In Conversation with Barrie Barton

20th anniversary
type - in conversation
In Conversation
Barrie Barton is founder of the pioneering placemaking consultancy, Right Angle Studio. A Melbournian living and working in Sydney, here he delivers a passionate paean to the role of the city in the 21st century to The Future Laboratory co-founder Chris Sanderson

Read an excerpt of the conversation below, or scroll down to watch the full Zoom video.

CS:      So, Barrie Barton, it’s been 20 years. We first came to Australia in 2003 when we were invited by the honourable Robert Buckingham for the Melbourne Fashion Festival. But I’m trying to remember when and how we first met. I’m not sure I can remember who actually introduced us. Can you remember?

BB:      Yeah, I can. I think it was 2007 and Robert Buckingham introduced us because I think the extraordinary demands that The Future Laboratory makes on his time while you’re in Australia became such that he thought he needed some help. And so he called us to help you guys with some of the content for your Trend Briefing, which was just the most exciting thing that we had done at that stage in our lives, and also to help with the organisation and the practicalities of your Trend Briefing, which was terrifying for us because I don’t think we’d really dealt with people who take audio-visual so seriously in our lives.

CS:      Well, I do remember going up to you in your super-cool office in Curtin House in the CBD in Melbourne and then going to an event with you where we all sat cross-legged on the floor, and I’ve got a picture of Robert looking very serious in a jacket, but cross-legged on the floor at some super-cool hipster event. At this point you had pioneered the whole concept of open-air cinema on the roof and were one of the first people, I think, globally to do this idea of a rooftop cinema in a downtown area. And, of course, it was a massive success both for you and for the business that you then created.

BB:      Absolutely. I mean, we were interested in creating a cinema experience in an environment that was just as beautiful as the film because at that time – and actually, sadly, they still are to this day, you know – big-box cinemas were really disgusting dark rooms with sticky carpets and you had to drink Coca-Cola and eat chocolate and it just didn’t seem to really match the effort that had been put into creating a film. So we had the idea of occupying a space that was under-utilised – the roof of a beautiful building in the CBD of Melbourne – and we cobbled together a bunch of sponsors to help us fund it in advance and opened something that, to our surprise, really captured people’s imagination, and was one of the most joyous and simple projects that we’ve ever worked on.

CS:      And if you look back to that period of 2005/2006/2007, how different do you feel it was from where we are now? And obviously, forgetting about the coronavirus pandemic, what are your striking observations about how different things were then from how they are now?

BB:      It’s a really good question because on one hand things seem radically different and on the other things seem the same. I think probably the main thing that’s changed with those kinds of cultural experience is the advent of social media. I remember when we started rooftop cinema – I think it was Season Two – we set up a MySpace profile and that seemed like a very progressive, new thing to do. We had no idea that in the immediate future people would be getting advice on what to do with their time and their money and where to go from their friends rather than from an authoritative newspaper or fully fledged websites that had been set up. And that really changed the way that we understood and explored our city, and I think quite sadly turned a lot about exploration into a matter of popularity. I think the way that the internet and social media generally work is that the things that are popular become more popular and the things that are unpopular are repressed. So, to me, it seems a lot easier to find out about the things that happen in your city, but they’re generally more obvious and predictable, whereas in those days you would just kind of roam the streets and bump into people… I don’t want to be too sentimental about that but I really miss the spontaneity of those times, I suppose.

Published by:

4 December 2020

Author: The Future Laboratory

Image: Right Angle Studio


Here we are in 2020, which is 15 years on, and 13 years since we launched the cinema, and I think the core human drivers remain the same and we really love seeing ourselves in the people and the environments in which we spend time. We really love feeling proud of our city, which was really what the cinema was about; there we were in a building in the middle of Melbourne looking around and feeling like it was this sophisticated global thing.

CS:      It was!

BB:      And so, with our business I feel we’re appealing to the same ideas and the same kind of impulses that we were 15 years ago.

