Peter Edwards is co-founder of Archipelago, a Brisbane-based architecture studio that specialises in citymaking, architecture and collaborative design process.

After acting as master of ceremonies at Creative³ last week, Peter sat down with APDL to talk about his practice, what drives him and the future of his industry.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

I am a born and bred Brisbane boy. I grew up in the western suburbs and delighted playing in the odd mix of vast remnant bush and half built brick veneer subdivisions that typified Brissy’s sprawling growth of the late 70s. After a sports-infested private schooling, I was trained at QUT, educated at UQ as an architect. I spent 20 years in large multi-disciplinary design practices working around Australia and South East Asia across architecture and urban design, finding my niche in collaborative design and masterplanning.

After 10 fantastic years in a leading role in one of the largest design firms in Australia, I scratched an increasingly frustrating itch for more by leaving to start my own studio. With a trusted (and very skilled) architect and long-time friend, created Archipelago.

Archipelago is approaching its 5th year and, despite the paucity of the GFC, has almost doubled in size every year. We specialise in citymaking and architecture and collaborative design process. With a focus on ‘cities buildings and things’, Archipelago’s portfolio spans from 50ha City Centres to Underground Operas, from a Commonwealth Games Athletes Village to a cubby house. We have a small team of interesting people and we’re enjoying ourselves immensely.

What have been some of your most memorable projects from the past 10 years, and how do you think your approach is different today?

Memorable people more than memorable projects (Ken Maher, Richard Francis Jones, DCM, SOM, Massamiliano Fukksas, good friend Dr John Hockings). Prior to Archipelago I was lucky enough to lead some important urban design projects including The Fortitude Valley Urban Vision, Northbank Masterplan, Bowen Hills TOD, but the Kelvin Grove Urban Village is the most enjoyable one to look back on. Citymaking is a long game and it can take some time to see the fruits of ones labours, but a walk through KGUV today is a vindication of the design thinking of the time.

More recently, and under our own steam, we have enjoyed working to redevelop Parklands on the Gold Coast, part of the Gold Coast Health Knowledge Precinct. We designed the original Athletes Village Masterplan in 2011 as part of the winning bid for the 2018 Commonwealth Games and have been working on the project ever since. By the time the ribbon is cut at the opening ceremony in 2018 it will have been a seven year journey from the first fuzzy sketch to a home for 6500 athletes and officials and a legacy as the major catalyst for the Health Knowledge Precinct.

In looking at Parklands and Kelvin Grove Urban Village despite them being ten years apart, the principles of good citymaking are present in both and are eternal. The methods to communicate those ideas have changed. We utilise virtual models to allow stakeholders to walk through the precincts in real time experiencing any aspect of the buildings and environs. The increasing globalisation of building processes is impacting as well.

Can you talk a little of the Archipelago philosophy in relation to your role in urban design?

We believe cities are first and foremost for people. We are sceptical of the assumed norms of citymaking and the seemingly irrefutable priority of large scaled infrastructure. We believe everyone is a ‘citymaker’ and we ask at every opportunity for people to give themselves permission to build the city of their dreams. Once that has happened the rest is easy.

What principles inform your work?

Architecture is about people, by people, for people – the human experience is paramount.

We recognise the architect has evolved from the autocratic artist to the collaborating curator. So our design processes have followed.

We live in a time where we all must do more with less which can, beyond the practical application of sustainable efficiencies, inform an aesthetic of refined and minimal detail with an honest language made in the tectonic and material expression.

We design for our unique and spectacular climate – one of the most benign and enjoyable climates in the world.

We design buildings and cities with a focus on being public – engaged in publicness. Where we can we cultivate civitas as a valuable resource.

We are interested in weaving, secreting sometime smuggling meaning into our work – be they formal tricks or metaphors they help to sew the fabric together more strongly and give reasons for things to be.

Why would I want to work in urban design?

