Interview with Christopher Johnson

He's been called "the man who shaped Sydney", someone who has had arguably a greater influence over the growth and design of Australia's premier international city and the major regional centres of NSW than any other politician or businessman.

For a decade, from 1995-2005, Chris Johnson was the NSW Government Architect. His fingerprints are on the master plans of many of the most important and controversial pieces of infrastructure of the last 20 years - including Sydney Olympic Park, the redevelopment of Walsh Bay and the imaginative reinvention of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

He then joined the NSW Department of Planning as executive director in charge of urban renewal, establishing task forces to reinvigorate the ailing city centres of Parramatta, Penrith, Liverpool, Gosford, Newcastle and Wollongong.

During that time he chaired the advisory panel on the redevelopment of the former Carlton United Brewery site opposite UTS and has played a leading role in framing the future of Barangaroo - the once-in-a-lifetime addition to Sydney's CBD.

Gamekeeper turns poacher?

His pivotal position put him in the middle of the acrimonious dispute between the heritage lobby and major developers. Yet Chris Johnson's reputation remained unsullied. He was "one of the good guys", a problem solver, someone who could persuade vested interests to compromise for the long term good of the city and its residents.

After all, he was a member of both the National Trust of Australia (NSW) and the Heritage Council of NSW, and was known as a great champion of public open space and the greening of cities - not least through his 14 books and academic contributions.

So picture the consternation among fellow architects and media commentators when Johnson took his present job in 2011 as chief executive of Urban Taskforce Australia - essentially a lobby group representing the nation's largest private developers. Had the gamekeeper turned poacher?

"There were letters to the Sydney Morning Herald saying I had crossed to the Dark Side," says Johnson in his top-floor office overlooking Martin Place. "But in terms of my career, it's a natural progression. I've moved from designing individual buildings (he won the prestigious Sulman Award in 1981 for Hampden Park Public School) to master planning, to broader planning, to effecting codes about housing, to regional cities. And now I'm dealing with bigger issues about the market place relative to the future growth of cities and towns in NSW."

Since taking the job Johnson has been on the front foot, leading a crusade against what he sees as out-of-touch local planners, political buck-passing between the various tiers of government, and a natural tendency for residents not to embrace major changes in their own neighbourhood backyards.

Building a vertical city

He's regularly making headlines, but perhaps the most controversial view Johnson has expressed since heading Urban Taskforce Australia is that "at least a third" of the "substandard" buildings from the 1960-80s in Sydney's CBD should be demolished and replaced with 100-storey skyscrapers.

He's even provided a short list of those he'd knock down first: the Telstra Exchange in Kent Street, the Labor Council building in Sussex Street, the NSW Leagues Club in Elizabeth Street and "most of the buildings around Haymarket".

"Sydney's CBD is on a very narrow peninsula, about 1km wide by 5km long, just a tenth of the New York CBD," he explains. "It's borders are the harbour, parkland and Central railway. The only way is up.

"But I think the idea of a vertical city next to water is very exciting. In the Persian Gulf, Taiwan and Shanghai, 100-storey buildings are becoming the norm, a sign those cities have confidence. Even Parramatta has approval for a 90-storey building." Brad Hazzard, the O'Farrell government's planning minister, questioned whether Sydneysiders will ever have the appetite for such giant buildings. But Johnson thinks they're inevitable, and that local government planners in general are "at least ten years behind" what the public needs. "Throughout Sydney's history, every generation has set a limit on building height which was overturned by the next generation. It's part of my job to be ahead of the pack. "

The reality, Johnson argues, is that Sydney is failing to meet the socio-economic challenges of the 21st century. Housing is so unaffordable that NSW loses around 20,000 citizens every year, most of them aged 25-30. With more people living longer and wanting to downsize, more housing options are needed than ever before. Yet Australia's population is growing by around 400,000 a year, the vast majority through legal immigration set by the federal government, adding to the pressure for new housing and infrastructure.

