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Ask people from Sydney and Melbourne what they think of Brisbane and it’s probably not flattering. Often referred to as Bris Vegas or Brisneyland, the capital of Queensland is regularly mocked as the ugly duckling of the southern cities, home to a sun-struck population trapped in a 1980s style-bubble of pastels, white sandals and brash architecture.

Whenever there’s a local discussion about which is Australia’s design capital, Brisbane rarely gets a look in. But while Sydney and Melbourne have been distracted by their rivalry, Brisbane’s design community has been turning heads overseas. The rest of Australia may not have caught on, but internationally Brisbane is getting a reputation as a design destination.

“If we tried to do things like Sydney and Melbourne no-one in the world would have taken notice of us,” says Lindy Johnson, head of the Queensland government’s Creative Industries Unit – which provides funding and support for artists, designers, writers and musicians and is the only department of its kind in Australia. “Not so long ago, the international market didn’t know our design community existed, so we launched a showcase of Queensland architects (called the HEAT initiative) at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2008. The journalists went crazy over the new aesthetic they were seeing.”

Over the last 12 months, the completion of elegant and inventive Brisbane projects has increased the buzz. Kurilpa Bridge, by Cox Rayner (its Brisbane office, based in the CBD, is part of one of the biggest architectural firms in Australia), which spans the Brisbane River, has made history as the world’s largest tensegrity bridge (cables and rods use a balance of tension and compression to provide support). The striking v-shaped General Purpose North 4 building at the University of Queensland, by Richard Kirk Architects, a 15-year-old practice working on projects ranging from furniture to transport developments, based in south Brisbane, won the state’s top building award for its sustainable design.

This has led to clients turning to Brisbane-based designers for overseas commissions. Bligh Voller Nield (BVN) an 11- year-old practice – with over 110 staff in the Queensland office – is collaborating on the London 2012 Olympic Athletes’ Village and designing the Venice football stadium, while Cox Rayner is working on the world’s first curved double helix pedestrian bridge in Singapore. It would appear as though this creative force has come from out of nowhere. But this is a classic rags-to-riches tale that has been percolating for some time.

“This is the first generation [of designers] that hasn’t felt an overwhelming compulsion to leave Brisbane as soon as they graduated,” says Kevin O’Brien, 37, principal of Kevin O’Brien Architects and the only practising indigenous architect in Queensland. “During the 1970s and 1980s there was an extremely conservative [state] government in power and you were excluded if you were in the arts scene. But about eight years ago there was a sense that things had shifted so greatly it was our generation’s time to come back.” O’Brien’s currently working on his own private residence where he is experimenting with form and materials to create a unique dwelling inspired by tent and cave structures.

So what changed? Well, everything. The left-wing Labor party won state ­government and believed arts and education were the keys to Queensland’s reinvention. Business taxes were lowered, encouraging multinationals to set up. Then there was a resources boom and the economy, and population, went through the roof. Brisbane now has 2,000 new residents (mostly from overseas) ­arriving every week.

This rapid growth and increasing ­diversity brought a new breed of client to town: young, cultured, well travelled, and cash-rich “who see design as an important commodity”, says BVN Brisbane principal, Shane Thompson. “Add to that a highly educated generation of ­architects who’ve travelled widely and moved back, and you have a critical mass of people who have a more sophisticated approach to their architecture.”

It seems that everywhere you look in Brisbane there’s construction underway. Cranes crowd the skyline; roads and tunnels are being built and plans for new urban villages are being rolled out.

“We have bags and bags of building work, which means we get a lot of practise,” says Timothy Hill, principal of Donovan Hill architects. His other new addition to the Brisbane cityscape is the gold-clad Santos office tower and laneway, which showcases the city’s brilliant light. Hill says it’s a tongue-in-cheek nod to Brisbane’s “trashy” tag. “Brisbane is only just starting to exist as a major city so most things are being built here for the first time and by people under 40.”

