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Flashback: John Andrews in America

Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra are destroying his brutalist monuments but John Andrews’ achievements still bring honour to Australia in the United States and Canada, writes architectural historian and author, Philip Drew.

This is an article from the Architecture Australia archives and may use outdated formatting


This article from the Architecture Australia archives was originally formatted and uploaded in 2000. It contains split images and other idiosyncrasies, which we invite you to enjoy as historical quirks.

Text by Philip Drew. Photography by David Moore and Terence Shaw. 


Above
Below Main halls of the Miami Sea Passenger Terminal.
     
 



Top Miami Seaport Passenger Terminal in Florida. Above Interior of Scarborough College, Ontario.

 

From the moment John Andrews achieved world recognition with Scarborough College for the University of Toronto in 1965, he was seen as a North American architect. Little of his substantial oeuvre derived from his training at the University of Sydney and, instead, was indebted mostly to Harvard, from where he graduated in 1958. At the time, brutalism was the rising international movement and Louis Kahn had completed such early masterworks as the Richards Medical Research Building (1957- 64), the Salk Institute Laboratory (1959-65) and the Erdman Hall dormitories at Bryn Mawr College (1960-65). Critics were searching for replacements to modernism; a new geometric order and style direction to usurp the legacies of Mies, Corbu and Wright.

Whether by design or sheer good fortune, John Andrews arrived in Canada well ahead of the 1967 Montreal World Expo, in time to catch and ride out the great wave of Canadian self-discovery, national confidence and boom in the economy. He was well placed to capture these changes of agenda, and he brought with him – to his advantage – a forthright, macho style in common with the New York-based art critic, Robert Hughes. Before and after his shift of focus back to Australia in 1972, when the Canadian boom was beginning to play out, Andrews realised a portfolio of major buildings which is only now being challenged by two other expatriate Australians; Peter Wilson in Europe and Kerry Hill in Singapore.

Andrews’ principal works after Scarborough College were the Miami Seaport Passenger Terminal, Florida, in 1970, followed in 1972 by Gund Hall at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in Boston, the Canadian National Tower in Toronto, the Kent State University School of Art in Ohio, 1972, and, in 1988, the Intelsat Headquarters in Washington. More recently, he completed a master plan for the University of Lethbridge in Alberta.

Astute manipulation of the print media put his Scarborough project on the cover of the Canadian edition of Time magazine. Its appeal lay in the dramatic contrast of an aggressive, utopian architecture and thr frigid canadian landscape, albeit, in the Toronto countryside on the city edge, framed by woods. From the ravine, the blank elevations in poured concrete appeared as a continuation of the slope of the ravine wall, and even followed in plan the profile of the escarpment. Scarborough remains Andrews’ most memorable work, in terms of both its architectonics and sensitivity to landscape. The beauty of Scarborough is that its rural setting counterpointed its strong, anonymous shapes in off-form concrete and inclined, metal-clad, service ways which combine with vernacular nuances and futurist imagery. It is also his least typical work in that its geometry was applied with great flexibility – unlike the student housing in Guelph of 1965.

Ahead of the Canadians, Andrews recognised early the impracticality of designing universities for harsh winter climates with separate buildings for each faculty. Instead, he combined departments in large, long complexes with heated internal streets to promote easier communication among occupants. A characteristic Andrews motif, the staggered arrangement of star-like floors, was anticipated half a century earlier by the Frenchman Henri Sauvage (1873-1932) and was reused in such later projects as Gund Hall and the Belconnen offices in Canberra.

   
 



Top School of Art at Kent State University, Ohio. Above Foyer of student housing complex at the University of Guelph, Ontario.

 

It is usual for Andrews to tailor his geometry to each site – geometry is an a priori given. His great debts are to Louis Kahn and José Luis Sert, and whilst his forms are equally as plastic as theirs, his buildings lack Sert’s endearing qualities of spatial enrichment, or Kahn’s meridional plays of light and shadow.

His architecture revolves around connecting traffic and identifying and aligning movement corridors as part of a powerful, omnipresent, geometrical order. Once established, the routine techniques of traffic analysis, structural and service grids and anonymous cubic volumes in brute concrete with glass infilled voids become a routine – automatic almost – and projects poured into the Andrews office.

Octagonal floor plates are laid out horizontally or stacked vertically in a mechanical, seemingly self-ordering manner. At Intelsat, the octagons have a real appropriateness to them. Each one is an office pod and suggests a giant satellite partly embedded in the rolling Washington terrain. There was also a level of technological refinement, a heightened interest in efficient energy design with accompanying improvements that captured the technological essence and sci-fi romance of the high frontier and high-tech. In other circumstances, the same shapes and geometry, deprived of Intelsat’s sophistication, read as contrived and lacking a local identity.

To measure Andrews’ significance is not easy. His offices have been extremely prolific, with inevitable, and not unexpected, disparities in architectural quality. At his best, notably in the decade after 1963, the year in which he established his own office, he earned his status as an undoubted international star and an architect who expressed himself with great forcefulness and verve. He was the first Australian to achieve such recognition and if, later, the intensity drops off and he tires, and the works become more predictable, these signs of stiffening are understandable.

Philip Drew is a Sydney architect and author, who worked in Professor Richard Strong’s landscape office next to John Andrews’ studio in Toronto during the mid-1960s

   
 

 

Top Scarborough College.
Above Scarborough College section.
 
 

 
 
Top right Canadian National Tower in Toronto.
Above and left
Gund Hall at the Harvard Graduate School of Design Cambridge, Massachussets.
   
 

Left and below Intelsat Headquarters in Washington DC. Bottom Recently completed master plan for the University of Lethbridge in Alberta.  
 
 
 

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Published online: 1 May 2000

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Architecture Australia, May 2000

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