"The problem is that the federal government forgets about them, leaving the state governments to pick up the pieces," says Johnson. "The states pass it on to the councils who say, 'Bugger off! We're happy as we are!'."

He cites Botany Council which insists each two-bed apartment should be a minimum of 110 sq metres, well in excess of the NSW guideline of 75 sq metres.

"But Ikea has a demonstration apartment of 55 sq metres based on Swedish standards. The result, he says, is that planners are adding hugely to the cost, pricing perfectly reasonable apartments out of the reach of would-be home owners."

"The market place should decide," he insists. "Developers aren't going to build apartments which aren't going to sell. That would be crazy. I'm amazed by how much research they do to know their market, what kind of amenities and kitchen finishes their customers want. "They're not planners sitting in offices deciding how people should live. The guys I help to represent are out there finding what people want and can afford. "

It all seems a long way from the views Johnson might have been advocating at the start of his career.

Born in wartime Britain in June 1945, Christopher Richard Johnson was the son of an Australian pilot who got shot down over occupied France shortly after marrying Johnson's English mother: "He disappeared for eight months. I suspect their reunion led to me!" The family was living in Colloroy by Johnson's first birthday before moving to a house in Chatswood designed by his architect father, Peter (who later became the first Chancellor of UTS). By the time he left Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore), the teenager had decided he too wanted to become an architect.

After graduating from Sydney University with a Bachelor of Architecture in 1967, he and his first wife Jane moved to London in 1970, where the first of their daughters was born. When they returned to Sydney in 1973, Johnson took a job in 1973 in the NSW Government Architect's Office which was going through a school building boom.

In 1990 he enrolled on an imaginative new postgraduate course at UTS, Master of the Built Environment, pioneered by Professor Winston Barnett who had used Johnson as a sounding board for the concept. Spread over three years, with intensive four week study blocks, the course involved inviting international experts to stimulate new ideas about the interaction between architecture and public space.

Several of those experts became lifelong friends, most notably the distinguished French architect Philippe Robert, lauded for his ability to adapt old buildings for new uses. (Later, as NSW Government Architect, Johnson invited Robert to add his creative genius to the redevelopment of Walsh Bay.)

As part of his UTS studies, Johnson wrote a thesis on the wasted public space that was being under-utilised around the edge of cities. By the time he left UTS in 1993, he was less inclined to see buildings as isolated objects but as part of the streetscape where people lived and worked.

It proved a turning point in his career, particularly when he became NSW Government Architect and found himself having long conversations about such issues with the then Premier of NSW, Bob Carr.

"Courses that take away from what you are doing in your daily work are not as useful as courses which add to what you are doing," he says, pointing out that he put into practice things he had studied at UTS in the various masterplans he was responsible for.

Appointed as a Member of the Order of Australia in 2012 for distinguished service to architecture, Johnson has also notched up a myriad of academic qualifications. He has taken two other masters degrees - a Master of Architecture in History and Theory at the University of NSW (which he completed with his second wife, architectural journalist Davina Jackson who he married in 1988) and a Master of Cultural Heritage at Deakin University in 2002.

In addition, he's been an adjunct professor at UTS, the University of Sydney and UNSW, been the chair or member of dozens of design juries or review panels, and in 2011 won the prestigious Byera Hadley Travelling Scholarship to research the important role of women architects in driving slum clearance programs in India.

He's worked on commissions in both India and China since he left the public service in 2009, and expects to return to India to help with slum renewal when his four year contract with Urban Taskforce Australia ends at the end of 2015.

He'll be 70 then, but has no intention of retiring. Meanwhile he ploughs his boundless energy into arguing Sydney's future should include high rise.

"The whole mantra is about diversity," he says. "There are multiple ways we can live with different densities, from 100 people per hectare to 1000 people per hectare. Nearly 30 per cent of Sydneysiders want to live in higher density areas. With higher density comes more amenities."

Words by Steve Meacham, February 2014