Professor Chris Knapp is starting Australia's newest architecture program at Western Sydney University in 2018.
Trading the sunny Gold Coast for Western Sydney – arguably Australia’s most rapidly developing hotspot – was an exciting prospect for Chris Knapp, who was appointed as Western Sydney's inaugural chair of architecture in October.
Working within the Western Sydney University School of Computing, Engineering and Mathematics, Knapp accepted the appointment with the ambition of contributing positively to the evolving landscape of Greater Sydney.
Knapp is the former acting head of school at the Bond University Abedian School of Architecture, and remains a director at the innovative Gold Coast-based architectural and construction firm Studio Workshop.
The Urban Developer sat down with Knapp to discuss his plans for the 2018 Western Sydney University architecture program and the transformation that's currently taking place in Greater Sydney.
TUD: What is your take on the current evolution of Greater Western Sydney and how WSU fits within that growth?
CK: In regards to the institution, it is really exciting. Western Sydney University is only 27 years old and has over 44,000 students and 4000 staff, with campuses across the region.
In recent years there has been a big push to embed the university into the city centres – with "vertical campus" buildings just opened or imminent in Parramatta, Liverpool, and Bankstown.
One Parramatta Square just picked up project of the year at the recent Western Sydney Leadership Dialogue annual BOOMTOWN! symposium – that building is a really effective first piece of the larger Parramatta centre revitalisation.
[Related reading: Parramatta Square: An Insight into Parramatta’s $2 billion Urban Renewal]
TUD: And how about the greater region?
CK: The [Western Sydney] region is in a very dynamic transition. The eastern, established city centre of Sydney is effectively built out, hard to access owing to congestion, and financially inaccessible to the residential market and to SMEs. This has led to a serious interest in developing the "west" as the new centre of the metropolitan area.
The Greater Sydney Commission’s recently released report identifies Parramatta as the new central "river city" and the main hub for the metropolitan area – which is a radical proposition given that many residents in the eastern suburbs have never even been there (its true!). Soon it will be the new CBD.
Government departments are moving there, there is renewed talk of state parliament relocating, and with the announcement of the Powerhouse/MAAS moving there, Parramatta is being positioned as a leading engine for the region. A significant part of government planning is around transport with a proposed new Metro West rail line and more strategically, Parramatta in the future will need to be the hub that connects all the spokes of the metropolis.
It is very exciting. It is also important to note that it appears the non-partisan Greater Sydney Commission is well aligned with state and Commonwealth government in the vision and planning for Sydney – which is essential irrespective of whether there is a change of leadership in upcoming election cycles.
It will be really important for the future that the vision laid out in the GSC report is supported and implemented through all the mechanisms of government policy and procurement.
An additional part of the GSC’s strategy is proposing Badgery’s Creek as the new "third city" and the major anchor of the west – which has to be well connected to the central and eastern hubs.
Envisioned as an aerotropolis, this is also a game-changer for the region. All of the above is tied to the projection that population growth is set to double by 2050 – Sydney will go from four million to eight million overall, in which the western region will go from two million today to four million.
That means a tremendous amount of development, job creation, and infrastructural integration. This will also have the effect of transforming the important western city centres – Liverpool, Cambelltown, Penrith, and the like – all of which are already changing quickly and bursting at the seams.
So in all of this there are huge opportunities for private and public sector development, and all of the associated enterprises which can help to craft the changing urban environment. What is really important – and I believe this is key – is the need to develop the area with a goal of the highest design quality outcome possible.
In ten or twenty years from now, we don’t want Sydney and the west in particular to be indistinguishable from any other global metropolitan area. In other words, the iconic quality that is represented in the public imagination of Sydney currently – namely through icons such as the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, as well as the historic and contemporary urban fabric that abuts the waterfront – needs to be equalled by the western region in its built outcomes.
What will be the cultural icons of the 21st century? What will be the major civic and institutional shapers of public life for the region?
TUD: Do you think the current proposed developments will be the incubators for good development within Western Sydney?
CK: Parramatta Square is a good start, but it has the danger of tilting toward generic outcomes that wont differentiate it from other similar cities. We have to do better than the formulaic outcome here – the opportunity is too important and the context is not regional but actually global. It is on track to be really terrific.
The western region cant be conceived just as an extension of eastern Sydney’s identity, but rather as a major centre unto itself, which Parramatta Square should initiate.
An attitude toward design excellence is fundamental to this – and that not only means quality architecture, but quality urban spaces that are dense (not sprawling), well connected by public transport, and pedestrian-first (green, shady public spaces that work in a hotter future, as well as more public domain given over to pedestrians as we move toward autonomous vehicles and better traffic management).
There is also a rich cultural character and diversity in Parramatta and other western centres – one hopes this won't get swept out and significantly gentrified as part of the transformation process.
TUD: What does an architecture program bring to Western Sydney and how can it support the future growth of the area?
CK: It is time for architects to return, as historically they were, to being the orchestrators and leaders of major projects, and having a voice as a kind of public intellectual (and there are good examples of this that could be discussed elsewhere).
To achieve the outcome of design excellence for the built and civic outcomes, someone needs to be in a position of leadership which always brings the collective effort back to the "big idea" underpinning any project.
This is what architects can and should be centrally concerned with in the making of the city. As a new architecture program at Western Sydney, we want to produce the future generation of architects that are going to take this role – with skills that enable them to work across disciplines, with technologically-driven communication and visualisation, and an innovative, entrepreneurial approach.
