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Curator Q&A

Curator Charle Pickett answers a few quick questions about "Imagine A City"

Portrait of Charles Pickett


What’s your favourite building or story in the exhibition?

Charles: There are lot of favourites and the GPO is certainly one of them. When I was at university I worked there a couple of Christmas holidays, taking phone bills. It was like Central Station – another favourite – in that all of Sydney seemed to pass through there and I loved that. Later on, I learned about the GPO’s architecture and sculpture while doing an exhibition at the Powerhouse and became a fan of its monumentality and its architect, James Barnet. The GPO was built to be Sydney’s communication centre, linking the city to the world. Its quite a romantic building in that way but its also one of many places that’s easy to take for granted until you learn a little about it.


What attracted you to this project?

Charles: I like the fact that it’s about buildings that most of us have experienced, everything from schools to museums and a lot in between. Unlike most architecture shows, it’s not about ‘genius’ architects yet there are some great architects and architecture in the show.

I was also impressed that the Library took on a show that’s not an obvious crowd pleaser but which touches on a lot of our common experiences in public places, so there is a potential to grab peoples’ attention that way. Hopefully we’ll manage to do that.


Why is the story of the government architects important, and interesting?

Charles: One of the people we interviewed for the exhibition film pointed out that a government architect was appointed for NSW before a state treasurer, which underlines how central public buildings are to NSW’s European history. We tend to be apologetic about our built environment in Sydney but given our brilliant heritage of public buildings, we shouldn’t be. Since Greenway’s time these buildings have often been criticised as too grand and too expensive for their purpose but I think it’s a great thing that so much of our public realm embodies the best architecture of its time, right up to today.

The Government Architect didn’t enter its buildings for architecture prizes until 1962, but its work then dominated the Sulman Prize and other awards for the next few decades, which really underlines the quality of our public buildings.


 In researching and developing the exhibition, what has surprised or captivated you most; what did you discover that you didn’t expect or know?

Charles: There were a lot of things I didn’t know! Being something of a dilettante curator many of my exhibitions have been a learning experience and this one is no different. The scale of the office and its output is something that I didn’t expect. It is one of the oldest practices in the world and as recently as the 1980s was one of the largest, employing hundreds of architects, designers, engineers and others.

Another surprise was Francis Greenway – really! For a long time I looked at him as something of a pattern book designer and almost resented that fact that he is perhaps the most famous Australian architect while a lot of fine architects are unknown. But looking again at what Greenway achieved in six years with so few resources: amazing. He set the mould for public architecture in Australia, making a compelling case for its centrality to government activity and to all our lives.


What do you hope visitors will take away from the exhibition?

Charles: I hope they will understand what a legacy the 23 Government Architects and their staff have left to us in thousands of public building and our experience of them. The design role of the Government Architect is coming to an end in 2016 and that is a big change for NSW; from now on we will have a Government Architect who consults and guides public architecture but who can no longer set the standard through the work of the Government Architect’s office. 

Mostly I hope people will enjoy the exhibition, there are some lovely things in the show and that’s part of the experience of exhibitions, one of the many pleasures the State Library offers.