Architecture is a reflection of culture. For architects, understanding and responding to culture through design is a critical part to achieving buildings that resonate with people.   

Architect and Atelier Red+Black co-director Sonia Sarangi, has been investigating the evolving Indian culture in Melbourne which has now led to a solo photographic exhibition at Magnet Gallery in Melbourne.  


The evolution of Indian culture in Melbourne is still very much a work in progress. Whilst many would be familiar with the butter chicken and Bollywood stereotypes, there is far greater diversity and depth to Indian culture than what is commonly portrayed. For Sonia, exploring how the Indian food scene was adapting and thriving within Melbourne was a window into this evolution.


“People call Melbourne the sports capital of the world, but I also call it the food capital. Melbourne has so many cultures, people here come from every single part of the globe. We have another restaurant in New York, however the Melbourne restaurant is the original. Usually trends come from the United States, however this is the other way around. One thing I can say, with my hand on my heart, is that Melbourne is way ahead of New York when it comes to food.”


Babuji, St Kilda


“Architects are trained to make unexpected connections and see patterns in daily life. So my interest was piqued by each of these new wave of establishments and I began to see the wider shift they are creating.”

Sonia Sarangi


The exhibition installation by Atelier Red+Black references the traditional Jali screens of India which often have triangulated geometry and abstract ornamentation. In India these screens are used to divide and define space. The reinterpretation of these screens for the exhibition uses them to frame the images, taking the artwork of the walls and placing them in the centre of the gallery space.


Desivolution is part of the Mapping Melbourne Festival, which is produced by Multicultural Arts Victoria.

The exhibition is at Magnet Gallery until the 15th of December 2016

Level 2, 640 Bourke St
Melbourne, Victoria,

For more information click here


Architecture is for everyone


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The dark side of architectural education

Architecture is one of the most intense university courses one can pursue.  Chelsea Doorne, a fourth year Master of Architecture student, shines a torch on the dark side of the architecture student experience. 

Architecture school and dedication are synonymous, however more often than not, this devotion to the art of design comes at a cost.

A recent survey conducted by the Architects Journal documented that 1 in 4 architecture students are suffering from mental health issues, with a further 26% stating that they would likely seek treatment and professional help in the future. This is hardly surprising given that when searching ‘architecture student’, images of solitary students crouched over models are accompanied by a smattering of ‘memes’ depicting feelings of rejection, chaos, and most predominantly, forced insomnia. This deeply embedded culture of overworking and negativity is one of the primary reasons why mental health is such a prevalent issue within the architectural student community.

Long hours are one of the most recognisable traits of the architecture student community, with almost 1 in 3 students reporting that they work through the night on a regular basis. This common place experience of sleep deprivation within architecture school is widely known and also referenced by a number of blogs such as architorture school. Among students, stating your longest time awake can become akin to a competition, and often be seen as an implied level of success in the studio realm. This normalising of nocturnal study isn’t just supported by students, with there being an expectation to work throughout the night imposed by many tutors. The large workload of the degree, noted as being one of the heaviest, can also contribute to the frequency of ‘all-nighters’ with the design process demanding an unquantifiable number of hours. It is common for a designer to feel that the process is never truly complete, even when the final deadline has long passed. With one often feeling as though a large amount of improvements which can be made, unlike a finance report, for instance, which is completed when all the data has been entered.

The ever present threat of time, or lack thereof, is added to by the expectation of students to work part time in firms to gain experience and in the case of some universities, it is a requirement for graduation. In a course where, particularly at Masters level, most timetables demand the full five days of study, many students are skipping classes to satisfy these demands. The high requirement of these hours along with the prevalence of some internships that (illegally) pay in ‘experience’ over money, lead to many students experiencing financial difficulties throughout their degree. Although the job market for architects is currently looking positive, it is also highly competitive and many universities no longer offer study placement programs, making these positions increasingly difficult to secure. This stress of gaining necessary, yet difficult to find experience, coupled with the already stressful study period is a large contributing factor to the poor mental health of architecture students.

These monetary stresses extend into the cost of study which is notoriously expensive. While university text books are expensive across the board, the constant need to print and construct models can often blow an already tight student budget, with some models costing in excess of $300, and printing frequently exceeding $100 per presentation. These expenses (coupled with expensive software, computers and the cost of travel for site visits), can force many students to switch to a part-time load, adding time to an already lengthy degree.

“The overarching costs of the degree as a whole, when coupled with poor pay and employment prospects, paint a bleak outlook for the average architecture student.”

The critique or design review of the architecture degree is well known from day one in architecture school, and the negative stigma that surrounds it is intrinsically linked to the design culture. Design is not as simple as a yes or no answer that can be found in other faculties, such as engineering, instead, it is subjective, leading to confusion between a critic’s opinions versus how the project is received in the studio class among tutors. These critiques are feared throughout the faculty and many students accept that they will often receive a bad comment or a terrible review, regardless of the number of hours and effort devoted to a design proposal. Design is an intensely personal endeavour and is not too dissimilar to an art piece, with heart, soul, sweat and tears being poured into a project. This brings an additional intensity to the critique process and makes a negative reception much more distressing. To those students who are already suffering from mental illness, the toll can be devastating, particularly when coupled with running on little-to-zero sleep, often poor nutrition and an already volatile state of mind, this can only lead to negative outcomes for the student.

It is not uncommon to see a shift in the demeanour of students throughout the semester. Ask someone how they are in the early weeks is answered with an upbeat, “great”, or “looking forward to the semester” or something of the like. Ask the same person  in week 7 and you’re looking at a less than jovial response. They’re likely either “tired”, or just “fine”. This dramatic shift in attitude in less than two months is sadly commonplace among students.

One of the primary issues with this negative ethos of studio critique is that it is deeply rooted in architecture culture and widely accepted, if not expected. The critics of today do not feel it is an overly harsh response as they were treated the same in their time at architecture school, much like their tutors before them. It is normalised and expected that tears and breakdowns will follow a critique and this is where the issue lies. Yes, we need to be prepared for the inevitable future of practice which may involve an imposing director and a less than content client. However when students are learning, this breaking of their spirit through a ruthless critique does little more than demotivate and encourage a negative outlook in the architecture field, contributing to the low mental health state throughout the faculty.

