The Perth of Tomorrow: Our Architectural Identity

Looking at the new Perth Stadium, Contemporary asks: do we have the right to expect architecture to create those environments in which we can find our collective identity? David Congram writes.

Considering our current hyper-connected global-villagers’ mindset, is it possible any longer to say there is such a thing as a national architectural identity? In Australia, in particular, we delight in the vernacular of a quintessentially Australian Architecture. But very few would say that we have the pedigree to support such. These naysayers ‘ as much as we may not like to admit it ‘ might actually have a point. Unlike most nations, we are yet to found a “School’ such as Bauhaus, Russian Baroque, or Meiji Restoration, which we could claim to be our very own. And, only quite recently did we begin using local and not imported material for our civil and residential structures.

Then again, some would see this as our strength. Relatively unfettered by the protracted duration of history, the Australian orientation towards architecture is largely forward-looking, tempered slightly by a Janus-faced sentimentality. Insofar as this is the case, our current generation of architects have certainly come a long way since their predecessors. Back in 1960, Robin Boyd wrote in Australian Ugliness that

“[t]he Australian ugliness begins with the fear of reality, denies the need for the every day environment to reflect the heart of the human problem, satisfaction with veneer and cosmetic effects. It ends in the betrayal of the element of love and chills the root of national self respect”.

Speaking about the abandon by which architects were either wholeheartedly producing bland yet cost-effective municipal architecture or dime-a-dozen miniature neo-classical buildings for public use, Boyd speaks thoughtfully of the costs and stakeholders in our quibbles over architectural identity. Because, as is appropriately pointed out, our architecture is a direct reflection of “national self respect” (not, please note, “national self love”), we rightly expect architecture to speak to our dreams of who We want to be, participating in Our fight of becoming.

Especially across Western Australia currently, the discussion surrounding public architecture has become heated. With the redevelopment of many of our oldest structures underway, and a whole host of new mega-structures on the cards, grappling with questions of local and national identity have squarely become the concern of our architects. The working plans for the new Perth Stadium and Sports Precinct, in particular, speak strongly for a sudden turn for thoughtfulness and inclusivity amongst our A+D community.

Designed by the teams at Cox Architecture, Hassell, HKS and Arup, the new Perth Stadium and Sports Precinct represents, according to Ron Alexander (Director General: Department of Sports and Recreation and joint Chairman of Perth Stadium Steering Committee) “a permanent centrepiece for the redevelopment of the Burswood Peninsula on the Swan River, [‘and] a spectacular gateway to the Perth CBD”.

The 60,000 seat venue reflects essential elements to WA’s and the nation’s love of the outdoors, our championing of openness and, obviously, our widespread esteem for sport. And while the design obviously, as Ron Alexander points out, “has the fan at the forefront”, the plans should be applauded for representing one of the most inclusive and democratic examples of public architecture in Australia today:

” Wheelchair positions on all levels;
” Over 70 Universal Accessible Toilets plus Changing Places amenities;
” 9 times more permanent ACROD bays than required by the 2013 National Construction Code; and,
” 360-degree circulation on general admission levels.

While it is obvious that the Perth Stadium represents a big step forward in accessibility and empowering the disabled minority in our community, it also represents an equally impressive step forward for our Indigenous community. Framed by the surrounding Sports Precinct, the connecting Community Arbour incorporates seating, flora, lighting and public art all inspired by traditional Indigenous stories. Further, the surrounding landscape design around the Precinct and Stadium is devised along the principle of following the six Indigenous seasons. Mr Alexander says that “[p]ublic art will be incorporated across the Stadium and Sports Precinct to enhance the visual appeal of the area, celebrating West Australian sporting and cultural achievements whilst assisting with orientation and wayfinding for visitors”.

This is a sports arena quite unlike any we can boast nation-wide. Celebrating our cultural histories, our Indigenous history, and our arts and cultural scene alongside our sporting prowess, the plans express with decided empathy our desire to integrate while still celebrating diversity: in our community, in our collective pastimes.

With a unique bronze faade referencing WA’s unique geology and the application of sustainable design practice throughout, the plans are comprehensive and considerate. In many ways, the totality of the design echoes today’s professional reality: that architects, now, are facing very different roles in the public sphere. The way in which contracts, commissions and stakeholder relationships are handled today demands a high calibre of performance by the profession. Now harnessed by exacting budgets, steering schedules, and an enormous array of varying stakeholder engagement, the role of the architect in the public realm is to balance design prowess with considerate responses to common (and sometimes uncommon) need. In terms of architecture and identity, Perth Stadium and Sports Precinct working plans speak profoundly to the fact that, heretofore, perhaps we didn’t recognise that in designing for the public sphere it may not have been the only one.

Perth Stadium

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