Built to last

Graham Brooks

Graham Brooks

“Sometimes you get lucky in life and you’re there when you can make a difference,” says Challis Bequest Society member Graham Brooks of the role he has played in helping to preserve some of Sydney’s architectural icons.

Perhaps the best-known of the structures he has helped to save are the wharves at Walsh Bay. Today they are home to top-tier arts institutions such as the Sydney Theatre Company and Sydney Dance Company – but in the 1980s the piers were set to be demolished to make way for a real estate development. Graham’s expertise as a heritage consultant helped to preserve them, as well as other notable structures such as the Carriageworks complex near Redfern Station.

Now he is planning another way to contribute to the city’s heritage: a bequest to the University’s Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning. The funds will create a travelling scholarship for a postgraduate student to study cultural heritage conservation overseas. The idea is to educate and inspire heritage experts who can help “bring the voice of the building to the design table”, as Graham puts it, during development projects.

“The legacy is part of a family strategy to give something back to the universities that have done so much for us,” Graham says. “Ultimately, what we’re looking to do is provide opportunities for someone else to do what we’ve done.”

Over three decades, Graham has worked on a diverse range of heritage conservation and management projects across Sydney as well as in the UK and Europe. The philosophy of his firm – Graham Brooks and Associates, Heritage Consultants – is to breathe new life into old buildings and old settings, often through the change of use or the introduction of new buildings. The firm recently contributed to the revival of Sydney’s Queen Victoria Building and the dynamic conversion of the nearby former Gowings Store and adjacent State Theatre building into the boutique QT Hotel.

Graham has also contributed to heritage policies and practices on the world stage as president of the International Cultural Tourism Committee of the International Council of Monuments and Sites, and in roles with the Global Heritage Fund, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Centre and the UN World Tourism Organization.

It all began when, as a boy, Graham was inspired to study architecture by reading house plans published in Women’s Weekly magazine. He enrolled in the subject at the University of Sydney and retains fond memories of his time on campus, where he developed a passion for exploring the history of architecture and the context that informs why structures are built. “Suddenly, you realise you are doing something you really like,” he remembers.

Over the years, Graham has also played an important role in safeguarding the architecture of the University. He has consulted on heritage issues for a range of campus development projects including the Charles Perkins Centre, the new Australian Institute for Nanoscience, and the Oval No 2 grandstand.

Heritage conservation is vital for ensuring that we retain our “sense of place and sense of community”, Graham explains. “If you take out these key parts of the cultural environment, the population loses a sense of where it is in the world. If that isn’t there, who are we as a society?”