Rachel Neeson has long been linked to Australia’s most famous name in architecture, but now at the age of 51 is recognised as a pillar in her own right. She graduated with first class honours and won the architecture medal at the University of Sydney.

There she met Nick Murcutt, a student three years ahead of her, and from 1995 was with him as partner in life and practice until his death aged 46 in 2011. Their partnership NeesonMurcutt won numerous awards for domestic and public projects, and this has continued with the practice now NeesonMurcutt + Neille, reflecting her new professional and life partnership with Stephen Neille.

She talks with Hamish McDonald for Architecture and Design at her award-winning Juanita Nielsen Community Centre in Sydney’s Woolloomooloo.

How much of your practice has evolved into public, community spaces as opposed to private dwellings?

When my late husband and I set up our practice, we had both come from residential work. We loved that, but we joined our practices specifically to essay into community spaces. Our first public project was in 2005 at Sydney Olympic Parklands, to design this little peninsula as part of the parkland pathway.

We were dealing with challenges that we’d never come across in residential architecture design, like access, protecting the endangered salt marsh, making sure that the mangroves didn’t encroach further because that peninsula is protected by international treaties with China and Japan for migratory birds, the intertidal zone and how we engineered that. It was an $80,000 contract, and from hours expended our fee worked out at about $7 an hour. Then the Prince Alfred Park pool was a major break for us. It is really a privilege to work on this kind of project.

This project where we are, the Juanita Nielsen Community Centre (named for the community newspaper publisher who disappeared, presumed murdered, in 1975 after fighting demolition of historic terrace houses), it’s not just the environmental factors like the parkland lookout – you are dealing with the social history, and a pretty nasty one in the story of Juanita Nielsen and the Victoria Street battle. How conscious were you that you had to weave that narrative into this building?

Our office is just across from the last place Juanita was sighted in, a nightclub, so we felt very close to her story. We had been looking at 1983 Sulman Award winning adaptive reuse works at Pier 4/5 by Viv Fraser, the timber frames and the diagonal timber in- fills, and in this building we had to break the parapet line and in-fill for the ventilation and services, so we decided to do this with timber, taking a cue from Walsh Bay.

When our landscape architect Sue Barnsley saw this, she said “That’s just like Juanita’s T-shirt!” We looked at the photographs of her in her beehive hairdo and stripey T-shirt, so this started to show as a motif through the whole project, most obviously in the shades outside. The layout of the existing building was chaotic. The first design move was to bring clarity – to make the building legible, safe and able to be managed by only three staff. It meant creating visibility through the building, which also added a sense of vibrancy and welcome.

We rebuilt the leaking roof and stabilised the old parapets, using open timber trusses like in the old building, and we took the paint and render off the walls to reveal the original bricks, making it feel as old and familiar as possible. People feel a sense of comfort in things that have been around for a while.

Have those lessons from Victoria Street in the 1970s really been digested, or are seeing this kind of struggle continuing? Say in The Rocks, or St. Peters with WestConnex?

They are both concerning, and different issues. The Rocks is really about social housing needs. We are working on a row of state-registered heritage buildings that a private client has purchased. They were never brilliant apartments, but they contribute beautifully to the streetscape. Together with our client we are custodians of this city fabric.

That’s a very important job, to do it well and not have current market forces work against the existing fabric, but to find a best fit for these existing buildings and demonstrate we can make attractive living spaces with that. With St Peters it’s about the whole infrastructure approach.

We have several different planning bodies which makes collaborative overview a challenge. A project might start with Transport NSW then gets taken over to RMS and at the end of the day there is a large quantum of new housing often with poor pedestrian connections across major infrastructural lines, and no new schools.

The City of Sydney is a leading light. They have the resources to undertake appropriate research and translate this into practice. So, they’re looking at the impact of climate change, population growth, development standards and how the city can accommodate more people, more jobs. They’re doing that not just because there might be an ex-industrial site that can be redeveloped, but understanding how it can connect to parks, to transport, and to community facilities.

