Philip Griffiths, director of Griffiths Architecture, has recently been appointed the chapter president of the WA Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects.
He has experience across a broad range of projects including education, residential, office, urban design and heritage.
Architecture & design spoke to Griffiths about Western Australia’s work on heritage buildings, why he enjoys working on residential projects and why there’s a long way to go with heritage architecture in WA.
You’ve recently been appointed the chapter president of the WA chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects. What do you hope to achieve in the role?
After a short time on AIA’s chapter council and a long time in practice, it was fairly clear that the profession is losing some ground to alternative kinds of building procurement, often without the inclusion of architects.
I could see two things happening, the first being a threat to design quality and the second an erosion of the use of the profession in the process. I hope to promote the profession more widely, to promote the value of using architects and generally to make architecture more conspicuous in the public mind.
Re-shaping the Architecture Awards and bringing the Awards Exhibition into the city centre was a small part of the strategy to bring attention to architecture and design excellence to the community’s attention.
You have experience across several sectors. What is your favourite sector to work in?
There are similar processes involved in any project of any size and each project type has its special challenges. Being involved in all building types is one of the great things about being in architectural practice.
Houses would have to be one of my favourite topics because of the challenges, but added to the challenges is the joy of working directly with the people who are the ultimate consumers of the architecture and also because of the shorter timeframes for realisation. In a sense and in the context of general practices, houses provide a relatively quick design fix. High quality houses offer all the challenges of larger projects on a smaller scale.
You’ve played a significant role in heritage architecture in Western Australia. What do you think has been your biggest influence?
I think my role in looking after Western Australia’s heritage has been on policy work, producing management plans and implementing conservation works. Early work at Fremantle Town Hall, Rottnest and Kings Park profoundly influenced the course of their care and development.
If I have to pick the biggest influence, it would have to be working at the coalface of heritage at the Heritage Council and sitting on a number of committees there. This position creates opportunities to see a bigger picture, to influence a wide range of heritage outcomes and to learn from these processes to improve my practice.
How do you think Western Australia is responding to heritage architecture now?
Looking after the state’s heritage in a statutory sense is only 24 years young. In that time, there has been a paradigm shift away from fear mongering to seeking opportunities. Some significant projects that demonstrate what can be achieved has done more than the arguments that took place in the early days about whether heritage protection and development were at all compatible.
There is a long way to go, but heritage is responded to much better now than it was less than a decade ago. The fact that many major architecture awards are given to heritage projects or projects that have a heritage dimension is testimony to how heritage architecture is mainstream.
There will still be those who just can’t see the opportunity side of the argument, but they are gradually becoming a minority.
You’ve worked on the iconic Fremantle prison, Western Australia’s only World Heritage cultural site. What was the greatest challenge with that project?
The first challenge at Fremantle Prison was to understand it and to understand what a valuable resource the state had. The next challenge was to work out what we might do with it, without despoiling it.
In a practical sense, some of the bigger challenges were to work out how to conserve elements of the place without losing complexity and authenticity. It takes time and patience to work through evidence and to develop an approach to any particular solution.
Recently we did work on the main cell range, which started out as a maintenance project, holding the evidence at the time of closure as being paramount. The outcome was more complex than that and evidence of all stages of development were revealed. That was a challenging and rewarding project.
If you weren’t an architect, what would you like to be doing?
It’s hard to imagine not being an architect after so long in the profession. If I have to make a choice, I think it would be to revive old skills painting and drawing. Not sure that would not be an alternative career, but it would pass away some pleasurable hours.