Sunday, 3 December 2017

Design of the Pyrmont public school

In his 1956 book, The Architecture of Victorian Sydney, architect Herman ‘Mick’ Morton tells the story of how so many schools came to be built in NSW in the last decades of the 19th century.
Sir Henry Parkes brought down his Education Act in 1880, to counteract the condition whereby twenty-six per cent of children of school age were illiterate. Nowadays, of course, conditions have changed and nearly everyone can interpret the cryptic print of the sporting pages of the newspapers. Though there had been many schools before this time, now their number was to be increased so that each centre of population in New South Wales was to have its State school. To the horror of little boys, attendance was compulsory.
And later:
The Education Act of 1880 naturally stimulated the building of schools in Sydney. [William] E. Kemp was appointed architect to the Department of Public Instruction, and by 1883 he had completed, amongst others, schools in Young Street, South Croydon, and in Bourke Street, Surry Hills, between Mort and Ridge streets.
Morton writes that “more important in the flow of Australian architectural evolution is his public school at Pyrmont. [His Sydney Technical College, Technological Museum], and Croydon public school were conceived by a mind imbued with all the love of fussy detail which the Victorian held was the true measure of architectural richness.”
Walls, as they are in those two buildings, were considered attractive if they were built of at least three different materials, with square-headed windows in some parts, large and small arches in others, with panels, strong courses and carved capitals to the piers, and elaborate wooden divisions in the windows. All the smaller bits were intended to be essentially interesting in themselves. 
But by the nineties architects were becoming restless in this myopic view. They began to feel that form, the whole mass of the building, should be more important than the parts. Architecture is an art which manipulates form and space – for useful purposes – and if the bulk of the building is not designed with skilful proportions to present a harmonious whole, then no amount of clever decoration will ever make it successful architecture. 
Something of this spirit must have moved Kemp when designing the Pyrmont school, for here decoration has been reduced drastically, and the result is much nearer to being architecture than his larger buildings.
The building was completed in 1891. Morton was born in 1903 in Woollahra and studied architecture at the University of Sydney, graduating in 1930. He died in 1983.

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