Until this cycle of pessimism and demoralisation is broken, we can only expect that the mental health of architecture students will continue to be poor, particularly when a bleak economic outlook is added into the mix for future candidates.


Further reading:

Professor Peter Raisbeck writes an excellent blog covering some of these issues

 5 ways architecture students can avoid a mental health meltdown


Important: If you are experiencing depression, anxiety or other mental health issues, make sure you get help from your general practitioner or organisations such as The Black Dog Institute or Headspace.



About the Author

Chelsea Doorne is a Masters of Architecture student and an architectural assistant at Atelier Red + Black. Chelsea can be found on Instagram @snarchitekt

Architecture is for everyone

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Negotiating Form: Q+A with Kerstin Thompson (Part 2)

Recently Michael Smith and Sonia Sarangi sat down for an in depth conversation with Kerstin Thompson, one of Melbourne’s most highly respected architects, to discuss the built environment, form making and the relentless negotiation required to create excellent architecture.

This is the second part of the interview, to read from the beginning click here

Timber detail from Deakin University School of Architecture and Building, Kerstin Thompson Architects

Timber detail from Deakin University School of Architecture and Building, Kerstin Thompson Architects


Michael Smith: Previously you’ve spoken about your architecture as being a gradient architecture. Is this a conscious benchmark or is it a result of the process?

Kerstin Thompson: I wrote about gradients a long time ago – the thinking came from a classic late 80s training in architecture where all oppositions were being challenged. Anything that was black or white I was always looking for the grey. You think about things on a spectrum rather than one or the other. The article reflected on the kinds of formal outcomes a gradient architecture might offer. I think that idea still permeates through a lot of our projects where the situation presented is not an either or it’s an in-between and you need to formulate a response to that.

In relation to our Deakin School of Architecture and Built Environment / A+B this idea of gradients relates to different kinds of spaces and how they relate to each other. The school’s existing floorplan was highly cellular and comprised of discrete spaces. We shifted this to a more fluid arrangement, rethinking the formal binaries of public vs private spaces, smaller spaces to bigger spaces, intimate space/open space, quiet space/loud space. Exploring the space between these two ends is often an important driver our projects. You offer a range of spaces and it makes available different sorts of positions; people find their preference and make their choices within that.

MS: So it is a deliberate strategy to put that in?

KT: Yes I think it is. It came from when I was teaching in the early 90s at RMIT. I was doing my Masters and I became interested in all the figure grounds we used to do in black and white. I thought about what it might look like if you thought about a grey rather than black or white; what are these confused in-between things? Whether it’s the public/private conundrum of the shopping mall; what is that, that’s not a black or a white. Much later when KTA began working in heritage contexts we found ourselves needing to respond to neighbourhood character but we didn’t want to do this through direct imitation. There’s a way of transforming but also having some continuity with where you are. That’s an in-between. They were early examples in the practice and I think that’s something we’ve tried to build on.

Sonia Sarangi: That is a very rich approach and I can connect to that, but I wonder whether sometimes if that approach takes a bit more convincing. Our human nature is to look at black and white, you are picking the harder route.

KT: True. I remember years ago when we were working on the Upside Down House in Middle Park – that project was exactly that. There was a heritage listing on an existing house on the site but the house was in a very poor state structurally. Even though it had a listing on it the council said a case could be made to pull it down. However, we had to demonstrate that what replaced it would be a better outcome. We spent 2 years proposing various iterations but still had to go to VCAT because we couldn’t get council support. My argument was that while this building didn’t mimic the form of its neighbours, its holistic approach to site was entirely appropriate for the pattern of the neighbourhood. Form isn’t the only key.

Upside Down House section, Kerstin Thompson Architects

Upside Down House section, Kerstin Thompson Architects

So much heritage discussion then revolved around whether you are either exactly like your neighbours or you’re a juxtaposition attempting to slam dunk the suburb. I explained it would be a subtle building that didn’t look like its neighbours but still had a quietness to it. But they didn’t believe me. Council wondered why would any architect be advocating for that? Well, because we’ve always maintained that a good building doesn’t have to stand out. Anyway, when the project was eventually built it ended up winning the City of Port Phillip’s local design awards for new house.

SS: It is a rich irony that Port Phillip obviously loved the finished building.

KT: They did. The reason they gave for blocking it was: “Kerstin we know you’ll do a reasonable job but this will set a precedent and then we could get bad versions of it.” Point being, I see it as council’s problem to stop the bad versions not the good ones. Anyway, when the jury came they drove past the house twice because they missed it. I said: “See I told you it was low key”.

MS: Do you see your architecture as being particularly Australian, or is this perception a by-product of integrating your architecture so successfully with Australian landscapes?

KT: That’s a really good question. I think we probably understand our work both within a local repertoire and a global one. Yes you have your local reference points and whether that’s contemporary peers or older peers. For example, Boyd and Grounds, Baracco + Wright and all that mob from when I grew up. More recently current peers I’d say NMBW’s interests, some of Michael Markham’s work for example. There are peers I have a great respect for and there are interests common to us. I think there’s the bigger global discipline and you’re always trying to situate your work within that but also draw from it too. There’s also the idea of acting locally with a building. Not so much in the formal sense of what an Australian building looks like but more that it does something to help place-make in its situation, and help reinforce valued aspects of the local condition.

It can also be more explicit than that. For our design for Ivanhoe House, for example, it felt important to draw on the incredible architectural heritage of the suburb. Neighbourhood character is one of the planning requirements but I don’t have a lot of time for that generic contemporary. Instead we looked to Harold Desbrowe Annear as a reference point knowing that he had a body of work in that suburb and also because it fitted with the client’s preference for a slightly arts and crafts type building. We thought let’s look to a local precedent with that being part of what we interpret for the building.

One of the other things I’ve noticed is that a lot of our buildings are very long and low. Sometimes, I think, this has stemmed from a desire to make sense of the vastness of the site. When you don’t have a defined site, you have to use the built form to define the territory. It started with the Lake Connewarre House but you can also see it with Marysville Police Station and Hanging Rock House. It’s where we’ve attenuated the buildings into length to help define the space around it.

It’s almost turning the building into a wall of sorts, and you use that to make it less about a figure and more about trying to harness a territory adjacent to it. Sometimes I think that might be a response to our bigness of horizon, our wideness and our flatness. It’s something I’d like to give a bit more thought to.

