We’re well into the 21st century and Australia has yet to appoint its first female government architect. Sara Stace ponders why.

Government Architects of Australia, from left: Ben Hewett (SA), Robert Foote (NT), Malcolm Middleton (Qld), Geoffrey London (Vic), Jill Garner (Vic), Helen Lochhead (Assistant GA, NSW), Peter Mould (former GA NSW), Melinda Payne (WA), Alastair Swayn (ACT) and Peter Poulet (former GA Tasmania, now GA NSW). Photographed at the Government Architect Network Australia (GANA) meeting in Adelaide, 2011. Image: Emma Brasier, courtesy of The Adelaide Magazine and ODASA.

In 2012 Michael Keniger wrote an article on the role of the Government Architect Network of Australia (GANA), published in Architecture Australia.1 This included a photograph of the state and territory government architects at their annual conference.

Most people will recognise at least their own state architect, and perhaps a handful of others who have made it into the upper echelons of the profession. It’s even nice to see that three of the ten people pictured are women.

But the image is a little misleading. In fact, no woman has ever held the position of government architect, a role which began in 1816 when Francis Greenway became Australia’s first government architect. The women pictured are all deputy or assistant government architects. In many cases, the position of state architect is a part-time role, supported by an Office of the Government Architect or similar. A high proportion of the staff in these offices are registered female architects, many are part-time, and many have worked there for longer than the men who hold the top title of State or Territory Government Architect.

Recent changes at the top include Peter Poulet in NSW, Lawrence Nield in NT, and Geoff Warn in WA. Both NSW and WA had female deputies for a significant period prior to the new appointments – Helen Lochhead in NSW and Melinda Payne in WA. Peter, Lawrence and Geoff are all excellent ambassadors to further the cause of quality architecture and urban design in their jurisdictions. Nonetheless, it is disappointing to see no great female candidates making it through selection processes. This is not for want of talent, ability and experience. In addition to the women mentioned above, Jill Garner is the Associate Victorian Government Architect under Geoffrey London (and before her Shelley Penn held the role); in South Australia it is Kirsteen Mackay under Ben Hewett. When might one of these women have the opportunity to step up to the next level?

With the architecture profession struggling to attract and retain women in senior leadership positions, perhaps it is time for GANA to consider how to address this issue within their own ranks. And they should invite a high proportion of women to participate in such a discussion – there is nothing more ironic than a panel of senior men discussing what it takes to encourage women to participate.

 

  1. Michael Keniger, “Australia’s Government Architects: a political position”, Architecture Australia 2012.