Life Fellowship for Beginners

AIA Life Fellowship Award Ceremony Brisbane

31 March 2023

Last November I was quietly informed that the Australian Institute of Architects had admitted me as a Life Fellow ‘in honour of long term significant contribution to the advancement of the profession in leadership’. Last Friday night, my friend and colleague, Amy Degenhart LFRAIA, current Queensland Chapter President, did the honours. At a ceremony that acknowledged the achievements of recent architectural graduates and new Fellows, as a Life Fellow I was invited to make a brief address. Here’s what I said – more or less.

Life Fellowship of the Australian Institute of Architects — not bad for someone who was pretty much an accidental architect — thank you for the honour and privilege of peer recognition that this award means.

A bit like the design process itself, my career thus far has not exactly been a linear progression.  My stop-start working life as an architect has taken many twists and turns.

It has included a good dose of self-doubt and procrastination in the first place; running away to sea as often as possible, to sail the Pacific, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, earning my architectural stripes in the ‘louvered latitudes’ from the far north of Queensland to Noosa, being an early adopter of ‘working from home’ back in the days when it was practically verboten. And dipping in and out of academia in teaching and research roles. Now as an Adjunct Professor and working in my long term practice with Henk Mulder, I call myself a Pracademic.

I grew up in Rockhampton at the bottom end of East Street where the Fitzroy River in flood was a regular event enjoyed mostly by those of us living on the flood plain and generally ignored by everyone else. First in family to complete Year 12 and go to university, thanks to Mr Whitlam’s progressive Labor Government.

A common thread throughout my version of a professional career in architecture has been concern for societal issues over elitism, driven by values forged out of my childhood in Central Queensland, intersecting with my late 1970’s era of architectural education at UQ where climatic design, ergonomics, human behaviour and genius loci became deeply ingrained in my DNA.

Once I got to Uni, I didn’t know what hit me, but my earliest teacher at UQ and someone I’m proud to have called a friend, the late Max Horner, told me I could do it and I would be good at it. Steve Szokolay and Peter Bycroft provided the practical magic – the architectural science and human behaviour knowledge required for architecture that works for place and people.

Later, Professor Emerita Brit Andresen and Michael Keniger, were my mentors and colleagues on applied research which placed environmental design at the heart of skin cancer prevention. Laura Listopad was involved too. With Queensland Health we turned our attention to places where community gather outdoors – sporting fields, swimming pools and early childhood settings. This was ground-breaking stuff that is almost unsung here in the skin cancer capital of the world, but was quickly picked up by Cancer Councils around Australia, in Canada, New Zealand and Denmark to name those I know of. Our research and original drawing and diagrams soon appeared under names other than ours and the copyright owner Queensland Health. Nevertheless, it is timeless, important and more applicable than ever.

Design research like this has the potential to benefit many more people in our society than a one-off building design might.

Innovation, invention, intuition — much intellectual energy goes into realising architectural projects. But how much more is spent on unbuilt, unrealised architectural projects? Similarly with design research. Many a good deep dive into climate-responsiveness has found its way onto the back shelves of local governments only to be watermarked ‘background scoping study’ or ‘not policy – internal only’.

But one of mine that did find its way into the statutory framework in Queensland is Subtropical Design in South East Queensland. This multi-layered design handbook with guidance for planners, developers and decisions makers explains climatic design principles and how to apply them to different scales of places from the entire SEQ region to cities, streets, precincts single buildings and sites. Its content derived from the local knowledge and experience of many dedicated and talented architectural, landscape and urban design practitioners.

Its advent in the SEQ Regional Plan marked the first time the climate of a place was integrated into Planning Policy anywhere in the world — can you believe that? And again, this no-brainer from Queensland has been picked up by jurisdictions in other countries.

Yet I look around its state of origin and see fewer shady canopy trees and less space for them on public and private land in our cities. 

I see buildings of black glass that are hermetically-sealed against the heat and noise of the hostile environments they themselves create. 

I see over-scaled dark-roofed houses so jam-packed in subdivisions they create their own stifling weather where there should be breeze blowing. No-one in their right mind ventures outside — so much for building sustainable communities.

Ironically Subtropical Design in SEQ coincided with the Sustainable Planning Act — now just the Planning Act. 

And rather than becoming code, it has remained for ‘guidance only’ — discretionary and very useful for marketing blurb…providing grist for a kind of homegrown version of greenwashing.

Many people tell me of their well-thumbed, book-marked, highlighted, underlined, circled copies of The Handbook— which is really gratifying — but it was not intended only for designers or wordsmiths, the subtitle tells us so. 

Please, dust it off — download it — apply the principles — share it with everyone you know — all those planners, developers, money people — show them what they can do when they really put them to use instead of just appropriating words. 

But when it comes to carving out a career, what is conventional when it comes to how architects work? And what we take on?  Let’s face it – most of us are slightly unconventional – and at the same time we just can’t escape that heady mixture of art and science that is the alchemy of architecture – we love it and are constantly trying to use it to make the world a better place. 

What I know is that we are futurists. Like it or not, if our grandchildren are to have a future, architects must be custodians of the external environments that we all share. What I have learned is, the first and most important principle we must apply, in every project, is to make space for trees in our everyday urban environments.

Most of all, if we do nothing else, we must revere the trees.

Dr Rosemary Kennedy LFRAIA 31 March 2023

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