A decade in review: ‘The Architects’ on Triple R

February 23, 2011

Stuart Harrison, Simon Knott, Christine Phillips and Rory Hyde on new civic spaces in Melbourne and Brisbane, and the rich culture of RMIT Architecture.

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South Bank redevelopment, Brisbane

Brisbane’s recent re-engagement with public architecture had its catalyst with the redevelopment of the Robin Gibson-designed South Bank cultural precinct towards the start of the decade. Competitions were held for both the new Gallery of Modern Art building (GoMA) and the reworking of the existing State Library of Queensland (SLQ). Donovan Hill’s exceptional SLQ manages to do what many projects only try to – it delivers genuine contemporary public space, blurring the boundaries between indoor and outdoor, and achieves porosity in both its architecture and use with a strong civic presence that is not overly monumental. The tempered and screened architecture first developed by Donovan Hill in its houses was successfully transferred to institutional work. This project has influenced the quality of the built environment in Brisbane, with subsequent projects by Donovan Hill and others seeking to ‘raise the bar’. The neighbouring GoMA complex by Architectus with Kerry and Lindsay Clare follows a more traditional path, but also added to the precinct, as did the earlier connectivity improvements with the Grand Arbour walkway (DCM, 1997) and more recently the innovative tensegrity-based Kurilpa Pedestrian and Cycle Bridge (Cox, 2009). The precinct has evolved into one of national significance, used as a model for urban design and public architecture.

Federation Square – Lab Architecture Studio

Federation Square (2002) is possibly Melbourne’s greatest public asset. The result of a major open architectural competition in 1997 that attracted entries from around the globe (regrettably the last competition of its kind to have been held in Melbourne), Lab Architecture Studio’s design is a significant cultural contribution to the city.

Initially met with criticism from both the public and conservative heritage advocates alike, and then political turmoil following the change to a Labor government, Federation Square has provided the city with a much-needed, exceptional public space and a centralised cultural precinct. It has reconnected people with the Yarra River and is a flexible outdoor space that hosts everything from screening major sporting activities to arts and festival events, and is also just a place to ‘hang out’. After completion, the suite of decorative ‘shard’ buildings surrounding the plaza also gave Melburnians a taste of the innovative public and institutional buildings that were soon to come from other practices in the following decade. It ignited debate about contemporary architecture among the public, and this debate has helped further an understanding and interest in architecture in the wider public realm.


Over the past 10 years RMIT has built on the successful architectural program started in the 1960s and 70s to develop an international reputation as a leading design school. Practitioners such as RMIT’s professor Mark Burry have worked at the leading edge of computing, technology and design internationally, while the architecture school has continued to grow its local and international credentials.

One of the great successes of RMIT has been its ability to integrate the academy with the profession, not just in terms of its ability to attract the best practitioners to teach within its ranks, but also to have those same top architects and designers come back and learn through its impressive and pioneering postgraduate program. This symbiotic relationship will continue to enrich and develop the architectural culture of Melbourne for many years to come. RMIT’s building program has championed cutting-edge design and given several small Melbourne architecture practices their first large-scale projects, from which many have gone on to grow into large-scale national firms. The graduates from RMIT continue to establish architectural practices that operate at the forefront of design practice and the institution continues to engage and stimulate design thinking at the highest levels. It is difficult to imagine an entity that has affected and contributed more to the architectural culture in Australia than RMIT Architecture.

Stuart Harrison, Simon Knott, Christine Phillips and Rory Hyde are the presenters of The Architects, a weekly radio show on Triple R covering architecture, sustainability and urban design.

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