MS: You have done a few police station projects.  What I find interesting about that building type is that despite the substantial functional requirements and a consistent client, the finished buildings are diverse.

KT: That’s true. I have tried to write a bit about this because it goes back to that question around making an architecture of a situation. The police stations are a nice example of that because the brief is the same. Often people justify built forms through program, whereas if the program is consistent across, say four projects, then what varies the outcome? That’s been really fascinating to wrestle with. That’s where we thought interestingly form was one of those devices. Same program but how we arrange it has a really big impact on how it operates on its site.

With Marysville it gets dragged out. It’s a long building along the edge of a park and that’s because we wanted to create more interface with interiors of the station looking out to the green space rather than just a tiny little shop front and then a long deep plan. By contrast with Warrandyte and Hurstbridge, which were done together, they are both in green belt suburbs in Melbourne. To camouflage them in their landscapes, we took an approach to brick detailing that was friendly and endearing: to reflect the greenness of the communities we used green bricks. With Marysville, we used timber instead. Through formal differences, the arrangement of program, and material choices those buildings fit more appropriately to their situations. The situation is what changes in the brief. The program is the same.

Marysville Police Station by Kerstin Thompson Architects. (Photo credit: Trevor Mein)

Marysville Police Station by Kerstin Thompson Architects.
(Photo credit: Trevor Mein)


Marysville Police Station elevation. Kerstin Thompson Architects

Marysville Police Station elevation. Kerstin Thompson Architects

MS: In addition to running a highly successful architecture practice you are also involved in architecture education both here in Melbourne and New Zealand. It seems that for the longest time the mantra of architects looking at the current education system is one of concern that it’s not what it used to be. How do you think our institutions are preparing the next generation of architects? Are they on track or do we need to shake it up?

KT: One thing I touched on earlier is the strange resistance to housing as an agenda for architecture schools. Some academics consider it too difficult, others that it’s got no speculative potential. But I think it’s strange in education for us to be resisting a major and important endeavour. Another issue is the enduring emphasis on the single author project in schools. I would still say that most studios run with about 20 students working in parallel, maybe on the same brief but individually. Something I’ve tried to do in my own teaching programs is set up opportunities for familiarizing students with a much more negotiated practice that I think architecture is and which I think has enormous design opportunity too. Studios where for instance there’s a very high level of interfacing of other student’s work in the outcome.

An example is a studio I did I think it was about 2004 at RMIT, I’ve since run different versions of it. There were 3 different projects. The first was about building a piece of infill. That’s simple interface, you just have to interface your site with the adjoining ones first thing. Then we bumped it up where it was a row housing project and if there was 20 students in the class they each did one of the houses in the row. They had two neighbours, they had a live, contingent interface that could change outside and they had to respond to that. That was the row house. Then the third part was when instead of just having 2 moving edges you had them in every possible interface on the QV site and they all worked out how they would Masterplan and organize the whole site now overlapping and moving through each other.

Kerstin_thompson on site

The point of all of that was to teach an appreciation for non-static context, which I think is in every way what practice is like every day. It’s contingent, you’re constantly getting thrown curve balls, and it’s how you negotiate and manage that and what you can extract out of it. I think that’s how good buildings come about. That’s a very valuable skill to have. The tragedy of architectural culture, and even the recent talk with Darren Anderson covered this, is how students do their final project at school and it’s as if it’s the greatest moment in their thinking and then they get into practice and it’s all depressing and downhill. That’s the exact opposite of what I think an architect should be thinking. I actually think you’ll get out of school and you’ll be so glad to have these real conditions to try and extract good architecture out of. I think it’s teaching an appreciation for the messiness as the potential and if you’ve got the tools to channel that then that’s where good architecture happens. I’d like more of that in education.

SS: I don’t think I ever heard the word negotiation once in my 5 years of education. That’s the sad thing and that’s every day now. That word just never comes up in school.

KT: It’s relentless. All you do is negotiate.

MS: Thank you very much for your time.


Architecture is for everyone.

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Negotiating Form: Q+A with Kerstin Thompson (Part 1)

Kerstin Thompson is one of Australia’s most respect architects. Her practice Kerstin Thompson Architects was established in 1994 and has delivered architectural excellence across a broad spectrum of project types from education projects, police stations and commercial fit outs, as well as multi-residential and single bespoke homes. Recently Michael Smith and Sonia Sarangi sat down for an in depth conversation with Kerstin to discuss the built environment, form making and the relentless negotiation required to create excellent architecture.


Kerstin Thompson


Michael Smith: As one of Melbourne’s leading architects, how do you evaluate the development of our city? What do you think we’re doing well and where do we need to lift our game?

Kerstin Thompson: I often bang on about how housing matters because most construction activity is housing. If you get housing wrong you’re buggering up your city. In my teaching in Wellington, but also in my practice here, I often lead research around higher density forms of housing. Recently one of my thesis students did an interim presentation to an academic from Newcastle University on the topic and his comment was “it’s so unusual seeing thesis projects on housing. In Newcastle we think it’s too hard so we don’t encourage students to tackle it.” I thought what a failure not to ask students to think about a substantial part of the city’s formation.

MS: It’s an extraordinary approach.

KT: It is. I’m always surprised that housing is seen as a prosaic topic in universities, that it’s not viewed as a place for innovation and good thinking. I think we’re realizing that Melbourne, despite priding itself on its architectural cultural, is missing the mark in terms of housing quality. This crisis is reflected in the design of minimum standards but it’s 10 years too late. That said, any turnaround is something.

MS: That leads directly into my second question, which is exactly on those draft apartment standards. Are they a good result or a missed opportunity?

KT: They’re a good start. Minimum size always alarms me because I do think there are cases where size is not the determinant of a living space’s quality or public realm benefit. When I brought a group of students over from Wellington earlier this year we went on a   housing tour that took in Cairo Apartments – a classic case of where very small spaces can have an incredibly high level of amenity because of their relationship to garden or to outside. I know that’s a low density version compared to high rise but there are many cases to be made for small that’s well designed and meets a whole lot of other liveability criteria.

