Architectural Blatherations

Investigating Australian Architects: Part 2

top rule

The Good Oil

We present here some excerpts from the hearings held in June 2000 by the Australian Productivity Commission (APC), which investigated the regulations governing Australian architects. Page references are to the transcripts.

In summary, we'd say the architects usually came across as hot-headed and slightly addled. They made personal attacks on the Commissioners, and accused them of just getting it wrong. As you can read below, it was usually the architects who didn't have the facts.

You fools!

Many of the architects testifying at the hearings did a magnificent job of shooting themselves in the feet. Some went on to raise the muzzle a little higher and shoot themselves in the head. Rather than present well-thought-out and reasoned arguments, they just launched in and attacked the poor old Commissioners who were, after all, just doing their job. Tony Brand, a retired Perth architect was most affronted (pages 62-73):

Mr Brand (architect): First of all, I don't have to be here. I don't have to say anything. I'm at the end of my career. I will not personaly benefit in any way or the other. I therefore can be impartial. But I'm not. My concern is one of purely ensuring that the public does not continue -and I repeat continue - to be deceived or misled I'm concerned for the public, the very public that is now suffering more than ever before or since another government body under the Fair Trading Act thought that by deleting a minimum scale of fees there would be fair competition. Never have they been so wrong. The public have suffered. They either pay fees to untrained designers who just underline or underscore architect's fees, or alternatively, because architects have had to considerably reduce their fees to compete with these kitchen table type designers, then in order to survive the architects have been forced to cut down the standard of their work: the number of drawings, the number of details, and the number of times that they visit a site. The public therefore suffer.

I've heard, Commissioners, that this hearing may be a farce. I've heard that it doesn't really matter what architects or anyone else submits to your review committee, and it doesn't matter as to what is said at this hearing; that in fact you have already made up your minds to proceed with deregulating architects. Indeed, when I read your incredibly thick document on the review I could not help feel that what I was reading was a somewhat obtuse piece of bureaucratic pedagogue. You had already made up your minds. I would hope that you will deny that this hearing is a farce and that you will listen to the architects and to the other submissions, most of which, when reading your review, it appears you have taken no notice of whatsoever. If not, then I suggest that this is not only an academic exercise, but hypocrisy. Common sense and history suggest you will not be changing the main thrust of your report. You have already ignored the architects' views and included your own.

It seems that your Commission has set out from the beginning to deregulate architects and what you are trying to do is obtain and record that information which supports your case You have indicated little justifiable reason, little evidence for you to increase the status of untrained people who have arisen through the ranks as designers and draftsmen without anywhere near the training required, or experience provided by an architect. We need assurance from you today that you will listen to us, and you will take note of our pleadings. Otherwise you'll be wasting all of our time. You'll be wasting public moneys, you will be building more bureaucratic empires and the very public you are allegedly trying to protect will be further inconvenienced and further hoodwinked. Many people calling themselves designers have either arisen from the ranks of architectural students or, just through spending time on drawing boards and gaining experience with project builders or the like. In many cases they are failed architects—

Tony Fitzgerald of Brisbane was also angry (pages 237-249):

Mr Fitzgerald (architect): When the Productivity Commission was announced we thought it would review the multiple state architects' acts and their regulations. However, on reading the draft report we find that it reads as an attack on the architectural profession itself—

Prof Sloan (APC): I think that's absolutely wrong, to tell you the truth.

Mr Fitzgerald: Sorry, that is my opinion after reading your draft; and that may be the case. I am here because I believe -it reads as an attack on the architectural professional itself, in many cases quoting directly from submissions from the Building Designers Association. We find it incredible that a government should commit considerable public moneys to undermine the productive and public protected profession to enable unqualified people to adopt the title 'architect' and all that flows from such a proposal. I was fairly passive until I read the draft report—

Prof Sloan: Let me say I don't think that attitude is particularly helpful because it's not really focused on the issues at hand.

Just because its untrue don't mean it ain't so!

Australia has a close relationship with its sibling nation of New Zealand. Both regard warm relations as important. In its written submission, the New Zealand Architects Education and Registration Board had argued that if Australian architects were deregulated, they would be prevented from working in New Zealand under the terms of an existing trade treaty between the two nations.

Just prior to hearings, both the NZ Board and the APC were informed by the New Zealand government that no such impediment existed: Aussie architects would still be able to work across the Tasman Sea.

