Sydney Architecture Festival

Nina and Elena Tory Henderson, Goat Island, 2014. Image courtesy of Sydney Architecture Festival.

This story first originally appeared on Open Journal on October 30, 2014. Images courtesy of Sydney Architecture Festival.

It’s been eight years since the Australian Institute of Architects and the New South Wales Architects Registration Board came together to launch the inaugural Sydney Architecture Festival. The festival returns this year from November 1-10 and explores the theme of ‘Connections – The making of a great city’.

The program brings together a diverse range of events catering for the both the public and industry, encompassing talks, exhibitions, tours, cruises, panel discussions, workshops, screenings, Sydney Open and more.  This year sees the festival move beyond its traditional base of Sydney city, to include events in the secondary host suburb of Parramatta in the outer west.

Open Journal spoke with festival spokesperson and registrar of the New South Wales Architects Registration Board, Tim Horton, about the ideas driving the festival and what’s in store for this year’s program.

The theme of this year’s Sydney Architecture Festival (SAF) is ‘Connections – The making of a great city’. How would you define this and what will it encompass?

‘Connections’ is about doing the important work of joining up. We can all point to good people doing great things or exciting initiatives that promise to improve Sydney if we get them right. At the same time, we can probably all think of ways to better connect up those good things.

‘Connections – the making of a great city’ is about seizing on the enormous growth planned for Sydney and asks; how can we be sure that we will grow a greater Sydney? Where is design quality in all the infrastructure? Do we have the right models for housing families close to ageing parents? Can our major transport projects actually improve metropolitan Sydney or will they carve up and disconnect communities? Architecture, done right, is about more than buildings. Great architecture has to start by asking what type of city we want. The festival theme is about connecting more people to ask that question.

Can you tell us a little about the origins of the event and the ideas driving it?

The festival started on World Architecture Day 2007 when the Australian Institute of Architects and the NSW Architects Registration Board teamed up to promote architecture – not just in the usual boardrooms and design studios – but in a program of public forums and events on the streets of Sydney. This is really important to understanding what drives the festival. It’s an outward focus – an ideal platform to inform, engage and explore.

Architecture is a very public profession, and the architecture of a city matters. And because it happens in public, we need a platform where the stuff of architecture can be discussed in public regardless of where you come from. Frank Lloyd Wright said that a doctor can bury his mistakes; an architect can just advise a client to plant vines. If only it was that easy to fix those parts of a city that don’t work.

Do you have any personal highlights or recommended must-dos from this year’s program? 

Some of the events you can be part of wherever you are – like the #myarchitecture Instagram photo competition that’s already close to 400 entries. Some you just have to be at – like the flagship Colloquium on 7 November. We’ve broken the tradition of talking about the future of Sydney from the safety of city laneways. We’re talking about ‘Growing a greater Sydney’ in the geographic and demographic heart of Sydney – Parramatta. Again, with the theme in mind, we’re connecting architecture with transport, city governance and urban growth; infrastructure and landscape. ‘Growing a greater Sydney’ is a practical guide to integrating design, planning and development.

Connecting the action in Sydney’s CBD to Parramatta will be the ‘Bridges Ahoy’ ferry tourwith a difference – sunrise and sunset tours on the extraordinary harbour to get underneath the great bridges that connect our city. Engineering audacity meets the human stories and post war ‘can do’ – a sort of narrated ‘hand book’ on the sweeping moves that shaped the city we know from the land, but less from our own harbour.

Harry Seidler’s office and retail complex Australia Square in Sydney’s CBD. Image courtesy of Sydney Architecture Festival.
Harry Seidler’s office and retail complex Australia Square in Sydney’s CBD. Image courtesy of Sydney Architecture Festival.

The opening of over 50 of the city’s major public buildings as part of the Sydney Open program receives great public response. What are your favourites among the buildings being opened?

QVB’s stained glass dome is jaw dropping. Getting to it is like a scene from the Poseidon Adventure – holding your breath as you clamber up Victorian ironwork poised in mid-air 60m above George St. Confronting this dome – built inside a larger copper dome inspired by the Florence Il Duomo cathedral – is like coming eye to eye with the Statue of Liberty.

