Buvette Masthead

How brilliant buildings can attract the brightest minds to Canberra

Catherine Carter

Canberrans are a clever bunch, and last year Australia’s first Knowledge City Index confirmed it.

When benchmarked against 24 other Australian cities, Canberra came out top for education, income and digital access, as well as the greatest per capita proportion of knowledge industries and an unparalleled ability to attract talent.

This is good news in the era of the knowledge economy, where automation and artificial intelligence is expected to do away with a third of all jobs. In the not-too-distant future, prosperous cities will be built on the power of people’s minds, not muscle.

Canberra’s challenge is to transform our well-established smarts into a fully-fledged knowledge economy. And to do this, we need to start from the ground up – with brilliant buildings.

Knowledge may be our greatest human asset, but it’s also “infinitely more perishable thxan any other resource we’ve ever had,” argued Peter Drucker, the management guru who coined the phrase ‘knowledge worker’.

Keeping that knowledge fresh requires a rethink of the way we work. Knowledge workers don’t thrive in old-style offices and siloed spaces. They want buildings that support both collaboration and quiet reflection, that encourage accidental hallway encounters and spark kitchen table conversations. Like never before, building design is about bringing people together.

Today’s architects are being asked to create collaborative communities, and to essentially rewire organisational cultures. This is happening everywhere. While office buildings tend to attract the most attention for their Google-like ping pong tables and bean bags, scientific and research buildings are also evolving.

The buildings attracting our best and brightest scientific minds are now designed to encourage collegiality and collaboration, inspiration and innovation. Scientific institutions understand that a beautiful place to work can be a way to attract and retain the top talent.

One recent German study found that building quality influences knowledge workers’ employment choices. In fact, graduates are willing to take a 10 per cent pay cut to work in a high-performance building that encourages social interaction.

Just this week, the Australian Institute of Architects announced its 2018 award winners – and two of the stand-outs are high-tech hubs with not a sterile, stainless steel lab in sight.

The new Australian Federal Police Forensics and Data Centre at the foothills of Mount Majura took home the ACT’s top architecture prize, the Canberra Medallion.

Federal Police Data Centre. Credit: Christopher Frederick Jones.

The building brings together 200 experts in digital, biological and chemical forensics, weapons intelligence and fingerprint and facial identification.

The judges say the building could have easily “succumbed to an explicitly defensive architecture”. Instead, HASSELL’s design strikes a balance between the segregated and highly-sensitive requirements, and the aspirations for an open and communal organisation.

Federal Police Data Centre. Credit: Christopher Frederick Jones.

The design does this through the organisation of spaces around a central pedestrian spine, which connects the building’s northern ‘ceremonial’ entry to its southern ‘exhibit’ entry through a series of courtyards. The result is a building which is not only stunning but also a collaborative hub that has fostered genuine cultural change.

Meanwhile, the CSIRO’s new Black Mountain research facility, Synergy, received multiple accolades for sustainable and public architecture. Designed by BVN, the $100 million building features modern lab and office accommodation for 500 scientists working on future crops, natural resources, climate science and digital solutions.

CSIRO Synergy. Credit: John Gollings.


The building is the centrepiece of the Black Mountain Science and Innovation Park and takes the ACT one step closer to a world-leading agricultural and environmental sciences precinct.

The building has two parts: a laboratory wing with generous ceiling heights; and an x-shaped plan for workspaces. This ingenious x-shape maximises the number of workspaces with direct views of the Black Mountain landscape, and the light-filled void at its centre encourages informal moments of exchange between researchers.

CSIRO Synergy. Credit: John Gollings.

Other worthy winners include the Monaro Mall, by Universal Design Studio and Mather Architecture, which restored and reimagined an admired city landmark and retail destination.

Monaro Mall. Credit: Dianna Snape.

On the residential architecture front, Collins Caddaye Architects was applauded for Swan, a bold home on a semi-rural property. The Emerging Architect Prize was awarded to Shannon Battisson from The Mill: Architecture + Design.

Robert Foster with the iconic Fink Water Jug.

And internationally recognised designer Robert Foster was acknowledged for his contribution to art and architecture through the Lifetime Contribution Prize.

Swan. Credit: Stefan Postles.

According to the Australian Institute of Architects’ ACT Chapter President, Philip Leeson, a record number of entries were received this year. This is “a promising sign”, Philip says, that Canberrans “see the benefit of good quality sustainable design and that business leaders see the return on investment achieved through architectural design”.

Swan. Credit: CCA.

I’d like to think the record number of entries are also a sign of the times. Today’s architecture acts as a ‘signal’ to knowledge workers who can choose to live anywhere but choose Canberra. They do so because they are attracted Canberra’s lifestyle and natural beauty, culture and human capital, but also, increasingly I hope, for our built environment.

My message? When we want to attract the best and brightest, our buildings matter.

Feature image: Swan. Credit: Stefan Postles.


Catherine Carter

A lover of books and beauty, a seasoned traveller and a creative thinker, Catherine Carter is passionate about Canberra. Head of the Property Council of Australia’s Canberra office for more than a decade, Catherine now provides specialist business and communication consultancy services with a focus on urban environments, new forms of collaboration, community building and diversity. Catherine was the recipient of the Telstra Business Women’s ACT Community and Government Award in 2010 and the National Association of Women in Construction Crystal Vision Award in 2017. More about the Author

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