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What makes good architecture?

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According to the philosophy of Vitruvius – sometimes referred to as the world’s first architect – a building must exhibit three qualities: firmitas, utilitas, venustas.

That is, it must be solid, useful and beautiful.

What it means to be solid, useful or beautiful is somewhat subjective and has undoubtedly evolved since Vitruvius was designing buildings for Romans in the first century BC.

But while Vitruvius has been relegated to the annals of history, two millennia later we are still pondering the same question: what makes good architecture?

In a young city like Canberra, we can be forgiven for thinking that great architecture is to be found elsewhere – along the tree-lined boulevards of Paris, in amidst the funky laneways of Hong Kong or sparkling in the skyline of New York City.

From the humble five room Blundell’s Cottage – one of the few reminders of our region’s rural history – to the imposing, monolithic monuments gathered around Lake Burley Griffin, Canberra has a rich architectural heritage, as well as some up-and-coming architects, thinkers and designers building places that will stand the test of time. I recently spoke to three of them.

Erin Hinton

Erin Hinton

Erin Hinton divides her time as a Director of local firm Hinton Architects and as Assistant Professor of Architecture and Interior Architecture at the University of Canberra.

She says great architecture can be found throughout Canberra, and that it ranges from “the obvious to the inconspicuous”.

It’s easy to pick poor architecture, Erin argues, because it “makes itself known in struggles against it”.

“Great architecture can be found just as readily in the scale of a street, a sunny window seat, a quiet study, a pergola that shelters a meal with friends – as it can in our awarded national institutions,” she says.

Last year, Erin won the Australian Institute of Architects’ ACT ‘Emerging Architect’ Prize, and her work includes Mocan and Green Grout and Peppers Gallery Hotel at NewActon, ONA on the Lawns of Manuka, Palko Apartments and Unit Concepts in Braddon, and the refurbishment of Ona Coffee House in Fyshwick.

Image via VisitCanberra

Mocan and Green Grout. Image via VisitCanberra

She says great architecture is “imperceptible”. It is architecture so attuned to its conditions – whether that’s environmental, cultural, social or functional, that it is “as if it is invisible – yet still effects delight and keeps the rain out”.

According to Sarah Lebner, lead architect at Light House Architecture and Science, great architecture should belong to its location and culture, and respond to its site and climate.

Sarah admires the “timeless symbolism of democracy” captured in Aldo Giurgola’s Parliament House, and the “engaging sustainability” found in Fender Katsalidis’ NewActon Nishi building. Other favourites include the “tactile and site responsive” village centre of the Arboretum by Tonkin Zulaikha Greer Architects and Rob Henry’s “delicately detailed, light-filled, bushfire responsive rural ‘Box House’.”

Sarah Lebner

Sarah Lebner

Sarah says her pursuit of architectural greatness is currently “more humble” as she works collaboratively to develop a modular housing design that makes affordable, beautiful, energy efficient homes more accessible to the general public.

“In this context, the pursuit of greatness is the pursuit of the best design possible within the site and means available – something that the majority of homeowners in Australia are grossly short-changed on.”

Sarah, who was presented with the ACT Future Leader Award by the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) in 2015, detests “McMansions and streetscapes filled with blank double garages”. Instead, she is striving for “small, smart and sustainable”.

Image: Martin Ollman

The Village Centre of the National Arboretum. Image: Martin Ollman.

Elisabeth Judd, Director of boutique inner-city practice JUDD.studio – architecture and urban strategy, is “passionate about Canberra and city making in our new urban context”.

Elisabeth says good architecture uses volume, light, materials and planning to offer spaces that welcome and inspire, with really great buildings “drawing your eyes up to excite and feed the soul”.

Elisabeth Judd

Elisabeth Judd

“Canberrans know what good design is and recognise great urban spaces,” Elisabeth says, adding that Canberra is home to some spectacular examples of architecture. These range from the “obvious examples” such as Parliament House, Commonwealth Place, the Australian Academy of Science, the Carillion and John Curtin School of Medical Research to “less loved but equally exciting” buildings such as the Cameron offices in Belconnen and Callum Offices in Woden.

“Canberra is discovering that contemporary architecture can break the mould here too – that ‘edgier’ design doesn’t just live in Melbourne or Sydney,” Elisabeth says.

John Curtin School of Medical Research. Image: Martin Ollman

John Curtin School of Medical Research. Image: Martin Ollman

It’s sometimes said that there are no great architects, but that a great building is the result of a great collaboration between the client and the consultants. But “just as there are great composers or great inventors, there are definitely great architects,” Erin explains. “The strength of a project rests with the strength of the team behind it.”

Sarah agrees, and quotes her favourite architect, Richard Leplastrier: “architecture is full of nuance and levels of difficulty and hurdles, and it’s absolutely symphonic in the way that it works.” An architect is like the orchestra conductor that must bring out the best in everybody.

Perhaps that’s the secret of great architecture. It’s not about solidity, usefulness or beauty. It’s about building something that brings out the best in us all.

Feature image: The Research School of Chemistry, ANU Campus. Photography by Martin Ollman

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