Designing Canberra

*Speakers: Rachel Coghlan (R), Peter Freeman (P)

*Location: National Library of Australia

R:        Hi, my name’s Rachel Coghlan and before we start I’d like to pay my respects to the Ngunnawal people, the traditional owners of the land we’re meeting on here in Canberra but also because this is streaming across Australia and other parts. I want to acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians, the first nation’s people across Australia and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

So I am the CEO of Craft ACT: Craft and Design Centre and the Artistic Director of the Design Canberra Festival which is held every November over three weeks and we have more than 200 tours and events and exhibitions and instillations which celebrate and promote Canberra as a global city of design.

It'll be back again this year from the 9th to the 29th of November and we’re very excited because conservation architect, Peter Freeman, who’s here with me today will actually launch his new book which is called Thoroughly Modern: Moir and Sutherland Architects as part of the Festival. Peter has written numerous books, in fact 16, he tells me and he studied the work and contribution of the architects, Moir and Sutherland, since 1997. So I’m very excited to have this opportunity to talk to Peter today and learn a little bit more about this project and his book.

He’s amazingly drawn on the Moir and Sutherland archive here at the National Library of Australia’s Preservation Lab. We’re standing before some beautiful hand-coloured original drawings and Peter in fact helped to catalogue these archives as well so they’ve played a really significant part in this book.

So I’m a great fan of Moir and Sutherland’s work but I probably don’t know anywhere near as much about them as you do, Peter, so maybe we’ll start with who were Malcolm Moir and Heather Sutherland?

P:         Thank you. Both came from Caithness in the top of Scotland and I think very hardy people and they were hardy in the sense that they could actually deal with pretty much anything and that’s what they did. They met in a very different way, he lived in a very humble place and his father was a forester and they used to go all around New South Wales. In the end when it came time to go to university and he had to go to architecture his mother, Dulcie Bella, said we’ll go to Sydney together and you’ll make a home for me so he designed her house. On the other hand Heather had a very, very rich father and very rich predecessors and she could pretty much get what she wanted. She actually entered university something like three years after Malcolm.

R:        So both were at University of Sydney studying architecture -

P:         Yes and they were in that very, very early period when the lecturers were just second to none. Professor Wilkinson, John D Moore, all sorts of people who would come and go from there and they learnt an enormous amount. Malcolm went in to live in St Andrew’s. Heather being Heather and having a family to look after, because her mother died of influenza in 1919 so she had to go back to the house all the time to look after the three other children.

R:        So I know their residential home at 43 Melbourne Avenue in Canberra but can you tell us, I know a few have been demolished but what are a couple of other buildings that they’ve designed in Canberra that people might have known about?

P:         Well people don’t know about the Brisbane Building which was built opposite the Sydney Building and it was built at a time when Civic was actually coming alive at last. He did that with Eric Andrews from Sydney, that’s not so well known. What is well known is the buildings at Evans Crescent, the series of six out of seven buildings that Moir and Sutherland designed and they did it all in that functionalist approach that was not common but so important to them in the 1930s.

R:        So I’ve heard their style described as interwar functionalist style. Could you break that down? What would that look like to people who are less aware of architecture?

P:         It’s a strange word. It’s basically a cubic building, cubics, cubic building. It’s like Rubik’s cube with a whole series of things put together. What they liked to do was to have steel joinery for the windows and the doors. Often that wasn’t possible. When they could get crittall windows they’d do that. They’d always put the windows at the corner so in a way there was a cut-away from the cube but in a way that was like a mystery to actually include that within the building and it created a really excellent photogenic feel. Then a flat roof which had a parapet right ‘round.

R:        So I’m really interested that they arrived in Canberra in those interwar years. I spent a long time working at old Parliament House which of course opened in 1927 and I spent many years living in a house in Ainslie, one of the 1927 FCC-type homes for the public servants who came -

P:         A timber house.

R:        A timber house, really beautiful.

P:         It’s one of the ones I’ve put in the list.

