AS Hook Address

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Earlier this year, Roy McCowan Simpson was awarded the profession’s highest honour - the RAIA Gold Medal for lifetime achievements in architecture. Yet he died just after writing his AS Hook Memorial Address - which was then read by his widow, Donne, in a ceremony on the La Trobe University campus he masterplanned from 1964. Here is the speech - Roy Simpson’s final memories of a notable mid-century career and projects conceived as a stalwart of Yuncken Freeman Architects.

I’m often asked: How did you become an architect? I have many answers to choose from, depending on who is asking. The real answer is: my mother—it was her idea. Mother was convinced of my genius from an early age, despite the views of my school teachers and of my father, who was contrary by nature. As a bank economist he saw no possible future in architecture in the critical years of the Great Depression, when I ‘came on stream’. He persuaded a flour miller friend to take me on as an office boy at two pounds per week. My father was pleased that I had a foot on the ladder.

It was not a ladder I wanted to climb. My mother, never one to give in, created opportunities for me to meet Louis R. Williams, who was a well-known ecclesiastical architect. He explained the hardships of the profession but sensed my frustration with running messages for the flour miller. He suggested that I should start night studies in architectural history and building construction at Swinburne Tech. He told me of the various ways of acquiring architectural qualifications. Engagement to a master under Articles—a process in which students or their parents paid a premium to an architect who would train them—was being frowned on in 1932. Louis Williams told me this system was prone to abuse by architects looking for cheap labour, and offered to help me into the profession with a junior drafting job at five shillings per week. Cheap labour indeed, but I accepted and learned quickly. He was a conscientious man and at the end of that year he doubled my salary. It was still barely pocket money, but in the middle of the Depression I was fortunate to be off the streets and being initiated into the profession of my desires by this good man.

He taught me a great deal, often taking me on job inspections in his dusty, open Fiat. In it he kept an old kitchen knife which he used to terrorise any bricklayers he suspected of not properly filling the mortar joints. He never threatened or raised his voice, but if he suspected the quality of their workmanship he would produce the dreaded knife and plunge it into the still damp brick joints. If the knife met resistance, all was well. If not, he politely required the offending wall to be pulled down and re-laid with properly filled perpends. He was famous for the quality of brickwork on his jobs, and examples of his brilliant applications of this modest material can be found in many churches and cathedrals in the eastern states of Australia. He was insufficiently recognised as a master of his art. I was some 25 years his junior and I am humbled to recall that he and I stood side by side at an RAIA ceremony in 1973, when we were both elevated to Life Fellowships of the Institute.

"In saying that the precinct is more important than the project, it follows that we need to learn a new kind of humility in order to design most buildings subserviently"
I left Louis Williams’ tiny office after three years, seeking wider experience and company in the office of Leighton Irwin. Irwin was commonly referred to as ‘ Tony’ (but never to his face). He was also head of the Design School at Melbourne University (the ‘Atelier’). Tony set me to assisting Ray Berg who was then his senior designer. Hub Waugh was office manager and the office was full of friends. We were getting great experience, in love with Life and Architecture, and united in Hating the Boss. I wonder why? For some strange reason, Tony’s attempts to communicate the warmth 1997 and enthusiasm which I’m sure he felt brought terror to our hearts. In his visionary way he inspired us: in his shyness he aroused a love/hate antipathy that found expression amongst his staff in an outrageous mythology that has never been totally exorcised.

Tony thought I could write, and kept feeding me literary chores. I thought architects’ self-promoting articles a low form of creativity, a waste of time better spent helping Ray. Looking back, I realise Irwin was giving me opportunities and friendship; but at the time I felt oppressed and unsettled. Tony got his results through criticism, not always gentle. And he was a hard driver. His presence dominated my days in the office and my nights at the Atelier. Had it not been for the joyous relief of doing our own thing in the Architectural Students’ Society, I might easily have given up. So, when a fellow student shyly lured me to an interview with his then employers, Yuncken Freeman & Freeman, I was fair game. When they offered me a two pound rise, I became theirs forever.

This young firm began as a breakaway from A & K Henderson, where Rob Yuncken and John Freeman had been senior Associates. Kingsley Henderson was inclined to meanness, so they left him, taking Tom Freeman and Balcombe Griffiths senior with them, and rented space in Henderson’s own building: Charter House in Bank Place, opposite the Mitre Tavern. The Mitre was more than a social hub: it was closely surrounded by architects’ offices in which were to be found former colleagues from Leighton Irwin’s office, fellow students and friends from the Architectural Students’ Society working in nearby offices, including those of Leslie M Perrott (senior), Marcus Barlow, Bates Smart & McCutcheon and others. Bob Howden worked for Phillip Hudson (Shrine of Remembrance architect) on our floor in Charter House.

