Building knowledge

Driving innovation in architecture and urban design
Life in Sydney city can be a challenge. But a unique collaboration between architects, donors, researchers, and students is hoping to innovate and educate towards a more liveable Sydney.

Catherine Lassen and Dr Hannes Frykholm in the Wilkinson Building, home to the Sydney School of Architecture, Design and Planning.

The grey walls of the Wilkinson Building make a somewhat unassuming home for the School of Architecture, Design and Planning (ADP). Within this brutalist structure, students and academics are asked to propose solutions to the problems posed by modern urban life – to design the cities of the future.

Recognised architects and developers in their own right, alumni Garry Rothwell AM (BArch ’67, HonDArch ’22) and Susan Rothwell AM (BArch ’72, HonDArch ’22), saw in ADP the potential to accelerate an architectural revolution in Australia. Through their immense generosity, the School established the Rothwell Chair Program, creating a unique opportunity to drive innovation, leadership, and educational excellence within architecture and urban design.

Senior Lecturer Catherine Lassen was surprised by the freedom given to academic staff in the formation of the program. “From the outset, Garry and Susan were extraordinarily giving. The trust, scope, and generosity has enabled it to grow organically. It’s unprecedented in this country.”

As the Rothwell Program Coordinator, Catherine, with the ADP team, set about developing the most impactful program possible. They built from the ground up, guided by one central tenet: “architecture connects with every part of our lives.”

Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, the inaugural Rothwell Program Co-Chairs.

The idea of a multifaceted program began to solidify, incorporating a Chair position which would attract industry pioneers; a postdoctoral research appointment; industry-focused research positions; and outreach and student-focused activities like international studios, symposiums, public lectures, and exhibitions.

When considering the best candidates to serve as the Rothwell Chair, Catherine and the ADP team dreamt big, writing a list of architects they saw as the top five in the world. Among them were soon‑to‑be Pritzker Prize-winning architects, Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, whose values and interests aligned with the program, and whom Catherine knew would make “phenomenal teachers.”

Anne and Jean-Philippe were delighted to accept the offer to become the inaugural Rothwell Co-Chairs. The topic they assigned for their term was ‘Living in the City,’ which challenged students to consider contemporary urban conditions and how architecture can meaningfully improve quality of life. According to Anne and Jean-Philippe, “Living well in the big city is the most important challenge of our time and our generation.”

Their principles, which have consistently influenced them in their role, focus on the preservation and repurposing of existing spaces. Or, as Jean-Philippe puts it, “never demolish. Always transform, with and for the inhabitant.”

Catherine Lassen and Dr Hannes Frykholm in the Tin Sheds
Gallery for the ‘Lacaton&Vassal: Living in the City’ exhibit.


Dr Hannes Frykholm, an architect and researcher with international experience from practice and teaching, joined ADP as the Rothwell Chair Postdoctoral Associate. Students from the Master of Architecture program were invited to participate in an intensive workshop courses, known as studios, with Hannes, Catherine and the Co-Chairs, to focus on questions around social housing in Sydney.

These investigations included potential future options for the Waterloo Housing Estate, originally developed in the 1950s, and another studio examining the iconic Sirius building. Students had to grapple with the usual complications that come with urban development, in conjunction with the intricacies of factors like First Nations rights, colonial history, and the requirements of public housing.

Catalogue of loss, Waterloo. Credit: Kiara Gebrael, Grace Lee, Christopher Tijhia, Jessica Yarrow (Master of Architecture graduates).

“The work has continued an existing strand of thinking about how we keep developing gradually rather than destroying,” Hannes muses. “This program has given that discussion new energy.”

Master of Architecture students with Anne, Jean-Philippe, Catherine, and Hannes in Dunkirk, France. Image courtesy of Lauren Li.

Architecture students were also given the opportunity to add to their toolkit and benefit from international expertise on an elective trip overseas. In France, students were guided by Anne and Jean-Philippe as they observed their own past projects and other unique spaces, rich with history and innovation.

Catherine observes that this kind of immersive educational experience is impossible to replicate in the classroom, turning learning “into something that is just being, and in a joyful way.”

Exterior of social housing complex, Ivry-sur-Seine. Image courtesy of Pierre Dalais.

One particular visit to social housing units “provided an eye-opening learning experience” for Master of Architecture student, Lauren Li. The complex in Ivry-sur-Seine was striking, incorporating angular, geometric design elements that lend an otherworldly beauty to an otherwise functional space. The group was personally guided by current residents around the precinct, offering vital historical and cultural context. Lauren recalls the distinct, individual design of each unit. “It is only with this knowledge and understanding that you can then design with generosity and kindness, and design sensitively to the site and its inhabitants.”

Since returning from France, Lauren has incorporated newfound perspectives into her design approach and methodology. “Although the French context and building regulations differ from those in Australia, the fundamental principles and values remain consistent, requiring only a shift in perspective to fully comprehend and integrate them.”

Three years of collective work in the Rothwell Chair program culminated in late July, 2023, with a week of seminars, public lectures, and an exhibition at the Tin Sheds Gallery. Garry and Susan joined staff in celebrating student achievements and showcasing the ideas explored during Anne and Jean‑Philippe’s tenure.

Hannes notes that the collegial network forming in ADP is a testament to the success of the program. “There’s a strong body of alumni, a network of researchers, architects, other people outside of the institution – they’re all being connected.”

The search for the next Rothwell Chair, who will lead the program until 2026, is currently in its final stages. Although Anne and Jean-Philippe’s term as Co-Chairs has drawn to a close, their expertise and ethos will continue to shape the practice of the next generation of architects.

“If I had to sum up in one word the intersection between this particular teaching, research, engagement, and outreach – it would be quality,” Catherine affirms. “The quality of colleagues like Anne and Jean-Philippe, their disciplinary expertise, attention and ambition, has the potential to create tangible, positive outcomes.”

Looking to the program’s future, Catherine is confident that the impact of Garry and Susan’s gift will carry forward, with each Chair building on the range of knowledge available to ADP students. As she explains, “architecture, at its best, brings together different elements and contributes to answering the big questions we’re facing as a society.”

Written by Elizabeth Jo for the donor publication. Photography supplied and by Maja Baska.

7 December 2023

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