Sunday, 22 October 2017

The migrants who helped make Modernism in Sydney

Today’s talk was titled ‘Making Australian Modernism: Architecture’ and it tied in with an exhibition currently on at the Sydney Museum in Bridge Street. Glenn Harper was the compere for the afternoon, which started at 2pm and went through including a period of time for questions until around 4pm. 

The speakers were Tone Wheeler, Peter Lonergan (both practicing architects) and Catherine Lassen, who teaches at the University of Sydney. All three spoke about the contributions made to the evolution of Modernism in Sydney often by migrants who arrived in Australia in the middle of the 20th century.

Migrants had an enormous influence on design in Sydney, Wheeler said. The city’s population doubled from after WWII up to 1975. Sydney is the most concrete-based city in the Western world, he went on, and attributed this to the influence of overseas architects.

He talked about the influence of the Snowy Mountains Scheme. It was started under the Labor government of Ben Chifley, in 1946, and it was finished by 1974. Over that time, 100,000 people were involved in the project. 70,000 of these people were migrants. It involved the skills - of both technologists and labourers – of many people. "There was an enormous spirit for the learning of the new trades." Wheeler pointed to a musical band called The Settlers who were active in the region at the time, and he recited the words of a song about a night out by a group of workers getting some R&R in a pub in the town of Cooma.

Then he pointed to Gerardus (Dick) Dusseldorp, a construction manager who came from the Netherlands, and who, in 1953, founded Civil & Civic and later formed Lend Lease. Wheeler said that there was a tradition in Australia of “build once” properly, a directness and rawness of approach that you can see in the concrete structures of the 1970s. One of the notable buildings that Dusseldorp was involved in was the Harry Seidler block of flats in Ithaca Rd, Elizabeth Bay. “Concrete clad buildings beautifully executed became a hallmark of Sydney,” said Wheeler. Wheeler's ideas can also be found expressed on the same subject in a book edited by Rebecca Hawcroft titled ‘The Other Moderns’.

Lonergan talked about Bruce Rickard, a Sydneysider who completed his education in the US. Rickard's grandfather was real estate developer Sir Arthur Rickard, and he entered Sydney Technical College (now the University of New South Wales) in 1945 to study architecture. He worked with his uncle Ruskin Rowe for three years, but he had an interest in the practice of architecture overseas. He met Sydney Ancher and worked in his office. While there, he saw a book on Frank Lloyd Wright. He developed a love of an architecture that responded to a regional environment. He went to lectures by Lewis Mumford. He got a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania to study landscape architecture. There, he was lectured by Philip Johnson.

In 1957, he returned to Sydney. At a site at Warrawee on Sydney’s north shore he tested out ideas learned from Frank Lloyd Wright. He would go on to design 80 houses in Sydney, and in every house, Lonergan said, he exercised ideas he had tried in the first house. “He never gave up,” Lonergan said. “The houses were unaffordable, the blocks of land too large.” Lonergan added that today’s architects owe a great debt to architects of those days.

Lassen spoke about husband and wife Hugh and Eva Buhrich, who met on their first day studying architecture together in Munich. They went to TU Berlin then ETH Zurich, and had elite architectural educations. They saw the Bauhaus exhibitions in Berlin and Stuttgart. They worked with Swiss architect Alfred Roth, who had worked on the design for the 1929 Le Corbusier exhibition. In 1939 they arrived in Sydney.

In Australia they struggled with professional recognition of their education. In Sydney, Hugh worked as a designer or planning consultant; Eva never registered as an architect in Australia but was the Sydney Morning Herald architecture critic from 1957. She argued for a deeper architectural understanding of Walter Burley Griffin. In 1966, she argued for conservation of terrace houses in Paddington that the state government wanted to tear down in order to build apartments. Most of Hugh’s practice was residential work, and he didn’t get registration as an architect until age 60, in 1971. Lassen said he was “conjuring nature through materials”.

Above: (From left) Tone Wheeler, Catherine Lassen, Peter Lonergan.

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