RAIA Gold Medallist

This is an article from the Architecture Australia archives and may use outdated formatting



The recently retired chairman of Hassell, one of Adelaide’s big three multi-national practices, wins this year’s top Institute honour for a lifetime of quiet achievement.

 John Morphett, AM, OBE, LFRAIA
An Australian citizen born in 1932 in Johore Bahru, Malaysia, John Morphett has been associated with Hassell, the multi-disciplinary, now-international design firm, for more than 40 years. After 15 years as managing director and three as chairman, he retired in 1997 but continues to undertake consulting work for the firm. He has been involved in Hassell’s diversification to new markets throughout Australia and into Hong Kong, Thailand and the Phillipines.
Major architectural projects led by John Morphett include The Adelaide Festival Centre (1978), the Sir Donald Bradman grandstand at the Adelaide Oval (1988), Melbourne Central (1985), the Australian Ballet headquarters in Melbourne (1987), the Samuel Way Law Courts in Adelaide (1983), the Rundle Street Car Park in Adelaide (1980) and many educational and performing arts facilities around Australia.
Since retirement from commercial practice, he has continued to chair the Westwood Project Committee for an urban redevelopment in Adelaide, Enterprise House (a property-owning company) and the Wyatt Benevolent Institution.
As key educational achievements, he gained a Bachelor of Engineering (Architecture) from the University of Adelaide in 1954, a Master of Architecture from MIT in 1958, and completed an advanced management course at the Australian Administrative Staff College in 1978. During the 1960s and ‘70s, he also lectured and tutored at both of the Adelaide schools of architecture.
In community service, he was honorary British Consul-General in South Australia 1986- 96; President of the SA Chamber of Commerce and Industry, 1989-91; President of the RAIA SA Chapter, 1981-82; Chairman and Director of the Australian Dance Theatre Board, 1974-84, and Honorary Governor of the Wyatt Benevolent Foundation, since 1963. As well as his AM and OBE, he has received the honours of a Knight of the Sovereign Order of St. John of Jerusalem, Knights Hospitaller, RAIA Life Fellow, RAIA SA President’s Medal, 1997, and the Australian Council of the Professions SA award for community service, 1999.
Throughout his architectural career, John Morphett has served and exhibited a commitment to the architectural profession and the community at large through design. His involvement in professional activities via the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, at a time when awareness of community attitudes was beginning to be felt, heralded a new direction for architecture in South Australia.
This dedication to architecture and the community has resulted in many buildings and developments designed in the Hassell office, under his direction, that have profoundly assisted the advancement of the cities in which they are built.
John’s influence in positioning a South Australian architectural practice as a major national practice with an international presence, occurred during this fertile period. Furthermore, his commitment to a team approach – which grew out of his experience with Walter Gropius at the Architects’ Collaborative in Boston and Rome in the late 1950s – has widely influenced the South Australian architectural fraternity.
John’s overseas travels of 1973 also contributed to collaborations between public art and architecture. His 1973-4 study tours of the USA, Canada, Russia and Europe (including one to the Federal Republic of Germany to study public art) also helped to advance the SA profession’s understandings of urban design and international developments in architectural design and construction technology.
John Morphett’s particular interest in theatre design has led him to contribute papers to international conferences on theatre design in Adelaide and Sydney leading to an ongoing involvement in the development of arts facilities throughout Australia. He is married with five children and continues to live in Adelaide.

John Morphett

Comment by Tim Shannon
For those of us who believe that architecture is an art and that the professional pursuit of art is a journey that requires patience and commitment, the nomination of John Morphett as recipient of the 2000 RAIA Gold Medal is a reassuring event.
As an architect, John has been loyally committed to the ideals of the Modern movement throughout his career. His belief in the values of modernism has infused all of his architecture and professional endeavours.
His first project, a 1962 house in Adelaide, demonstrates a young architect’s enthusiasm for the potential of modernism in what was then a very conservative environment. One of his most recent projects, a teaching facility at the University of South Australia’s Magill campus, completed in 1995, shows a mature understanding of modernism’s contemporary circumstances.
The core values of modernism, being social, technical and artistic, have informed John’s work and career. The modernists had a strong social agenda, believing that good design would result in a healthier environment for all, and that it would be affordable by all. As a proponent of this philosophy, he has consistently sought cost-effective, value-added and efficient design solutions. This has promoted a culture at Hassell of rigorous testing. It has also led to the conviction that each situation deserves a unique design. Hence, every design is a new invention which builds on predecessors. Style is rejected.
John’s interest in technology, as a key to making good design affordable, is evident in a desire for ‘honesty’ in his work; a desire to reveal how each structure was made. The Rundle Street car park is perhaps the clearest example of this.
Another long-held interest is low-energy architecture. In 1958, when a masters student at MIT in Boston, he won a competition prize for his design of an energy-efficient house, and he is currently building himself an energy-efficient dwelling at Kerby Hill, south of Adelaide.
At Hassell, John sought to bring together the best creative minds to work on projects in a confronting way. This design process is most challenging and difficult: it stimulates creativity and tests patience to produce exceptional results. It is no place for sensitive egos, and it has been John’s place all of his professional life.
The Adelaide Festival Centre, completed in 1973, is the pivotal project in John’s career. Conceived in circumstances influenced by the drama of the Sydney Opera House and the expectations set by the Melbourne Arts Centre, the Adelaide centre emerged, seemingly effortlessly, without scandal and to acclaimed success.
Behind the scenes, this project triggered the passing of the mantle of the Hassell & McConnell partnership from Jack McConnell to John Morphett. Jack, also an RAIA Gold Medallist, had been the design energy of the practice since 1940. A modernist practising in the period of the International Style, he directed and influenced the work of the practice in a singular way.
The Festival Centre provided John with the vehicle he needed to redirect the practice to a softer philosophy of collaboration. The most notable immediate outcome was the inclusion of the sculptor O.H. Hajek in the design process for the Festival Plaza. Since that time, under John’s inclusive leadership, the practice further strengthened its commitment to collaboration with the inclusion of planners, landscape architects and interior designers.
In selecting John Morphett for the 2000 Gold Medal, the Institute has chosen to send a strong message to the public: that architects have deeply held beliefs and values and that they can, through patience and determination, use their creativity to make better places to live.
Tim Shannon is the Melbourne principal of Hassell

Top Adelaide Festival Centre Plaza, a collaboration with artist O.H. Hajek, 1973. Centre Detail of the Amy Wheaton Building at the University of South Australia’s Magill
Campus, 1996. Bottom Canberra Playhouse, 1998.


John Morphett

Top left River view of the Adelaide Festival Centre, 1973. Top right Rundle Street Car Park, 1977. Above and left Morphett farmhouse under construction in South Australia.

John Morphett

Left Morphett’s third prize-winning entry in a 1958 international solar energy competition. Below Model of his scheme for the Baghdad University Musuem, 1959. Bottom left Bradman Stand at Adelaide Oval, 1972. Bottom right Elevations of the Adelaide Festival Centre, first stage completed 1973.


John Morphett

    Above left Model of the Baghdad University campus, 1960. Above right Baghdad University entrance arch, 1960. Right Winning scheme for the Timber Home of the Year competition, 1962. Bottom Auditorium of the Adelaide Festival Centre, 1973.



Published online: 1 Jan 2000


Architecture Australia, January 2000

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