Jennifer Cunich
Jennifer Cunich

The sudden departure of Jennifer Cunich, CEO of the Australian Institute of Architects, may or may not have been triggered by a clash of strategies in media presence or advocacy. We may never know. But the ruction provokes some important questions about what role architects – and all other related professions for that matter – want to play in the built environment, probably our most critical public sphere from which to tackle unrelenting climate change, population surges and infrastructure pressures that will increasingly dominate political and social attention. 

By Monday afternoon this week Jennifer Cunich was in northern NSW heading to a friend’s farm for a nice holiday. She was in high spirits. Country air will do that for you, she said. It enables an expansive frame of mind.

Behind her was not so good news. After just two years as chief executive, she had parted ways with the Australian Institute of Architects. One of the papers was brutal: she’d been “sacked”, it read.

You’d expect Cunich, a former long-term executive director of the Victorian division of the Property Council of Australia, to be made of sterner stuff than most. And our chat on the phone showed that while she might have been disappointed, and maybe the parting was not entirely at a time of her choosing, she was by no means derailed.

Of course her comments were kept to a strict diplomatic minimum, and so were the institute’s. As you’d expect. 

Clare Cousins

The closest Cunich came to a more personal insight was: “Sometimes change is difficult for organisations.” 

But she was proud of what she and a highly talented team had achieved, she said. There’d been good progress to repair significant financial losses of the past few years, a review of the awards program, an annual conference that was now making a surplus that could be ploughed into research, and a “massive digital transformation program”.

The institute’s national president Clare Cousins, who is stepping in as acting CEO, thanked Cunich and said that during her tenure the AIA had gone through a period of transformation and renewal, and it was now a “strengthened” organisation.

What really happened during the meetings and negotiations with Cunich that took place recently, and what went wrong, will remain a mystery. Were finances not sufficiently restored? Was there a mismatch between the Institute members and Cunich’s three-year strategy to ramp up advocacy in the lead up to several state and federal elections? 

We may never know.

The inner workings of the AIA and, to be honest, similar professional bodies, tend to be more tightly controlled than a medieval cabal. “Guild-like” only hints at the intensity with which architects protect their own – except when they don’t. But then even skirmishes are kept strictly behind closed doors and sotto voce.  

But regardless of the details of the moment, what’s really important here is the deeper story about strategy and role for the AIA and architects – issues that also extend to related professions.

How should architects engage?

Ken Maher, a doyen of architects, a past national president, a Gold Medal winner and still deeply involved in the

Ken Maher

machinations of his much-loved profession, was clear on the role and obligations of his profession.

He could say nothing, of course, about the negotiations with Cunich to which he was privy, but that was not our question.

Should architects – and related professionals such as planners, landscape architects and engineers, for that matter –  be more prominent and vocal in the media so that they can influence public policy or direction in the built environment? Or should they be more discreet and selective?

This, after all, is a time of critical importance for design in the public realm. We have population surges, infrastructure pressures and climate impact that will soon knock us off our feet as infrastructure fails and governments refuse point blank to act or even commit to a statement after a Senate inquiry on climate change impacts.

It’s an eternal question for other professional bodies too.

Do they comment strongly on retrograde action, or make considered views based on consensus from their members that by the time they hit the news desks is devoid of all impact?

Yes, the daily echo chamber of media is one thing, but it’s quite another to fail to respond in a timely manner altogether.

The variance of opinion is strong and worth noting.

Maher said that architects absolutely have a commitment and pretty much an obligation to be a voice and a strong voice in the media.

Especially given the breadth of education that’s invested in them, their understanding of the built environment, their impact and the fact that their profession is one that is practised in the public sphere. There’s a professional ethic at stake here to protect the public good in the built environment, he said.

It’s something he not just endorses but it’s one he feels passionate about, Maher said.

Paul Berkemeier

Architecture is a public art, he said, there an “importance of focus on public interest and the value of design and sustainability as agendas for advocacy by the institute.

“I also think in addition to supporting members in the practice of architecture, there to be now, more than ever, a focus on the cultural aspects of architecture – the culture of design – to assist and support architects in delivering high quality work.”

In this way you can use the “evidence of delivery” what the value of design is and how it can create a better future for our towns and cities. 

Paul Berkemeier, national president from 2013-14, said the profession might be small, but “like everything with

architects we all want to make a difference above our numbers”.

“The institute is critical to marshalling the voice of architecture and related professions. We try to do as much as we can in terms of the public domain and public space.

“It’s a matter of balancing the competing priorities and the limited resources because the institute relies immensely on voluntary time.” 

Berkemeier thinks the recent restructuring of the board and national council was “a very necessary change and one that that hopefully allows the organisation to go forward both in terms of serving the needs of its members”. 

But he disputed thatarchitects were not as involved in the public space as they could be.

“Architecture now is really involved in the making of the city,” he said.

How much you get cut through is always difficult because the public conversation becomes binary, he said. The architect as

David Tickle, HASSELL

artist versus the practical is not quite true.

“One thing I’ve noticed is that 15 years ago their role was marginalised by project managers, but they’re coming back.”

Put it down to the greater collaboration needed in today’s increasingly complex built environment, he said.

“Because of the collaborative nature of the development and because everything is becoming more interdependent the generalist is able to contribute more to the projects. You’re starting to see that at universities, by getting cross-disciplinary study and combined architecture and engineering degrees with crossovers into urban design.” 

How will the institute fare? 

