Meet Victoria’s Government Architect

Jill Garner smiling at camera. Treasury building in the backgroundWe spoke with Jill Garner, Victoria’s Government Architect, about her background and role.

She’s the public advocate critiquing buildings, transport routes and tourism sites across the state.

It was a visit to a friend’s house designed by Victorian architect Robin Boyd that set in motion Jill Garner’s choice of career when she was a schoolgirl.

Boyd – one of Australia’s most famous post-war modernists – rose to prominence in the 1950s and ’60s for championing a seamless connection between the indoors and outdoors. Once inside the front door of this house, Jill was taken by its light-filled, open plan. To such an extent that after her schooling at Melbourne Girls Grammar, she undertook an architecture masters at RMIT University, becoming one of the first graduates of the practice-based research course in 1996.

Along the way, in 1990, Jill co-founded Garner Davis Architects in St Kilda, where she remains a principal.

In 2015, Jill became Government Architect in the Office of the Victorian Government Architect (OVGA), following in the footsteps of Victoria’s first government architect John Denton, appointed in 2006, and Geoffrey London who took the helm from 2008 to 2014.

At the OVGA, Jill leads a small team of built environment professionals including architects, landscape architects and urban designers. “We’re mandated to promote quality design in projects because quality design is at the heart of a successful place – it’s not an optional extra,” says Jill.

There’s also a larger, grander mission: to ensure respect for people, culture, history and ecology is embedded in state design. A tall order, clearly. But one from which our children and grandchildren will benefit. “The places we build must be functional, sustainable, safe and enjoyable for generations to come,” explains Jill, “and quality design ensures positive legacy, becoming the heritage of the future.”

Such legacy building takes myriad forms. “I may be discussing design principles in a level crossing removal, finding a collaborative design team for a hospital, reviewing a design for a lifesaving club or presenting an argument about the impact of bollards in Melbourne,” says Jill.

Her role also addresses social housing, promotion of active lifestyles via cycle and pedestrian paths and technology-related design.

That’s not all. Jill continues to be a partner at architectural practice Garner Davis, national chair of the Venice Architecture Biennale Committee and she has taught design at both RMIT and Melbourne University. Given such diverse experience, she knows intimately how a well-designed city can enhance liveability, which is especially important given the population of Victoria is expected to hit 10 million people by the 2050s and Melbourne's population will double by 2031.

“Victoria’s lucky to be a lively, prosperous place, built on a rich design legacy,” Jill enthuses. “The quality ‘bones’ of our cities are a fortunate result of our wealth when our capital city was, for a short time, the richest city in the world. Our reputation for design commitment has been built over many years.”

She concedes, however, that designers in 2019 struggle with time, quality and cost pressures. “In the current environment,” she says, “it’s important to have three critical commitments in any project. We need to ensure design principles are embedded in a project vision, great design skills are engaged for the task and processes of peer design review are used. We’ve written a document called Government as Smart Client, and we propose government should be a leader in demonstrating how to get the best outcomes.”

A project that will be a successful showcase for this is the Ballarat Government Hub, where the three critical commitments are in place.”

Jill is something of a design gatekeeper; ensuring change is never dictated purely by economics. “I’m an intermediary between government and design professions,” she says. “It’s the OVGA’s mission to elevate government’s ambition for projects they’re building for our community. Government is naturally concerned about ‘value’, which can often mean dollars, whereas we argue that value also means long-term success for a project: long life, low maintenance, highly functional, low running costs and delightful to engage with as a user or occupant.”

A key issue for Jill is the common misconception that design is merely window dressing. “Design is often misinterpreted as decoration,” she laments, “and this causes me great pain. Design elevates a project beyond its primary purpose.”

As to what she loves most about her role, Jill says, “I love being given the opportunity to seek out ‘champions’ within the diverse people who work in government.”

The Office of the Victorian Government Architect (OVGA) in action

Jill lists three recent key work highlights achieved by the OVGA.

Caulfield to Dandenong rail project

"As Victoria’s first 'rail-up' project, we were clear in our message to government that the success of the project lay in delivery of two non-separable systems – a raised train line, and a community-focused linear park under. The outcome is a success for both commuters and adjacent communities."

Shipwreck Coast projects

"Highlighting the value in cultural tourism, we encouraged Parks Victoria to commit to a world’s best practice, design-led vision for the new visitor experiences on the Shipwreck Coast, which stretches from Cape Otway to Port Fairy – notably, the Twelve Apostles lookout and the Port Campbell pedestrian bridge."

Melbourne and Olympic Park

"The OVGA chairs a design review across the Melbourne and Olympic Park Precinct, including re-visioning Margaret Court and Rod Laver Arenas, Tanderrum Bridge, Tennis Australia HQ and the conference and media centre. Our team has knowledge and commitment to the precinct."

For more, visit the Office of the Victorian Government Architect.