R:        Oh great, yeah, it’s really beautiful, in the Corroboree Park Heritage precinct. So I’m very fond of that period because it strikes me as a time for Canberra where there was a lot of optimism and hope about finally establishing this national capital but then it was really thwarted by the depression and then the war so there must have been a lot of emotions around in that time. In your notes I read Malcolm arrived in 1927 so that’s a really pivotal time in Canberra’s history, and Heather in 1936 and so I’m really interested in how their work was influenced by the social events and political movements of that time. Can you speak to that -

P:         Well can I just say the Federal Capital Commission Architects’ Department of that period was probably second to none in the world. It was extraordinary, there were people coming from all over the place to work there. It’s no wonder that Malcolm actually – when he could find no more work in Sydney he went there.

R:        Would he have been invited to be part of the FCC?

P:         No, he would have applied. He was there three years and then he was basically pushed into the Commonwealth Department of Works and then within five months he was pushed out of that. There was a very interesting case called The Architect’s Case where he and seven others went to court and said why have you done this to us? Because you know you need to have buildings done. We know there’s a depression but you’re going to get rid of this wonderful talent we’ve got. In fact that was all dismissed. Now your question was?

R:        The question is about there was a lot going on in the world in the ‘20s and ‘30s and ‘40s. What were some of those social or political movements that might have influenced their practice but also their engagement with the community? Did they engage in political debate? Did it influence their work?

P:         Heather, not so much although she was cited later on in a series of newspaper articles about her capacity to both run her practice or be part of her practice, to keep her family, look after her family and to basically produce buildings that were second to none. Malcolm was very, very different, he loved politics, in fact tried to be the first member for the House of Representatives in 1949. He was beaten by Dr Knott by a sliver and he was also absolutely outgoing about the need to have good planning and to have kept the Griffin Plan. He kept on writing to The Canberra Times about this and talking to whoever he could talk about it. So they were very different people in that respect, very stolid and because they were Scottish they actually could deal with anything but he was determinedly public. She was determinedly private although Jack McNamara who was one of the people who worked for them as a builder contractor and did a number of buildings for them, he said he couldn’t speak more highly of Heather Sutherland, she was a wonderful, wonderful person. He said that she could actually talk the leg off anyone, any builder or carpenter who gave her trouble.

R:        It’s really interesting, obviously there weren’t many female architects at that time and as you’ve pointed out she kept her own surname and kept her own identity, she signed the plans herself. Was that unusual for that time for someone to be such a confident woman working in a world that was probably fair to say mostly male-dominated?

P:         It wasn’t that much, actually. There was a 50/50 arrangement in University of Sydney right through the ‘20s.

R:        Really?

P:         Yes. Rosetta Edmunds who basically ran her own practice and by 36 was writing her own books about architecture through the world. There were always people who were willing to come down and work for Moir when there was too much work and they were always women because they knew that they could walk into a good office but also work on really good projects.

R:        Well that’s very heartening -

P:         Rosetta Edmunds was one of those right through the ‘50s when they went off to Europe, she dropped in for the year and it goes on.

R:        So do you think you were able to describe their significance or their contribution to architecture as a whole or perhaps in Canberra specifically?

P:         I can, yes, they produced really brilliant buildings.

R:        What was brilliant about them? When you say they were brilliant buildings.

P:         They were very, very different, very disciplined and very original. Not that Kenneth Oliphant wasn’t trying to do the same thing although he was doing it in a much more similar scale. Not that the Europeans who came in after the war and actually undertook all sorts of really interesting buildings. Malcolm wasn’t averse to that, he appreciated what they did. I’ve got to say his big achievement was the theatres. He found a way to actually interest the community in living in Canberra because without the theatres there was nothing to do. Oh they could go to Hubbard Hall but there was no place that they could actually do nothing. So he did two things, very early in the depression he became manager of the capital then in ’36 he designed the Civic and then he actually was asked to design other theatres after that. But the big thing was that he actually produced or had brought in some wonderful films. So he was a bit of an icon for the Canberra people. They had his theatre and they had really good films.

R:        So he designed the theatre and brought the films.

P:         Yeah.

R:        That’s quite an addition to the Canberra landscape at that time, isn’t it, when it was still sheep paddocks in many areas.

