Dreams, teens and rebuilding Perth and Freo in PerthNow

This worthwhile article on the creatives rebuilding Perth, Freo was originally in the Sunday Times’ STM section and has just been put up on PerthNow at:

A TEENAGER by nature can be a little wide-eyed, awkward and misunderstood.

The word represents the pivotal years of life spent deciphering a path through a world full of possibility.

Making lasting memories and inevitable mistakes that might continue to induce a cringe. Architect Nic Brunsdon softens when he talks about the wayward youth in his life.

“I keep saying Perth is like a teenager,” he says. “It’s kind of a bit gangly and gawky. Sometimes it hangs out with some sketchy people, runs with the wrong crowd, but we parent it and say a bit less of this, and a bit more of that.

“You can see the adult it can become and it is all about that potential.”

This particular adolescent is expected to shoot up in population by 75 per cent in the next three decades, according to the State Government’s Future of Perth plan. Yet before the teenager can reach grown-up status, Brunsdon says a fresh set of hands are needed to guide it in the right direction. “It’s not our parents’ city anymore, it is our city, and we’ve got to take ownership of it,” he says.

Brunsdon is emerging as a visionary among a young generation of professionals ready to rediscover Perth and reinvigorate its future, one building at a time.

The 36-year-old heads architecture firm Post, runs a research office called Posit and co-founded Spacemarket, which works to pair disused spaces with useful people.

Two of Spacemarket’s successful projects are Fremantle’s Many 6160 buildings and the buzzing creative hub of Moana Chambers in Hay St in Perth.

An app to simplify the process is due to launch shortly. Think, a mix of Airbnb and online dating, but for buildings.

Brunsdon says this journey to adulthood begins with the “less sexy” part of the architecture: the forgotten buildings, the crumbling spaces, the clumsy characters.

“There aren’t ever really going to be that many new builds, compared to what has already happened,” he says.

“We’re going to be knocking things over, going up, consolidating, but really the structure and bones of our city are already there.”

These types of progressive visions led to him being awarded the prestigious emerging architect prize at the 2015 Australian Institute of Architects Awards.

Visiting his King St office, it’s clear that he already lives this process. To enter the building, a barely discernible door must be shoved aside and rickety stairs clomped up, but at the top you are rewarded with a grand space flooded with light and oozing with creativity.

“It is quite voyeuristic. Everyone loves a sticky beak,” he says. “To find out what is going on in our cities, what’s behind the façade, what is up or down there?”

Shadow Wine Bar’s beautiful architecture. Picture: Richard Hatherly

And judging by the diverse flock of suits and sneakers heading to locales such as the State Buildings, the Guildford Hotel, Shadow Wine Bar, Alfred’s Pizzeria and Strange Company, reinhabiting buildings has been an unmistakable triumph.

It is in Brunsdon’s elusive haven where he constructs his thoughts for the future of Perth. The concept of “social architecture” is one that immediately lights his dark eyes.

“The social architecture part is the bit I’m most excited about,” he says. “It’s the belief that the future of not only this profession but of many others will be in the navigation of complex social structures, a move from the physical to the digital and theoretical.

“In a world that’s becoming increasingly specialised, how do we celebrate the generalist?”

In layman’s terms, Brunsdon provides the physical example of Spacemarket’s Many 6160 project — a “big, soupy mess of people, enterprise and industry”.

“(It’s) an architecture where the efforts go into the provision of favourable circumstance, rather than physical material. The name reflects this, too,” he says. “Many, as in many hands make light work.”

Since the project’s inception in 2013, the space has pumped $1.7 million into Fremantle.

It generates 4400 creative hours of work a week and has resulted in a 25 per cent reduction in vandalism and crime around the area.

Architect Nic Brunsdon. Picture: Richard Hatherly

“It could work anywhere, but what we say is none of this stuff is ever one size fits all,” he says.

Mayor of Fremantle Brad Pettitt has become one of Brunsdon’s biggest fans. He describes the reinhabiting of buildings as “like a dating service”.

“It is kind of like Tinder for buildings — that idea of matching people with places,” Pettitt says.

