Shaun Carter, Carter Williamson Architects

The Fifth Estate asked architect Shaun Carter and Australian Institute of Architects chief executive Julia Cambage what 2021 is likely to bring.

If architect Shaun Carter is right, and he has a whole load of history to back him up, the end of the war on Covid will generate a euphoric reaction, just like the end of any war.

Even though 2020 was busy enough for his professional colleagues Carter reckons they need to get set for more activity.

He could well be right.

So get set for a boom in architecture and development work, since our footprint on the planet seems to be we humans’ favourite way to celebrate success.

For architects that means immense responsibility.

Last week the weight of that imploded with two global giants of architecture, Foster + Partners and Zaha Hadid resigning from
Architects Declare, the organisation dedicated to aligning the urgency of global warming with what architects do in the built environment.

The Norman Foster affair, as we’re dubbing it, has pierced the heart of so many people who care about these issues and understand how complex they are now and how much more intense they are likely to become.

The backdrop is a world where the negative climate feedback loops are accelerating: the Arctic tundra, the Amazon, the Antarctic – “the big As” you might say.

For Shaun Carter, there’s a lot to consider. His studio Carter Williamson is a “values-based studio” so it needs to take its responsibilities seriously. Carter is also a former NSW chapter president of the Australian Institute of Architects where he had to grapple with the issues inherent in his profession and he was part of the leadership team in a very public campaign to save the heritage Sirius building in Sydney.

Carter thinks that along with the optimism we humans tend to display at the end of a major struggle, sustainability will “go through the roof”.

“Everyone will accelerate it and everyone will try to catch up.”

He thinks migration will be “wound up to very high numbers.”

And while infrastructure has already been used to get us through the pandemic, housing diversity (and he hopes that’s more than build-to-rent; the economic rationalist’s model) might benefit.

He thinks the answer to that will be in governments finally getting back into the business they traditionally had of building social housing. While every possible permutation of alternatives of this has been trialled, none have made a dent on the shortfall.

(Critics say housing finance models are also weak because in this low interest rate environment, what could possibly be cheaper finance than what the government is likely to source?)

Better government

Through Covid, Carter hopes that along with the euphoria of its end, or imminent end, will come a retained memory of the need for greater humanity and care for society, culture and environment, along with the necessary funding models.

In outlaying support for jobs and keeping them connected to employer, the state and federal governments have “done very well by and large.”

To Carter, that points to governments acting on science and truth and information to produce better outcomes.

Now, wouldn’t that be good if it was extended to looking at the facts of the past 20 years where wages have barely shifted for working people but corporate profits have soared, he says.  

It’s a case of unintended consequence of political decisions made then, he says.

But during Covid, family and community have surfaced as more important than money.

Some people were happy to pay more to keep small businesses like the cafes in his area of Summer Hill alive. There’s been an equal movement in Melbourne, he says.

In so many ways this has been a stress test for governments who may also have shifted in their view of the world.

In contrast to the 1988-89 recession that “killed” the building industry that his father worked in, this time round government support might just have avoided that.

“Because it did the sensible thing like JobKeeper in a really smart way to keep people connected to their workplace and keep them employed.”

The major opportunity now would be for the government to “institutionalise the lessons”.

Over the years, what we’ve had is the “dumbing down of government”, he says, because the focus has been on reducing government in favour of allowing the free market to thrive.

Carter would like to see government, through its “different arms and apparatuses and intelligence”, rebuilt, reversing some of the depletion of resources we’ve seen.

You can see the dearth of inbuilt intelligence and knowledge in government responses to the built environment: “the government response is never the right response”.

“Light rail never goes where it should go, but in the line of least resistance [so you get destruction of heritage].

“With community consultation you get post-it notes on a wall and it’s ‘tick a box: we’ve done all those things’”.

“We need smart minds and old heads”.

Airports, planes and more planes

On the broader issues of values and architecture and more to the point the resignation of Foster + Partners and Zaha Hadid Architects from Architects Declare, Carter says this is a very complex issue.

With his practice, he says, “we live our values and we think our values will guide our decisions on what projects we work on and what we won’t.

“And that’s always overlaid not with real politik but a sensible view of what needs to happen in the context of a growing Sydney and a growing NSW. As president of AIA [NSW chapter 2015-2017] I truly believed we could have a better Sydney as well as a bigger Sydney. But that’s dependent on a lot of things happening.”

Quality of architecture, for one, and the other two key elements of the public domain and better infrastructure.

“Infrastructure seems to be the great challenge of contemporary cities.

“You mentioned airports; I can physically feel excitement grow when I get within one kilometre of an airport. I love it and always feel part of me wants to always throw away responsibility and disappear for two weeks.”

His studio, he says, wouldn’t be averse to working on airports but it would like to see “many things done with an airport that are not always done.”

Sydney needs a second airport, he says, but this airport also needs public transport. It needs too to be plugged into the net zero carbon economy, recycle its own water, and to set standards for fuel efficiency and quiet engines.

“We’re always talking in our practice that you always need to signal so that someone down the line gets the picture.”

Saying “all work is good work” is missing the point, and it’s important to understand that work and being a citizen is “part of the same thing”.

Julia Cambage, CEO, The Australian Institute of Architects

Chief executive officer of the Australian Institute of Architects Julia Cambage says it’s a complex issue but the institute is already well aware of the challenges and is on its own journey with a “whole bunch of tools” to help its members make their own decisions.

It’s also set up a climate action and sustainability task force, with some “fantastic stakeholder engagement”, including Caroline Pidcock, spokesperson for Architects Declare, Jeremy McLeod from Breathe Architects, Ross Donaldson, a former group managing director of Woods Bagot, and Deo Prassad who led the CRC for Low Carbon Living.

Chair will be AIA president Helen Lochhead. And a new employee will be appointed to help facilitate the work.

Cambage won’t comment on the Norman Foster and Architects Declare issue, but believes the bushfires late in 2019 and early 2020 “galvanised people’s thinking” and growing intensity around climate concerns.

The institute was already supportive.

“We had already declared and went on those marches and came out loud and proud.” The organisation is concurrently tidying up its own house to achieve a net zero footprint.

“So we are walking the talk and making sure we are developing our own tools.”

As to the feedback from the members, “that’s the really tricky stuff – how do you take your clients on a journey? But I think the space is changing rapidly about how clients view the world. There are some who will continue to be clients, but good clients are emerging.

“We have an expectation that government will be a leader in this space and provide directions for others. So, we are looking to them to be exemplar clients and from that others can build on that journey.”

A range of approaches could be on offer.

On airports, Cambage points to the inevitable that “planes will fly and airports will be built”.

“My personal view is that things moved faster than expect. Whoever thought that Boris Johnson [UK prime minister] would be taking a strong stance on climate [including, we add, ticking off our PM for lack of action].

“I think the world is catching up with us.”

Cambage points to “so much good work done by TV shows normalising sustainability and climate and people are now supportive and when the people start to become galvanised the government has no choice but to move with them.”