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GOLD MEDALLIST PETER STUTCHBURY EMBARKS ON A JOURNEY OF SHARING

Following the commencement of the 2015 Australian Institute of Architects Gold Medal Tour in Newcastle last night, Peter Stutchbury shared his thoughts with BlueScope about the current state of architecture, his philosophies and the importance of leveraging his awards to engender social change.

What does it mean for you to have received the highest individual honour the Institute can bestow?

I was definitely surprised but also immediately honoured, particularly because I'm so aware of the Gold Medallists' past and I hold those people in very high regard for their contributions to architecture and society. Receiving the Award made me think a lot about that.

Also, it's an individual honour but I believe that the Award is for a body of work, thinking and behaviour that is inclusive of all the people who have worked with me - my colleagues are part of it.

And to have the 2015 Wilkinson Award for Residential Architecture - New Houses follow so quickly. Had you recovered by the time that came around?

Light House is a tribute to a great team. It reiterates the strength of calculated inventions designed, made and supported by commitment. But awards are footsteps in the sand. You can can't get too carried away with them.

The Gold Medal recognises contributions to society through architecture. Do you see the Gold Medal Tour as another means for you to impart your experience and champion important issues?

Certainly, it made me think about contributing and the role of education. When you are honoured I think you should embrace it in a way that allows you to be heard. If there are important things to be said, it's a good time to say them.

So, how loud is the public voice of the architect in society?

I think that we as architects have had our voice diminished. When I first graduated (only just) Harry Seidler was in the paper every other day making social commentary about projects or behaviour. Meaningful comments from architects in the media are rarer these days. I think that's because our society has become fiscally orientated to such an extent that it manages thinking. I don't need the public sector for survival so I can afford to be more liberated in that sense, but unfortunately we follow a market more than make a market.

If I'm going to make a contribution through this Award then my contribution can't be superficial, it's got to be meaningful. There's always going to be a risk when you stick your head out but the reality is that responsible people do that all the time. That has to happen or the world becomes a pretty mundane place.

So, I'll be talking about our role as commentators in society and our social responsibilities, which I don't think is discussed enough.

What else is up for discussion on the Tour?

I don't think it's a good idea to go into these things with too much of an agenda but I intend to talk about fundamentals that everyone can appreciate and understand. Our country seems to be taking a short-term view. Architects are long-term planners because we have to think about how buildings perform over time.

Architects have a lot of behavioural and mechanical understanding and even policy understanding but we're not well-enough used as policy influencers.

At the moment the country is being run through very predictable, non-creative means and that results in predictable and uncreative responses. If the Premier and Prime Minister had a group of aesthetic advisors made up of architects, artists and inventors, the country would be more balanced - better prepared for the unknown.

I'll also be talking about what it means to live in Australia, as opposed to other countries.

What are some of the positives you take out of the industry?

I know that I drill into some issues and that's partially because of my responsibility to create awareness, but I also acknowledge the sunny side of the industry, particularly the colleagueship that occurs between architects once you reach a certain age. I'm not sure that exists as fervently in other professions such as lawyers and bankers.

Also, there is a lack of competitiveness here that exists in other countries. I think that's kept to a minimum. Much more support comes through.

The support that I've had from outstanding people throughout my career is amazing and I'm genuinely grateful. It's a very generous profession and I recognise that.

So, I have great respect for my colleagues and I'm always inspired by good work. There's a group of top-echelon Australian architects who produce very interesting work, but also below that I think Australian architects rank highly in terms of creativity. It's just a shame that the country in general doesn't see that. We see the recognition when our sporting teams win World Cups but we rarely see it from our media for one of our most remarkable professions. It's an almost silent contribution so I have to admire the patience of my colleagues - many of whom I consider to be underpaid and underplayed.

The Gold Medal Tour will include specifically tailored sessions for EmAGN, but is there any general advice you'd give to student and emerging architects who can't attend?

I think it's very important that our young minds have an exposure to the basics of living. There are things about basic living that are part of our biological make-up. Things that are part of our being. I did a lot of that early in my career and it's something I encourage, but in order for me to talk credibly about these things I have to do actually do them.