But the real success of Sydney Open is the reach of sites to visit spanning three centuries. Taken together you see the relentless push to use technology to go higher, lighter, more extravagant and to stand out; to shelter and house a growing city. You see this in the restless work of Seidler who almost drags Sydney kicking into the 20th century with his Australia Square – at the time the tallest concrete structure in the world (pictured above. It’s as much a social history lesson as an inventory of ambitious patrons, bold architects and businesses that busted and boomed.

What do you think is unique or special about Sydney’s architecture? 

Ken Maher put it really well in a blog he wrote for the Festival just the other week – saying that Sydney’s built form has failed to match the quality of its setting by a long shot. To him, the power and potency of the landscape remains Sydney’s identity. It means the architecture reaches out, craning its neck to see water or bushland or a sliver of daylight down a laneway. Central Park on Broadway has taken that a step further by wearing the landscape on its sleeve and rolling out green technologies across a whole precinct. Ken Maher may be right, but there’s good signs that Sydney architecture is finding itself again – inspired by the quality of its setting.

Do you think this shapes the way people live and engage with the city?

Sydneysiders love their beaches, their headlands and finding the last ray of sunlight in Hyde Park after a Sunday in the city. Sydney loves its outdoors. So architecture that extends into the landscape, and extends landscape in to the architecture is a defining feature of Sydney social life. It’s the northern terrace at the Opera House, or the balcony at the end of the Wharf Theatre in Walsh Bay or at Bondi Icebergs. Those beach kiosks like the new Tamarama kiosk by LahzNimmo. Sydney likes to walk barefoot with an ice cream when it can. The new generation of architects understand this.

The keynote event is the Colloquium, ‘Growing a greater Sydney – Connecting People and Places’, on November 7. What does this event set out to address?

‘Growing a greater Sydney’ picks up on some words by the President of the Institute of Architects, Joe Agius, at a function a few months back that posed the really big question: Can Sydney get better as it gets bigger? So while everyone is talking growth, this event is a practical guide to what good growth looks like, and the role that architecture plays in making that happen – connecting the needs of people with the potential of places we design and build for them. For us. It’s too easy to lock in to oppositional positions on big infrastructure projects – to jump at shadows on whether a second airport is a good thing or not. What WestConnex could really be if we get it right. This event is about rolling up our sleeves and asking: What does it take to get it right? It’s about architects, economists and others choosing to get on the front foot and play a role.

Bridge with deck gap narrowing seen at dusk looking south-west, c.1995 Image courtesy of Sydney Architecture Festival.
Bridge with deck gap narrowing seen at dusk looking south-west, c.1995 Image courtesy of Sydney Architecture Festival.

On a personal level, what do you envision Sydney’s future to look like in relation to urban planning, architecture and build environments?

There’s a lot to be positive about. Sydney’s leading in the things that make a city great; there’s a quiet determination to invest in public transport to manage traffic congestion. Urban Growth is getting its head straight on an enormous slate of well-sized precincts that have the potential to set a new standard for Sydney. The non-government coalitions are working well – like the Committee for Sydney and the Better Planning Network that are both sources of evidence-based advocacy (the valuable check and balance that Sydney always needs to avoid losing its head in the hysteria of manic growth).

Latest and most exciting of all is the potential of the Greater Sydney Commission. I had the chance to lead a commission like this in South Australia. The model is invaluable. Having a broker that can work outside but alongside government agencies, as well as local councils, private development, communities, professionals and expert research can do the important work the Sydney Architecture Festival is looking to promote – the connecting up.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I feel Sydney is one of the few cities that has adult conversations about architecture. It doesn’t cringe because it cares about the city. It’s a city that defines itself partly through its architecture. It loves its icons and its overpriced real estate. It lives for amazing experiences told through its architecture. Its thriving business culture pushes architects to experiment in order to stand out. Think of No.1 Bligh St, 8 Chifley, and work in Martin Place still coming out of the ground. It helps to have the City of Sydney that has consistently demanded – and supported – that architecture in the city should be at the leading edge. It matters when people know that architecture matters.