What I’m not sure about is how much needs to be discretionary or mandatory. I think you’ve always got to allow for alternatives and exceptions. By way of example, we’re currently doing a project in a suburb in the inner north that’s involved an interesting negotiation around the relationship of the development to a boundary setback. The local council has been ahead of the curve in developing its own apartment design code. The challenge for us was a section of the code pertaining to varied setbacks depending on a spatial use (bedroom, living room) and the height of the building (how many storeys). Essentially if you had blank walls and relied on borrowed light from other rooms it was a lot easier to meet the code than incorporating windows and having to adjust your setback. It was a classic case where you know potential quality is being lost if the code is followed. We thought it was more generous to have a 3-metre setback because every apartment in the scheme has a double aspect and maximum cross flow ventilation. That was a fundamental principle that directed all of the massing across the site. We weren’t reliant on this rear setback, it’s only secondary, but we know it’s better for those apartments and we also think it had some benefits for the future development of the adjoining side.

Council has obviously adopted the code for a reason but then you begin to see its unintended consequences. So begins a larger discussion around discretionary aspects and being able to espouse the merits of an alternative. That’s probably one of our big hurdles, that a level of expertise and resourcing is required within council to review individual designs. You can see why it doesn’t happen, but it’s only through challenging these codes that we find new ways of doing things.

We had a case, again I’m trying to be concrete, a few years ago with a site in Fitzroy which has a 2-storey heritage base. We felt that if we put the new building in line above that the development – compared to the usual wedding cake setbacks – would be more appropriate to the morphology of Fitzroy. Also, that a perimeter block development provided better internal amenity for the development because you could do dual aspect. Even though it defied all the usual heritage defaults of setbacks from the historic façade, we pushed really hard and eventually got council support.

So it becomes a question of constantly challenging the default and approaching projects from first principles, which sometimes means high risk because you are saying to your client I actually think questioning this will get a better outcome but it’s a less predictable process that we might have to go through. That’s the scary part because it’s on your head if it doesn’t work.

MS: So to summarize your position, the apartment standards are good but they can’t be definitive. We need to have people who understand the issues to be able to provide exceptions to the rules, where appropriate.

Kerstin T: That’s right, and the intelligence to recognize when a diversion from a default is a much better outcome. How you would measure a better outcome is you would always assess it within the development, but around the development too.

“Housing always has to have a level of mutual benefit for its situation.”

That’s another little test you apply. Yes it’s good for the development but as long as it’s not jeopardizing or offsetting a problem from your site onto someone else’s site.

MS: One of the biggest changes globally that we have seen in the last few years in architecture is the rise of parametric design. Do you see this as a style in itself similar to say art deco, or is it more simply a tool that some architects will use to explore complex forms?

KT: I think it’s really interesting. Recently I went to the talk at the Boyd Foundation by Darren Anderson, who wrote the book Imaginary Cities. His talk was about future visions and they necessarily tell you more about the present out of which they came. Also that future visions tend towards this idea of tabula rasa. That they’re often presented without any understanding or concession to the existing layer of stuff that will be there. They’re strangely outside of time. Anyway, the point in relation to your question was he showed many future visions for Melbourne and he dug up all of these extraordinary schemes. Some of which I’d seen before but others were really new to me. One of them was from the 70s that was a scheme done on the Jolimont Railway.

Sonia Sarangi: Yes, those are some really crazy schemes.

KT: The wildest form making. Except for the fact that it was rendered through hand, it was a hand drawing. It looked like the sorts of projects I’ve seen recently coming out of RMIT’s parametric studios. I found it fascinating. Partly because there were these direct formal parallels using an old technology and a new technology. It’s interesting in that it tells you it’s not necessarily the tool that’s determining the forms. He also showed Mendelsohn’s Einstein Tower and you see this formal interest from early in the 20th century through to this one in the 70s in Melbourne. It’s interesting where there’s a formal intent and you just pick your tool to get to that.

The extent to which the tool can enable a new formal intent, that is something I’ve seen in the more innovative parametric studies, and again at RMIT, the thesis work there with Roland Snooks and his students. I think the possibility of these self-proliferating formal processes is really interesting. Revit, for example, which is more for the purposes of documentation and procurement benefits is not necessarily for a formal end. Why is that? Possibly because formally it doesn’t help our language or our architecture.

I will say that a long, long time ago, ’97 when we did an early project for RMIT, it was a technology estate project. It was a twisted form we were attempting to develop, which was to do with solar orientation on this curve site, et cetera. I remember having to go and find one of my old students to help me model it because with my auto CAD skills it was never going to happen. That was a nice moment where I completely understood this need for another tool to generate a 3D model.

SS: Do you ever worry that it might plant the seed for a certain kind of … I don’t want to use the world laziness.

KT: Absolutely. But it’s a complex one because on the one hand a lot of discussion in architecture is not necessarily to do with form making, and I do think that there are high risks when it’s the number 1 priority because it can result in an excess and wilfulness that I associate with problematic buildings. I know that on the one hand we fight form as a key driver or manifestation of architectural thinking. On the other I also realize that if we think of what we do as architects it is about making a physical space out of matter, and inevitably that is a creation of form.

I also recognize that some of our buildings have been identified for a clarity of form making. It’s not that they’re anti-form either, which I know some people will try to argue. I still think we always have this problem with form, but it is that extent to which it is a square peg/round hole problem. I think that’s when I question it, and how you find a form. I tried to describe this in a recent talk on ethics at the Robin Boyd Foundation in relation to the idea of accommodation.

To accommodate sounds like whatever comes in as a force within the making of a project you just take on board unquestioningly. It’s not saying that. It’s saying that all projects have various forces on them and our job, I think, is to accommodate those but through an intent of sorts. You are still doing something with these forces that is directed somehow. It’s not just whatever. I think that’s where bad architecture has an intent that is divorced from the forces it has to navigate and it just has determination to apply those regardless of whether it’s the right thing or not. That was partly where I was getting into an ethics of architecture that you have to wrestle with these considerations, it’s our duty to do that. Also for a disciplinary contribution you’re trying to wrestle and doing something with those that achieves something of integrity especially.


To continue reading part 2 of Negotiating Form with Kerstin Thompson click here


Architecture is for everyone.


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Council Election Special: Q+A with Councillor Rohan Leppert

In many ways it is the local council level of government which has the most profound impact on our built environment. In most cases they are the first line of decision making for buildings seeking planning approval and they also have a very significant role to play in the formation of local planning strategies and regulations. Right now the 79 local governments across Victoria are in election mode, with the postal ballots being accepted until Friday 21 October.