Ingrid Richards, 35, is another young designer who studied in Brisbane, saw the opportunities and stayed. In 2008 she opened her own practice, Richards and Spence, with her partner. “For small practices now is a good time to start up – it’s very supportive here. There’s a feeling of optimism that emerging designers such as ourselves have the opportunity to make precedents that can be forwarded through future generations, which we probably couldn’t do anywhere else.”

Brisbane’s design reinvention isn’t just confined to building work; it’s also being taken to street corners. Artists participating in an annual council-run competition have turned 900 formerly drab traffic light signal boxes into murals. Meanwhile, a landmark Queensland public arts policy, which required the ­allocation of 2 per cent of all new construction budgets, has sparked a wave of bigger art schemes to cultural projects. “That policy changed the way people think about commissioning work,” says Daniel Tobin, co-founder of Urban Art Projects (UAP), a design and art consultancy which has its hub in Brisbane and offices in LA, Houston and Shanghai. It has seen its business grow by at least 100 per cent year on year.

Tobin says the legacy of this policy can be seen in two public art sites they completed last year, which would have otherwise remained unremarkable utilities. A sculptural screen, depicting Queensland mountain ranges (in collaboration with artist Jennifer Marchant), has transformed a multi-storey car park in Southbank. To the north-east of the city at the redeveloped Northshore Hamilton Parkland, giant shells and cast-aluminium fruits (a joint project with artist Fiona Foley) are play equipment for children. This gives the city character and depth and creates an accessible, ­creative heart. Among other projects, UAP is now working on public art for the King Abdullah University of Science & Technology in Saudi Arabia and Shanghai World Expo, 2010.

Now that Brisbane’s outgrown its ugly duckling tag, the challenge will be to ensure good design remains a focus in the face of the need for rapid infrastructure. “Our generation is critically aware of the bigger issues we have to take into consideration – like water restrictions and transport solutions,” says Richards. “A city is something that builds over time. We want to make buildings that are special enough to warrant being kept rather than producing self-conscious work just as a way of keeping ourselves on the map.”

A new aesthetic

In Brisbane an aesthetic has evolved that reflects the city’s sub-tropical climate and laid-back lifestyle – an aesthetic demonstrated by one of our favourite firms, Owen and Vokes.

Miranda Wallace, curator of the 2008 Place Makers Exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art (Queensland’s first overview of architecture since 1959), says a sense of place comes from having to be creative with scarce resources. “Early builders couldn’t find any stone quarries nearby so they had to find ways to construct with timber and natural materials. Now, a strong affection has developed for that make-do approach.”

Timothy Hill from Donovan Hill thinks a lack of airs and graces inspires the city’s design. “Brisbane is just one big caravan park – it’s a bit trashy and that’s where its potential lies. Think of what Gehry did in Los Angeles with what was nearly trash. I mean, where do you think Gaudi would get up to mischief in Australia? Where’s the next Frank Gehry going to come from? It’s here.”

Q&A

Lord Mayor

Campbell Newman

Has Brisbane come of age as a design destination?
Yes. When I was elected I took up the challenge of providing a master plan for Brisbane’s city centre that actually reflected the lifestyle of a subtropical river city and I think we’re now starting to see the fruit of that with a number of innovative projects that are breathing life back into our tired and forgotten spaces.

With a population boom underway and the need for rapid infrastructure to accommodate it, how have you ensured good design remains a priority?
Along with the Brisbane City Centre Master Plan we also have an independent advisory panel made up of a number of Brisbane’s top architects who scrutinise the design quality and appropriateness of major development applications, concepts and policies that come before the council.

How is the Australian lifestyle reflected in Brisbane’s architecture?
Our warm subtropical climate, green leafy suburbs and river location has culminated in a love for open spaces and outdoor activities, which is why we’re opening up old parts of the city through initiatives such as our Vibrant Laneways and Small Spaces programme.

What is the future architecture/design strategy of the city?
Our vision over the next 20 years is to bring people back into the city centre by promoting architecture and design that fosters a more pedestrian-friendly and interactive environment.

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