“Realising where and when there is a place that is empty and that there is also a person who needs that space, then trying to match them up.”

He foresees his port city’s future to be denser and more compact existence, continuing to progress towards a more vibrant and livable community.

“What people want is to be around other people, so we need to give them the opportunity,” Pettitt says.

“That is the social side of architecture, where good architecture brings people back together.”

His sweeping vision is for the “public realm” to become an extension of people’s living rooms, creating a safe hub for visitors to linger longer.

The trend of reinvigorating creaky-floored, damp-scented architectural gems will continue to prosper if he has his way.

“Great cities keep their history and heritage, but they layer it,” Pettitt says.

“People want to see the layers and see the story. They are what make places interesting.”

FJM Property’s Kyle Jeavons, 33, can testify to the importance of building on history after finding his perfect match with the State Buildings in the CBD.

Over a testing eight-year relationship, the project director stuck by his historical dame, overseeing a restoration that has since been bestowed with high praise and awards across the board.

Earlier this month, the buildings scooped the top accolade, alongside the City of Perth Library and Public Plaza, at the WA Architecture Awards.

Jeavons believes that such reinvigorated buildings lift the city.

“Aside from the obvious benefits the buildings have created — more hospitality offerings, great retailers and a beautiful hotel — I think the most critical benefit has been that of a subconscious one,” he says.

“Simply bringing back a level of pride to the public in relation to not only heritage buildings, but also our city.”

But, before enterprising renovators take to city buildings with a torch or crowbar and their head buzzing with a vision to uncover the next hip bar, Jeavons outlines the current downfalls of the process.

The newly renovated Guildford Hotel. Picture: Richard Hatherly

“The restoration of old buildings is close to being unfeasible, mainly due to the compliance and regulations that are required to be followed to restore these buildings,” he says.

“While we certainly can appreciate some of the requirements are necessary, the reality (is that) restoration of these buildings will never occur on any reasonable scale until there is a concerted effort to reduce the level of building compliance and regulation in a sensible manner.”

He says it takes a dedicated group of individuals to collaborate with a common goal for Perth to continue to mature. Luckily for Perth, Jeavons enjoys the company of a mature, grand lady, up to 100 years his senior.

“We need to support our innovative businesses, our innovative ideas, our culture and art sectors, and really anybody who is simply helping in growing our city in a positive and progressive way,” he says. “Or we can stay rigid, say no, do nothing and fade away into obscurity. The choice seems like a very easy one.”

Architect David Barr, 37, a fellow member of the future thinker’s tribe, says that there is a logical reason a younger generation of architects is emerging from the pack.

“Younger architects’ work, both in method and output, is usually a product of hunger and desperation,” he says. “Tiny budgets, odd sites and challenging project briefs are mixed with youthful ambition and sleepless nights to create unique solutions and novel architecture.”

Barr is the man behind the award-winning Gen-Y house design for the White Gum Valley project.

His brief for the Landcorp competition was to house four to six adults on a 250sq m lot exploring the notions of ownership, innovation, sustainability and affordability for under $500,000.

The result is a collection of small autonomous apartments with a communal garden and courtyard, as well as water and electrical storage shared among the occupants.

Its design dares the public to consider new housing solutions during a challenging economic climate, in particular for young people.

“The great Australian dream of home ownership persists but it sometimes feels like a nightmare,” Barr says. “Housing affordability is at historic lows, the suburbs racing ahead of their infrastructure, our houses are some of the largest in the world, but are unsuited to a growing population of single-person households.”

According to Brunsdon, to give our teenage Perth the best hope of a bright future, we must continue to nurture it through building its knowledge, killing its ignorance and strengthening its communities through architecture.

“I never talk about Perth being a big fish in a small pond,” he says. “It’s actually this wonderful opportunity in a supportive environment where because there is this changing narrative from Dullsville to … well, I don’t know what it is now.

“The most exciting thing about Perth now is we don’t know what is coming next, and I don’t want to define it. Let’s just wait and see.”

About Mayor of Fremantle Brad Pettitt's blog
City of Fremantle Mayor

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