In this election special, The Red+Black Architect spoke exclusively with Councilor Rohan Leppert from the Melbourne City Council. Rohan is one of very few councilors across the state with any formal training in planning or architecture.

Red+Black Architect –  You’re currently studying a masters of urban planning and environment. How has this influenced your decision making process when considering planning applications?

Cr Rohan Leppert – It’s a really good question. I’m only half way through the degree which is quite theoretical and I’ve not had to do too much technical work yet. To be perfectly honest, the work I’ve been doing at council has been influencing my work in uni much more so than the other way round. It’s good, I appreciate having a much more solid understanding of the history of planning in Victoria to when I’m applying my role as a decision maker on planning applications and planning scheme amendments at the city of Melbourne. In many ways, I think it improves the quality of my work at the city of Melbourne. I’m in a very fortunate position.

CR Rohan Leppert

CR Rohan Leppert

R+BA – From what you’ve seen of how the council operates and the various councillors, how they vote and questions they ask. Do you think that the other councillors have a genuine understanding of what they’re deciding upon or it is very much a case that they’re relying on their officers to sort of hold their hands through the process?

Cr RL – Well there are eleven councillors and I think it’s fair to say there are eleven different understandings of the role of a councillor. That’s natural and inevitable. Well before I went back to do more study in this area, I’ve been on the public record being quite critical of the lack of training available to councillors at the beginning of a term. Because roughly half of all matters considered by council are technical planning matters and none of us have any training whatsoever upfront.

I think that’s inadequate for somewhere like the city Melbourne, which is growing at break neck speeds at the moment and which has one of the most complicated sets of different planning controls across different areas of most councils. I also think it’s too easy for councillors to throw their hands up in the air and say that their role isn’t to judge the quality of planning applications. It’s either to say, we’re not qualified, therefore we must always vote the way offices tells us to. The logical extension that argument is why get elected in the first place. Or in the worst cases, and there is maybe a couple of councillors on this council that do this, they believe their role is to vote based on the quantity of objections and so it’s gut feeling whether they like it or not. It’s a gut feeling whether there is community opposition to an application or not but as we know that’s not the way planning rules work. The council is meant to take a much more legally pure approach and decide whether or not an application complies with the scheme. Not decide whether or not the application complies with their gut feeling. This is a problem for all councillors at all times but we often have quite a few messy debates at the city of Melbourne because we all have different understanding of what our role is.

Of course I would say this, but I believe I have a much more correct understanding of what our role is than others do, but all councillors will say that!

R+BA – How would you rate the Melbourne City Council’s performance over the term?

Cr RL – What we’ve done this term is automatically consider all ministerial applications for towers above twenty-five thousand square meters in floor area. That has changed the quality of the public debate around what constitutes good planning in the central city. It has forced the minister’s hand on quite a few occasions and it’s pressured the minister to be more publicly accountable for the decisions that he makes. Whether that was Matthew Guy or now Richard Wynne. The council has definitely this term improved the quality of debate around central city planning and that alone deserves a tick I think.

The other side of that same issue is the fact that, because we consider so many large applications in public, I think this council is very bad at switching over to considering small applications in ResCode areas for example. Far too often I think some of our councillors particularly those who might not live inside the municipality – and we’re unique in being the only council Australia where a majority of councillors don’t live in the municipality – don’t know how to deal with issues surrounding smaller residential zone applications. So a bit of mixed report card from me.

We’ve improved the quality of debate around ministerial applications but we still make a mess far too often of the residential design applications.

R+BA – Perhaps the most contentious CBD shaping projects of the Melbourne city council at the moment is the redevelopment of the Queen Victoria Market. What is your take on what has been proposed and the process to get to the proposal?

Cr RL – There are lot of aspects of the Queen Victoria Market renewal that I strongly support including upgrading the car park to a new central city park for tens and thousands of new residents to enjoy. We need hot running water and a refurbishment of the bathrooms and the public amenities and the pedestrian areas and just the streetscapes generally to the Queen Victoria Market. All of these things are important, overdue, excellent things to do. There is still a very valid public debate over the extent which underground services are needed and council needs to do much more work to demonstrate what that need is.

There is more work to be done on being transparent about what the global budget for the whole renewal program is and what its component parts are going to be spent on. The biggest thing, I’ll certainly be continuing to advocate strongly for, is to improve the governance of the Queen Victoria Market, which is now quite outdated. The constitution which is a couple of decades old now, has one remit for the board and management and that is to drive a profit and return it to council. Now, the markets are a lot more than that and the management of the market now really answerable to both the board and the council in a way because the council is leading the renewal and that’s forcing the boards hand on a lot of its operational decisions because they have to anticipate that renewal. I think it’s time for a governance overhaul of the Queen Victoria Market and that’s going to be important now during the renewal, not afterwards, because the governance structures are very out of date and probably aren’t serving the market and the people of Melbourne as best they could.

R+BA – Do you think there is enough support of the existing businesses to continue to operate during this sort of uncertainty or down the track when there is construction work to make sure that the long serving businesses survive the disruption.

Cr RL – Well I absolutely don’t think that there was enough but last month at council, I moved a motion to establish a compensation fund for all traders. All traders who aren’t on perpetual licenses have now been given a five year certainty through the life of the renewal to know that they will be trading throughout, but what they hadn’t been given was an insurance that they won’t be worse off if they take that five year license. I’ve established a compensation fund by forgoing the license fees that come from Queen Victoria Management to the council which I want to be passed on as fee relief to the traders.

Any trader who can demonstrate that they’re worse off as a result of the renewal, we will make a proportional cut of their license fees. I think that’s only fair because what is happening here is going to be very disruptive. The end result is promised to be a vast improvement and I’m going to work very hard to make sure that is the case. In the meantime, we have to be scrupulously fair and supportive of the traders who are the lifeblood of the market and have been for generations.

R+BA – What are your thoughts on the state government’s draft apartment standards?

Cr RL – We considered this at council recently as well. Look, it’s a strange one. The apartment guidelines have been such a long time coming and obviously Mathew Guy went through a couple of rounds of work on this and then there was a big pause with the change of government and then it was promised to come back soon. In one sense, these are years too late. In another sense, what’s been released now seems to be quite rushed and incomplete. I’m quite critical that the draft standards have been released but the draft objectives haven’t been released alongside them. If we’re looking at a performance based regime, a ResCode style regime for apartment standards, then the state government should be consulting on that comprehensively.

