Welcome to 20 Queensland Designers. Through the Design Minds initiative managed by the State Library of Queensland I was commissioned to interview a select group of the state’s most intriguing designers.

The idea was a celebration of sorts, a showcasing of some of our top talents, and a more intimate glance into their work and background than may have been recorded before. The subjects come from a broad range of disciplines, and included areas such as medical research and digital games development — areas that are not in the usual ambit of design writing. The premise we decided on was a simple one – to ask each designer what led them to the work they do today. Everybody is interested in a life story, and it is telling that many of the people I interviewed talked about early influences and identified key moments in their young lives that were turning points for their career paths. Each was generous with their time, and candid with their comments. Each has a passion that I believe is imbued in their words. I hope you enjoy these little vignettes and insights into a designer’s mind and inspiration.

Kevin O’Brien completed his degree in architecture at the University of Queensland in 1995, followed by an MPhil in 2006. He was an Adjunct Professor from 2009-2011 and Professor of Design from 2013-2015 in the School of Design at the Queensland University of Technology. Kevin was a founding member of Merrima Design within the NSW Government Architect’s Office from 1997 until 2000. From 2010-2011 he served on the Queensland Government’s art+place panel. He established his own practice, Kevin O’Brien Architects, in Brisbane in 2006, and was accepted to direct an independent Collateral Event, called ‘Finding Country’, for the 13th Venice Architecture Biennale 2012.

When did you realise you wanted to be an architect?

There were two moments really. First, coming to the end of high school and after going back and forth to the islands up in the Torres Straits every year, I thought I had an understanding of who was responsible for making these terrible built environments. I thought it was architects. Over time, I’ve come to understand that a lot of other people get in front of architects first before they get a chance to do anything. It steered me to taking subjects I thought relevant to studying architecture. I always had an interest in art – I was always drawing, always making stuff. I had a sub-business at school doing other peoples’ technical drawings. It was enough to get me into university.

I had long summer breaks in the islands, fighting with my cousins, playing around. When I started uni, Mum went straight back to the Islands. She’d been sent to the mission convent in Port Moresby at 15. She left after the referendum went through and went to Melbourne. I’ve always thought of the islands as home, and was always happiest going home, even though I grew up in Brisbane and went to school here.

At UQ all the teachers were fantastic; they were all very different and I had a good relationship with all of them. By the last year at university I was closest to Peter O’Gorman [lecturer] and after graduation went to work on his house at Stradbroke Island for a month. Then I realised it really was what I wanted to do.

One other thing happened in between. It was the worst moment in hindsight, but also a best one. I mentioned to a particular tutor in second year that I felt the area around the Botanical Gardens was special and I’d like to explore why. He dismissed it out of hand. It taught me that if you do have an idea make sure it’s fully formed before you argue it. It also made me want to explore the cultural notion further.

I went on to complete a Master of Philosophy. This helped me distill one idea about Country, understanding Country and how it can drive an architecture, and once I’d done this I thought now I can open my own practice. I have an idea to explore.

Arguing in my life and practice has been centred around a cultural position; arguing from an Indigenous perspective to a non-indigenous audience. People seem to be able to get Japanese architecture and its roots in Shintoism, and Greek architecture in the classical orders, but not our local roots – here on Country. It’s been one of the hardest ones to demonstrate. The beehive huts at Murray Island are some of the most amazing structures I’ve ever seen. I’m amazed that 20 years ago the legal profession could recognise the concept of terra nullius, but many architects still struggle with it.

Work from my studio is based on gaining an understanding of Country first. Not a token race card action, and not a symbolic reaction. We don’t start with a blank sheet, or the terra nullius as I sometimes call it. More typically it’s the making of space by taking things away, not by adding. The Venice Biennale project [“Finding Country”] explores that notion. Everyone was given a grid of land in Brisbane and asked to erase some of what has been built on it and to re-imagine it in terms of history, uses, conditions, past and present. I don’t want to be labelled as an Indigenous architect. I’m approaching it in a different way. If I’m in an Indigenous setting, they don’t call me Indigenous. Other friends aren’t called non-indigenous architects, why should I be called an Indigenous architect?

Heroes are within own family, within my descendents. My grandmother’s ancestry is Mir (Murray Island) and my grandfather’s on Kiriri (Hammond Island)

Mentors: Rewi Thompson (New Zealand Architect) and Michael Markham (Melbourne) – two of the most erudite thinkers in the southern hemisphere.

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