From the Ground Up: 20 stories of a Life in Architecture, by Dean Dewhirst, is everything a great architecture book should be – tactile, gorgeously presented, inspiring and rich with ideas and imagination. It also gives the reader an insight into the minds and hearts of some of our country’s most creative architects, from those who have spent large parts of their career working at the smaller project scale like Elizabeth Watson-Brown to the major placemaking of Philip Vivian, Philip Cox and Stephen Webb.
The text is based on Q&A style interviews, with the subjects giving lengthy and detailed reflections of what motivated their career, what drives their designs, the highlights and low points, how the built form can be sustainable and how the Australian design aesthetic has shifted and progressed. Each story is illustrated with some of the architects’ sketches, renders and photographs, including a timeline of snapshots and commentary on milestone projects.
The practitioners’ insights into the place their craft holds in human existence echo the big picture themes of progressive urban design. For example, Lindsay and Kerry Clare say, “Architecture is a framework for human life. Its role to us is to give meaning, inspiration and dignity to that life.”
There are reflections on the nexus between client, end user, architect and commerce from Andrew Cortese, who says, “I believe the responsibility of the architect is to give significance to the process of building, while being alert to the fact that the commitment to support architecture isn’t always present in its commissioning and construction… Over the past decade, I have developed a propensity for themes and ideas that have the propensity to extract meaningful and transformative architecture from contexts where the expectation was perhaps for something less so.”
Philip Cox reflects on his creative process, and the overall perspective of how architecture progresses through trends. He says the “Australian” element in current architecture comes through in “the interpretation of climate and sustainability” and that in future architectural thought, both here and overseas, respect for the environment must remain central.
The importance of creating dynamic cities and the fine lines in design – not on paper but those between what you can do and whether you should do it – are things Peter Dean sees as important to the future of the profession, one he was drawn to from a young age.
People’s pathways into the profession are as varied as the designs that result. Neil Durbach and James Grose both entered the profession via a gift for drawing, while James Jones was inspired by his high school art teacher and footy coach and two parents who were teachers by profession, then shaped as a designer by a radical environmental design course in Hobart in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
Asked about the influence social and cultural conditions have on Australian architecture, Paul Jones replies: “Compared to other international regions, architects and developers in Australia are developing assets for our communities that are of very poor quality. Why? Low take-up in green initiatives, dull graph paper architecture, office buildings that don’t reflect new ways of working and schools and public buildings with frenzied facades that will date very quickly; also, we have a shameful record on low-cost housing.
“Our design credibility is low in the eyes of the developers, as evidenced by James Packer going to international architects for the new tower and casino in Sydney. But we do have a unique and strong design community that produces the most beautiful, humble and simple buildings – such as John Wardle’s shearing shed in Tasmania, for example.”
The illustrations also include some of the architects’ unbuilt designs, such as Nik Karalis’ Yota in St Petersburg, Russia.
“Unbuilt projects like this always live again through another project, in this case a recently completed research building in Adelaide,” he says. “Every experience in life builds your design repertoire and is an opportunity to learn more about humanity and the discipline of architecture.”
Other architects whose stories and work are captured in the book are: Richard Kirk, Mark Loughnan, Michael Rayner, Georgia Singleton, Shane Thompson, Ninotschka Titchkosky and Kristen Whittle.
As a whole, From the Ground Up generates a feeling of hope about the built environment of the future, and makes it clear how deeply sustainable and people-focused thinking is embedded in the approach of many of the nation’s leading firms.
“The most compelling model for the buildings of today and the future has to be a design approach that considers buildings and urban environments as living organisms, evolving in response to climate and topography,” Stephen Webb says.
He believes integrated design and biophilic design are the way forwards.
“Now, as built environment professionals we need to push beyond being 100 per cent less bad and advocate a regenerative approach to building. We must search for a way of designing buildings that adapt and symbiotically benefit their surroundings, which might eventually lead to truly responsive buildings that physically change with occupant demands and external climatic shifts.”