Australian projects and designers once again performed disproportionately well on the world stage. In fact, Sydney has now posted two global winners in successive years –
Are we living through a golden era of Australian design? What makes Australian contributions to a global gathering such as
If there was one noticeable common feature of almost all the Australian project presentations, it was the acknowledgement of Indigenous life, culture and history. While it ranged from direct design engagement to a basic acknowledgement of Traditional Owners, some level of Indigenous acknowledgement was nonetheless ever-present. This is of course a welcome and commendable trend, and it invites a simple but perhaps often missing question – does the rest of the world know what we’re talking about when it comes to designing with, healing and connecting to
Alex Kibble, managing director at
The consensus on the ground seemed to be that, while recognising, honouring and learning from Indigenous connections to land and place are universal values, their particular manifestations in Australia need to be shared with the world. That is not to say, of course, that Australia has decolonised and found all the answers – quite the opposite – but that the unique features of the discourse in this part of the world can provide a beneficial model to learn from. The threading in of Indigenous ideas certainly makes Australian design richer and distinctive when compared with those presented in other postcolonial contexts without any acknowledgement of comparable histories.
Ingrid Bakker, principal at
“I do hope that we see real impact and credibility with those applications of Indigeneity in design,” adds AIA Gold Medallist
Designers are acutely aware that the centres of power and opinion-making in the industry are in Europe or North America. Far from automatically being a disadvantage, however, Australian architects noted that it allows for some criticism, or at least clearer appraisals, of the centre by the periphery.
Alastair Richardson, director at
Kerstin Thompson adds: “I do get frustrated by the slightly Eurocentric appreciation for architecture when it’s in Europe – there can be an exoticisation of work that comes from elsewhere. The reason I return [to WAF] is that it can take you out of your local bubble and remind you of the many parts of the world working under different conditions and offering new insights into architecture.”
Ingrid Bakker comments: “When you see Australian projects on the world stage like this, it shows the world – and ourselves, hopefully! – that we don’t need to have that cultural cringe any more. We’re actually pretty good at what we’re doing, and doing some of the best design work globally – I think we can be proud.”
Perhaps no other practice brought as many attendees or presented as many projects as
A design is nothing without a story to tell and, given the WAF format of strictly time-limited crit presentations, it’s essential that presenters get to the key points while threading a coherent and persuasive narrative. Quite why the Australians might be better at this than others is an open question…
Beyond ‘statement’ architecture
We’re not naming names here, but there is perhaps a feeling that some projects seek to muscle in on to the global stage by way of ‘shocking’ form alone – think Instagrammable funny and dramatic shapes without much in the way of connection to place or history.
“We’re not whimsical and we’re not into ‘statement’ architecture – I think we’re far more about trying to understand context, community and social life,” says Richardson.
Alex Kibble adds a similar thought: “I think what we bring to WAF is an appreciation of place – an appreciation of meaningful connection to place.”
Connection to Country, as noted above, is surely the primary way in which Australian projects are differentiating themselves. If we have only begun to scratch the surface in terms of genuinely listening to
While some designers were proud of an Australian emphasis on sustainability, others drew attention to the way in which WAF highlighted some of the shortcomings of the domestic design industry. “It’s interesting to see how we talk about sustainability in the Australian context – but we are so behind in sustainability,” says Richardson. “We haven’t quite grasped where Europe is on the issue, for example.”
Alex Kibble, however, adds a thought on how “our approach to sustainability is maybe a little more subtle than others.”
Kerstin Thompson concludes: “I do think that we are forced to reckon with some of the lag in our industry – that frankly we’re just not doing enough for us to deal with climate catastrophe, and it’s good to be reminded of that.”
World Architecture Festival