A few years ago the global demographers announced that, for the first time in history, more people live in cities than any other form of settlement. Cities are our great human artefact. The most diverse, interesting, alive form of human expression. In Australia we have some of the fastest growing cities in the western world with some of the best performing liability indices to be proud of. Cities (and towns) are enjoying a renaissance like patronage as we continue to discover and value urban phenomenon. They are a boiling pot of the best and the worst of us – breathtaking beauty, appalling ugliness, inspiring ingenuity, and glutinous waste.

The battle for a sustainable human existence, filled with beauty and delight, will be fought in cities and won by design.

Who the hell doesn’t want to save the human race?

Do you do anything to encourage collaboration and interaction between the people you work with?

We are rampant collaborators. There is no success in design endeavour without bringing everyone along for the ride. We spend a lot of time in workshops. We use a strategic design method and often deliver it through tailored workshops designed to connect the decision makers with their own problem in an expansive way. It always results in unexpected outcomes – problems become opportunities, project constraints evaporate, new possibilities arise, agitators become advocates, and large misdirected ships can be, ever so gently, turned around.

Have you ever had to change your approach to meet the demands of your clients? Or have they responded to your own developments in style?

We work hard to realise the best outcomes for our clients. I have yet to meet one that doesn’t want to do a good project or is uninterested in design. Sometimes there is a curly request but we work to reveal the values driving that idea and can often reinterpret and re-propose the requirement in a different way that doesn’t compromise the design integrity.

How did you begin building up a client base?

Doing good work well. There is value in spending time with your network of colleagues, clients and allied professionals and developing a leadership role within your own. But little will replace building your base through a reputation for good work.

Do you have any tips for getting your ideas off the ground?

Back yourself and be determined. Learn the skills of compelling communication. Be intelligent about demonstrating your value. Be passionate about the work and others will be as well.

What are your observations of design-led thinking today?

I don’t like the word ‘design’. Everyone seems to be a designer. Front yard blitz, backyard makeover, home renovators, The Block; it’s popularist but elitist in practice. Design has become a commodity word and it creates a culture of the design ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’.

We like to think of ‘making’ things. Making is a great word. It is inclusive, embracing, collaborative and recognises that whilst we may not all be ‘designers’ we spend each day making something and we have a chance to make that thing better. Collaborations across disciplines, platforms, countries, expertise create a really interesting environment. We understand now that the way of thinking about design – thinking about the opportunity in the making of things – can provide a great cultural affect, beyond the artefact created.

Where did you see your industry headed?

Locally it’s not a great time. We have conservative governments at every level who publicly decry good design as ‘gold plating’ but will happily spend billions of the public purse on infrastructure that good design could make unnecessary.

Beyond the marketing of design as a lifestyle accoutrement and the popular fawning over ‘starchitects’ the meaningful intelligent dialogue on architecture and citymaking is gasping for relevance.

Architects need to demonstrate their value to society more strongly through design – adapt and embrace emerging technologies and techniques, validate through research and evidence, and reclaim the primary expertise in construction and management.

The industry of making cities, whilst in peril without us, will none the less move on. Our industry is heading for change or heading for irrelevancy.

Should design education and industry work more closely to achieve design-led innovation?

Yes, of course. The design industry needs to support meaningful research to provide the necessary evidence to bolster the relevancy of good design. This can happen through the everyday work of the industry and the applied research of the universities.

Looking forward, where do you hope to be in the next 10 years? How do you hope to develop?

We would like to measure our growth in the quality of our work rather than the quantity. Having established our practice we are looking more to building our reputation through what we make and how we make it, and it’s here that we will have applied our innovation. I hope we’ll be smarter, more interesting, more diverse, working with more people on more projects in more places in more ways than we can imagine.

What are your top 5 favourite design books?

Not sure of the 5 favourites but my some things to read and love would include…

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Frampton’s tome on Tectonics

Architectural Design 1977, article on Eskine’s floating office, the M/S Verona (think of it as an inspiring business plan)

Questions of Perception, Steven Holl (immediately followed by Ramachandran’s 2003 Reith Lectures)

The Holstee manifesto

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