On the floor above, in Henderson’s own office, a shy flaxen-haired youth called Robin Boyd was feeling his way into architecture. We could raise a Students’ Society quorum simply by standing outside the Mitre and speaking in a loud whisper. In addition a slightly older generation was equally accessible. Roy Grounds’ office was just across the lane, with other young eminences like Keith Mackay, Best Overend and Race Godfrey who were not long returned from working in Europe and America. They kept us spellbound with travellers’ tales, inspiring us to follow their adventurous trails.

Despite the awful forebodings of war, my 1940 was a good year. No more night classes! At the age of 26 I was tasting freedom for the first time. In that year I became a registered architect, an Associate of the RAIA, and winner of the treasured Haddon Travelling Scholarship. I wooed and married Honor Mitchell. I started a family. I discovered new friends for life in Yuncken Freeman & Freeman, where we were working flat out on defence projects for King and Country.

Meanwhile, the ‘phoney’ war was becoming deadly serious. The choice of which service to apply for, and when to join, became matters of tense anxiety—resolved in my case by directives which kept my nose to the drawing board, like it or not. When General MacArthur retreated from Corregidor to Melbourne, declaiming “I shall return”, Rob Yuncken and I were amongst the civilians recruited locally to serve with the United States Army Services of Supply. Our task was to provide professional planning and design services for the US Corps of Engineers on a vast range of military projects distributed up the east coast, across to New Guinea and northwards along MacArthur’s island-hopping route to victory in Tokyo. It was not all desk work: there were some exciting trips which involved flying over enemy-held northern areas to reach retaken enemy bases still surrounded by jungle and gunfire, but these were hardly the stuff of architectural grand tours.

Then the war was over. I was back in Melbourne and—as promised during the war years—I became the youngest partner in Yuncken, Freeman, Freeman & Griffiths. The time came in 1946 to take up the Haddon Travelling Scholarship awarded to me in 1940.

The prize money had become seriously devalued during the long waiting period: in consequence, my first trip had to be done on the cheap and made shorter because of responsibilities left behind, both to my young family and to my partners. Nevertheless it was a thrilling and formative experience. In those days private passengers went by sea. Tony Armstrong and I shared a riotous voyage to London on the old ‘Orion’, and were soon joined by Glen Rudduck, Lloyd Orton and others eager to find what remained of the old world. During my travels I was able to meet a number of prominent architects then practising, including Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto and Saarinen the elder. I had to come home after several mouth-watering months. The years of Bohemian adventuring I used to dream of were never to be.

Fortunately, however, I soon had a professional reason for returning to Europe, this time by air. In 1947 my firm was appointed by the Victorian Government to initiate a large emergency housing project, chosen perhaps because of the design and organisational experience so recently gained in our work with the US Army. I was asked to initiate the design for mass production in England and shipment to Australia of pre-cut houses designed for erection by unskilled labour. This project, named ‘Operation Snail’, in due course added over 5000 bright little houses, and as many skilled migrant workers and their families, to boost Victoria’s struggling work force. Fifty years later many of these emergency houses remain occupied.

In accepting this precious Gold Medal I feel the ghostly presence of a remarkable group of friends, teachers and colleagues who influenced my formative years and moulded me into the architect I became. Under their generous guidance I progressed into partnership with them, based on a concept in which collective endeavour underpinned all our activities.

The hideous interruption of World War II had scattered my firm’s founders Rob Yuncken, John and Tom Freeman and Balcombe Griffiths senior—but, as I have mentioned, we all survived and regrouped. The promised partnership became mine: Yuncken, Freeman, Freeman and Griffiths would be known henceforth as Yuncken, Freeman, Freeman, Griffiths and Simpson. This cumbersome mouthful was soon modified to Yuncken, Freeman Brothers, Griffiths and Simpson (to the amusement of some of our competitors), but it was still too much for the girl who reigned over our manual switchboard. She took to gabbling ‘ Yuncken-Freeman Architects’. This abbreviated title survived with only minor variations and, although now inactive, remains registered.

I am now the sole survivor of the five original partners who regrouped after the war. We subsequently added Barry Patten and John Gates, John Yuncken, Robert Peck and Jamie Learmonth and others who joined us at later stages as we grew to be one of the larger firms in Australia and established branch offices in Hong Kong and other parts of south-east Asia.

