The proposed building for Perth. Pictures: Unique 8 Design Studio

Top Perth architects have warned against rushing to build an iconic building at Elizabeth Quay, saying it could be a costly white elephant if not done right.

They believe the best landmark buildings were not designed as icons but became so because they fit the location, filled a need and used world-class architects.

Debate over what sort of building should be put up on nearly 50,000sqm of prime waterfront real estate was ignited this week when Burswood designer Shane O'Riley unveiled his unsolicited vision for a new concert hall.

The skeletal-style design split public opinion, with some likening it to an elephant graveyard or a rack of lamb, while others hailed it as a bold piece of architecture.

The Elizabeth Quay master plan has the space earmarked for an indigenous culture, arts and learning centre.

University of WA dean of architecture Simon Anderson said Mr O'Riley's design was "just an idea" but reaffirmed the view a "major sculptural cultural building would be a good thing".

He pointed to modern Chinese cultural centres as an example of well-executed sculptural design.

"Given that the building will be seen from above - from Kings Park and the towers in the city - it will always require a 3D form," Mr Anderson said.

He said the prominence of the site was akin to that occupied by Sydney Opera House but he cautioned against a city-defining building for the sake of it.

"Sydney Opera House wasnever intended to be a city- defining building. They just wanted to build a great opera house," Mr Anderson said. "It happened to be an opera house and they happened to get a great architect but they didn't say 'we want a great sculptural icon'."

Pendal & Neille co-founder and Curtin University lecturer Simon Pendal and UWA Faculty of Architecture associate professor Nigel Westbrook were similarly dubious about "the Guggenheim effect".

"Every now and again you get a Guggenheim or a Sydney Opera House, which are truly brilliant, but it's a very rare thing," Mr Pendal said. "My feeling is that it's not a good idea to plan an icon.

"Cities evolve over time and if you build it all too fast there's no element of time, there's no growing into it slowly and finding your feet. That particular site would be an excellent one to set up for something but just hold off. It's better to do nothing than to do something half-baked."

Mr Westbrook said the site would fail if people were not drawn to it.

Australian Institute of Architects WA president David Karotkin said it was a misnomer to assume iconic meant big. "An icon does not necessarily need to be huge, but it should be readily recognisable as a symbol of our identity," he said.

Although the O'Riley design did not personally appeal "anything that gets people talking about design is a good thing".

"The more people talk about design, the more it will be valued and expectations for quality buildings, especially public buildings, will rise," he said.

Whether by chance or design the Perth architectural community's desire for the site to be developed slowly looks likely to be realised, with Premier Colin Barnett signalling the proposed indigenous centre was unlikely to happen in the short term. Long term he said the plan was for "striking architecture" that would be a drawcard for Perth and house a display of Aboriginal history, art and culture.

Both the Chamber of Arts and Culture WA and the Committee for Perth have backed the indigenous centre concept.

Chamber executive Henry Boston said having a high-profile arts building in such a significant place would be "an important reflection of the value that Western Australia puts on its arts and culture".

WA Ballet chairman John Langoulant, also a committee director, said the site was right for a "landmark statement".

He also wanted to see space found at Elizabeth Quay for a new lyric theatre, given the limitations of His Majesty's Theatre.

The West Australian

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