Dr Deborah van der Plaat

Senior Research Fellow

School of Architecture
Faculty of Engineering, Architecture and Information Technology
d.vanderplaat@uq.edu.au
+61 7 336 53878

Overview

Deborah van der Plaat is a Senior Research Fellow with the School of Architecture, The University of Queensland. She was formerly a Senior Research Fellow and Manager of the Architecture Theory Criticism History Research Centre (ATCH), UQ (2015-2019). Her research examines the architecture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and its intersection with theories of artistic agency, climate, environment and race. Writing histories of Queensland architecture is also a focus within her work and, with John Macarthur, she continues to develop and expand the Digital Archive of Queensland Architecture (DAQA, launched in 2014, https://qldarch.net/)

Her most research outputs include:

  • [edited book] Karl Langer: Modern Architect and Migrant in Tropical Australia (with John Macarthur, London: Bloomsbury, 2022), https://www.bloomsbury.com/au/karl-langer-9781350068117/
  • [edited book] Light, Space, Place: the architecture of Robin Gibson (with Lloyd Jones, Melbourne: URO Publications, 2022), https://uropublications.com/collections/books-from-uro-publications/products/light-space-place-architecture-robin-gibson
  • [book chapter] "Casting Shadows and Seeking Shade," with Nicole Sully in Ryan, Daniel J., Ferng, Jennifer and L'Heureux, Erik G. Drawing Climate: Visualising Invisible Elements of Architecture. Berlin, Boston: Birkhäuser, 2022, pp. 120-149, https://doi.org/10.1515/9783035623611
  • [book chapter] "Wireless Architecture: Robert Percy Cummings Early Radio Talks," with John Macarthur in E. Couchez, & Heynickx, R. (Eds.). Architectural Education Through Materiality: Pedagogies of 20th Century Design (1st ed.) London: Routledge, 2022, 221-234, https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003201205-17
  • [book chapter ] "Alternative Facts: Towards a Theorization of Oral History in Architecture," with Janina Gosseye and Naomi Stead In Architecture Thinking across Boundaries: Knowledge Transfers since the 1960s, edited by Rajesh Heynickx, Ricardo Costa Agarez and Elke Couchez, 136–148. 136–148. London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2021, http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781350153202.ch-008.
  • [journal paper] “Comfort in Australia’s unproductive North and the attendant anxiety of tropical cyclones”, ABE Journal, March 2021 URL: http://journals.openedition.org/abe/9243; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/abe.9243
  • [International conference paper] ‘Unrecognised actors and new networks. Teaching Tropical Architecture in mid-twentieth century Australia,’ in Cosmopolitan Others, EAHN2021, 6th International Conference, Edinburgh 2021, June 4, 2021.
  • [panel discussion] Queensland Cultural Centre: Then, Now and New. Panel discussion between Michael Rayner, Ruth Woods and Dr Deborah van der Plaat and Lloyd Jones (moderator). Hosted by Queensland State Archives on Saturday March 13th, 2021 as part of the Asia Pacific Architecture Festival. https://vimeo.com/524021925

With John Macarthur, Jane Hunter, Andrew Wilson and industry partners State Library of Queensland, Conrad Gargett Architecture, Bligh Voller Nield, Wilson Architects and Riddel Architecture, Plaat wrote the successful Australian Research Council Linkage application "Architectural Practice in Post-war Queensland: Building and Interpreting an Oral History Archive" (2011-2013). This project resulted in the first comphrensive history on Queensland modernism and outputs included: a major exhibition, Hot Modernism: Building Modern Queensland 1945-1975 (State Library of Queensland, July- October 2014 curated with Janina Gosseye, Kevin Wilson and Gavin Bannerman); the creation and ongoing development of the Digital Archive of Qlueensland Architecture qldarch.net; and a book, Hot Modernism: Queensland Architecture 1945-1975 (London: Artifice Press, 2015 co-edited with John Macarthur, Janina Gosseye and Andrew Wilson). In 2017, the project was awarded the John Herbert Memorial Award and the Gold Heritage Award, Interpretation and Promotion by the National Trust of Australia, Queensland Branch. See also: http://www.uq.edu.au/research/impact/stories/hot-modernism-cool-resource/

From 2009-2011 Plaat was the recipient of the UQ Postdoctoral Fellowship for Women to work on her nominated project, "Tropical environments and Queensland architecture (1850-1914): building historical understandings of the culture of architecture and climate change." This project resulted in a symposium titled Architecture at the Ragged Edge of Empire: Race, Taste and Place and the Colonial Context (State Library of Queensland, Brisbane, 27-28 June, 2013) and a series of papers which explore the insection of architecture, climate and race in Queensland architecture. This research is ongoing.