P:         Yeah and there was that story about Marion Mahony Griffin who came to their house at 42 Melbourne Avenue in ’37. She’d come back from America I think to actually fix up things after his death and she came to his house and stood in the garden and stood there for a while and Malcolm actually ended up having to go out and ask her who she was and she said I’m his wife and the two buildings I like in this place are the Civic Theatre and this building.

R:        That’s amazing, isn’t it? That’s an extraordinary commendation -

P:         That’s come right through the Moir family, every one of the family know about it.

R:        That’s wonderful, that’s really extraordinary which I guess makes it even more extraordinary that probably the names Moir and Sutherland are not as well known outside of architecture as perhaps they ought to be so your book might really help to build some awareness of them.

P:         Perhaps, perhaps. Yes, it’s known, I mean their work is known but it’s not widely known and I guess what I felt in ‘97 and I felt ever since for 23 years, that this has got to be done and I hope I'm doing the right thing.

R:        Yeah so not only drawing on the amazing archives here in the National Library of Australia, their collection is extraordinary, but helping to catalogue them with your wife, Tanny, is just an amazing contribution to the design sector as a whole. But that must have been such a privilege, to be going through those archives.

P:         Oh yeah, we were amazed.

R:        So what did you find? How did you feel when you were finding I’m assuming personal and professional documents?

P:         Yes.

R:        Yeah, what did you find?

P:         Well pretty much every document because we would actually either photograph the document - we certainly would photograph the drawings and there’d always be an annotation at the bottom somewhere or other which was fairly direct, often fairly snide, often about the quality of the client but then often client letters with the same sort of annotation on it so it was dog eat dog sort of thing, I think.

R:        Did they get any repeat business? Was that a problem, those relationships?

P:         Well I was telling you about the Osmond House in Ord Street. That was extraordinary because in 19 – what was it? 1943, I think - no, sorry, it was in the early 1950s one of the Osmonds came up to Sir Malcolm and said can you design a little house for us in Ord Street because Ord Street had only just been built. It was just a lane and the house was opposite Richard Ure who designed the Australian-American Memorial and he was next to Malcolm so it was a little group. They all lived next to Mervyn Jones, the policeman. The extraordinary thing about that group was that or that house – well the first extraordinary thing was in 1977 Mr Osmond wrote to me and actually explained the entire sequence of what happened in that first years when Heather designed the building. It took five years to get it built for a whole lot of reasons, mainly about builders who wouldn’t do their work.

After Heather died Malcolm came along and actually added a top floor to the building and then when he died in 1973 Angus, who was trying to work as a Director for the newly badged Moir and Sutherland with a Melbourne firm, he designed a garage. So it’s a great pity that was pulled down because it was a wonderful selection of Moir work.

R:        Absolutely. So in going through the archive here at the National Library I mean how many items would be in that archive? Can you estimate?

P:         If you’ve ever read the endnotes to each chapter -

R:        Too many to mention.

P:         Oh they're voluminous and I think I might have made a mistake but in the endnotes I actually put in the inventory of each of the properties, the houses or the other buildings that they built in that year. There may be people who are keen on that because they might find their family in it.

R:        Yes, of course. So going through these beautiful archival documents did it change the way you understood Moir and Sutherland?

P:         Oh absolutely.

R:        In what way?

P:         I was very lucky to have done the Kenneth Oliphant inventory the year before and a life and times so I knew exactly how I wanted to do this one. I guess I was amazed by what they’d achieved and the fact of these two working together but I was very helped by the work of Bronwyn Hanna who’s a historian in Sydney who wrote two very, very important books about women, women architects in that period and she had done me the good thing of interviewing all sorts of people about women architects. So not only did I have that, I had this wonderful volume of information about women architects in Australia or in New South Wales in that time.

R:        Was Heather a role model for female architects?

P:         Not overtly although she before she came down in ’36 ostensibly to look after the children of Malcolm’s after his first wife, Nance, died and then she also was offered work there and she hadn’t had work for four or five years. In fact she’d taken to writing books which no-one ever published but they were books about architects or how to be an architect, all that sort of thing. In those years, ’34, ’35, ’36, she was giving speeches and talks all over the place about how women could be architects and what they can do and how they can actually do that as well as their normal life. Then when she got down here as I was telling you before, in the first big Institute of Architects convention in Melbourne, 1951, she was picked out by the Argus as a luminous figure who could actually both run a practice and actually have children and get to these conventions. She’d just come back from Europe so I think Argus knew all about that ‘cause they included that but yes, she was recognised.

