A Creative Force

A love of the arts runs deep in the Belgiorno-Nettis DNA, so it is no surprise that Luca Belgiorno-Nettis champions the transformations taking place at UTS. He reflects on his education and another major passion – political reform.

"Do you realise there is no fine/visual arts teaching at UTS, and yet they sponsor an art gallery?" asks Luca Belgiorno-Nettis – architect, businessman, patron of the arts, philanthropist and passionate political idealist.

"I think that's brilliant," he continues. "The University sees the worth of having art on the campus for its own sake."

Image: Luca Belgiorno-Nettis - Profile

Yes, the present gallery may be small but, he argues, its very existence demonstrates that the leadership of UTS recognise what the visual arts symbolise: creativity, innovation and constantly refreshing thought patterns – qualities applicable to all forms of intellectual endeavour.

Belgiorno-Nettis, now a lean 58, is not an entirely independent witness. Sometimes described in the media as modern-day Medici, the closest thing contemporary Sydney has to a Renaissance Man ("That was more my father, not me"), the former student of UTS has chaired the University's art advisory board for the past decade. Today we're talking at the Sydney headquarters of Transfield Holdings, the investment, construction and infrastructure company that his legendary father, the late Franco Belgiorno-Nettis, founded in 1956 with a fellow Italian migrant Carlo Salteri.

Unlike most anonymous corporate HQs, this one is a physical embodiment of the Belgiorno-Nettis family credo. The office occupies a section of a refurbished 19th century timber Finger Wharf at Walsh Bay – once a hive of working class industry, now a precinct for web-based businesses and the performing arts.

The lobby is open, airy – and full of choice pieces of contemporary sculpture and paintings. One of the most prominent is Richard Goodwin's sculpture, Co-isolated slave, which won the Art Gallery of New South Wales' celebrated Wynne Prize in 2011. It features an upturned motorcycle lashed impotently on the back of an ancient butcher's tricycle.

The sculptured lobby certainly sends a message to any new visitor: Transfield Holdings is not a conventional construction company. And Belgiorno-Nettis believes the radical metamorphosis now under way for Broadway in general, and UTS in particular, will also have a profound impact on how people view the institution.

Image: Tsunami, 2012 by Kay Allibrand

Since it was built in the 1970s, the UTS Tower has had to live with the reputation of being one of Sydney's ugliest and least-loved buildings. But the new Frank Gehry-designed Dr Chau Chak Wing Building will revolutionise the University's public image. So too will the Goods Line, modelled on New York's High Line, which will provide much better links between UTS, the ABC, the Powerhouse Museum and the new Darling Harbour facilities being planned by the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority. Meanwhile the redevelopment of the old Carlton and United Breweries site, with the creation of Central Park, puts UTS at the very heart of an exciting technology-savvy community.

"The Gehry building is fantastic," says the architect turned developer. "These things can transform the image of a place. Look what the Sydney Opera House has done for Sydney. We're now in the process of introducing an art plan for the entire UTS campus, and a new gallery is proposed to replace the little one we have now.

"I've very happy to be involved in the future of UTS. We're in a very interesting phase."

Belgiorno-Nettis was 26 when he attended UTS in 1980 to complete a Graduate Diploma of Urban Estate Management. "It was a mouthful," he laughs. "But it was very useful for me. I felt I needed to do some business-type studies to complement the architecture degree I'd got from the University of NSW."

Luca and his brothers, Marco and Guido, attended St Aloysius' College in Kirribilli. He chose architecture because "like most people, I didn't know what I wanted to do until it was too late".

As an architect student, Luca had to study "structure, design, psychology, town planning ... I found it intriguing and interesting, but I was all at sea. I didn't understand where I should focus."

His decision to continue his studies at UTS came down to a determination to learn the practicalities of architecture, "the language – how a cap rate worked or what a discounted cash flow was about".

He studied at UTS three nights a week. "I really respected the other students. Everyone else was working too. Everyone was serious about their studies. There was no time wasting. The teaching was great because the people doing the teaching had all come from business. So I was learning things I needed. And in the town planning aspects of the course we got to be more creative."

Artistic endeavours

Both Luca and Guido have continued their father's passion for the arts. Luca chairs the Biennale of Sydney, which Franco founded in 1973. In 2007, the family donated $4 million to the Art Gallery of New South Wales to finance the major reworking of the former basement into a contemporary arts floor. They are supporters of the city's Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the annual Sculpture by the Sea, and they figure prominently among Sydney's music and arts elite.

Image: Artwork, 2004 by Richard Tipping

So why did Luca and Guido renounce their positions as co-managing directors of Transfield Holdings last year? Why appoint a new chief executive Roy McKelvie when things seem to be going so well?

"There was a sense that Transfield Holdings needed a bit of refreshing to be honest," says Luca. "And Guido and I are interested in doing other things. But we are certainly not abandoning ship!"

In Luca's case, his major passion these days is stimulating political reform. In 2005, he established the New Democracy Foundation with its motto: "We don't need better politicians. We need a better system."

At its heart lies Belgiorno-Nettis's belief that elections have ruined democracy by reducing the concept to two opposing forces seeking power. When democracy was originally conceived, the Ancient Greeks hardly ever had elections.

"I'm interested in how we can improve the political landscape of Australia," he explains. "Since the collapse of communism, the ideological differences in Australian politics have effectively evaporated. What we have now is a manufactured debate where the principal driver is the need to win and to hang on to power, increasingly to the detriment of good government.

"I've got a feeling that political reform is going to be my real abiding interest in life."

Words: Steve Meacham
Image: Nick Cubbin