The Kiwi Board's Mr John Patience was not to be stopped by this mountain of a fact. This lead to the following Monty Pythonesque exchange (pages 530-551):

Mr Patience (NZ Board of Architects): [My] board is bound by the provisions of the [Act]. Should the Commission's recommendation [of complete deregulation] be adopted, then the Board will be required under the Act to register anyone entering New Zealand from Australia who describe themselves as an architect.

Prof Sloan (APC): That's absolutely untrue, you realise?

Mr Patience: Yes, I mentioned to you that I was going to—

Prof Sloan: Good. Well, let it be said that is absolutely untrue.

Mr Patience: I will carry on to the next paragraph. This would certainly have a detrimental and lowering effect on standards of the profession in New Zealand and in turn affect any mutual recognition agreements the board had negotiated or wished to negotiate with another country under our government's closer economic relations policy.

Prof Sloan: The trouble is you're reading out a whole lot of things which I suspect you know are not true.

Mr Patience: Yes, I'm going to correct whatever is

Prof Sloan: I think that's a really silly thing to do. I mean, you should take this seriously. We have got information from your Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade which is absolutely contradictory to what you're saying.

Mr Patience: Yes, I will explain why.

Prof Sloan: So it would be better not to say it in the first place, wouldn't it?

Mr Patience: Not necessarily You got your advice the same day I got my advice. They had previously advised us incorrectly which was the reason that the submission made to you in writing was couched in the way that it was.

Prof Sloan: I'm just worried about something being said which you now know is wrong. Why would you say it?

Mr Patience: All I'm doing is repeating the submission that was made to you in the first instance.

The blunder was compounded in the next day's hearings at Melbourne. The chief executive of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, Mr Michael Peck, was not informed of his Kiwi colleague's embarrassment the day before:

Prof Sloan (APC): This letter suggests that proceeding with the recommendation of the draft report would be likely to end recognition of Australian architects in New Zealand under the [Treaty]. Now, that is wrong, okay, and we've had that all corrected yesterday, so we just need to have that on transcript. It's just that that is wrong and so we can put that one aside. Interestingly enough, there are only 54 Australian architects registered in New Zealand, which struck me as an extremely low number.

Mr Peck (RAIA): You have me at a great disadvantage, Commissioner, because I didn't hear what happened—

Prof Sloan: Sorry. If you look at the transcript from yesterday, you'll find that John Patience, has received subsequent advice from his Ministry of Foreign Affairs to actually say that what was in that letter was not right.

Mr Peck: Is that so?

Prof Sloan: It is completely factually incorrect.

We demand answers!

Personal attacks on the Commissioners took place in every city they held hearings. From our readings of the transcripts, the Commissioners come across as very reasonable and intelligent people. To the architects, though, they were Torquemadas. Two angry architects decided that it was Commission's purpose in life to answer their questions, not the other way around. They became increasingly upset when the Prof Sloan declined to accommodate them (pages 127-132):

Mr Cowan (architect): We have tabled a report to the Productivity Commission which consists of 54 numbered points and we would ask that the Productivity Commission restrain all of its discussion to those numbered points and not to raise any other conjectural matters.

Prof Sloan: You can try and do that, but you won't succeed.

Mr Cowan: So we would ask that the Commission please respond to the 54 points that we have submitted and to clarify those and to raise any issues that they would wish to discuss in those numbered points.

Prof Sloan: Right, okay. We will look at your submission in due course.

Mr Cowan: Am I correct that you have not read the report that we have submitted? We submitted it one week ago.

Prof Sloan: [We've] read your submission.

Mr Cowan: In its entirety?

Prof Sloan: Yes.

Mr Cowan: Right. So you've read all of them and you're familiar with all of them?

Prof Sloan: I think the purpose of this hearing, and indeed inquiry, is for you to be making a submission to us, but not for [us] to be answering your questions.

Mr Cowan: We have made our submission in writing and I can read it out, if you like, but we won't be entering into any other discussion based on some conjecture or other dinner-table conversation.

Mr Parkin (architect): Our understanding was that the Commission would have points of clarification raised, based on what we've submitted to date, so we'd like to restrain the discussion to those points.