Plaat has edited 5 books including: Skyplane: What effect do towers have on urbanism, sustainability, the workplace and historic city centres? (with Richard Francis Jones, Lawrence Nield, Xing Ruan, Sydney: UNSW Press 2009); Hot Modernism: Queensland Architecture 1945-1975 (with John Macarthur, Janina Gosseye and Andrew Wilson, London: Artifice 2015); Speaking of Buildings: Oral History in Architectural Research (with Janina Gosseye and Naomi Stead, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2019); Karl Langer: Modern Architect and Migrant in Tropical Australia (with John Macarthur, London: Bloomsbury, 2022) and Light, Space, Place: the architecture of Robin Gibson (with Lloyd Jones, Melbourne: URO Publications, 2022). From 2010 to 2014 she was editor, with Paul Walker and Julia Gatley, of Fabrications: The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians of Australia and New Zealand. She has also published extensively in national and international journals.

Awards

American Society of Environmental Historians (ASEH) Travel Award 2019.

Graham Foundation Grant 2018.

John Herbert Memorial Award for the Most Outstanding Nomination, Hot Modernism: Exhibition, Digital Archive and Book, National Trust, Queensland, 2017.

Gold Heritage Award, Interpretation and Promotion, Hot Modernism: Exhibition, Digital Archive and Book, National Trust, Queensland, 2017.

Annual Conference Senior Scholar Fellowship, Society of Architectural Historians 2013.

Postdoctoral Fellowship for Women (University of Queensland) 2009-2012.

Memberships

Member, Society of Architectural Historians (SAH)

Member, European Architectural History Network (EAHN)

Member, the Architectural Humanities Research Association (AHRA)

Member, COST Action ISO904 European Architecture Beyond Europe

Member, Society of Architectural Historians of Australia and New Zealand (SAHANZ)

Member, Art Association of Australia and New Zealand (AAANZ)

Research Interests

  • Architecture at the Ragged Edge of Empire. Race, Place, Taste and the Colonial Context
    This research examines factors or contingencies of the colonial experience that challenged, worked against, or sat alongside the more formal (governmental) representations of colonisation. It also considers their impact on, or expression through, colonial and/or settler architecture. While colonial architecture is often assumed to approximate that of home, especially in formal and material terms, a question regarding architecture’s disciplinarity, it’s conceptual framing as an aesthetic or a high art, is often difficult to reconcile with the climatic, geographical, ethnic and racial complexity of the colonial context. Attaching architecture to philosophical and aesthetic concepts of beauty (such as the sublime or picturesque) and artistic agency (imagination, association, genius or judgement) western architecture has also been historically linked to specific climatic (temperate), racial and social ideals. Building on Kay Anderson’s thesis (2002) that European contact with Australian Aborigines generated a “crisis” for Enlightenment ideals of humanism, this research examines the climatic, geographical, racial and ethnic variations presented by the colonial context and whether they challenged and/or altered western conceptions of architectural practice.
  • Tropical variety and Queensland Architecture: Building Better Understandings of the Culture of Architecture and Climate Change
    Western ideals of beauty have often been bound to an image of the natural world. Tropical climates and the physical environments they produced were also often seen to be degenerative to the creative impulse. In the mid-nineteenth century, in response to scientific exploration and the colonial experience, European ideals of beauty shifted their points of reference from temperate to tropical environments. Investigating architectural design in 19th century Queensland, the project seeks to understand how English theories on creative invention responded when transplanted into a tropical setting. The research has significance in understanding Queensland’s history and the cultural corollaries of climate and environmental science.
  • Digital Stories and Semantic Web Technologies: New Practices in Developing and Interpreting an Architectural Archive.
    In 2011, researchers at the University of Queensland received funding to develop a digital archive on Queensland’s post-war architecture (1945-75). Bringing together researchers in architectural history, the digital humanities and industry partners, the project’s aims were threefold: to document the oral histories of a generation of architects who studied and worked in Queensland from 1945-1975; to gather these into a single online multimedia archive or federated database producing a new knowledgebase of Queensland architecture and design (qldarch.net); and to use innovative Semantic Web technologies to make visible for the first time a history that is currently veiled, dispersed, and tacit. This research considers the potential value of digital technologies not only to the construction and management of the architectural archive but also to its interpretation. Focusing on emerging Web technologies including semantic text analysis, tagging, compound object authoring, and semantic inferencing, the research considers their application to the study and advancement of architectural history.

