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    Brisbane, buildings that breathe and sustainable design: interview with Elizabeth Watson Brown

    Branko Miletic

    Sustainability Awards judge Elizabeth Watson Brown joined Architectus as design director after more than two decades running her own firm. She is also well-known participant in a number of architectural and urban design discourse roles.

    This includes as a member of the Queensland Board for Urban Places and as Adjunct Professor of Architecture at the University of Queensland. She is also a Life Fellow of the Australian Institute of Architects and has been Queensland State Awards director and National Awards juror, as well as jury chair of the Gold Coast Urban Design Awards.

    Architecture & Design spoke to Watson Brown about her passions, her favourite designs, and why she thinks Brisbane is very much underrated in terms sustainability and innovation.

    When did you first decide to become an architect, and what prompted you to pick the profession?

    I have always been interested in design and in ancient history, archaeology, anthropology, art and architecture -  the infrastructure and evidence of culture really. Architecture was the best choice of those ‘A’ interests, as I love ‘doing’ rather than only researching and knowing.

    As someone that lives and works in Brisbane, what are the most obvious differences between building design in cities such as Sydney or Melbourne and those in Brisbane?

    Brisbane is a wonderful, and quite probably to some, a mysterious and misunderstood place.  We are very fortunate to be in a burgeoning city in a very good place in its history and future, as there is a developing understanding of the qualities and opportunities here. This is especially true if we understand the climate and landscape and design knowledgeably, responsively and responsibly. For example, the notion of ‘breathing architecture’, passive environmental design and the intense relationship with and integration of living landscape is the culmination of much thought and collective endeavour by our profession over the years, and it is heartening to see it now embedded in policy like the Brisbane City Council’s ‘Buildings that Breathe’ initiative.

    I like to think of our city as a biophilic continuum, and I believe that conception inspires the best design responses to our place. Generosity, welcome, openness, permeability to people, light, air and landscape, are the qualities that can, and in the best architecture, do set our place apart.  This inspires a unique character in our city.  

    If you could pick three favourite building designs, what would they be, and why choose them?

    I think I have favourite approaches and suites of ideas generated by architects.  Peter Zumthor’s projects consistently appeal for their highly charged experiential power delivered with an elemental sophistication.
    Le Corbusier of course, particularly in the ‘social’ projects like Les Unites d’Habitation.  I very much love David Chipperfield’s Neues Museum in Berlin which I visited last year.  What a wonderful subtle and respectful repurposing of the ‘ruin’ so resonant with meaning.   And of course, WOHA’s wonderful work truly founded in sensitive climatic and social understanding of the tropical realm so critical to the earth’s survival.  

    As a role model for women in the industry, who were your role models, and in what way did they influence you?

    I am honestly surprised to be described as a role model. That may well be to do with longevity!   I’ve just been plying my trade. Honestly, there were very few practicing women architects when I was studying, and certainly none that I had met. I do remember two terrific women landscape architects, Barbara van den Broek and Beth Wilson whose design I hugely respect, and who I witnessed running very successful professional practices, which no doubt helped give me the confidence to do so myself way back then.

    Where do you think the profession is heading, and what are your thoughts on the direction?

    There are good and bad possibly scenarios for the profession and for the associated quality of the build environment.   As I’ve said before, the big issue for us is the whole mad process of the enormous and so often wasted amount of time and human capital that goes into the competitive bidding process. This sets up an unhealthy bidding war culture which is capitalised upon to get ‘bargain basement’ fee structures and unsustainable build costs. It affects everyone across the industry, not just architects, and it obviously affects the quality of what we build.  It will be a good scenario if this changes, but a bad scenario if it doesn’t.  

    What is your definition of sustainable design, and where do you think we are ‘getting it right’ when it comes to sustainability in the built environment?

    The good design of our cities, where most of us live and where most energy is consumed, is critical to our very survival.   I think some individual designs are getting it right, building by building, but we have a very long way to go to get the policy settings right, and to tune the political will, to achieve sustainability at the city-wide scale.  Where is our ‘Minister for Cities?  Just how much influence do government architects wield in terms of influencing public policy?  It is absolutely critical for us to be building the best and most appropriate affordable housing designed specifically for the different cultural and climatic conditions of our cities, and to be creating the right transport, cultural and green infrastructure.  Unfortunately, the good efforts of a few are being dissipated by lack of will and direction at ‘the top.’ 

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