Prof Sloan: I suggest that you actually step down immediately, because you're actually in breach of the act because a person appearing as a witness at a hearing must not refuse or fail to answer a question as required by the chair or to produce -well, you presumably don't refuse to produce a document, so we can—

Mr Cowan: What question would you like us to answer?

Prof Sloan: No, I've got your tone, so thank you very much.

Mr Cowan: What was the question that you asked us to answer?

Prof Sloan: You're suggesting that we have to answer your questions.

Mr Parkin: We've asked you to do that. We've asked to restrain the discussion to our submission, which is in writing.

Prof Sloan: Okay.

Mr Cowan: Can I start with number 1 and you can respond to them one by one?

Prof Sloan: No. Thanks very much for your contribution.

Mr Cowan: The title of the review is illegal and/or misleading and should be changed.

Prof Sloan: Excuse me. Thank you very much for your contribution.

Mr Cowan: Would you please respond to our submission.

Prof Sloan: No.

Mr Cowan: Why not?

Prof Sloan: Because you're acting against the intent of the act.

Mr Cowan: Which act?

Prof Sloan: The Productivity Commission Act.

Mr Cowan: In what point?

Prof Sloan: I'll read it out again, and it's section 50: A person appearing as a witness at a hearing must not refuse or fail to answer a question as required by the chair. You're suggesting that I must answer your question, you are therefore not complying with that section of the act.

Mr Cowan: We have not refused to answer.

Mr Parkin: You haven't asked a question yet.

Prof Sloan: All right. I've got no questions to ask you, so unless you want to read out something which does not involve questions of the chair - and you might want to make yourselves aware of this, that it's also an offence under the act to give false or misleading evidence or information.

Mr Cowan: We know that, thank you. Let me just summarise some of the gist of our submission. We believe that the draft report is irresponsible and inept with respect to the way it has applied research methods, both quantitative and qualitative. It is prejudiced and blatantly dismissive of submissions which have been received in public consultation. The draft report is unfair and biased and irresponsible in hastening prematurely to its findings.

Prof Sloan: Have you got any substantive points to make?

Mr Cowan: Yes, we have, there are 54.

Prof Sloan: Most of those are not substantive.

Mr Cowan: Which one would you like to address?

Prof Sloan: I wouldn't like to address any.

Mr Cowan (architect): Okay, I'll continue.

Prof Sloan: I'd rather you not. We'll take this as read then. Have you got anything that you'd like to add?

Mr Cowan: I won't take it as read, because I don't believe that you have read it.

Prof Sloan: I have read it. Can I just go through the process. We are here to ask you questions, right. You're not here to ask us questions and you are bound by the terms of the Act.

Mr Cowan: I'm about to summarise our submission. The draft report is blatantly dismissive of professionally-prepared guidelines for unifying architects legislation nationally and it is inconsistent and biased in its treatment of opinions and conjecture.

Prof Sloan: No, this is just subjective.

Steaming ahead

The Commissioners repeatedly had to correct witnesses on matters of fact. That they were talking rubbish some of the time didn't seem to worry the architects (301-306):

Mr Cox (architect): The system that exists, which has probably taken more than a century to develop, exists for good reason. It protects the public by setting a standard for persons to achieve before being able to be called an architect. The logic of the laws that have been written to enable this structure to be formed are very simple. In brief, before a person can practise as an architect or be let loose on society they must first demonstrate that they are capable of achieving those standards required to practise as an architect. In short, they must make the grade.

Prof Sloan (APC): Can I say that's actually legally not true. You can practise as an architect; you just can't call yourself an architect.

Mr Cox: I beg your pardon?

Prof Sloan: You can practise as an architect; you just can't legally call yourself an architect.

Mr Cox: Sorry, I wonder if I can say my piece without being interjected.

Prof Sloan: Okay, but that is not true, what you've just said.

Mr Cox: I'd like to come back to that, if I can.

Prof Sloan: Okay.

Mr Cox: But I'd like to—

Prof Sloan: But we won't have time for you to read all this out, so it's better just to address the main points.

Mr Cox: I am trying to address the main points but if I've taken the time to come here, Madam Chair, I'd like to be able to say my piece.

Prof Sloan: That's okay but it's important that you not say things that are untrue.

Mr Cox: I believe what I've said is true and I'd like to take you up on point on that but, before, I'd like to say my piece please.

Uncultured boors!

