Jul 01 2020, by Fleetwood Urban (Marketing)

Future Shaper

Q&A with Kirsten Bauer, Director at ASPECT Studios and Adjunct Professor at the RMIT School of Architecture & Urban Design, Member of the inaugural Birrarung Council

As a Director at ASPECT Studios in Melbourne, Kirsten Bauer steers one of Australia’s most awarded landscape architecture practices. But she’s also been helping to steer Australia’s next generation of landscape architects since the late 1990s, as a Lecturer and now Adjunct Professor at the RMIT School of Architecture and Urban Design. Who better to discuss the future?

FWD>THINKING: Kirsten, you’re a Director with ASPECT Studios in Melbourne. But you’re also an Adjunct Professor at the RMIT School of Architecture and Urban Design. How did you become involved in education?

KIRSTEN BAUER: I first became a Lecturer at RMIT back in the late 1990s. Since going into private practice full time, I’ve sought to continue my passionate relationship with education and research. This has been through running design studios, giving lectures and critiquing student work. Understanding what students and academics are up to and how they are thinking about the future is critical. And for me any discussion about landscape architecture is a good discussion, it’s a broad discipline that includes all forms of practice, academia and research.

FWD>THINKING: What does your role with RMIT actually involve?

KIRSTEN BAUER: It’s a mutual exchange. I gain kudos by having a title and, in return, I provide lectures, presentations and student critiques. I also participate in certain strategic direction and research conversations within the University.

FWD>THINKING: As someone with quite a unique perspective as both an educator and active industry professional, how well do you think Australia’s tertiary institutions are preparing graduates for the ‘real world’ in 2020?

KIRSTEN BAUER: I don’t think ‘real world’ is a particularly useful term. We all bring different perspectives and ideas to the real world. It’s not like students do not bring excellent skills to the real world, sometimes good education involves unlearning ‘real world’ prejudices. I’m a harsh critic of most things, practice and education included. Private practice may be focused more on the immediate at times, while education speculates more on the future of practice. But it can also be the other way around. Private practice is leading the way in some areas, such as really engaging in spatiality in design through digital practice, and in engaging with and developing policy, while in other areas it’s the universities or public practice leading the way. Our discipline is too small for us to work separately.

Much discussion focuses on whether graduates are ready for private practice on Day One. I actually don’t think universities should be providing practice-ready graduates. They should provide graduates with solid base skills that allow them to be productive landscape architects in their first year, but practice is really just a continuing education, just in a different environment.

FWD>THINKING: Are there any trends, good or bad, you’re noticing in the type of graduates we’re now seeing?

KIRSTEN BAUER: There is always good and bad, and over the last 15 years I’ve seen them all. Now graduates have a good balance between strong thinking/design skills, strong basic technical skills and strong basic multimedia skills. Having that solid base and good balance is what’s needed to kick start a graduate’s career. They need those three areas to be able to negotiate the demands of practice, whether it’s public, private or academic.

FWD>THINKING: Casting your mind back, how different is today’s education landscape from when you were starting your own career?

KIRSTEN BAUER: Very different in some ways. For example, technology is more important now. However, I feel the importance of design studios has remained strong across the years. And many of those design studios are moving towards more collaborative skills, being able to work across disciplines.

FWD>THINKING: What role should the industry have in fostering the next generation of landscape architects and industry leaders?

KIRSTEN BAUER: I think you’re asking whether design professionals should be involved in tertiary education or not. If so, my overwhelming response is ‘yes’. But not just design professionals. It should also include horticulturalists, ecologists, technologists and other relevant specialists.

FWD>THINKING: What are we currently doing well as an industry?

KIRSTEN BAUER: We’re shifting people’s perceptions of what landscape architecture can contribute to urban and regional life. We’re good at creating intimacy – things like connection to community, access for all, social empowerment. I think we’re also succeeding at providing Indigenous advocacy. We do large infrastructure and public realm transformations well, and we are strong in policy and planning. In addition, we are seeing more and more landscape architects in positions of advice to government, government boards etc. These roles are as important as developing projects. The practice of landscape architecture is about influencing change as well as creating physical change.

FWD>THINKING: What could we be doing better?

KIRSTEN BAUER: More advocacy. We need to have more of a voice in the media. We should also carry out more research on ourselves. We need landscape architects to be a lot more active in the institute, the community, the media and in policy development. We need to choose our own personal contribution outside of “our day job” so to speak.

FWD>THINKING: Just finally Kirsten, seeing the quality of graduates currently coming through the education system, how optimistic are you for the future of the Industry?

KIRSTEN BAUER: I’m fairly optimistic, though I am a well-known non-dooms day pessimist. The area that does need to be amped up is environmental technical skills. By that I mean strong technical land conceptual skills in environmental performance to support design decisions and to fundamentally contribute to the environment. At the moment we all say these things, like ‘native plants are better than exotics’, but we need more evidence and more skills in developing the evidence and then using it to fundamentally inform our design processes. Graduates should have skills in base environmental performance, ecology, geology, vegetation, environmental psychology and in policy. Perhaps graduates also need a little more understanding that you need to work towards a goal, and it may take years to achieve it!

We also need to remember the graduates of the future will have strong personal and social values. Practices will need to work out how to work with these. For instance, graduates will have a greater connection to values than place of work – that’s a broader cultural trend and, as Industry leaders, we need to be able to offer ourselves as a discipline of values.