Is architecture encouraged and embraced by councils?

Hats off to the councils of the lower North Shore for leading from the front and making excellence in architecture a priority, says architect and designer, Jo Gillies.

North Sydney Council has a ‘design excellence panel’ with the credentials to contribute to the design of major architectural projects. The panel meets monthly to provide expert advice on the design of major architectural projects for commercial, residential and mixed use development – especially those considered to be potentially outside the square. This panel provides an opportunity to discover what has potential in design and living terms, before denying the possibilities.

Mosman Council has the Mosman Design Awards that allows council to recognise and celebrate outstanding contributions to the built environment, providing architects, builders and owners an opportunity to exhibit their designs and achievements. Held every two years, the objectives are ‘to promote excellence in urban design and heritage conservations, recognise positive contributions to the streetscape, recognise sympathetic conservation of heritage items and buildings within conservation areas and to increase community awareness of high quality development.’

Willoughby Council is also supporting architectural issues, while accommodating the varied mix of property type in its area – significant commercial and retail precincts in Chatswood, a high quantity apartment living, as well as a considerable number of valuable private and public heritage properties. The council provides an incentive to invest in heritage property with the Heritage Awards held every second year, which ‘recognise great heritage-aware architectural work’. A comprehensive tender process was also undertaken for the recently completed ‘The Concourse’ before it was awarded to Francis-Jones Morehen Thorp architectural practice.

An architect has a responsibility to a client to deliver a unique well-planned building – something that will meet the clients specific lifestyle needs, that inspires them and, at the same time, provides a functional space. Yet upon doing so architects can be made to feel like the ‘meat in the sandwich’ between the client and council when it comes to council restrictions, if there is a lack of appreciation of good design principles engaged. So, having an ethics that fundamentally recognises the importance of quality design, is a step in the right direction.

Having worked in the architecture profession for over 20 years, it is my experience that unfortunately many of the council officers around Sydney, are more empowered to say “no” that they are to say “yes” to unique designed, inspiring building. This is not due to the council officers themselves, but the system we have set up in our councils to ensure everything conforms and ‘maintains the status quo’. There are a number of good reasons why there certainly should be controls in place – to ensure a neighbour’s privacy is not compromised, for instance. Or to encourage development that demonstrates sustainable use of energy, which is another mission. However, all too easily, good architectural design is marked compromised by the consent requirement to be conventional, to play the game and do the accepted thing, making it easy for design to be approved.

On the lower North Shore, however, councils appear to be more open to integrating architectural design principles. Is this due to the larger number of public and commercial high density spaces in these areas or simply the leadership committees of these councils that appreciate the importance of making good design a priority?

We have on our doorstep so much bounteous natural beauty, an abundance of fantastic views and vast public spaces. I believe there are more opportunities to be proactive in architectural leadership and embrace best practice architecture as a part of our DNA in Sydney.