CS:      Well, it’s interesting you say that because it does become apparent that there is a key thread that runs through all of your business activities and how they’ve developed over the years. It appears from the outside that there’s been quite a lot of meandering in terms of the route that you’ve taken, but in essence, you’ve always been about cities, both the spaces and how people use them. And the way in which you’ve looked at that journey, I think, has been fascinating. One of the other early things that Right Angle did was the Thousands Guides, which really helped a load of people to understand this new sense of wayfinding in a city by providing guides that identified that slightly old-school way of thinking about ‘this is what you should do’ and ‘this is what’s going on’, and it was very linear –

BB:      – and quite paternalistic, embarrassingly so 

CS:      – and now you’re tracking the city and its movements and its activities in a slightly different way and for different people.

BB:      Yeah; it’s all the same thing for us anyway. And we have a theory on cities, which is that if you don’t invest your time and your effort wisely, they will tend towards entropy, they will get worse. It’s like a sandcastle on a beach; if you leave it overnight, it will not be there the next day, and it’s the same with cities. And so with our business we’ve chosen quite intentionally and specifically to invest our energy into making them better, and the Thousands City Guides that you referenced, which were online guides that existed before social media, were really our way of telling people you have limited time, you have limited money, so let’s try and help you spend this wisely. Because there is a difference in the experience that you will have if you go to a particular local cafe versus Gloria Jean’s, but there’s also a difference in the value of your money because it’s generating local employment. And hopefully we’ll be getting more cafes, the likes of which really worked for Melbourne at that time on a cultural and commercial level. And that was how we started, by giving people polite advice on how to spend their time and money.

And now we’re doing that on a different scale with government and property developers; trying to help them create places where people will spend their time and money, but really to us, it seems the same thing. Yes, it’s been a meandering journey, but fundamentally, we’re trying to improve our cities by intervening in their growth and trying to stimulate the things that we think are sustainably good for cities and people.

CS:      And how do you think the journey of the city has progressed over the past decade?

BB:      At the moment in Australia, with Covid – which is really like tiddlywinks Covid, we’ve hardly had any Covid really, by global standards – there’s this crazy, inner-city, affluent-neighbourhood delusion that, because of the pandemic, everybody should move to regional Australia and that our cities will collapse. And I just think it’s such crazy thinking and talk because cities are incredibly seductive, intoxicating, essential places for us. We have built all of our infrastructure to get people there, all of our businesses are organised to be there, most of our exciting social experiences happen there, and the idea that we just rip ourselves away from it and relocate to Byron Bay, or whatever the cliché is, is crazy. What people who believe in that dream don’t understand is that the city is where opportunities are created. Anyone who lives in Byron Bay who’s well off has made their money in the city and just moved there incidentally later in life.

So I think cities are vitally important as the generators of progress in our society and they are our best way to get along with each other en masse and astonishing and interesting in that regard. And I think what’s happened over the past 10 years – to answer your question – is that the city has slowly changed from a place where we just happen to live and work to a place where we live and work and we really think.

And what I’ve seen is a positive shift away from thinking about cities purely in terms of ‘what are my rights to the city?’ to a state of mind where we’re thinking about our responsibilities for that city as well. I think this is one of the positive things that’s come out of Covid, that in a physiological, obvious way it is proven that we’re all related and we’re not alone. We have to be aware of the people around us and how we behave, and the implications of that, and we need to get on as a species in close quarters; we can’t be isolationist in our ideas and we can’t live far away from everyone else.

So I actually have a lot of faith that the city will endure and I’m really proud of our efforts as a society to move from it being ‘a place where I live’ to ‘a place that I understand and I’m proud of and I think of’. And I think the future for cities, like everything else in the world, is facing a very strange set of challenges at the moment, but they are just fantastic places that I think will always maintain a resonance and a relevance.

CS:      And when are you running for Mayor?

Watch the full Zoom conversation between Chris Sanderson, co-founder, The Future Laboratory and Barrie Barton, group CEO, Right Angle Studio.