Research Impacts

Hot Modernism Research Impact: http://www.uq.edu.au/research/impact/stories/hot-modernism-cool-resource/

Hot and Bothered Film Competition: http://www.slq.qld.gov.au/whats-on/awards/hot-and-bothered

Hot Modernism: Building Modern Queensland 1945-1975: http://www.slq.qld.gov.au/hot-modernism

Kirril Shields,“Cold Change: Queensland’s Modernism at Risk”, Architecture Australia, October 2014. http://architectureau.com/articles/hot-modernism-building-modern-queensland

Qualifications

  • PhD in Architecture, University of New South Wales

Publications

View all Publications

Supervision

  • Doctor Philosophy

  • Doctor Philosophy

  • Doctor Philosophy

View all Supervision

Available Projects

  • Despite a European training, and an early career managing the Vienna office of architect Peter Behrens, a migration (necessitated by the circumstances of WWII) to the Australian state of Queensland positioned the emigre architect Karl Langer (1903-1969) at the very edge of both European and Australian modernism. Confronted by [sub]tropical heat and glare, the economics of affordable housing, fiercely proud and regional architectural practices, and a suspicion of the foreign, Langer moulded the European language of international modernism to the unique climatic and social conditions of Queensland to produce a number of the State’s architectural highlights. This book will tell Langer’s story through a series of edited essays focused on key themes and projects. Studying the architect’s built and proposed work, both regional and metropolitan, the scale and geographical reach of Langer’s practice will be considered for the first time. A genuine architect of the Shadow Canon and one that has continued to influence the contemporary culture of Queensland design—the Karl Langer Award given out each year by the Queensland Institute of Architects—Langer has been largely ignored by the historiography of both Australian and Queensland architecture. This book seeks to close this gap.

  • Hurricanes Irma and Maria (2017) have demonstrated the urgent need for architecture in the tropics to be resilient to tropical cyclones, storms, sea surges and floods. Yet, in architectural historiography, tropical architecture has been viewed as a colonial construct acting in response to disease and discomfort – factors that needed to be conquered, overcome, and tackled. The correlation between anthropogenic climate change and the increasing intensity of hurricanes and sea level rise has led to the dominance of the trope of disaster in contemporary tropical architectural discourses. In addition, as it became apparent that buildings, as one of the key consumers of fossil fuels contribute significantly to climate change; the relationship between architecture and climate has gone through a paradigmatic shift—from one in which climate was a determinant of architectural metrics, to one in which architecture is seen as an active agent in the transformation of global climatic systems. As a consequence, tropical architecture, which began as discourse founded on the relationship between architecture and climate to ensure the well-being of the human body in a localised context, is now seen as a discourse where the production and operation of architecture have global planetary impact.

    The idea of tropical and subtropical architecture and urbanism initially developed through a particular connection between discourses on disease, spatial practices and optimum architectural typologies, which were believed to circumvent the spread of tropical diseases and to maintain the comfort of the white settler. After the Second World War, the focus shifted from the European settlement of the colonial tropics to the self-development and governance of the world’s tropical regions; a phenomenon necessitated and propelled by post-war decolonization and global regimes of development aid. Accompanying this change was a shift away from the physiological comfort of the colonial settler to a new focus on indigenous cultures, vernacular building traditions, use of local materials, and increasing appreciation for the psychological value of cultural conventions, including superstition and taboo.

    The aim of this project is to examine how “triumph” in the tropics was imagined across multiple geographies, by various subjects, through diverse discourses, and at different times and to critically investigate the roles architecture and urban planning played in this process. How are particular attributes of the (sub) tropics – climatic, environmental, social, ideological, spatial, and developmental – constructed through the discipline of architectural history? What role has architecture played in the imagination of tropicality through acclimatization, hygiene, comfort, development, and resilience; and how was this represented? How has architecture’s role in the imagination of the tropics shifted over time as political regimes transformed from colonization-settlement to decolonization-development debates? Is there a core set of ideas or values that constitute the imagination of the built environment in the tropics? How do these compare to indigenous understandings? What is the relation between the imaginaries of tropical architectures and cities by colonizers and colonized, or by transnational development experts and the receivers of this aid?

  • The aim of this research is to consider factors or contingencies of the colonial experience that challenged, worked against, or sat alongside the more formal (governmental) representations of colonisation (in Australia and beyond). While colonial architecture is often assumed to approximate that of home, especially in formal and material terms, a question regarding architecture’s disciplinarity, it’s conceptual framing as an aesthetic or a high art, is often difficult to reconcile with the climatic, geographical, ethnic and racial complexity of the colonial context.

