Philip Vivian, Gene Sherman and David Rolls artists
Philip Vivian, Gene Sherman and David Rolls

Gene Sherman is probably one of Australia’s most enigmatic characters. At the Bates Smart birthday bash in early September we managed to catch her presentation at the end of a panel event to celebrate the studio’s 165th birthday (yes, that old) where she provided a captivating manifesto of sorts on how to create spaces for artists in our cities.

It was the kind of thinking that might horrify a local council safety officer but for architects, we could feel it was grist to the mill.

Sherman stood before the guests in head to toe eccentric black, a lifetime of dedication behind her of support for the arts, through her family fortune and most recently the Sherman Centre for Culture and Ideas.

It’s the artists, she said, who give cities their life and lustre (the irritations in ordinary life sometimes that turn into pearls).

Sherman quoted Dick Düsseldorf who founded Lendlease. We need diversity, he said, because if we don’t have it the artists won’t stay.

“Artists will go as quickly as you can blink an eye,” Sherman said.

So what attracts artists?

Sherman happily waved a small bundle of notes and read from the list she’d prepared:

Studios and spaces

“Only writers can sit in a little space”

Fewer regulations

Artists don’t like them. “They don’t have time for all the regulations; it hems the artists in and the cities are less flexible.”

Fire risks in warehouses


“If people like Steve Jobs and Zuckerberg didn’t take risks we wouldn’t be on our iPhones right now.”

Public spaces

China, on the quiet, she said is now looking to regenerate the villages that have been abandoned in the flood to the cities. They know that if to the precincts in semi urban villages, activate the public sphere, create covered markets, it brings the communities, create work for artists, curators and so on.

Exhibit it and they will come

The Dior show in Melbourne attracted 4000 visitors a day and Van Gough 6000 people a day.

“If we have a cultural content and affordable spaces for artists and relax the rules for every little thing and give them protected spaces – like SOHO: artists had protected rentals and now they’ve gone the artists have moved to Brooklyn Heights.


“Art is nuance and ambiguity, not fact – a grey zone.”

Sherman’s small manifesto was no idle provocation in front of architects. There was a big connection.

The wish is that architects could be as outspoken as she.

A wish for the architects 

Architects are often conflated with artists and it’s true their profession straddles both sides of the fence – the creative and the practical; the science and the arts; the interior life and public domain; private aspirations and social impact; the political and economic.

They often have the most interesting, creative, provocative and sometimes (even) infuriating points of view; though generally well argued and always entertaining.

But how visible are these views? How much part of the public debate that’s leading the direction of our built environment and cities?

Right now architects have been hot news on our site.

We’ve had a range of great thought pieces that we hope keep coming. From Philip Graus and Ben Driver of Hill Thalis to Clare Cousins from the Australian Institute of Architects and leaders such as Ken Maher.

They’ve added to more frequently represented planners; most recently Sue Holliday and Mike Brown, and our most recent fabulous find, John Austen a transport specialist – ex-Infrastructure Australia and senior public service – now liberated to speak his mind.

The architects have been welcome in particular because this profession is so key to the shape and look of our buildings and cities.

Planners are key too of course. But architects are the ones that can go further and deeper and reach across the vast range of skills and knowledge that are needed to transform an abstract idea and aspiration and give it a solid reality, so its couched in not just human and social context but the physical environment as well.

(And ideally, the economic, if we see economics as a way of allocating scarce resources instead of building blocks to wealth for some.)

So complex systems thinking. To our minds, this is the profession that can bring together the disparate threads that need linking in our built environment.

Yet despite this architects tend to be circumspect and discrete when it comes to the public sharing of their voice and opinions with people outside of their sphere.

It’s frustrating.

But not much of a surprise that they tend to keep the fruits of these lenses and perspectives to themselves.

Look who they’re ranged up against. We’re talking built environment here. The place that attracts probably the biggest, brashest, toughest business groups on the planet.

There are the clients. The men and women who have enough chutzpah to leave giant monuments on the landscape in order to make a profit, or leave a legacy to themselves. Sometimes both.

Their corporeal iteration ranges from the humble home owner who’s happy to annoy a gentle architect in order to justify their own home spun version of “Grand Designs”, to the doctors and tradies who turn developers in boom times, and the overseas developers with a completely different cultural mindset, right up to the big time players who either care about their legacy, pretend they care or outright don’t give a damn.

And we haven’t got to the brown paper bags consent authorities yet.

Nor the worthy local citizens who think anything designed after the 18th century is a spaceship from Mars.

Nor the state parliaments filled with pollies who seem to sign whatever is put in front of them, blindfolded, then amend amend amend as they blink in the harsh light of day and the cruel taunts of the radio hosts.

Nor the Feds whose sole job these days seems to play trick or treat on the populace, and other nail biting entertainment.

Given this cohort of clients and real world politics that dominate and control the built environment, architects’ inclinations to carefully crafted complex views are going to work just fine, right?

One of the architects we spoke to some months back thought that the job of influence needed to be handled in the spaces provided by our society and through professional channels.

But the question is does regular advocacy work, (if you’re not a coal baron)?

As a media outlet The Fifth Estate can vouch for tonnes of submissions that are routinely ignored or barely noted.

Where to draw the line? And how?

Should architects confine their lines of engagement to CAD drawings of their buildings or should their virtual pens follow the occupants as they make their way to work or home? Maybe notice the modes of transport used, check where they’re stopping to shop, chat, grab a coffee. and pause perhaps to listen in on the conversation with the local grocer to see if the new Woolies down the road is killing business?

Should their virtual pens pause at the local council, or jostle their way (in thick black marker) right up to Spring Street or Macquarie Street, or Canberra?

So many people to influence so many voices to be heard and interpreted.

But if architects have the skills-set to find the hard edges in the real world that can accommodate creative human aspirations, which we think, is their job, then they absolutely need to find a stronger voice in the public debate.

The ways to do this might be varied, but all will have one thing in common, they will probably all be uncomfortable and courageous, because no one notices politeness much any more.

Michael Heenan, who’s a principal of Allen Jack + Cottier, said this week that he likes his team to get all the pragmatic issues nailed first; the research, the sustainability, the economic. Then and only then does he let his team get artistic and poetic.

It sounds like such a tough gig.

So far beyond the challenges of most of us, who might struggle to master just one or two fields of endeavour.

It’s understandable that architects want to choose a quiet life or the comfortable confines of their peers.

But the built environment is all-encompassing.

Time’s up.

The challenges for our cities are massive. We know we need complex systems to save this planet. That means we need all the forward thinking, creative, technical, scientific, provocative, charming, artistic and interpretative people we can get.

Architects, we need your voice and we need it loud!

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  1. Excellent article and so very true. We are the masters of the built environment and it’s time design had a voice, no longer relegated to ‘personal taste’ which it isn’t. The built environment that is resulting from non designers making the decisions is not proving a liveable environment we can all be proud of or the heritage of the future.