Architects reimagining the Australian countryside

There had been no architects in this small town since 1972 when Phillip Nielsen set up a design office on the banks of the Murray River in Corowa.[That’s] 45 years without a local architect the community knew from the football club or saw on the street,” says Neilsen. “The knowledge of what an architect does is completely lost.

“This has led people to not know how we work for them. You watch Grand Designs and all architects do is cost the client money.”

Neilsen’s Regional Design Service, in a town of just over 5,000, hopes to educate the community on the power of architecture in a rural context.

But while there has been a positive change in attitude over the past six years, Nielsen says establishing a foundation in rural architecture is a “huge” and “multi-faceted problem.”

As an architect, I never thought people would be grateful for my design.

Phillip Nielsen

“You have to do everything in the country … you have to be its advocates and architects,” he says.

Regionally-based architects have long been disillusioned with their metropolitan counterparts getting all the attention. At the same time, finding an architect in many small towns can be difficult for rural residents who want to work with an architect.

The Regional Architectural Association was born out of frustration with the lack of interest in regional practice in 2021 and attracted members from all over Australia, who were quickly joined by the same problem.

“Having regional architecture done by regional architects is something we are pretty passionate about as an organization,” says Sarah Aldridge, architect and secretary of the RAA.

“It’s not that easy for someone from another region to jump in and demolish a building. The relationship between soil, country and climate is different everywhere. Sometimes we see highly inappropriate buildings rising because that was not taken into account.”

Regional projects can suffer from a range of issues, from rising costs of doing business to labor shortages, but Nielsen also worries about the more fundamental issues affecting the progress of regional architecture.

“We just had a Victorian election and we have an election ahead of us in New South Wales,” he says. “You see a lot of campaigns for more nurses and teachers, but they have nowhere to live.

“We only have 350 more homes at our wastewater plant and we can’t afford the sewer improvement… We need a basic infrastructure upgrade if we want to attract growth.”

Neilsen’s company gathered fans in Corowa after renovating the local cinema in its first year of operation. Since then, he has completed residential and commercial projects, including farmhouse restorations, window renovations, and the award-winning, community-focused Urana Aquatic Leisure Centre.

While Nielsen is keen to advocate for sustainable design, he says education comes first.

“Flood design and wildfire responsive design should fit organically… We know how to design these, but if the community can’t see value then that won’t happen,” he says.

For Takt, an architecture studio located between Thirroul and Moruya in New South Wales, designing for bushfires comes first.

After helping out at the rescue center in Conjola for a few weeks following the 2019 New Year’s Eve fire, co-founder Katharina Hendel started hearing people think the town was coming.

“The first few weeks were pretty basics, and then we heard more questions about how to fix things and rebuild,” Hendel says.

Now, nearly three years later, Takt’s plans for the Bushfire Resilience Center, a memorial museum and cultural center in the similarly devastated Cobargo, down the NSW south coast, are under development with Bega Valley shire council.

The center, which will be constructed predominantly of wood and steel with support from the Green Building Council, accompanies plans submitted by Dunn & Hillam Architects for a new market space, visitor square, information center, post office and store fronts. Evidence buildings for the town.

Hendel hopes the Cobargo project, as well as rising costs, won’t hinder Takt’s other regional projects, as the influence of social media and “refurbishments that show we love to hate” are fueling architectural appetites.

“I feel that with every investigation over the years … people have a much greater sense of what is possible,” he says. “Sometimes I’m pretty impressed with how much people think about the site.”

Related: Pandemic tree change: Australia’s modern bush architecture enters a new era

To equip architects to respond to these new ideas, the RAA brings together remote practitioners to feel less alone.

“There was one person out there who said, ‘I’m the only architect in my city and I didn’t know what to do or whom to turn to … and then I heard about the RAA,'” says Aldridge.

“It went down and it was definitely over the moon. And I thought, that’s why we’re doing this. We need you to stay where you are, but we want to support you.”

In Corowa, Nielsen is familiar with this feeling, but the value of both living and working in the country is not lost on him.

“When you do projects in the city, there is an anonymous client who will never know you did it,” he says.

“Here, people shake hands on the street to thank us for what we’ve done, and as an architect I never thought people would be grateful for my design.”

• This clause was amended on January 5, 2023 to correct a reference to the town of Conjola erroneously identified as Cobargo in a previous version.

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