Architecture and Politics

There are some people who say you shouldn’t mix politics and music, or sports and politics. Well… I think that’s kind of bulls*#t.

Adam Clayton, U2

Politics and culture have an intrinsic relationship upon each other. Whilst there are some people who attempt to separate the two, in order to justify their apathy, a quick read of a typical Melbourne newspaper would show how politics is so effectively entwined with our cultural pursuits. Architecture endeavours to reflect our culture but it is also caught up within it.

In the 2010 State election, Victorian’s voted in the Liberal / National Party coalition. The new government was led by Ted Baillieu – an Architect who was sworn in as Premier of the State. Among the more public pre-election commitments was the Flinders Street Station Design Ideas Competition. This policy was implemented within the first 12 months with the international competition launched in November 2011.

The decision to run a competition for Melbourne’s most important landmark is quite controversial to this day. The detractors would argue that with no commitment to undertake the project, the efforts and the taxpayer money used to run the competition have been wasted. This would appear quite short sighted given the importance and the longevity of the landmark in question. As a result of Victorians voting in a design-intelligent Premier, we now have a fantastic design which has proven design merit.

This design allows the public and the decision makers to talk about the project in specific detail rather than in the abstract.

Parliament House, Melbourne.

A far more subtle policy resulting from an Architect Premier was the introduction of the Design Review Panel at the Office of the Victorian Government Architect. This service offers high level independent design advice to various Government bodies who procure or approve public projects. Typical projects include hospitals, libraries, transport infrastructure projects and community master plans.

Between 2012 and 2014 over 100 projects have been reviewed under this system. To accurately assess the quality of the design review program, an audit by SGS Economics was undertaken in December 2013. This independent review found overwhelming support for the scheme from those who had participated, proving with hard evidence the value of design.

Click here for further information on the key achievements of the Design Review Panel.

In July 2012 the Government then decided to embark on the most significant reform to the planning system in 30 years. The process began with a set of proposed changes which were open to public submissions. Naturally, given the city shaping nature of the proposed changes, The Australian Institute of Architects put forward their considered opinion. In their submission they highlighted some points of agreement such as the benefits in reduction of red tape. However there were also grave concerns about the process and the consequences.

One effect of mandated outcomes is likely to be a greater focus on height rather than design as the relevant arbiter of what defines acceptable development.

A strategic justification and narrative to explain the zone changes is needed, and the process that has informed them lacks clarity.

Australian Institute of Architects, September 2012

Next in the series of reforms were the changes to the Architects Act and the Architects Registration Board of Victoria mooted in November 2012. This was deeply concerning to Architects in Victoria at the time, however the fact that the Premier himself was an Architect provided significant reassurance to the profession.

At the time the Victorian President of the AIA, Jon Clements provided this comment to the Red and Black Architect:

It is fair to say that under the current government leadership, noting that the Premier is himself an architect and an Institute member, that it is highly unlikely that we will see any diminishment of the role of the architect in the building industry.

Jon Clements, December 2012

Then three months later the politics changed. The political train wreck of MP Geoff Shaw threw the Baillieu government into crisis upon his resignation from the Liberal Party. Hours later Ted Baillieu had also resigned as leader of the Liberal Party and as a consequence Dennis Napthine was installed as the new Victorian Premier.

Perhaps in an effort to make his own mark and stamp his authority, Napthine ordered a restructure of the government departments which resulted in the Department of Transport, Planning and Local Infrastructure (DTPLI) being established on the 9th of April 2013. With this change, the Office for the Victorian Government Architect was relegated from reporting directly to the premier, to instead working under the DTPLI. Yet again the importance of design was eroded from what was previously a design conscious government.

Since then the planning reforms have been pushed through and are currently being finalized. In the Winter edition of Architect Victoria, the AIA once again highlighted the dangers and consequences of the State Governments actions.

The Institute believes that the proposed zoning changes, if implemented in the form requested by local councils, will be a huge step backwards for planning and design in Melbourne.

The risks faced are very real:

Reduced housing affordability

Reduced diversity of housing for aged and low income households

Difficulty for small-medium scale developers to find suitable sites.

Australian Institute of Architects August 2014

As bad as the situation has become, an even bigger concern is that it appears that the peak body of Architects is being flat-out ignored by the Planning Minister, Matthew Guy.

In the last four years the [Victorian] Chapter [of the Australian Institute of Architects] has only been able to secure one direct face to face meeting with the [Planning] Minister. He has refused all invitations to attend institute events in this time.

Alison Cleary, Victorian Chapter Manager of the Australian Institute of Architects.

This is akin to the Minister for Health refusing to meet with the Australian Medical Association. It projects incompetence and arrogance of the highest manner. Furthermore it is not as if Matthew Guy is himself an expert on the Built Environment. Matthew Guy’s comments (as reported in the Herald Sun) regarding Melbourne’s Brutalist Architect expose his limited understanding.

People use the term brutalist architecture to legitimise ugly buildings.

Matthew Guy, Minister for Planning

Again to analogise this to the medical profession, this statement is the equivalent of the Health Minister making a comment such as ‘people use the term mental illness to legitimise hospital care’. Both outrageous comments should draw instant condemnation of a minister so out of touch with their field of influence.

Within a single term of government from 2010 to 2014 we have gone from a design-intelligent and architecturally progressive State Government, to one which has marginalized those best able to advise it. The public who voted in the Architect Premier in 2010 have every right to feel let down by the party politics that has led to this point.

In November 2014, Victoria will head to the polls to elect the next Government. More than anything Victoria deserves a government that is willing to take and act upon advice from experts in all fields and not just presume that it knows best. We need a new Planning Minister who will listen to the Australian Institute of Architects. We need the Office of the Victorian Government Architect reporting directly to the Premiers Office as it was always intended to. Finally we need to end this obsession with building the East West Link at all costs. The built environment is too important to be the plaything of politicians.

Michael Smith is Director of Melbourne architecture firm Atelier Red + Black. This article originally appeared on The Red and Black Architect blog.

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