    Climate: The deterministic role of climate and landscape on colonial architecture is commonly argued. The disciplinary positioning of architecture within the colonial context is, however, rarely considered. How was the practice of architecture framed or viewed by architects working in colonial settings? Could the entanglement of taste (architecture as a cultivated rather than mechanical art, painting instead of engineering) be maintained? What effect did the topographical and climatic diversity revealed by colonisation have? Was it possible to cultivate an artistic practice or architectural culture within tropical/sub-tropical/arid settings? Did the aspiring artist/architect need to leave for more temperate climes in order to develop an aesthetic sense or could these concerns be addressed locally (southern versus northern colonies, or east versus west)? Or, from a slightly difference perspective, was climate viewed by colonial communities as degenerate or redemptive and did climate theorists explicitly address the arts/ architecture alongside the problems of labour and national character?

    Race: While British colonial institutions governed the early penal and settler societies of Australia, the populations of these new communities were often heterogeneous, ethnically diverse, and racially conflicted. In Australia, this is made most explicit by the imbalance of settler and indigenous populations and the conflict and dispossession that resulted. It is complicated further by the ethnic diversity of settler populations, one that is often mirrored in colonial settlements the world over.

    While racial and ethnic diversity and conflict are acknowledged as attributes of the colonial condition, their impact on the architecture of white settlement is less considered. How did issues of race, ethnic heterogeneity, hybrid populations or racial conflict impact on colonial architectural practice? Did architecture participate in broader agendas of cultural representation, racial division and/or “reform”? Did ethnic and racial diversity challenge the authority of colonial institutions and/or Enlightenment and humanitarian values of universality and equality? Were “hybrid” communities viewed, in accordance with nineteenth century theories on race—as potentially infertile, unproductive and lacking in character— or did they make explicit alternative models, such cosmopolitanism?

    Taste: Within Australia, colonised initially under a penal system and later through free settlement and migration schemes, significant proportions of early populations were often illiterate or semiliterate, valued for their physical labour rather than their intellectual capacity. Cultural refinement, as Evan has suggested, though not entirely lacking, often remained somewhat at a discount—at best a luxury and at worst a distraction. What role did the concept of ‘taste’ play in Colonial societies? What was the impact on the practice of architecture of such a demographic mix? How was architecture viewed by such communities (technical practice or higher art) and was it valued? Did architecture, and the broader arts, play a role in the lives, education and ‘improvement’ of such communities or was it the sole domain of government and a wealthy elite? Was a culture of architectural taste developed and if so how and by whom?

View all Available Projects

Publications

Featured Publications

Book

Book Chapter

Journal Article

Conference Publication

Edited Outputs

Other Outputs

PhD and MPhil Supervision

Current Supervision

Possible Research Projects

Note for students: The possible research projects listed on this page may not be comprehensive or up to date. Always feel free to contact the staff for more information, and also with your own research ideas.

  • Despite a European training, and an early career managing the Vienna office of architect Peter Behrens, a migration (necessitated by the circumstances of WWII) to the Australian state of Queensland positioned the emigre architect Karl Langer (1903-1969) at the very edge of both European and Australian modernism. Confronted by [sub]tropical heat and glare, the economics of affordable housing, fiercely proud and regional architectural practices, and a suspicion of the foreign, Langer moulded the European language of international modernism to the unique climatic and social conditions of Queensland to produce a number of the State’s architectural highlights. This book will tell Langer’s story through a series of edited essays focused on key themes and projects. Studying the architect’s built and proposed work, both regional and metropolitan, the scale and geographical reach of Langer’s practice will be considered for the first time. A genuine architect of the Shadow Canon and one that has continued to influence the contemporary culture of Queensland design—the Karl Langer Award given out each year by the Queensland Institute of Architects—Langer has been largely ignored by the historiography of both Australian and Queensland architecture. This book seeks to close this gap.

  • Hurricanes Irma and Maria (2017) have demonstrated the urgent need for architecture in the tropics to be resilient to tropical cyclones, storms, sea surges and floods. Yet, in architectural historiography, tropical architecture has been viewed as a colonial construct acting in response to disease and discomfort – factors that needed to be conquered, overcome, and tackled. The correlation between anthropogenic climate change and the increasing intensity of hurricanes and sea level rise has led to the dominance of the trope of disaster in contemporary tropical architectural discourses. In addition, as it became apparent that buildings, as one of the key consumers of fossil fuels contribute significantly to climate change; the relationship between architecture and climate has gone through a paradigmatic shift—from one in which climate was a determinant of architectural metrics, to one in which architecture is seen as an active agent in the transformation of global climatic systems. As a consequence, tropical architecture, which began as discourse founded on the relationship between architecture and climate to ensure the well-being of the human body in a localised context, is now seen as a discourse where the production and operation of architecture have global planetary impact.

