Defining the character of Australian architecture and design

By Penny Craswell

Australia’s relaxed outdoor lifestyle, unique natural beauty, history and culture are reflected in our approach to architecture. Seven architects and interior designers reflect on the character of Australian design.

House at Big Hill by Kerstin Thompson. Photo: Trevor Mein. Read more on The Design Writer blog.
House at Big Hill by Kerstin Thompson. Photo: Trevor Mein

Australian architects are influenced, like all architects, by the context of their project – whether that’s a bush setting, an ocean view or an urban laneway. In Australia, this sometimes means taking account of proximity to the bush, potential floods and fires, access to fresh water. Our tendency to spend a lot of time in the great outdoors has also had a huge influence on our design choices. Architect Peter Stutchbury believes this has an impact on our architecture: “Recreation permeates our thinking. Verandahs, gardens, courtyards, swimming pools, ponds, clothes lines, tree swings and vegetable gardens were all, until recently, integral to the design brief.”

Our history and isolation from the rest of the world have also influenced our design approach. Stutchbury has found similarities between the 50,000 years of continuous culture from Australia’s original inhabitants, who were prominently waste-less, and 200 years of recent settlers, who were similarly economical. “The current attitude to design has grown from our land and the myriad people who have come to occupy this place. We look afar, but ultimately rely on our own resources to conjure an outcome,” he says.

As a country with a relatively recent permanent architectural infrastructure, Australia is free from some of the history that brings romance to crumbling ruins in other parts of the world. Giving a building soul is harder when everything looks new. But there are advantages to this newness. Megan Baynes from Room 11 argues that, as Australians, we are uniquely free to follow our own path: “While we are aware, we are, to a degree, liberated from the weight of history of European architecture and, as such, there is a liberty, freedom and relish to good Australian architecture.”

Juliet Moore of Edwards Moore sees the influence of a number of new social factors on our design, including smaller dwellings, shared living arrangements, socially sustainable housing developments, short-stay rental opportunities, an aging population, inner-city living, expansion of rural centres, empty-nesters and first home buyers. This is changing how we live –the Australian dream of owning a three-quarter acre block with a picket fence and a garage is not relevant any more. “Each new living style brings a new design response and a new way of thinking, further expanding the urban tapestry,” says Moore.

The Lightbox, North Carlton by Edwards Moore. Photo: Fraser Marsden. Read more on The Design Writer blog
The Lightbox, North Carlton by Edwards Moore. Photo: Fraser Marsden

Patrick Kennedy from Melbourne practice Kennedy Nolan points out that the stereotypical Australian house as a rural or coastal idyll is less common than you might think – Australia is one of the most urbanised (or suburbanised) countries on earth. And yet it provides a certain inspiration:  “This mythic Australia brings into sharp focus certain qualities that define an idea of Australian style – informal, light-filled, in close relationship with the landscape,” says Kennedy.

However, it does not define us. According to Kennedy: “the most striking characteristic of Australia’s national design sensibility is an openness to a diversity of cultures and influences, and especially the ones that make up our society.”

This freedom and openness translates into a design approach that is simple, yet adaptable. According to Melbourne architect Kerstin Thompson, “There’s a looseness and an informality; it’s not prissy or over-designed. There’s a sense of being unfussy and creating spaces that can adapt to different uses in the moment and over time.”

For Thompson, good architecture is a way of heightening your understanding of place: “When you put a building in a landscape, its walls capture shadows that you wouldn’t see otherwise. Whether in the city or bush, it’s the same thing, this amplification of place by architecture.”

Little Big House by Room 11. Photo: Megan Baynes. Read more on The Design Writer blog
Little Big House by Room 11. Photo: Megan Baynes

Interior designers are also inspired by the natural environment. “Australians are good at designing a relaxed space,” says interior designer David Flack from Flack studio in Melbourne. “That comes from space, the light, the weather. There’s always a view to the outside, and the outdoor area is equally as important as the indoor area.” Australian architects and interior designers must design for a certain quality of light that is harsher than in the UK, for example, where conservatories are common. Here, they are just too hot. “The sun’s so harsh here, so you have to consider how you get all the light punching through in the winter, without overheating in the summer,” says Flack.

The Australia’s natural environment also provides the basis for the materials of our homes. Interior designer Fiona Lynch describes her team as minimalists who love materials, drawing inspiration from the natural environment. “We really undervalue how unique our environment is and how this can influence how we design,” she says. “In our studio, we only work with natural materials and we spend much time editing materials making sure the message is strong and clear as to what we are trying to achieve in a design message.”

Bendigo House by Flack Studio. Photo: Brooke Holm, Styling: Marsha Golemac. Read more on The Design Writer blog
Bendigo House by Flack Studio. Photo: Brooke Holm, Styling: Marsha Golemac

On the world stage, Australia is pretty small, but we punch above our weight when it comes to design, especially when it comes to residential houses. Informed by design principles from our Indigenous past, but not bogged down by the weight of infrastructural history, we are able to be agile and informed, designing for the changing patterns of daily life now and in the future.

2 thoughts on “Defining the character of Australian architecture and design

  • March 16, 2017 at 11:42 pm

    I Love all the timber accents and the warmth they give a space.

  • July 23, 2017 at 5:20 am

    Australia’s love for the outdoors will always be in parallel with the influence of new social factors such as the desire of smaller dwellings for shared living arrangements, socially sustainable housing developments with transient or short-stay rental preference in the inner cities, or with the expansion of rural centres for an ageing population. This is so even if the once three-quarter acre block with a picket fence and a garage is not the dream house anymore. Style may change and bring in a new design in response to the ever-changing social and cultural way of thinking, but there will always be the wish of an open nature view that will make a home cosy.


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