‘Here, people shake our hands in the street’: the architects redesigning rural Australia

The relationship to the land and climate requires a specific kind of design and architects like Phillip Nielsen and Katharina Hendel are pushing for a revolution

When Phillip Nielsen co-founded a design practice in Corowa on the banks of the Murray River, there had been no architect in the small town since 1972. “[That’s] 45 years of there not being a local architect who the community knew from the football club or saw on the street,” Neilsen says. “Knowledge of what an architect does was completely lost.

“That led to people not knowing how we work … for them. You watch Grand Designs, and all architects do is cost the client money.”

In a town of just over 5,000, Neilsen’s Regional Design Service is also hoping to educate the community about the power of architecture in a rural context.

But while there has been a positive change in attitude during the last six years, Nielsen says creating a groundswell in rural architecture is a “massive” and “multifaceted problem”.

“You have to do everything in the country … you have to be the advocates and the architects,” he says.

Regionally based architects have long been frustrated that their metropolitan colleagues have attracted all the limelight. At the same time, for rural residents interested in engaging an architect, it can be hard to find one in many small towns.

The Regional Architecture Association was born in 2021 out of frustration at the lack of attention being paid to regional practice and it has quickly attracted members from across Australia united by the same problem.

“It is something that we’re quite passionate about as an organisation, that regional architecture should be done by regional architects,” says Sarah Aldridge, architect and secretary of the RAA.

“It’s not that easy for someone from another area to jump in and be able to pull off a building. The relationship to the land, country and climate is different everywhere. We do see some fairly inappropriate buildings go up sometimes, because that hasn’t been considered.”

Regional projects can suffer a range of issues, from increased costs of doing business to labour shortages, but Nielsen also worries about more deep-seated issues affecting the progress of regional architecture.

The Exoskeleton House by TAKT Studio
The Exoskeleton House by Takt, whose co-founder Katharina Hendel says ‘people are much more clued in to what’s possible’. Photograph: Shantanu Starick

“We’ve just had a Victorian election and we have a New South Wales one coming up,” he says. “You see a lot of campaigning for more nurses and teachers, but there is nowhere for them to live.

“We only have capacity for 350 more dwellings on our sewage plant, and can’t afford a sewerage upgrade … We need a basic infrastructure upgrade if we want to be able to attract the growth.”

Neilsen’s company developed a following in Corowa after it refurbished the local cinema in its first year of operation. It has since completed residential and commercial projects including farmhouse restorations, shopfront refurbishments and the award-winning, community-focused Urana Aquatic Leisure Centre.

And while he is eager to champion sustainable design, Nielsen says education comes first.

“Flood design and bushfire-responsive design should organically fall into place … We know how to design them, but if the community can’t see the value, then it won’t happen,” he says.

For Takt, an architecture studio based between Thirroul and Moruya in New South Wales, designing for bushfires is top of mind.

After spending several weeks helping at the recovery centre in Conjola in the aftermath of the 2019 New Year’s Eve fire, co-founder Katharina Hendel began to hear people considering the future of the town.

“For the first few weeks, it was about quite basic needs and then we heard more questions about how to fix things and how to rebuild,” says Hendel.

Now, almost three years on, Takt’s plans for the Bushfire Resilience Centre, a commemorative museum and cultural centre in similarly devastated Cobargo, further down the NSW south coast, are in development application stages with Bega Valley shire council.

Takt’s design for the Bushfire Resilience Centre in Cobargo
Takt’s design for the Bushfire Resilience Centre in Cobargo Photograph: Takt

The centre, which will be built with support from the Green Building Council predominantly out of timber and steel, accompanies plans submitted by Dunn & Hillam Architects for a new market hall, visitors square, information centre, post office and shop fronts to create future-proof buildings for the town.

Alongside the Cobargo project, Hendel hopes rising costs won’t hinder Takt’s other regional projects, as the influence of social media and “renovation shows we love to hate” increase the appetite for architecture.

“I feel that with every inquiry over the years … people are much more clued in to what’s possible,” she says. “Sometimes I’m quite impressed by how much people have thought about the site.”

To equip architects to respond to these new ideas, RAA is bringing remote practitioners together so they feel less alone.

“There was one person there who said, ‘I’m the only architect in my town and I just didn’t know what to do, or who to turn to … and then I heard about RAA’,” says Aldridge.

“She came down and was absolutely over the moon. And I just thought, that is why we do this. We need you to stay where you are, but we want to support you.”

In Corowa, Nielsen is familiar with the feeling, but the value of both living and working in the country is not lost on him.

“When you do projects in the city, it’s an anonymous client who is never going to know that you built that,” he says.

“Here, people shake our hands in the street to thank us for what we do, and I never thought as an architect that people would be grateful for my design.”

• This article was amended on 5 January 2023 to correct a reference to the town of Conjola, which was mistakenly identified as Cobargo in an earlier version.


Maddie Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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