    The idea of tropical and subtropical architecture and urbanism initially developed through a particular connection between discourses on disease, spatial practices and optimum architectural typologies, which were believed to circumvent the spread of tropical diseases and to maintain the comfort of the white settler. After the Second World War, the focus shifted from the European settlement of the colonial tropics to the self-development and governance of the world’s tropical regions; a phenomenon necessitated and propelled by post-war decolonization and global regimes of development aid. Accompanying this change was a shift away from the physiological comfort of the colonial settler to a new focus on indigenous cultures, vernacular building traditions, use of local materials, and increasing appreciation for the psychological value of cultural conventions, including superstition and taboo.

    The aim of this project is to examine how “triumph” in the tropics was imagined across multiple geographies, by various subjects, through diverse discourses, and at different times and to critically investigate the roles architecture and urban planning played in this process. How are particular attributes of the (sub) tropics – climatic, environmental, social, ideological, spatial, and developmental – constructed through the discipline of architectural history? What role has architecture played in the imagination of tropicality through acclimatization, hygiene, comfort, development, and resilience; and how was this represented? How has architecture’s role in the imagination of the tropics shifted over time as political regimes transformed from colonization-settlement to decolonization-development debates? Is there a core set of ideas or values that constitute the imagination of the built environment in the tropics? How do these compare to indigenous understandings? What is the relation between the imaginaries of tropical architectures and cities by colonizers and colonized, or by transnational development experts and the receivers of this aid?

  • The aim of this research is to consider factors or contingencies of the colonial experience that challenged, worked against, or sat alongside the more formal (governmental) representations of colonisation (in Australia and beyond). While colonial architecture is often assumed to approximate that of home, especially in formal and material terms, a question regarding architecture’s disciplinarity, it’s conceptual framing as an aesthetic or a high art, is often difficult to reconcile with the climatic, geographical, ethnic and racial complexity of the colonial context.

    Climate: The deterministic role of climate and landscape on colonial architecture is commonly argued. The disciplinary positioning of architecture within the colonial context is, however, rarely considered. How was the practice of architecture framed or viewed by architects working in colonial settings? Could the entanglement of taste (architecture as a cultivated rather than mechanical art, painting instead of engineering) be maintained? What effect did the topographical and climatic diversity revealed by colonisation have? Was it possible to cultivate an artistic practice or architectural culture within tropical/sub-tropical/arid settings? Did the aspiring artist/architect need to leave for more temperate climes in order to develop an aesthetic sense or could these concerns be addressed locally (southern versus northern colonies, or east versus west)? Or, from a slightly difference perspective, was climate viewed by colonial communities as degenerate or redemptive and did climate theorists explicitly address the arts/ architecture alongside the problems of labour and national character?

    Race: While British colonial institutions governed the early penal and settler societies of Australia, the populations of these new communities were often heterogeneous, ethnically diverse, and racially conflicted. In Australia, this is made most explicit by the imbalance of settler and indigenous populations and the conflict and dispossession that resulted. It is complicated further by the ethnic diversity of settler populations, one that is often mirrored in colonial settlements the world over.

    While racial and ethnic diversity and conflict are acknowledged as attributes of the colonial condition, their impact on the architecture of white settlement is less considered. How did issues of race, ethnic heterogeneity, hybrid populations or racial conflict impact on colonial architectural practice? Did architecture participate in broader agendas of cultural representation, racial division and/or “reform”? Did ethnic and racial diversity challenge the authority of colonial institutions and/or Enlightenment and humanitarian values of universality and equality? Were “hybrid” communities viewed, in accordance with nineteenth century theories on race—as potentially infertile, unproductive and lacking in character— or did they make explicit alternative models, such cosmopolitanism?

    Taste: Within Australia, colonised initially under a penal system and later through free settlement and migration schemes, significant proportions of early populations were often illiterate or semiliterate, valued for their physical labour rather than their intellectual capacity. Cultural refinement, as Evan has suggested, though not entirely lacking, often remained somewhat at a discount—at best a luxury and at worst a distraction. What role did the concept of ‘taste’ play in Colonial societies? What was the impact on the practice of architecture of such a demographic mix? How was architecture viewed by such communities (technical practice or higher art) and was it valued? Did architecture, and the broader arts, play a role in the lives, education and ‘improvement’ of such communities or was it the sole domain of government and a wealthy elite? Was a culture of architectural taste developed and if so how and by whom?