Lead image: Cameraygal (formerly Dunbar building) by the NSW Government Architect's Office is one of 79 projects shortlisted for the 2015 NSW Architecture Awards. Image: Simon Whitbread.

The New South Wales (NSW) Government Architect’s Office will shrink from 120 staff to just 12 over the next two years, as reforms to the state government’s Public Works department take effect from July 1.

The cut-backs come as part of the restructuring of the Public Works agency, which will see it shift from being a provider of infrastructure services to becoming a “smart buyer”, in a bid to combat the anticipated decline of public works revenue over the next decade.

According to a report by The Australian Financial Review, a large proportion of the NSW Government Architect’s Office’s $19 million budget for 2015 goes to its staff, but as these numbers are culled back, the office will become a more active design advisor and consultant to government projects.

While it has traditionally played an advocacy and advisory role to the government and its agencies, the office also has a history of providing cross-government facilitation in the development and delivery of state significant projects, and has designed notable buildings such as Customs House at Circular Quay, and the Martin Place GPO. In fact, it boasts no less than 11 Sulman Medals for Public Architecture from the Australian Institute of Architects (AIA) Awards.

There are concerns that the staff cuts will affect the NSW office’s effectiveness, particularly with major projects requiring urgent design advice in the pipeline, think: a growing Parramatta, a second harbour crossing, and the planned Badgery’s Creek airport.

The ‘role shift’ could also mean that the onus of “good design” for major state projects now rests on ministers, with former design director at the NSW Government Architect’s Office Shelley Penn noting that the office needs “to be supported to be considered relevant, not sidelined”.

She points to the Victorian Government Architect’s Office, which when established in 2006, was endorsed by then Premier Steve Bracks to his ministerial colleagues. Current VIC Planning Minister Richard Wynne was also at this year’s AIA National Architecture Conference (which spoke volumes of the government’s engagement with architecture) and announced that the Office of the Victorian Architect would be returning to the Department of Premier and Cabinet.