“I’m sure, back in the day, people sniffed around each other’s caves!”, Catherine Townsend says of the irresistible impulse to have a look inside our neighbours’ houses.
She’s talking about the Contemporary Australian Architect Speaker series, which the ACT Institute of Architects has been presenting for 33 years. The final event in this year’s series takes place online on 30 September.
The virtual pivot executed for COVID-19 has yielded remarkable results: a flood of Zoom attendees from all over Australia, even around the world have tuned in (the door prize winner on the first night was from Western Australia).
It’s shown the Canberra organisers how valuable their speaker series has become, inviting the general public into the conversation about what makes a great building.
The original intention in 1987 was to provide an opportunity for local architects to hear Australia’s leading contemporary practitioners speak about their work. As the series evolved, the creative impetus came from Bruce and Catherine Townsend (now the ACT Government Architect), who got involved in the early 2000s.
“Architects in Canberra could often feel pretty isolated,” Catherine recalls, remembering the impact it made on the local profession when Parliament House architect Aldo Giurgola located his firm in the city.
While Catherine says the National Capital Development Commission fostered a strong culture of importing talent, it was also important to build confidence in a local Canberra architectural culture.
There’s been an enduring partnership with the National Gallery and BCA Certifiers, headed by Ian Anlezark. For the past 15 years, the series has been curated by Dom Pelle and Nathan Judd.
The series also has a social conscience. Architects like Paul Pholeros, best known for his work advocating for and improving the health of Indigenous communities through housing, and environmentally sustainable architect Tone Wheeler have been among many standouts over the years.
But the central idea has always been to take listeners on a problem-solving journey with the architect and client.
“I do get frustrated that the popular view of architecture is akin to looking at a beautiful person on a catwalk,” Catherine says. “It’s not the clothes they’re wearing and their beautiful face – it’s the personality and intelligence, the sum of all those parts that really matters.
“We wanted architects to talk about what it takes from that first conversation to the final result and the enormous journey in between.”
Catherine acknowledges many people still think an architect isn’t for them. She describes the cost of construction as “eye-watering” and understands why people try to find ways to value-add in the building process.
But she worries that it can be the wrong cost-saving when the result is houses that are bigger and less functional than they should be.
“Architects don’t just have a massive intuitive leap to find the solution. There are multiple different options and the right one is often incredibly deceptively simple. As architects, it’s our job to show the client all the options, including the ones they haven’t thought of.”
In hindsight, Catherine says the huge appetite for the speaker series is not surprising. Their Canberra and regional audience has always been loyal (one regular attendee came up from the coast on the bus every year), but if there’s one thing the pandemic has shown us, it’s our willingness to soak up ideas by whatever means we can access them.
The final in this year’s speakers series on 30 September comes from Brent Dunn and Katharina Hendel from Takt Studio, based north of Wollongong at Moruya, and in the back of a ute for their remote projects.
Among their many awards, the Escarpment House in Thirroul was the joint winner of the 2017 AIA Country Division Residential Architecture Award, and Takt says their practice aims “to create meaningful buildings … that enhance lives … that age gracefully”.
The Zoom broadcast begins at 6:00 pm on Wednesday, 30 September and you can book for the series here.