Architecture boosted by major gift from Susan and Garry Rothwell

12 July 2018
New chair to foster architectural innovation and discovery
A high-profile Sydney couple say too many of our city's big building projects go to international firms. They plan to 'turbocharge' Australian architecture with a generous donation.
The Arch-Museum, a project by graduate student Gracie Guan.

The Arch-Museum, a project by graduate student Gracie Guan.

Susan and Garry Rothwell have helped shape Sydney – she as an architect and he as an architect-turned-property-developer. Now the couple has made a transformative donation to the University of Sydney that could have a profound impact on Australian architecture, and disrupt a trend that has seen high-profile projects designed by international, rather than local, firms.

The Rothwells' donation will create a new, ongoing role in the School of Architecture, Design and Planning – the Garry and Susan Rothwell Chair in Architectural Design Leadership.

"It is rare to see philanthropic gifts of this scale in architecture," said Professor John Redmond, Dean of the Sydney School of Architecture, Design and Planning. "The Rothwells' generosity is such that their gift will have a major impact not only on architecture at the University of Sydney, but nationally and internationally."

Turbocharging Australian architecture

The new chair will foster architectural innovation, experimentation and discovery through research and education, and enhance opportunities for early-career architects through the University's new design PhD program.

While the Rothwells believe the standard of design in Sydney has improved in recent years, they note that major projects, such as the Art Gallery of NSW's planned Sydney Modern extension and Barangaroo's three commercial skyscrapers, have gone to international firms (Tokyo-based SANAA and London's Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners respectively). The Rothwells admire those projects, but hope their gift to the University will help create more opportunities for early-career Australian architects.

"We'd like to think that more local talent could take on those large projects," Mr Rothwell said.

It is rare to see philanthropic gifts of this scale in architecture.
Professor John Redmond, Dean of the Sydney School of Architecture, Design and Planning

The Rothwells are both Sydney architecture alumni and, when planning their donation, sought advice from Professor Redmond – a family friend – about how they could raise the profile and quality of Australian architecture.

Professor Redmond's vision is for a program that "turbocharges" the careers of emerging architects through the PhD, as well as generally boosting studio design education.

"The chair needs to be an internationally regarded architect who is integrating all the complexities of contemporary and emerging environmental and societal issues, and creating designs that are acknowledged as innovating at the cutting edge of the field," he said.

A major shift in approach

Professor Redmond believes the appointment of the chair will mark the beginning of a major shift in the way universities approach architecture. For the past 30 or 40 years, he said, research in architecture in the academic space has tended to focus on history, technology, science and social science, rather than on research in innovative design.

"The core of architecture – integrative, synthesising, creative design – needs to be significantly boosted in universities," he said. "The overall objective of the program is to put the focus on discovery in the core of architecture, using architecture research practice methodologies to achieve outcomes that transform our understanding of what architecture can do, be and provide for humanity.

"We are seeking to bring the passion for creative architecture back into the core of the academy and to position architectural research methodologies alongside those of the sciences, humanities and social sciences."

Giving from the heart

The Rothwells see their gift as a reflection of their long relationship with the University, and belief in the power of good design to improve quality of life. "If you are in a well-designed atmosphere, it feeds your soul," Mrs Rothwell said. 

For both Rothwells, their time at the University in the '60s proved formative. During their student years, they developed design skills, forged creative interests and fell in love.

"We met at the freshers' cocktail party at the architecture faculty," said Mrs Rothwell. "I was 17 and he was in final year and it was love at first sight. We dumped our dates for the evening and rock 'n' rolled together all night."

Next year, they will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. Of their three children, two studied architecture at Sydney. Mrs Rothwell's aunt and uncle also graduated in architecture at the University.

"Architecture has always been a big part of our lives," Mrs Rothwell said. "We'd like to facilitate awareness about the benefits of good design, and to see Australian architects playing a bigger role in the international arena."

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