Ted Baillieu, The Architect Premier - Melbourne Architecture

From November 2010 through to March 2013, Victoria had Ted Baillieu, an architect, as Premier. This post is the final part of a four part interview with Mr Baillieu discussing a broad range of built environment issues.

To read from the beginning click here to go back to Part 1

Melbourne Architecture

R+BA –  In terms of Melbourne and the architecture of Melbourne do you have a favorite building or favorite space?

TB –  I always talk about Marcus Barlow’s building Manchester Unity which is extraordinary.  I did a design thesis at university on art deco and International Style stuff, about 200 years ago.  I love all of that and Manchester Unity is a beautiful building in its own right and then you look at the construction story. 

It was started in January and finished in December. It was the first building to broach the 132 foot height limit, the location.  It has all the aspirational soaring architecture of the skyscraper style.  Beyond that I’ve long talked about the extraordinary civic legacy we have in Victoria which distinguishes us from other places in Australia.  It’s a product of gold, but it’s also a product of wise decision making because you can take gold and spend it on nonsense. but if you look at our civic architecture the Parliament building, Old Treasury, the cathedrals, town halls, Masonic lodges, court houses right across the state. 

You drive around Sydney, New South Wales, Queensland, you don’t see that same civic legacy.  It’s a distinguishing feature and the other distinguishing feature of that is who made the decisions? Who were the designers? What characteristics do they have? And so many of them by definition were aspirational people who came here from other parts of the world.  They had a focus on the future and on quality.  They had gold in their pockets, but in the vast majority of cases they were young architects. 

You look at this building (Old Treasury), JJ Clarke arrived here at the age of 13 with 5 siblings and his parents.  He went to work at the age of 13 attached to the government architect’s office of the day and designed this building at the age of 19.   You look at the output of Joseph Reed and others and Wardell and you think ‘how did they actually do it?’

The Parliament building is an extraordinary thing to think of, it was designed when there were only 70 or 80 thousand people living in Melbourne.  There are more members of the Collingwood footy club now that there were living in Melbourne when the Impala building was designed.

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R+BA – Do you think that building will ever have the Parliament dome added or do you think it is what it is now?

TB –  No, that’s not going to happen.  Personally I don’t think the dome would have ever worked, overbalanced I thought.  Every aspect of that building is beautiful, the accommodation’s pretty ordinary for pollies out the back, but that’s bound to be.

R+BA –  They’re working on that [see the ArchitectureAU news piece here].

TB –  That’s about the third or fourth scheme to do that, so hopefully that’ll come off.  I just go around and look at that legacy and think wow, the essential essence of Victoria is about aspiration and about the pursuit of the best and that’s what was happening from the 1850s on.  Yeah there were all sorts of problems, questions about the Chinese and about democracy. 

There was all sorts of stuff, but essentially there is a core character of Victoria where pursuing the best possible outcome was what drove the state.  The Royal Exhibition Building is 125 years old and it’s world heritage listed.

R+BA –  The first world heritage listed building in Australia

TB –  How did they source the product, source the material, source the tradesmen?  It took a few years to build.  Then Marcus Barlow put together Manchester Unity and did that in 12 months.  Couldn’t do that now.  Why couldn’t we do that now?

R+BA –  Thinking about architecture dynasties, there was a lot happening at that point in time.  The modern day example I suppose is the Jeff Kennett era with the various DCM buildings – the Melbourne Museum, the Exhibition Centre, the Melbourne Gateway.  I look at that period and from a city building point of view and Melbourne did extraordinary things in that time.

TB –  There are various phases but the civic architecture has always been pretty high quality and for a young jurisdiction with not too much in the way of resources apart from some money and people who have come from all over the world.  We’ve got this core character essence which is the pursuit of excellence and a multicultural base because those people came from all over the world. 

Look at the tile work up at the parliament and you say somebody designed that tile work and then someone implemented it and they had to have exceptional skills.  Where did they come from, how did they get here?  There are all sorts of stories still to be told.  And they were young.

R+BA –  I suppose there’s the young aspect to it and they also took a lot of risks and were bold in what they did.  Do you think we need to allow the emerging architects more scope?

TB –  Unfortunately, the general answer to that question is yes, but our architects today have been beaten in to submission over the last 20 to 30 years.  Pushed down the food chain of development.  If there is a challenge to the architects of Victoria it’s communication. The profession has been very shy. To some extent registration conflicts with the Institute, both conflict with the notion of the degree. 

If you were to ask 99% of people in Melbourne who’s the go to commentator among architects in Victoria at the moment they probably wouldn’t know and there’s not much general media. That’s why what you’re doing is fantastic.

R+BA –  Thank you, I totally agree with you that public engagement on these issues is essential.

TB –  I grew up with the ARM guys and transition magazine which I even once wrote for . I used to write for Landscape Architecture and Architecture magazine years ago.  In an ideal world architects should be pushing much much harder.  That’s why when I got to Premiership I said I want architects back in to decision making.  We tried to get as many architects on to government boards as possible.  At the same time the profession is still inward looking and it’s still squabbling amongst itself.  You go to an awards night and the slide show still falters. 

The profession needs some really strong vocal champions who can push a point.  I thought Geoffrey London was doing a good job and I think Jill Garner will do a fantastic job.  I said to Geoffrey when we got there that I want you to be as strident as you want to be.  As far as I’m concerned you can say whatever you want.  I want you to protect the morphology of the city and I want you to aspire. 

I don’t want you just doing pedestrian things such as  putting out brochures.  They completed  quite a nice book with a very nice foreword by somebody at the start of the book.  I hope Jill feels confident to do that as well, but we’ve succumbed to project developers as a profession.  We’ve succumbed to negative clients.  We’ve succumbed to low fees.  Along the way governments have compromised the profession a bit by throwing out projects like the BER project in education which was build a box. 

In the early 2000’s we had what I call the ‘TAFE r tecture’ in Victoria where we built matchboxes and painted them and they hadn’t actually addressed the strategic issues around both TAFEs and post secondary education.  I think there’s room for much a more mature discussion about architecture, absolutely.  Which is another reason why I was disappointed about the Flinders Street thing because the thinking that had gone in there was really sophisticated and it wasn’t allowed to be heard.

R+BA –  One of the things I wrote about it shortly after that was the perception that it was somehow a waste of money because we weren’t receiving the money of the million dollars it cost.  You crunch the numbers on the number of hours across the number of teams doing the work and you add in the fact that you have 30,000 responses to it which is a massive community consultation as well. 

It was also being in the general psyche as to what the future of that site is.  It was an absolute bargain.

TB –  Well the staging that Hassell and Herzog & De Meuron proposed is very sophisticated and still implementable and I’ll be surprised in the future if some of those stages don’t get implemented.

R+BA – Thanks for agreeing to do this interview and being so generous with your time.

This concludes the four part interview series with Ted Baillieu. I hope you have enjoyed reading.

Ted Baillieu, The Architect Premier.


Architecture is for Everyone


Michael Smith is a principal at Ateiler Red+Black. This article and previous installments of the Ted Bailleau interview can be seen on the Red and Black architect blog. Michael also operates the Rate My Building website.

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