It’s all very well to say here are the draft standards but if you don’t know what the objectives are then you don’t have the complete picture. There are also quite a few issues that I know are going to be picked up in this consultation round. For example the standards about the dimensions of rooms may be causing knock-on issues. This has all been in the public realm. I’m very nervous about what we’re going to be saying with more and more tiny living areas because there are no standards around minimum dimensions and sizes for living areas but there are around bedrooms.

While the bedrooms might be getting a higher quality, are the living rooms going to become lower quality? All of these issues need to be properly tested and to be frank, we’re a long way from something that I’m confident will be improving the quality of apartments in Melbourne.

R+BA – Wouldn’t that be the role of a draft document, to have that discussion early rather than to lump it together as the final release?

Cr RL – That’s right but my understanding is that the final is going to be released in conjunction with the final central city built form review controls. That suggests to me that the complete apartment guidelines planning controls won’t be consulted on. We’re just looking at the early draft standards only now and it may be that there is no consultation on the complete picture before they’re gazetted in December. I don’t know the answer to that question but there is still a little way to go.

R+BA – What project or precinct do you consider to be the most vital to get right for Melbourne’s future? Or to put it in another way, in hypothetical question. If you can instantly fix one precinct or build one piece of infrastructure for Melbourne, what would it be?

Cr RL – I’m strong supporter of the Metro and I think that’s going to be a complete game changer for transport in Melbourne but that’s a very standard answer that you’re going to hear from many people. If I could wave my magic ward, I would go back in time and stop Matthew Guy from rezoning all of Fishermans Bend to capital city zone overnight. We’ve now got a Labor government who have inherited that problem and has pretty much decided that it’s too complicated and too great an infringement on property rights to reverse that decision now. We’re in this ludicrous space where they’ve released a draft vision framework for Fishermans Bend which talks about what land uses they want in each of these precincts, but they know full well that they have a capital city zone which allows most land uses as of right.

So they’re looking at financial incentives to encourage apartments in some areas but not others, offices in some areas but not others, artist live-work spaces in some areas but not others. We’re now looking at a situation in Victoria where we’re ‘post–zoning’ in terms of how we’re going to be generating and incentivizing land use. That’s quite dangerous. It’s relinquishing government’s role in regulating good public outcomes and it’s embracing this very unpredictable, very neo-liberal space which I’m utterly nervous about. I think that the Labor government is not averting the disaster in Fishermans Bend that Mathew Guy created and that’s very scary.

R+BA – What’s on your agenda if you’re re-elected for another term?

Cr RL – A lot of things. We released a twenty-six page policy platform. It’s always the way that the Greens are very policy heavy in the context of elections. I would like to refocus council attention on the affordability crisis in housing in the central city. As you may know the offices have worked for years and years preparing a housing strategy for the city of Melbourne which at five minutes to midnight, a majority of council decided they did not want to include any planning controls for affordable housing quotas in urban renewal areas. That was devastating. It means that after all of that work, council does not have a policy on how it is going to drive affordability in urban renewal areas or anywhere in the city other than a few individual sites that it happens to own.

Council squibbed it and the planning minister also squibbed it. He went with an election promise of introducing inclusionary zoning in some areas, we’ve heard nothing more of that in two years now. The council and state government must start addressing this issue. I know it’s very much a state government issue as well and state government needs to build more public housing, it needs to introduce more planning controls to force a higher quality apartments and more affordable apartments. Council can play leading role on that as well and it completely squandered that role in this term and we need a bit more of a shift and the balance of votes on council to be perfectly honest to make a different in the next term. Housing affordability is a huge emphasis for me going forward.

R+BA – What is your view of developer donations to candidates? Would outlawing this practice, banning developer contributions, will that push it underground in the sense that it will be invisible to scrutiny . For example, many developers are sort of the ‘mom and the dad’ kind of developers who are not huge players in town, but they do projects all the same.  They are somewhat anonymous and so if they donate via their personal name, how would you know if they’re a developer or not?

Cr RL – That’s absolutely right. I believe that developer donations are a form of soft corruption at least and must be abolished but how you define ‘developer’ is the crux of the matter. In New South Wales where donations from developers have been banned, there has not been enough work been done to be define in the legislation what that actually means. Luckily though in New South Wales they’ve got ICAC which is a strong anti-corruption body which can weed out the behind-the-scenes, getting-around-the-law activities that have gone on in that state.

For example in Victoria, if we were to introduce the New South Wales model of banning developer donations, I don’t think our IBAC is strong enough to do what ICAC does. You can’t just copy what they have done in New South Wales. We need a very strong definition around which class of persons and organizations may not make a donation, and mechanisms to stop the transfer funds via a third party as well. However the principle is absolutely the right one. That councils which deal so often in making assessments of whether or not development should go ahead, must not ever be influenced. The constituent members, the councillors, must not ever be influenced by donations from developers.

It just makes the work of council grind to a halt if we lose quorum as we’ve done at this term of council here. Just as badly, the perception in the public that council cannot act in the public interest is utterly, utterly damaging and it loses all the good will that there might be for council to plan new planning rules and to plan new communities. It just puts this big question mark over everything we do and that’s just so lamentable. Especially for those of us who have vowed to never ever, ever take a donation from any developer, and of course the Greens never will.

R+BA – Recently Sydney had their local council elections and there was a bit of controversy around the state government introducing new rules around how businesses could vote and so forth. Despite all that, the siting Mayor, Clover Moore was re-elected by an even stronger margin. Is there any lessons to be learnt from that context or is Melbourne in completely different bubble?

Cr RL – There are similarities but there are quite a few differences as well. The law change in Sydney recently was just about compulsorily enrolling businesses and giving them all two votes. That was the only bit of the legislation. It was much easier to galvanize opposition around because it was quite clear that that legislation was introduced for one reason only, and that was to knock off the incumbent Lord Mayor.

In Melbourne, we’ve got this system in place already but it came into effect as part of an omnibus package with the 2001 City of Melbourne Act introduced by the Labor Government. Jeff Kennett introduced two votes for businesses in the 1990s but it wasn’t until the omnibus City of Melbourne Act in 2001 was introduced that the sweeping changes in all aspects of City of Melbourne Elections were introduced.

