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Kevin O’Brien, the architect designing for Country

Kevin O’Brien is a designer and Principal architect with BVN. In a new installation for Queensland’s Bleach Festival, O’Brien takes inspiration from Country and the Wallum Banksia.

Kevin O’Brien, the architect designing for Country

Architect and designer Kevin O’Brien’s installation for Bleach* Festival is a beautiful yet haunting reminder of colonisation, reflecting the processes he uses to link art and architecture to Country.

Portrait of BVN principal architect Kevin O'Brien

Kevin O’Brien.

O’Brien’s installation, Light Flowers, sees 15 almost two-metre high illuminated light sculptures suspended among Norfolk Pines on the Burleigh Heads foreshore, marking the location of the festival’s evening feasting events.

“When I’m thinking about Country, whether it’s for architecture, or for something like this, I’m always looking for prompts,” says O’Brien.

For this installation, O’Brien took those prompts from the geology, hydrology, flora and fauna, Aboriginal occupation in the area and the area’s painful history.

Kevin O'Brien's Wallum Banksia sketches

Kevin O’Brien’s Wallum Banksia sketches.

“The thing that really stood out to me was the absence of the Wallum Banksia that was prolific through this area on the Gold Coast, right up to the point where the whole place got stripped for sand mining,” says O’Brien.

As a result, O’Brien’s work is 3D printed in collaboration with Ben Tait of UAP to represent, in proportion and texture, the “flowering moment” of the Wallum Banksia.

O’Brien, who is a principal architect with BVN, was invited to participate in Bleach* Festival by artistic director Rosie Dennis. The festival, which is among the fastest growing arts festivals in regional Australia, will take place over 10 days in August.

15 illuminated sculptures, inspired by Country, hang among Norfolk Pines.

A rendering of Light Flowers by Kevin O’Brien.

O’Brien’s study of Country is also crucial to his architectural practice, inherently informed by his Kaurereg and Meriam Mir heritage. His method, which he calls “designing with Country”, uses several layers to inform the project. First is the Aboriginal layer and its contribution to an understanding of Country. Secondly, the colonial and “its contribution through the setting of infrastructure”. The third is the multicultural, which lends “an understanding of ideas and philosophies from around the world”.

By bringing together these layers, O’Brien is able to create tailored site-specific projects that work with Country, rather than against it.

This methodology has informed projects like Kimberwalli, an Aboriginal Centre for Excellence in Western Sydney. The project, which “came together with community expectations”, has been one of O’Brien’s proudest, due to its service as a building that “plays second fiddle to Country”.

Currently he’s working on Atlassian’s timber skyscraper at Sydney’s central station. The tech giant’s project will be the world’s tallest timber-hybrid tower, incorporating solar panels, planted terraces and natural ventilation, while targeting a 50 per cent reduction in emissions compared to conventional construction.

The best outcome for his work, says O’Brien, “is for us to belong to this place, to belong to Australia, to belong to this country. And the only way to do that is to make spaces, settings and experiences that become part of people’s memories and bind them to this place.

“When you belong to something, you have an understanding that you have responsibilities to other people and that you actually are responsible for your actions in terms of Country,” says O’Brien.

“So when you read about multinationals coming in as owners of land and doing whatever they want to it…they’re not interested in belonging to it and looking after it, they’re only interested in extracting,” says O’Brien. “They’re only thinking about themselves.”

It’s in this mindset that O’Brien strives to minimise energy and carbon use in BVN’s projects – an exercise in conserving Country and also conserving ourselves.

Bleach* Festival runs from 12-22 August from the Burleigh Heads beachfront to the Gold Coast hinterland, alleyways and botanic gardens.

Two first nation's men at the First Light ceremony.

Bleach* Festival’s opening day First Light ceremony.


Bleach Festival

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