Top architectural prize awarded to Australia’s ‘Renaissance man’

In recognition of a lifelong contribution to architecture, the Australian Institute of Architects has this year awarded its most prestigious honour, the Gold Medal, to ‘Renaissance man’, Mr Donald (Don) Robert Watson.

The Queensland architect is described by the Jury as ‘a perfect antidote’ to much that has been difficult in 2020, and someone who ‘shines as a man of genuine achievement, architectural intelligence, altruism and modesty’.

The Jury’s unanimous decision applauded Don’s comprehensive contribution to architecture since he graduated from The University of Queensland (UQ) in 1970 and his remarkable prowess across the diverse areas of architectural agency, traversing a multitude of scales, typologies, and public and private commissions.

It is a fitting acknowledgment for a career spanning more than 50 years of celebrated architectural practice, which has influenced informed, contextually responsive architecture.

After 15 years’ balancing sole practice with National Trust consultancies and part-time lecturing at UQ, Don rose to national prominence in 1989 when his ‘Campbell House’ won the Robin Boyd Award for Residential Architecture.

That same year, he embraced a radically different portfolio, joining the Department of Public Works where, over the next 15 years, he designed 11 TAFE buildings across South East Queensland which are considered amongst the finest examples of postmodernism in the state.

Recognised as Queensland’s foremost architectural historian, Don has been a seminal figure in his profession’s understanding of the constructed world – from the iconic “Queenslander,” to windmills and railway carriages.

Throughout his distinguished career he has received the highest accolades of peer and public review, including 26 national and state Institute awards and commendations across eight categories. Don’s philanthropic promotion of architecture to the broader community has been honoured with additional prestigious awards including Life Fellowship of the Australian Institute of Architects (2010) and an Honorary Doctorate from UQ (2013). He is also a recipient of the National Trust John Herbert Memorial Award (1995); Life Member, Society of Architectural Historians of Australasia and New Zealand (2008); and the John Oxley Library Fellowship (2012).

Jury Chair and Australian Institute of Architects National President Alice Hampson congratulated Don on receiving this highest of honours.

‘As a Gold Medal recipient Don has been recognised as a leading and enduring influence in Australia’s architectural narrative,’ Ms Hampson said.

‘I offer our warmest congratulations on this most worthy recognition, which celebrates a lifetime of insightful, inventive and exemplary endeavours. As the Jury has noted, Don is a designer of extraordinary skill, evident in the rich programmatic layering, complex geometries, and expressive detailing of his built work.

‘He has the ability to make the difficult look easy, with great humour and humility, and a focus on inclusivity and unity. His own significant contribution to his craft, together with his philanthropic endeavours and advocacy for the preservation of architectural works, will prevail for many generations to come.’

Awarded annually since 1960, previous Gold Medal winners include some of Australia’s most celebrated architects including Robin Boyd, Jørn Utzon, Harry Seidler, Romaldo Giurgola, Glenn Murcutt and John Wardle.

The 2021 Jury comprised:

  • Alice Hampson LFRAIA (Chair) – President, Australian Institute of Architects | Alice Hampson Architect
  • Helen Lochhead LFRAIA – Immediate Past President, Australian Institute of Architects
  • Richard Leplastrier
  • Michael Keniger LFRAIA
  • Rachel Hurst FRAIA
2021 Australian Institute of Architects' Gold Medal winner | Don Watson