Clare Cousins architects city shapers
Clare Cousins

The debate on the role of architects just ramped up another notch this week, first with a thought piece by Philip Graus, and now Clare Cousins, national president of the Australian Institute of Architects, has her say.

Renzo Piano once remarked on the inherent dangers of the job with the observation that “if a writer makes a bad book, eh, people don’t read it. But if you make bad architecture, you impose ugliness on a place for a hundred years.”

His repartee underscores a deeper truth at the heart of the architectural profession – a profession that fundamentally is not about places, but about people: about how they respond to the places we create and, especially in the case of public architecture, the capacity we possess to have a wide-ranging, long-term impact on the communities that come into contact with them.

That is why the role of architects as city shapers is such a critical concept. And one around which we warmly welcome the considered debate and thoughtful contributions the Fifth Estate has provided a platform for.

Present, past and future, the work of our members does, has and will continue to make a significant contribution to building great Australian cities and regions.

As their advocate, our job at the Institute is to provide a collective voice for architects and a vehicle to promote the issues about which they are passionate, representing practices – both big and small ­right around the country.

The future of our towns and cities, and their composite elements including housing affordability and infrastructure, debates on density, amenity and safety have been and continue to rank at the top of this list.

We believe there are certain characteristics that define a great city. Great cities are sustainable, innovative, liveable and resilient. They are prosperous, accessible, inclusive and adaptive.

And they are connected – socially, technologically and through effective transport networks.

Function is as vital as form

We firmly believe that architects are uniquely placed to improve the quality and sustainability of our built environment in its totality, which in turn plays a key role in helping our cities function more effectively.

That’s why at the start of last year we brought together more than 40 of the nation’s members of parliament and senators at Parliament House in Canberra to talk about new housing models. Drawing on both domestic and international experience, we put forward insights to shape their policymaking ahead of a federal budget later that year whose centrepiece was a package of measures to support home ownership and access to housing across all income levels.

It’s why the Institute has been a major force in pushing for greater regulation of building products, especially cladding. This has led to more stringent testing of non-conforming products and changes to the laws governing them at federal and state and territory levels.

We continue to lobby the Building Ministers’ Forum to implement the recommendations made in the Shergold-Weir Building Confidence report, aimed at improving National Construction Code compliance and enforcement systems and the establishment of a national best practice model to strengthen its implementation.

And we remain committed to promoting the position of architects as expert advisors to guide the growth of our cities, towns and suburbs, embedding the notion of good design as a guiding force in government decision making.

To this end, we continue to encourage the Australian government to appoint a Federal Government Architect, to provide strategic design leadership in architecture, urban design and landscape architecture every one of their counterparts have now done at the state and territory government level, bar Tasmania.

Australia’s growing population presents increasing challenges for our cities and regions, including climate change, housing, an ageing demographic and the need for more community and public infrastructure.

With the population expected to reach 30.5 million by 2030 there is an increasing need to future-proof our cities, preparing them for this growth. We believe the involvement of architects is essential in helping develop and implement long-term strategies, policies and processes to support our growing nation.

Masterplanning, safe and sustainable design, and tighter building regulation are among our top priorities. Good planning teamed with effective, responsible design will benefit all Australians into the future, ensuring our cities stand the test of time and are equipped to meet the demands of changing demographics.

Furthermore, there needs to be a commitment to holistic strategic planning combined with better coordination and collaboration across all tiers of government, the private sector, researchers and the wider community to deliver the best outcomes for the people we collectively serve.

Now more than ever we expect the federal government to play a greater role in shaping our cities for the future through more investment and stronger leadership. Government needs to ensure rules and regulations are effective and are enforced, that good design is valued, encouraged and incentivised, and that it expresses a compelling vision for an equitable future through good design.

Architecture is centred on human experience. It is about people and creating the best places for them to live their lives be this the places they live, work, learn or gather.

This is a universal notion – the common focus of architects here and around the world is to achieve better outcomes for all people by improving the built environment.

It is no coincidence that 97 per cent of Australians believe that our cities and towns are better places to live when public buildings and spaces are well designed [i]. People desire a connection with the place they call home. Good design fosters community pride and provides a sense of place, of belonging.

The Institute will continue to push for more alignment and better outcomes from the myriad policies and regulations impacting the profession.

Above all, we will continue to promote the value of architects and the vital role they play in building sustainable and liveable cities for the people who call them home.

[i] The Benefit of Design, prepared for Architects Accreditation Council of Australia, Galaxy Research, June 2015

Clare Cousins is national president, Australian Institute of Architects, which is the peak body for the architectural profession, representing 11,000 members across Australia and overseas. 

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  1. When it comes to a NSW perspective, the AIA is missing in action, look at the poor quality high density design going up in Sydney, poor urban design outcomes’ lack of innovative, lack of comment on the demise of the NSW Government’s Architect Office and the lack of support for low rise medium destiny design. Too little, too late.