Some architects felt that the Commission lacked the refined sensitivities to discuss architecture. Applying a common defence of their occupation, they argued that only architects could judge architects (pages 675-686):

Prof Sloan (APC): And what about the big book?

Mr White (architect): The big book. Well, if you haven't read this, you really don't know about architecture. You haven't even started.

Prof Sloan: Okay.

Mr White: This is S,M,L,XL which is produced by Rem Koolhaas who, if you don't know about Rem Koolhaas you haven't really been serious at all, because he's probably

Prof Sloan: —Haven't lived.

Mr White: Well, you haven't seriously thought about architecture anyway. He's one of the international superstars of the profession and this book actually runs through his projects and his thoughts and S,M,L,XL refers to the categorisation of his projects by size. I sometimes say to my wife that when I write a book it will be called XS. The reference to 'collapse'—

Prof Sloan: As like extra small as opposed to excess?

That's not our job!

Mr Brian White, chairman of the Western Australian Architects Board (WAAB) was especially aggressive. We have no love of this Board, which seems to be a prize collection of poisonous dwarves specialising in petty and vindictive actions against their own. (They are also the ones who organised a pointless write-in campaign to push their point to the Commission).

Nor do we love Mr White. He struggled to defend his bureaucracy (pages 110-126), and in a virtuoso display of ignorant bloody-minded pig-headness displayed to the Commission the very best reasons for the dissolution of his Board and his own position:

Mr White (WAAB): Look, the whole operation of the board is very transparent it's there, it's available. What we do is very transparent. It's all recorded. If there is a case that comes before the board, it is all recorded, and it's freely available to the public.

Prof Sloan (APC): Is it? On the Net? Do you put it on the Net—

Mr White: No, we don't publish it on the—

Prof Sloan: Who's made the complaint?

Mr White: No, we don't publish it on the Net.

Prof Sloan: Why not?

Mr White: Well, because we haven't got funds that obviously were spent on preparing that report - we haven't got unlimited funds to waste on putting things on the net. If someone wants—

Prof Sloan: But isn't transparency important?

Mr White: Yes, it is.

Prof Sloan: In the submissions we have a number of - well, complaints, they are, really - about the non-transparency of the examination process.

Mr White: You mean the examination process for registration?

Prof Sloan (APC): Yes.

Mr White: How can that be transparent? What do you want to do, give everyone a copy of the answers before they go in? I mean, I don't understand your—

Prof Sloan: I think you know what I mean I think people require feedback as to why they failed, for example. We have got, I think, in particular, some quite alarming complaints from those who've qualified overseas as to the non-transparency of the process.

Mr White: It may be because they are disgruntled because they didn't reach the required standards. I don't know. I would be interested to see those.

Prof Sloan: They're all on the Net.

Mr White: Yes, I know, but there was thousands of them on the Net and I read what I considered to be the important ones.

Prof Sloan: We read them all.

Mr White: Well, as I say, I'm trying to run a business. I haven't got the time. If I had government funding then, sure, I'd sit down and read them all, all day.

Prof Sloan: But it's an important point, isn't it, that - I mean, the universities are having - I think quite rightly so - to move to much more transparent assessment procedures. You can't just say to someone, 'You've failed.'

Mr White: We don't. We give reasons.

Prof Sloan: Right. There does seem to be some opaqueness about that process.

Mr White: Maybe if there is then you need to explain it more in the Commission's report, because I think a lot of statements are made in here without any sort of factual backing.

Prof Sloan: Well, dare I say it, that I think one very serious criticism of the boards, and indeed the notion that this is a publicly-regulated profession, is the complete lack of information, useful information, that can be generated by the boards. I mean, we had a great deal of difficulty establishing the number of registered architects in Australia who are practising architecture. You have dead people and retired people and all sorts of people on your books It seems to me that at a minimum we should have been able to easily access the number of registered architects practising architecture in Australia, and in fact it was impossible.

Mr White: Why? Because the board only has rolls for registered architects, as you call them, but there are a lot of architects practising out there who are not registered and choose not to be registered, for various reasons.

Prof Sloan: No. No, I didn't ask that question. I wanted to know the number of registered architects practising in Australia, so—

Mr White: The board is not there to keep tabs on who is registered and who is practising. The board is there—

Prof Sloan: So what is it for?