australia in January for his services to architecture, the opportunity to contribute to some of the State’s most influential committees.
Since 2004, Rayner has sat on the Smart State Council, a committee of leaders from across the board charged with helping to position Queensland as the Smart State. The Smart Cities report Rayner produced for the Council in 2007 was a pet project and one which has informed much of the River City blueprint that will govern Brisbane’s development over the next 20 to 50 years.
Peter Andrews, who chaired the standing committee of the Smart State Council, calls Rayner’s contribution “tremendous” and Rayner himself “perhaps the most uninhibited provider of advice”. The concepts Rayner introduced in the Smart Cities report – Brisbane as a network of business, cultural, living, research and knowledge precincts linked by a series of pedestrian spines and high-quality public transport – reflect his multi-faceted view of design that, coupled with his fearlessness, makes him such a highly valued member of committees.
Alison Quinn is the executive general manager at Mulpha Sanctuary Cove and sits with Rayner on Brisbane City Council’s Urban Futures Board, a multi-industry group established as a kind of “feedback forum” for Council projects. According to Quinn, board members come together “providing a bit of critical analysis and not being too scared to provide a contrary view and robust discussion.”
Rayner’s industry experience, she says, “affords him almost the right to pass comment on elements that are impacting the city or State… he’s had a wealth of experience being in a position where he’s actually value-added to the city. He’s been directly involved in a number of projects that have transformed elements of the way that the people of Brisbane live their lives or the way that they consider or interact with their city.”
Rayner is more modest about his achievements. The profile he enjoys in the community and the “frank and fearless” reputation he has is nowhere in sight: he has no idea what people say about his firm’s reputation. Instead he recounts a story about criticism levelled at him following a radio interview about rebuilding Brisbane post-flood.
“Up to Expo ’88 we had turned our back on the river but I actually think Brisbane has done a lot in these 20 years to engage with the river… that’s really moving in a fantastic direction. The interesting thing post-flood is that we now have the potential to create a different way to embrace the river.”
It’s a view some Brisbane residents don’t share, and feedback following the show was blunt. Rayner remains visibly bewildered by the criticism: “I listened to it again and I still don’t think I was arrogant,” he says of his performance.
Of all Rayner’s projects, Quinn says it is the pedestrian bridges which are stand out examples of his work. “Two decades ago the river was like a brick wall – you were either a north side person or a south side person and very rarely did you climb that brick wall to get to the other side,” she says.
“Brisbane has changed over the last couple of decades and one major thing has been the connectivity that’s developed through the city heart – and that has been significantly improved through the bridges that we’ve created to connect one side of the river with the other.”
Casey Vallance, a director at Cox Rayner, says Michael’s designs have been able to impact the city in this way because of his ability to think beyond infrastructure. “If he’s designing a bridge, it’s not about connecting the two sides, but about how could it actually enhance movement and activity both from each side and also from the surrounding areas and neighbourhoods that may be kilometres away.
“The way the bridge will actually allow us to do that is more than just a pragmatic response and will enhance the actual city, and that’s something Michael’s very much interested in doing.”
After 30 years in the industry Rayner still works 70 hour weeks, due in part to the time he devotes to developing these large-scale strategies. “I started doing that through getting onto various boards – but I don’t think I’d ever stop wanting to use my hand and a pencil on a piece of paper (throughout our interview he illustrates his stories with drawings and diagrams on the back of a printed satellite photo showing his home under flood water).
“The truth is I wouldn’t give up architecture. I’d find that really frustrating if I found myself sitting on too many boards and not physically doing some design work.” Those who know him would be inclined to agree – architecture for Michael, they say, is like the perfect obsession.
Rayner is inclined to agree. ”I think architects historically have been somewhat insular and I think I’d like to look for other or further ways in which I can use an architectural knowledge to extend into other territories,” he says. “I suppose that’s what reputation gives you – the credibility to make changes.”
Michael Rayner is a central figure in the discussion about rebuilding Brisbane. While the floods haven’t diminished his drive to see Brisbane become the River City, he says they have shown that future design needs to be more resilient to any kind of natural disaster.
Despite its waterlogged history, it seems that of Brisbane’s plans and buildings from the last 20 years failed to take into account the possibility of another flood. But with the rebuilding of the city now a priority Rayner says we have been given a golden opportunity to reconsider our approach.
According to Rayner, there are generally three schools of thought about rebuilding: retreat, defend or redesign.
Retreat involves removing everything from the riverfront and replacing it with sports ovals, parks or gardens – spaces that are less likely to be damaged by flood waters. This approach, he believes, would destroy the interface Brisbane has built up with the river by taking away the buildings which line the water like the Gallery of Modern Art and the Brisbane Powerhouse.
These buildings are the ones that people tend to gravitate towards and which give Brisbane its character. Removing them, he says, would make the city a more barren place. While green spaces are important, failing to activate these spaces by also providing buildings can mean they are under-utilised, and in turn can become dangerous.
Defending the city against flood waters by building bunds or levees helps to prevent damage – but only up to a certain point. Floods, as Rayner rightly points out, are unpredictable. Where water rises at one time it may not return to at another. Defences tend to be expensive to build and realistically can only protect certain areas against specific threats – they are no protection against a fire, for example. They also cut off access to the water at times when there are no floods, creating a disconnect from the river.
Redesigning allows us to consider how we can build cities that are part of the surrounding environment rather than distinct from it. It is the school of thought Rayner himself advocates. What is needed, he says, is smarter design that will produce environmentally-performing houses and buildings that are more resilient to any kind of natural disaster.
The new, flood-resistant Queenslander
Much has been made of Rayner’s idea for a new flood-resistant Queenslander. He came up with the concept after watching how the rising flood waters affected his own home and realised the design of the traditional raised Queenslander already offered solutions for houses in flood-prone areas.
Like traditional Queenslanders, the new style home would be raised on stilts but with the floor space built across three levels rather than the usual single storey. The smaller footprint displaces less water and also addresses density issues without resorting to apartment-style living.
The ground floor of his proposed home would be used for car parking and utility spaces: a robust area that could easily be cleaned out after flooding. The middle floor would comprise open spaces with moveable walls which would allow water to flow through easily. The top floor, which would theoretically remain dry, is for bedrooms and could be used to keep furniture and household items dry during the floods.
Rayner says that changes to planning laws are needed in the months ahead if people are to be able to build more flood-resilient properties. Currently planning laws protecting Brisbane’s character “timber and tin” architecture prevent properties, including those in flood plains, from being demolished or significantly altered.
Property owners wishing to extend their homes therefore usually have little option but to raise their home and build in underneath – creating living areas in the path of flood waters and defeating the original idea of building a house on stilts. Relaxing height restrictions, a measure Brisbane City Council has now taken preliminary steps towards, would be one way of protecting properties from flood waters while preserving the heritage value. It’s the kind of response Rayner says is needed following the floods to prevent the widespread damage to houses and property witnessed earlier this year.