There wasn’t the opportunity there for the public to galvanize around those changes because they were part of a more comprehensive suite of changes and it also wasn’t about getting rid of an incumbent because immediately before the act was introduced we’d had administrators at the City of Melbourne. Of course all local residents are always happy to get rid of the administrators! There hasn’t ever been the outrage in Melbourne that there has been in Sydney and yet our electoral system is much worse. Non-residents make up sixty percent of the residential role here whereas in Sydney, the residential role is still the vast majority of the role.

Because of that set of circumstances we’ve never had the public outrage that we’ve seen in Sydney recently. Which is a shame because the Melbourne electoral system is fundamentally a system that enfranchises money, it’s the most male electoral roll in the country, it’s the most wealthy electoral roll in the country and as I said earlier, it’s the only council in the country where majority of the councillors live outside the municipality. Now all of these things really deflect the purpose of local government I think. It removes council from the day to day work of the community to too great an extent.

It’s a strange situation. We’ve got a much worse situation than Sydney does at the moment and yet we’ve got less of the outrage because of the particular ways that both systems were formed. That’s the system we all have to work in.

R+BA – Thank you very much for your time.


Voting for local council elections close on Friday 21 October 2016, make sure you have your say.


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Q+A with Vanessa Bird, Victorian President of the Australian Institute of Architects

Whilst there has been substantial publicity and commentary around Victoria’s proposed apartment standards, the Central City Planning Provisions, Melbourne Amendment C270 have been quietly progressing. Recently Vanessa Bird, the Victorian President of the Australian Institute of Architects, took some time to answer a few questions about this proposed planning amendment  as well as the institutes wider advocacy agenda


Vanessa Bird, Victorian President of the AIA (photo credit: Dianna Snape)


Red+Black Architect – For those who haven’t been following this process, what is the Central City Planning Provisions amendment about, and what is at stake?

Vanessa Bird – Amendment C270 proposes changes to existing provisions within the Hoddle Grid and Southbank. The stated aim is to protect the liveability of the city by ensuring the provision of space around tall buildings, protect important public spaces from overshadowing, including the Yarra River, and establish floor area ratios for new developments. Developments which exceed the base floor area ratio will be matched by public benefits such as on-site public open space and laneways, or social housing within the development. No maximum height limit is proposed except for identified special character areas. A floor area ratio of 18:1 Is proposed with uplift bonuses available for the provision of public benefits.

R+BA – As Victorian President you have been leading the AIA’s response to this process. What outcomes are you hoping to achieve?

VB – The AIA aims to shift the discussion towards mechanisms that reward design excellence. We have a role to play as the ‘critical friend’ to government – as NSW President Shaun Carter put it – advocating for good planning and excellent design outcomes. This means we can be supportive but ask provocative questions as an advocate for the success of C270.

In August the Institute presented on C270 at a Planning Panel hearing. The presentation focused on 2 key points. The first being that design excellence is a key pillar of any good planning outcome and should be rewarded. A well designed city needs both good built form outcomes and good design outcomes, and the two are not mutually inclusive. The current C270 does not place any weight on design excellence. We argued that good design is critical to good city outcomes and should not be separated from planning. To achieve this end, we have proposed a Design Review Panel for any project over 18:1 or to provide significant Floor Area Uplift for projects that gain permits through a DRP process. We acknowledge that a DRP process by its very nature will be a more time consuming
process, which is critical in achieving a good design outcome. Lack of time is not the friend of good design. Given this, the developer should be rewarded with significant uplift benefits for embarking on this process as it will cost more money, and may result in a more expensive building, while producing greater long-term benefits to society. In addition, an independent architect should be mandatory on all projects over 18:1. Any project over 18:1 is of significance and as such design should be considered paramount.

The second part of the presentation focused on expanding the definition and scope of Floor Area Uplift for Public Benefits. We support Public Benefits which improve the quality of the public realm and architecture, of the diversity and accessibility of the city, and which allow architects to design innovatively to create a memorable and sustainable built environment. The definition of Public Benefits should be expanded to include, Sustainable Design, works to Heritage Buildings, Innovation, Social Use / Mixed Use. Precinct-based benefits were proposed – meaning off site benefits – and point to the need for Precinct Masterplans. Several Chapter Councilors and members of the Large
Practice Forum contributed to the content and presentation including Tim Leslie, Matthew Smith, Adam Pustola, Ingrid Bakker, Craig Baudin, Jesse Judd and Alison Cleary.


R+BA – The recently released draft apartment standards proscribe minimum building set-backs for apartments, is there any potential overlap between these policies?

VB – Under the proposed C270 amendment 5 metre setbacks are mandatory. Overlays will continue to operate, so the requirements of the Apartment Standards sit below the requirements of an overlay. The AIA proposed that controls be mandatory unless you go through DRP where say an average setback calculation could be considered. This would allow for a variety of built forms rather than a strict vertical face to the boundary, such as a curved facade which reduces the setback in the middle of the site but increases it towards the street frontage. These variations would need approval by the DRP to ensure they meet the planning objectives and delivering design excellence.

R+BA – With a renewed focus on advocacy, will the Institute be looking to provide input on the Melbourne Metro Rail Tunnel or the recently released vision for the Arden urban renewal precinct?

VB – Yes, just last month I MC’d at an ‘industry networking event’ for members of PIA, AILA and AIA where a group of cross-disciplinary speakers spoke about transport options for cities, which apart from public transport included bikes, walking, and autonomous shared vehicles. Rob Moore, City of Melbourne Project Executive for Melbourne Metro Rail, gave a fascinating talk on maintaining design quality on what is extensively a civil engineering project. Interestingly he used a WA Government Architect diagram to guide the design review and decision making process. As the AIA becomes a more active advocacy voice, we are asked to provide feedback more often on more
topics. Our work and that of the office of government architect are increasingly informing the debate on cities.

To answer the second part of your question – a group of Chapter Councillors and the Urban Design Forum are working on an AIA position on Arden-Macauley. Architects of course contribute to the debate through the quality of their design work but also need to stand up for the precinct and the public interest.