At the moment my family is living on Avalon headland in what is basically a tent. That meant pulling all our possessions down to a few baskets, cooking in the open and living in a 4x4-metre room. It seems constrictive but it's also incredibly liberating. It's been one of the most liberating living experiences I've had. As a consequence of that experience, the house I was planning for that land - which is prime real estate - has reduced by about a third in size because I confirm that we should be focusing more on lifestyle and experience than building area.

Another message to students and young architects is to consider what we have lost in becoming so technological. Our culture is being caught up in a whirlpool of technology that diminishes social interaction. People are so fixated on their computer screens that they don't see the world around them.

It's incredibly hard to remove yourself from it, but my message is to be careful of technology that takes you away from the living and breathing of life. Architecture is about life. It's not about being sanitised.

Speaking of students, you have a longstanding history as an educator and mentor. What's the ethos behind that?

When I was at university I had six great teachers: Eric Parker, who was the dean of the faculty and Malcolm Parker who was a landscape artist, Gordon Appleby who was part of the Sydney School, Ted Harkness who introduced us to concepts of light and ventilation when passive solar wasn't even in the market, and Henry Clarke, who was a glider pilot and had the most incredible enthusiasm for the aesthetics of architecture. I had many more teachers but those guys really helped me.

I thought to myself: 'These guys just keep giving, giving, giving.' Gordon would talk philosophy with me for hours on his own time and I thought: 'If I ever get into a position to do the same, I must repeat such generosity.'

I have learned that there's no point keeping things to yourself. The aboriginal elder Uncle Max Harrison Dulumunmun, who comes to sites and teaches me about them, says 'in order to keep it, you've got to give it away', which is such a wise thing to say. In order to keep knowledge, you've got to give it away. If you keep it to yourself, it's gone.

And in turn have you learned unexpected things from teaching others?

I am constantly surprised by what I learn from people, particularly students. Students ask different questions because they're untrained and are often from different ethnicities. It's refreshing to get their perspectives. They often ask remarkable questions such as: 'Why do we need to make the bedroom that big? I was brought up in a room half that size and it slept eight of us.'

You're renowned for architecture that speaks of its place and is culturally specific. Is that why steel - being so embedded in the Australian vernacular - features so commonly in your material palette?

I have an affinity with steel. Steel and I are companions and have been for a long time.

My dad was an engineer who made power stations out of steel. If I was in his garage he'd be making something out of it so steel was my understanding. More so than timber - even though my uncles who, as builders, taught me about timber. I know timber pretty well and I know concrete, but steel is my material of understanding.

Over the years I've learned where steel fits in a building's composition. I understand it - technically and aesthetically. I'm not trying to be smart, that's just the way it is when you live with something for so long.

What's next for you in the wake of your latest awards and their accompanying recognition?

More hard work. In order to be recognised in this way you have to have been incredibly serious and hardworking in your profession, or you have to be extremely fortuitous. I'm not the second.

My responsibility now is to really live and work according to the values I was taught. That will include my new house. It will be an example of how you can reduce size and still have beauty.

Beauty is very important. It is traditionally inspirational in society. Our job as architects is to inspire through beauty. We can't lose sight of that.


2015 Gold Medal Tour Dates:
28 July - Newcastle
25 August - Sydney
26 August - Melbourne
27 August - Hobart
7 October - Canberra
8 October - Perth
9 October - Adelaide
13 October - Brisbane
14 October - Darwin
19 Nov - Sydney (AS Hook)

Events in all states are free-of-charge for Institute members to attend. For ticket and event details visit http://architecture.com.au/events/national/events

BlueScope is the proud sponsor of the 2015 Gold Medal Tour.

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Gold Medallist Peter Stutchbury has embarked on a journey of sharing as part of the BlueScope-sponsored 2015 Australian Institute of Architects' Gold Medal Tour.
Gold Medallist Peter Stutchbury has embarked on a journey of sharing as part of the BlueScope-sponsored 2015 Australian Institute of Architects' Gold Medal Tour.