To make a difference in the city of tomorrow, students need a grounding in history and precedents of the past – knowledge of what works and what makes genuinely good urban places – to be able to champion fundamentally good outcomes.
Simultaneously, they need to help lead the construction industry away from the prosaic, inefficient and wasteful procurement methods that have been entrenched for centuries. New materials and methods, such a mass timber construction and off-site, smart manufacturing approaches to construction (including parametric design and mass customisation), are important approaches to enable sustainable and well-attuned built outcomes.
The new architecture program is well placed in the context of a university that already has a thriving construction management and engineering program, and well as computation and big-data driven programs, but also an incredible group of planners, urbanists and industrial designers, all of which can combine to really revolutionise our urban future and how it is made.
TUD: What would you personally like to instil on our future Architects? What do you think is missing within the industry that our current graduates are lacking?
CK: There is no question that the industry needs to change. The nature of most architects is to be optimistic and visionary, so there isn’t a cultural barrier to achieve this change. But there are structural inhibitors that need to be overcome.
It is a professional that progresses quite incrementally, so change doesn’t happen overnight. However, there are a number of disruptive technologies and contexts that will force architecture to be re-imagined.
Someone studying architecture today needs to have the fundamental critical thinking skills that will allow them to adapt to a time when we no longer need to draw plans and sections – everything will be communicated through virtual digital models – and architects might become experts and champions of managing the data and designing the processes that lead to built outcomes, rather than designing the thing itself.
More than anything, I personally intend to instil a sense of excitement, enthusiasm, and optimism for the future of architecture, and that students need to embrace the pursuit passionately.
Everything is a design opportunity, and therefore an opportunity to enhance and shape our world. To be an architect today is really exciting.
TUD: What can students expect from the program?
CK: It is a duty and responsibility of an architecture program to deliver core competencies of the profession while simultaneously exploring and extending the edges of the discipline. Academic institutions have a unique position, and responsibility, to push how the industry evolves.
So in that sense, this program is going to work hard to provide the learning opportunities that allow students to explore and research beyond the known. An important part of this is through interdisciplinarity – our students will be immersed into learning scenarios with other domains of knowledge and expertise the broader university and community can offer.
It will also be a highly extrovert education – the "classroom" is currently being conceived as being in the city itself, rather than within the conventional confines of the campus. We will also put a lot of emphasis on new technologies – it’s simply incumbent upon the program to enable and prepare students with new skills and approaches to practice.
Learning to code, use a construction-assembly robot, or to communicate design intent through augmented reality are totally relevant today and one sees these new technologies in practice already. They may not be the standard or the tradition, but students will need exposure, if not expertise, in technological processes to build upon for future success.
TUD: What style of architecture and upcoming project within Australia excites you most?
CK: For me the best architecture is one that is encompasses multiple layers of richness and depth. At one level, this is about the poetics of experience – buildings which dislodge you from the everyday and force you to refocus or question your understanding or place or phenomena – it can be very inspiring.
This is the power of beauty, or of a moving work of art – architecture also has this capacity but more so because you experience architecture over time and in a dynamic way. It can be very powerful, and this is often overlooked especially when buildings are only understood as a commodity or a means to an end.
Beyond that, the best work also pursues really high levels of craft and execution, and in the most exemplary cases, pushes the envelope of construction technology to advance not only how we understand the building on a cultural or aesthetic level but also in terms of how it is produced.
Architects like Diller Scofidio + Renfro in New York, Barkow Leibinger in Berlin, or Kengo Kuma in Japan have produced exemplars of this – such at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles by DS+R. To that end, I’m really excited about the recently announced new medical faculty building at the University of Sydney that DS+R is bringing to Australia.
Further, it will be terrific to see the new SANAA-designed extension to the Art Gallery of NSW. I’m also eagerly anticipating the announcement of how the MAAS building for Parramatta will be procured and hope it will enable an outcome of the highest standard.
TUD: Can you recommend a book or podcast for us?
CK: For the past 10 years or so, I’ve had my students every year read excerpts from two books. First is Cradle to Cradle, Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDunnough and Michael Brungart. It totally shifts the way we need to think about material cycles and resources in relation to design.
Second is Refabricating Architecture by Stephan Kieran and James Timberlake, which asks why architects still build using 19th century techniques instead of contemporary manufacturing like aerospace, automotive, or naval industries.
And finally, in the past five years, I’ve added Kengo Kuma’s essay Toward an Architecture of Relationships that speaks to the important capability architecture has in crafting relationship between people, spaces, and the environment.
These readings exemplify my approach – focused upon material, process, and the experience of architecture – which are probably listed in an order which is reverse to their importance.
A really good podcast I’ve enjoyed recently is Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History – it is basically storytelling that re-casts contemporary scenarios, like the ridiculous inequities in how tertiary education is made accessible and equitable (or not) in the US, or the back-story as to why McDonalds changed the cooking oil for their French fries – told as a story of economics, public perception, and health.
Gladwell is a bit hard to endure listening to sometimes (he can sound a bit smug), but the stories are really well-crafted, have a great balance of suspense, humour, and surprise, and are told with tremendous clarity. That narrative ability is really important for architects to attain.
TUD: One piece of advice for young architects nearing their completion at university and getting ready to enter the industry?
CK: Embrace change and be confident in the fact that your education has prepared you to do lots of things that aren’t just "professional architecture".
You can go off to do all kinds of things on the basis of the skills and experience your degree has equipped you with – and importantly, many of you should be in other important and influential roles in society – like in law, politics, or as developers. And remember not to be dogmatic in your approach: always use the right tool for the task.