R+BA –  Do you think that the VCAT system for appealing planning decisions is working as well as it could? Some recent decisions such as the now infamous Nightingale refusal, give the perception that some outcomes can vary depending on the member hearing the case. Should cases be heard by a panel of members rather than an individual in order to dispel this perception?

VB – The member question is a VCAT matter, although they do have 2 or 3 members on larger cases. VCAT is a transparent process. The AIA supports the maintenance of community consultation and the right for third party appeal. That said, we would like to see a Design Review Process that carries weight at VCAT incorporated into the assessment process in the Apartment Standards Guidelines. The VCAT pathway adds to the cost of housing through delays and representation costs, so certainty in the Decision Guidelines and their assessment is crucial. Design experts are needed to assess design objectives, not planners or lawyers – again highlighting the need for DRPs with authority.

R+BA – How would you rate the current State Government’s performance on built environment issues?

VB – The AIA can’t rate a sitting government whose projects haven’t yet been delivered. It’s at the end of the term when they can be evaluated. As mentioned earlier we work with government to achieve the best outcome and advocate for the public interest. We do though welcome the initiative of the Apartment Design Guidelines, C270 is a positive step as is the long overdue Melbourne Metro Rail Project.

R+BA – Thank you for your time


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Seeing the light: Victoria’s draft apartment standards released

After many months of speculation, the Victorian Government has finally released a draft of the minimum apartment standards. The standards are a compromise but none the less a welcome step in the right direction.

The award winning Quays Towers by MCR

The award winning Quays Towers by MCR

The big headline from Sunday’s announcement, covered here in The Age, is that there will be no minimum apartment sizes, however minimum balcony sizes and accessibility requirements on bedrooms and bathrooms will assist with safeguarding functionality.

Habitable rooms, such as bedrooms, living rooms and studies, must have a window visible from all points within the room. This is the end of bedrooms without windows and saddlebag floor plan layouts.

“Buildings that rely on borrowed light, buildings that have poor ventilation, buildings where you can barely put a double bed into the bedroom: this is not the quality of apartments that we should have.”

Planning Minister, Richard Wynne

The standards will offer a degree of flexibility. In the instance where a particular standard cannot be met, alternative design solutions that meet the overall objective can be considered by council. This will likely placate concerns that the standards could jeopardise design innovation.

Reports of the death of South facing apartments have been greatly exaggerated. 

Towers above 25 metres in height will need building separation of at least 24 metres. This will no doubt be a positive for areas such as the CBD, Docklands, Fishermans Bend and Box Hill, as it will help to protect the cumulative effect that towers can have on the street. It will also help with visual privacy between apartments.

By popular demand, storage space has been increased. The draft standards propose a minimum 8 cubic metre storage space is required for a two bedroom apartment and 10 cubic metres for an apartment with three or more bedrooms.

 RMB storage space data
64.7% of Victorian respondents believe their apartment storage space is insufficient for their needs

Minimum ceiling heights have not been specified, but instead will be linked to the allowable depth of the apartment. There are effectively two categories for this requirement, single aspect apartments that face south and all other apartments. For the purely south facing apartments, a maximum ratio of 2:1 , dwelling depth to ceiling height will be required for habitable rooms.

For all other apartments the depth of habitable rooms is capped at a ratio of 2.5 : 1. For these apartments the ratio can be extended if an open plan living area (kitchen, living, dining) configuration is adopted. In these situations, provided 2.7 metre high ceilings are provided the living area can extend 8 metres from the facade.

apartment depth diagrams

Diagrams from the Draft Apartment Standards (Page 20)

Considering this room depth standard, it would be reasonable to predict that 2.7 metre ceiling heights are bound to become very popular in new apartments, despite not being technically mandatory.

As previously reported here, evidence gathered from suggests that apartment dwellers, just like those living in detached homes, want to be able to entertain guests in their home. With this in mind it is a pleasing to note that a requirement for communal space has been included for apartment buildings with more than 20 dwellings. In practice this could be either indoor or outdoor space as demonstrated by exemplar apartment projects such as The Quays by MCR, Upper House by Jackson Clements Burrows and The Commons by Breathe Architecture. Further enabling social interactions within the home, minimum balcony sizes have been increased. The new minimum area requirements for theses spaces now also specifically exclude any air-conditioning equipment.

outdoor space data copy

Finally, whilst it might seem like window dressing at first glance, the draft standards include requirements for deep soil planting and vegetation. Providing opportunities for trees and other vegetation is critical to reduce the impacts of the ‘urban heat island effect’. Studies have shown that this effect is already killing people and that with global warming it is only going to get worse. It is therefore very welcoming to see that requirements for deep soil planting and other vegetation have been included.

In addition to providing the draft standards, the State Government has also provided some guidance on how the implementation of the standards will occur. There will not be an overnight change, but rather a three month grace period from the time at which the final standards are adopted. In addition to this, a compliance checkpoint has been flagged prior to a building permit being issued.

“To maintain design quality in apartment developments after the planning stage, it is proposed to introduce a checkpoint at the building permit stage where a registered architect or a registered building designer (who has completed the advanced training course) can verify that all relevant apartment design matters have been met.”          

Draft Apartment Standards, Page 9

In contrast with New South Wales apartment rules, SEPP 65, the Victorian Standards are comparatively mild. Logic would suggest that potential apartment sites will lose a small percentage of their value as developers adjust their expectations. This in my view is likely to offset the majority of additional construction costs. It seems incredibly unlikely that we would see an excessive increase in apartment prices as a result of these standards. Nevertheless we have an existing affordability issue that both State and Federal Governments should be addressing. There are multiple policy settings that could adjusted, from taxation, investment regulation and strategic planning, all of which should be a high priority.

For the naysayers who are absolutely convinced that we cannot afford these standards, we need to properly consider the cost of doing nothing.

  • Discrimination and exclusion of people with reduced mobility from living in standard quality apartments
  • Increased deaths from urban heat island effect.
  • Increased impact on global warming through lower efficiency buildings.
  • Probable increase in poor mental health resulting from oppressive dwellings with poor day-lighting and ventilation.
  • Apartments that do not meet community expectations of live-ability will continue to drive suburban sprawl as more people look to options other than apartments.

If we are serious about equity, city resilience and the well being of people living in apartments in the future, these standards represent Victoria’s best chance at change. Relying entirely upon the free market is not an option.

Feedback on the draft standards can be provided until September 19 via the DELWP website here

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