The Red and Black architect interviews Jill Garner

After an extended period of uncertainty left by the previous Victorian State Government, the Premier, Daniel Andrews, has confirmed the appointment of Victoria’s next Government Architect. Architect Jill Garner was chosen personally by the premier out of what would no doubt have been a very impressive list of applicants.

Having worked with an impressive list of key design practices, Jill co-founded Garner Davis Architects in 1990. In 1995 Garner Davis won a substantial international design competition for the Wagga Wagga Civic Centre.

In 2010 Jill joined the Office of the Victorian Government Architect (OVGA) in the role of Associate Government Architect. In September 2014 the previous government architect Geoffrey London left the role after providing ample notice for the then Liberal State Government to provide a replacement. As Associate Government Architect, Jill was leading the OVGA through this politically difficult period.

With the reinstatement of the OVGA into the Department of Premier and Cabinet and the appointment of the Government Architect, Victoria is now much better placed to deal with the substantial design issues with which it is now faced. The Government is pushing forward with a very big agenda which includes improving apartment standards, level crossing removals and substantial urban renewal projects such as Fishermans Bend.

Red + Black Architect (R+BA): What do you anticipate as being the biggest challenge for the Office of the Victorian Government Architect (OVGA)?

Jill Garner (JG): Victoria is going through an incredible time of change in our built environment – projects are large scale, significant, and city changing. It is our challenge to industry and government to demand understanding of the impact of these projects within our existing city and to embed high ambition and interdisciplinary commitment to outcomes that demonstrate quality architectural, landscape and urban design. The challenge for the OVGA is how to cover the ground.

R+BA: You have previously suggested that the OVGA could be involved, through the Design Review Panel, in more everyday planning applications rather than the more specialized government projects. Looking at this from a developer’s viewpoint, how would this process work?

JG: We have now become involved in design review of selected private developments. There are a number of conditions that might trigger a referral to our design review panel including scale, site significance, or consideration of a precedent being set. We have an agreement with the Metropolitan Planning Authority (MPA) that has seen us review more than a dozen proposals in Fishermans Bend, and we are currently forging an agreement with the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) for design review to be included in selected Central City projects. We are unhappy that many of the projects seen to date have been brought to design review at a stage where we have limited impact. Interrogation of a masterplan, a site strategy, orientation, contextual studies of scale and fit, and early site moves is more valuable than moving deckchairs on a Titanic.

R+BA: Do you anticipate the OVGA having an increased role to play in the outer suburbs?

JG: The city changing projects I speak of are not limited to the city. The impact of projects such as level crossing removals, higher density residential propositions, and mixed-use ambitions associated with selected transport hubs will all have significant impact on our suburbs. Higher density residential propositions are emerging throughout metropolitan Melbourne, from Wyndham to Frankston. I would hope OVGA can have some influence in embedding an ambition for quality and vision into this current climate.

R+BA: What are your views towards medium rise apartment buildings such as ‘The Commons’ and more recently ‘Nightingale’ which are attempting to offer car free apartments?

JG: In Melbourne we see so few propositions for an alternative type of home, and the model proposed in these projects reflects a residential type that is embraced and embedded in many great cities across the world. Although dense, these projects are human in scale, reflect the individual priorities of the various owners and promote community pride. This type of home, developed through a design led process radically different to the developer-driven model, has the capacity to fill a gap in the current market.

R+BA: In light of the recent VCAT decision against the Nightingale project do you think the VCAT system is broken? Should we for example have a panel of decision makers rather than a single person?

JG: The quotes from the VCAT decision that I read seem a rather extraordinary and disturbing summary of what could have been an intelligent interrogation of the car free proposition and a meaningful discussion of a demographic shift that clearly places less value on a car than might be considered ‘typical’. The Nightingale project might have benefitted from interrogation by our design review panel, and in light of its being a proposition for an alternative housing procurement model, an independent review may have contributed commentary to the design decisions made by the team. In this type of housing model overseas there are diverse propositions regarding cars, including subscriptions to carshare schemes, shared ownership of several smartcars, or precinct-based solutions to parking offsite. The VCAT decision has highlighted that these are critical discussions to have when we are trying to encourage walking, cycling, and public transport use.

R+BA: For a while now the State Government has been investigating how to improve apartment design across the state. Perhaps the main resistance to these efforts have been by those who believe this will translate into substantially more expensive housing. How do you respond to these housing affordability concerns?

JG: There are indeed very loud voices arguing that apartments with better amenity will significantly affect affordability. I believe affordability is a far more complex issue than this and it will not be solved by dividing a single site into smaller and smaller ill-considered parts. Community response to the Better Apartment Discussion Paper has clarified several misconceptions about the housing market: there is a demographic that is not afraid of living more densely than the block/house/garden model; that same demographic is not wedded to the car in the traditional way; that demographic simply cannot find what they seek in the current market. We are lacking diverse, innovative, alternative models that I suspect could be made affordable.

R+BA: If we get the apartment design rules and regulations right, do you think there could be benefit in providing a zoning in certain areas, which allows apartment building as of right, within the strict design parameters, that could effectively bypass planning all together?

JG: Design rules and regulations generally seek to raise the bar of the lowest common denominator to a standard deemed ‘acceptable’. Allowing apartments as of right is unlikely to be the best outcome. However, a precinct-wide strategy that considers quality higher denser housing alongside the design of streets, public amenity, landscape, communal parking sites etc. would certainly contribute to neighbourhoods that elicit community pride.

R+BA: With the recent appointment of a Federal Minister for Cities, do you anticipate having more interactions at a federal level?

JG: There is a network of Government Architects across Australia (currently all states and territories except Tasmania) and we have committed as a team to do our best to engage with this exciting new appointment.

R+BA: Do you think there is merit in a Federal Government Architect to help advise the Minister for Cities and the Federal Government?

JG: There would be considerable merit in the new Minister receiving wise counsel about the role, impact and legacy of good design across the integrated disciplines of architecture, landscape architecture and urban design.

R+BA: You have been with the OVGA for some time now having previously served as the Associate Government Architect. What do you think has been the biggest success for the Victorian public, that is a direct result of the work of the OVGA?

JG: When I joined the OVGA, activity in Victoria’s built environment was slower, and we had the space and time to consider how to embed initiatives that had the potential to make a difference to both process and quality of outcomes. We are now in a time where large scale projects – both public and private – are going to significantly change the built environment of our cities. The Victorian public should be pleased that we have embedded our Victorian Design Review Panel (VDRP) initiative to perform a critical and highly visible role in project critique in an effort to raise ambition, awareness and the design bar. The public should also be pleased that our resolve to highlight the poor amenity we could see emerging in higher density housing has resulted in a transparent process of review and change.

R+BA: Thank you for your time.

With Jill’s appointment it is clear that the State Government is committed to strengthening the OVGA to provide the very best advice across the full spectrum of government projects. These projects will have a substantial impact on Melbounre’s future. If we are to have a livable sustainable health and productive built environment, good design is the key.

The next Red+Black exclusive interview will be a with the Planning Minister Richard Wynne, discussing a broad range of planning and urban design issues.

Michael Smith is a principal at Ateiler Red+Black. This interview originally appeared on the Red and Black architect blog. Michael also operates the Rate My Building website.


Ash Register's picture

Interesting couple of ideas buried in a verbose quagmire - imagine trying to get a yes / no answer out of these people. And naturally they know and want what' s best for you. I could be wrong but I suspect Jill will be more a blocking hindrence than an asset.

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