Now you are working on the site of Captain Cook’s land at Kurnell on Botany Bay. That is a political minefield. How are you treading through that?

With an open mind. We were engaged by the Office of Heritage and Environment to prepare a masterplan for the Kamay Botany Bay National Park in the leadup to the 250th anniversary of Cook’s landing, building on work they had developed in 2008.

This is perhaps the most significant site in Australia, in terms of our past and how we might structure a future as a nation. We thought about how differently European-based and indigenous cultures mark events in space and time – one with a monument, the other a story, a song-line.

There are places within the national park at Kamay that haven’t changed - where you can stand and imagine what it must have been like in 1770 and before. There are other parts of the park that are so incommensurate in their physical experience with the significance of the place. The equivalent site at Waitangi in New Zealand is a significant visitor site. In Sydney there are more tourists visiting the Fish Markets. The mental map of Sydney should include not only the Opera House, Harbour Bridge, Manly, and Palm Beach, but also Kamay.

So how do you create that sense of significance?

This is an Aboriginal place as well as part of the Cook story. When Cook landed there was a village here. So, this is all about equity, a balanced representation. The rupture of people from land and language happened so early in Australia’s colonial history in this place - this makes reconciliation and healing very challenging. It can’t be without tension and without truth-telling. In a major win the ferry service to La Perouse will be reinstated, making it much easier for community to once again practice culture on country. The ferry services had been stopped decades ago, and the wharves finally washed away in a major storm in the 1970s.

The older generation has many fond memories of Kamay that the young generation hasn’t had the opportunity to share.  It also means that visitors more broadly will have the option of arriving by water, mentally preparing for the stories of this place.

There will be an 850m accessible circuit walkway around the existing indigenous landscape and Barrawang Walk. It will take visitors past the Cook and Banks monument along the beach, up and over the middens, past the historic Alpha House, and through a new visitor centre and café under a simple linear roof that bends to the edge of the forest like a boomerang.

There will be a ‘collection garden’ with the 132 species that Banks and Solander collected overlaid with Aboriginal knowledge where appropriate - for example, when you see the local Acacia in flower that signals when whales can be seen migrating. Kamay is an incredible whale-watching site because the ocean is so deep so close to the cliff edges. There are some places where you can take Granny, park the car and see whales through the windscreen. The geology of Botany Bay, with its broad sandy expanse fed by two ‘freshwater’ rivers and a relatively narrow rocky mouth to the sea, sets up a very particular ecological condition for an abundance of sea life. Indeed, there are huge middens at Kamay, from millennia of eating.

Already we have seen in New Zealand, that commemorations of Cook’s landings there ahead of Botany Bay are attracting controversy. I can’t see anyone protesting at your work, but I can see some demonstrations on 29 April next year.

This place really needs to lay a tablecloth for discussion, and that discussion might not be easy. On 29 April 2020, all the Aboriginal communities around Australia will be looking to the Gweagal people at Kamay.

With your domestic architecture, how much of the Glenn Murcutt heritage has flowed through you and Nick into what you do?

That’s an interesting question. Well, I was with Nick for 16 years and we practiced together for seven, and as you move through life these people with whom you’ve been intimate personally and professionally, become part of us. I’ve had a period practicing alone with my team, and more recently with my new partner [Stephen Neille.] I sort of grew up architecturally with Nick, and we had architecture through osmosis from his dad.

So, I think there’s probably a lot in terms of finding clarity: the marriage of pragmatics with poetry. For Glenn a building has multiple roles – cultural, structural, climatic. It is never good architecture unless it performs all these roles well and beautifully. Glenn is a dog with a bone, and so was Nick. I don’t know if people would say the same of me, but certainly the making of any building involves much effort by many people – not getting it as right as you possibly can just isn’t an option – that is something I definitely share with the Murcutts.