“I’m an optimist. We have been through patches before where had changeovers of senior staff but I’ve also got great confidence in the leadership we have.”

It was important to build on the good corporate support the institute had, he said.

Overall it was “probably one of the harder professional associations for a CEO.” 

That could be putting it mildly.

Things heading in the right direction

HASSELL principal David Tickle, chair of the AIA NSW chapter’s editorial committee and who also sits on the gender equity committee, said things were generally moving in a good direction. He said the institute was taking a strong advocacy role and there were people in the institute keen to see more of this.

Shaun Carter

NSW chapter immediate past president ’s leadership on the Sirius building – fighting the state government’s intention to sell and redevelop a much loved public housing building in Sydney – was a case in point, he said.

“Shaun has been a strong advocate for architecture and the city.”

With limited resources this small industry still manages impact, Tickle said.

Does he think architects shy away from engaging with the public debate or having a media presence because they are not sure they will be understood?

That’s a possibility, Tickle said, but there’s also the reality of the small size of the industry so that to be outspoken is to risk inadvertently attacking a client, approval authority or another architect. It’s important not to burn bridges.  

On forging a stronger presence

Cox director and a recent NSW chapter president Joe Agius said the institute had a challenge to manage its need to be many things to many different people and cover all grounds.

Its charter is to advance the community, architecture and the built environment, and secondly to act as a champion for the industry, he pointed out.

“It’s fundamentally a professional association so it advocates for the built environment and for architects.”

Agiussaid it should facilitate professional development and be a centre for advancing the culture of architecture.

“It’s not just about getting in the paper. Sometimes it’s better not to be in the paper; it depends on the issue at hand.

“I can think of examples where it should be vocal and at other times where it should take a back seat.

“At the end of the day it’s a group of architects bouncing off each other. And within the profession there is a massively diverse set of views.”

Agius said there were many submissions made to various public issues in the built environment.

Joe Agius

But are the submissions sufficiency influential?

“One can always be more influential and be more involved,” he said.

For the submissions to get the attention they deserved, though, wouldn’t it help to have a stronger media presence?

“Media looks at the loudest and most radical,” Agius said.

“In the current media climate, I do not believe the institute should be chasing that role. It should be measured and thoughtful and should not be creating noise for the sake of it.”

But it was certainly time for influence, he thought.

“I think the institute could have a louder voice in shaping our cities. We’re in a very dynamic period and there are challenges in lots of ways about how we organise land use planning and transport and the changing nature of how we live.”

The challenge for any interest group is how to do that effectively.

And there could be some improvement in the image of architects, he said.

“It disappoints me that architects are relegated to the real estate pages of Domain and sometimes the banality of the interiors of private houses.” 

Architects should and can be involved in a much bigger picture and there was growing evidence this was happening, he said.

He pointed to the NSW Government Architect driving “a whole series of policy matters though the state and central Sydney and the Central Sydney Planning Committee in an advisory capacity”.

He said there was an architect in a central role in places such as the city, Parramatta and “probably 30 other places”.

“That’s nothing to do with the institute that voices a position on behalf of the professional body and should advocate on public policy matters, but there are many other forums for architects to do that.”

Stronger media voice could be helpful

Stella de Vulder, the former long-term public face of the AIA, is a firm believer in a strong media voice.

Stella de Vulder

Under her reign the institute’s awards flourished and went national, and media coverage flourished.

In its heyday she said she brought in $1 million a year in sponsorship. 

Her natural bent would be to have focused “a lot more on PR and comms”, she told The Fifth Estate this week. 

“If architecture had a much higher profile the rest would follow; there would be more attention from politicians and a higher profile for architects.

“A lot more could be put into the awards so that they are like the Oscars and the national president should be at the National Press Club at least once a year.”

It took a long time for her to make the changes for a profession that was “firmly in the ivory tower” and partly it happened because maybe not everyone realised what was under way.

If she had her time now, de Vulder said, she would have a media professional in each chapter being as active as they possibly could.

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  1. In the absence of any real information about what led to Jennifer Cunich’s sacking it’s hard to know what to make of all of this except that it reflects badly on the AIA. In Victoria Jennifer Cunich is a highly respected industry professional of significant standing in the community. She brought to AUA an unmatched set of skills in terms of professional association management, skills that will be difficult to replace. The trouble now for AIA, and with all due respect to Clare Cousins and the current board, is that they don’t have the right skill set to steer the ship. They might know architecture practice but that’s an entirely different thing to managing an association. As to the question of media, yes of course the profession should have a voice. A vocal one. But they need a skilled figurehead at the top, a CEO, to be this for them. The loss of Cunich is a blow.

  2. Great discussion here and very important. My own perception is that architects continue to evolve from thinking of the built environment as buildings to thinking of it as the city (or region). We must advocate for the built environment as a human place. What makes places better for people? We must EXPLAIN what design excellence actually means and how it improves our lives.

    There is a commonality between the profession and community with respect to aesthetics – when people say they ‘love’ a place they are responding to beauty – let’s not be afraid to advocate for it in our cities

  3. Nothing new here Tina. The same machinations flow through Engineers Australia. I could tell stories that make AIA look like amateurs, but that’s for another time. My big worry is that the really serious issues for our professional associations are often subjugated by corporate influence. Yes, we are member-based associations, but issues of sponsorship for events, and programs, member numbers in particular industries, senior office bearers with big corporate connections too often overwhelm issues that are far more important for the survival of society. It’s a short term gain for the association, rather than a long term societal benefit that seems to win every time.