ACA President’s Comment

John Held , 14 July 2020

ACA President John Held reflects on the need for a finer-grained approach to stimulus, and the importance of being active and assertive in creating a post-pandemic future.

I’m pretty sure there are no canaries living down in the depths of coalmines today. And (hopefully) soon we won’t need coal mines. But the analogy lives on – as Peter Raisbeck notes in Geoff Hanmer’s recent article in The Conversation, architects are the canaries for the wider construction industry as we wait for whatever replaces JobKeeper at the end of September. With the growing realisation that things are not suddenly going to ‘snap back’ to normal, what is the best way of moving forward without risking the collapse of the construction industry?

It’s true that the downturn in architect’s workload is variable, depending on size and sector, but those specialising in retail, hospitality and multi-residential must be worried. It is also true that many jobs have been saved, at least temporarily, by JobKeeper. Geoff’s article does show that more is needed. Rather than just pay people to stay in work, give them real work to do. Architects should be busy now, planning projects to be rolled out as needed to keep not just our economy, but our society on an even keel.

Our leaders often talk about infrastructure, but the grand plans of highways leading to nowhere in particular seem incongruous in a pandemic. Do we really need another bridge for the homeless to sleep under? A finer-grained approach to stimulus is needed, one responsive to local needs and a different future to one we thought we needed a year ago. One where the best qualities architects can bring – an understanding of society, of public space, of environmental stewardship and of private amenity – can create a post-pandemic future.

Architects need to also be assertive when it comes to procurement. So much of what has been found wanting in our built form relates back to bad incentives and poor procurement – from the lessons of Melbourne’s high-rise Housing Commission flats to Lacrosse, Opal Tower and Mascot. We can’t assume there is always sufficient expertise in government for wise procurement decisions – and we must constantly remind decision-makers that the government’s review of the last stimulus package (the BER program) found that the best value arose when the project was guided by the managing architect.

There are plenty of things to build that would strengthen communities and ensure public health nightmares like 30-storey public housing towers can finally be razed. There are plenty of architects who’d like to keep their jobs and contribute to better cities and better environmental outcomes. There are plenty of graduates who need to be employed and to contribute so we don’t lose their talent and enthusiasm forever to the profession.

So let those canaries sing of a way forward – and of a future profession that has contributed to emerging from the darkness of the coalmine.