Three Ensembles
In reviewing my work, I would like to highlight three projects, each different in function and requirements, covering an interesting range of social needs and design challenges, but all sharing the common characteristic of being group developments or precincts. In such developments, the architect rarely has control over what happens immediately across the boundaries but he can link buildings to each other, or arrange them in a multiplicity of ways to create courtyards, formal or informal, in an infinite variety of forms. Multiple developments offer a much wider range of possibilities for ensemble and interaction, each building with the others.

"I accept that some older buildings will have to disappear - indeed many of them cannot disappear soon enough"
The first project is the Canberra Civic Centre on City Hill, which includes administrative buildings and buildings for entertainment, the seat of Territory government and local new law courts.

The second is ecclesiastical—the replacement of a collection of obsolete facilities in the grounds of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne, with an integrated group of new offices, living quarters for resident clergy, meeting rooms, parking spaces and so on, which form the new Dioscesan Centre. One of the specific requirements was to open up the view towards the cathedral from the Fitzroy Gardens, which was generally seen by the client as more important than retention of St. Patrick’s College on the cathedral site.

The third and final example, and certainly the largest in area, is the university in which we are now gathered—the master plan commissioned by La Trobe University’s interim council in 1964 for the staged development of some 500 acres of run-down farmland on which the new university was to be built. The original master plan report warned that the plan should be devised not as an inflexible mould but rather as a guide to the fulfilment of a concept within which adjustments could be made to accommodate evolving needs. Inevitably, over the years, there have been some changes of direction, and some failures to control certain inappropriate developments on the ground. But all in all it is highly satisfying for me, over 30 years on, to see how well the original plan has coped with a number of major shifts in the university’s circumstances and policies, having far-reaching implications for the physical development of the Bundoora campus.

In selecting that group of three major precintual projects for this talk, my intention was to underline what I see as the core of my architectural design philosophy. As I said in a talk to the Victorian chapter of this Institute nearly 30 years ago, my core belief is that the total scene is more important than the individual project. From this it follows that the precinct is more important than the buildings and the city is more important than the precinct. In that context I quoted from an oration given in Melbourne at that time by the distinguished English writer J M Richards:

    “The way architects had worked in the past is becoming largely irrelevant to today’s problems, of which the most urgent are, ironically, problems that the architect is particularly well-equipped to solve. These are mostly problems of the environment and the crisis has come about because our highly technological, highly organised society has suddenly found that the quality of its environment can’t any more be left to chance. Individual buildings have come to mean less and less if they are not playing their proper part in the total scene.”

Thirty years on, those words seem to me to carry even more importance. I have long believed that architects, in their quest for personal creativity in individual projects, have rather lost control of the wider scene. The revolution in architecture—which has gone full circle in the lives of many of us—brought us freedom but it robbed us of taste. It’s hard to overstate the importance of the precinct in our towns and cities and even universities, but compared with individual buildings, or overall city planning, it has received minimal attention.

The needs of people predicate the design of precincts, as they do of buildings. Only the scale is different. The practical problems of accommodation, light, circulation, and so on are similar to those in buildings; only the scale is different. The attitudes and talents and training that create a fine building are the same as those needed to create a fine total environment—provided they are tuned to differences of scale and topography. Only architects are trained to think in these terms and have—or should have—an appreciation of the problems involved, together with the skills to deal with them. In summary, I believe architects have a major responsibility to ensure that in designing fine individual buildings, they will strive to complement each other’s work, and thus bring greater cohesion and vitality into the urban environment. So many buildings are too assertive, and the really special buildings become lost. I believe that most buildings are required to play a background role in order that the occasional special one can exert its proper emphasis in the group composition.

In saying all this I am of course aware that towns and cities are never completed: they are history unfolding and always there is exciting potential for something newto happen. Equally there is the knowledge that exciting things have happened previously, so I am concerned about the treatment of older buildings. I accept that some of them will have to disappear. Indeed, many of them cannot disappear soon enough, in my view. But I also believe we should be seeking to enhance the best of our old buildings, to improve their setting wherever we can, to encourage the contrasts of old and new, to enrich the environment with subtle reminders that society is eternally and dynamically evolving. This is never easy and often controversial, but it is an essential prerequisite for making the most of our urban environment and ensuring its vitality.

In saying that the precinct is more important than the individual project, it follows that we need to learn a new kind of humility in order to design most buildings subserviently. What I want most of all, in a word, is greater reticence, so the occasional building of special significance—be it a new opera house or an old cathedral—can shine out and set the mood for its immediate environment. Before this can happen on a worthwhile scale, I believe that architects must extend their understanding of all the other elements that vie with buildings as determinants of the urban scene. Given understanding, we can contribute more actively to the achievement of a more ordered and imaginative total environment, in which it will be more enjoyable to live, to work, and to build.

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