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Feature article



I’ve been invited to offer some valedictory thoughts on my period as Victorian Government Architect, a role I have performed over the last six years and which I am leaving in October.

As many will know, the Office of the Victorian Government Architect (OVGA) was established in 2006 by the Bracks Labor Government. John Denton was the first appointment to the role.  For a period of two and a half years, with the assistance of Shelley Penn as Associate Government Architect and a small committed staff, John established the credentials of the office, winning the trust and confidence of government.

The OVGA quickly became the voice for architecture in government and received good support from the government and its home agency, the Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC).  When the Liberal National Coalition was elected to government in 2010 under the leadership of Ted Baillieu, a registered architect, support for the OVGA was heightened.  The OVGA was converted from a branch within DPC to an administrative office, giving it more independence and profile, and the Victorian Design Review Panel (VDRP) was introduced as a fully funded pilot program.

Following Mr Baillieu’s resignation as Premier and subsequent ‘Machinery of Government’ changes, the OVGA was relocated from the central agency, DPC, to the newly formed Department of Transport, Planning and Local Infrastructure and the Minister for Planning became responsible for the OVGA in place of the Premier.

The OVGA remains very active in advising across the whole of the Victorian government and contributes to major government infrastructure and building projects, through procurement guidance; reviewing EOIs and RFTs to prioritise design quality; design consultant selection processes; design review; and then during the period of design development and project delivery – all directed toward encouraging good design and enabling it subsequently to be delivered. This aspect of the OVGA’s role helps realise best value from publicly funded projects and enmeshes it within government processes. The advisory role extends to offering comment on selected planning applications for which the Minister of Planning is the responsible authority.In addition to this key advisory response, the OVGA has initiated a number of projects, again directed towards advocacy of good design and establishment of the conditions that enable it.  These include the first six Good Design publications, the latest of which was recently launched, Good Design and Education; the preparation and publication of Momentum, a celebration of recent Victorian architecture; the preparation and publication of Government as Smart Client, a guide to strategies in different processes of project procurement that protect design; and the initiation and then development, in close consultation with the City of Melbourne, City of Moreland and DTPLI, of a set of apartment standards intended to lift the bar on some poor design practices in Melbourne apartments. We have prepared a comprehensive built environment design policy, based on a number of instructive international examples, in an effort to seek government commitment to quality design outcomes. There are additional OVGA projects in earlier stages of development.

As the state funding commitment to transport infrastructure projects has grown, the OVGA has built a good and particularly effective relationship with transport agencies. They fund a dedicated position in the OVGA focused on major transport projects, leading to real improvements in processes and design.

The establishment of the VDRP fulfilled a key initiative within the OVGA’s proposed built environment design policy while also meeting an election commitment of this government. The VDRP has been particularly successful in bringing discussion about design to a much wider audience and helping to improve design quality in a large number of projects. Additionally, it has brought together an impressive panel of design professionals now very experienced in design review. After its pilot period, the VDRP received endorsement for its continuation from the government but as a service that will have to recover its costs.  Acknowledging the broad reaching and visible success of the service, the OVGA is attempting to meet this challenge in a diversity of ways.

For me, it’s been a privilege to fill the role of Government Architect and I’ve enjoyed strong support from two excellent Associate Government Architects, Shelley Penn and then Jill Garner, an exceptional staff, and from within government.  I’ve also enjoyed very good relations with the Victorian Chapter of the AIA and working with an intelligent and innovative local profession.

The evangelical mission for good design is never going to be achieved permanently.  Politicians and senior bureaucrats change very regularly and the arguments need to be repeated and won all over again. I believe that the position of Government Architect is needed now more than ever to ensure that good design and the value it adds is able to be realised for government. At a time when the profession is damaging itself and the service it offers by reducing fees to unworkable levels, when new forms of procurement continue to challenge the delivery of design quality, and the city is re-forming itself to cater for large population growth, an embedded voice arguing for good design and its benefits is critical.

Geoffrey London – outgoing Victorian Government Architect