R:        How do you think she was able to juggle in that way?

P:         She was Scottish.

R:        That’s the only answer.

P:         Come back to the same thing, they could do anything.

R:        Work ethic, organised, disciplined.

P:         Yeah. Her stepsister was Joan Sutherland, the singer and I think they taught each other a few things. They didn’t actually get on very well together but they taught each other a few things.

R:        So you mentioned earlier that Malcolm and Heather had travelled to the States, the United States and it’s a wonderful idea to think there was an international perspective to the work that they did. Can you tell me a little bit about what took them over there, what they did while they were there and what they brought back?

P:         Well guess why they went to USA?

R:        Yes?

P:         They went to Hollywood first off. He went there ‘cause he knew all the actors, he knew all the people who did the films -

R:        Oh of course, it’s all the theatre.

P:         There’s a wonderful photograph in the book of Malcolm sitting – well that large photograph of Malcolm sitting down with his wife in one of the studios in Hollywood and then they went to New York ‘cause they knew architects there they wanted to talk to and he wanted to see what New York looked like. Then of course they went to Finland to see Alvar Aalto -

R:        What a great time to be there.

P:         Yeah and then Arne Jacobsen in Copenhagen and the very lucky for thing for me, and this has come about by a whole series of accidents but the granddaughter, Alice Heather Moir, which is named after the three of them, said I’ve got the slides of Malcolm’s. I happened to be in Paris but if there’s any way you can get them I’ll get them for you. In the end we got them from Adelaide where they were and most of those slides I’ve used in the book.

R:        So these are personal photographs?

P:         Yes. Most of the ones in Europe are of Heather walking up and down parks or lots and lots of buildings, lots and lots of buildings.

R:        Did those travels change their own practice?

P:         They would have, yeah. I think they would have. Knowing what they knew from their university which was a very universal sort of tutelage I think they would have just been waiting to get overseas. He couldn’t because of the first marriage and the first death of his wife, he couldn’t because after that he was setting up a practice and she joined him. Finally by 1952 after they’d had their child in 1942, Angus, they were free to go.

R:        And they did.

P:         And they did.

R:        So obviously they held or at least Malcolm held strong views about the Griffin Plan, how do you think Moir and Sutherland would feel about Canberra today?

P:         I think they’d be worried and upset although that’s a strange thing because Malcolm was actually – he was determinedly behind the Griffin Plan but because he loved the Manuka Shopping Centre so much he wanted to move the shopping centre entirely into what is now the oval.

R:        Right.

P:         Get that one. I can’t work out how he was going to do it but he had a whole lot of whacky ideas but he was determined that the Griffin Plan should stand. And it didn’t. I’m not really the person to comment on Canberra today ‘cause I’ve lived in a little rural hamlet for the last 17 years but there’s a lot I would have done differently and the first thing would have been to actually impose a level limit for all the city and for all the various cities in Canberra. The way in which those sort of buildings have been gargantuanised is upsetting and you’ve only got to go to Paris or to most Spanish cities to see how you can do it and I wish they’d done it here.

R:        So then your book will be launched at Design Canberra on the 20th of November -

P:         Thank you.

R:        Thank you, we’re really delighted to be the hosts and so when people are able to get their hands on this amazing book, this extraordinary resource for architecture but for Canberra too what do you hope they take away from your book? What would you like them to know about Malcolm Moir and Heather Sutherland?

P:         Well for a start the book is going to be 300 pages long. I imagine they’ll dip in and look at this and that. I think they’ll find a very different world in Moir's time. I’m only going to take it up to the death of Malcolm. I was tempted to actually take it right into the work of Ward and Slater after he died but there’s no room for that, I just wanted to tell that story. I hope they take out of it that these two people and their son were extremely, extremely important people.

R:        Important in the sense of architecture? The city of Canberra? Australia?

P:         The way in which they brought quality to Canberra in that period. Not determinedly, it’s just the way they worked, that’s what they did.

R:        The three things we try and do in the Design Canberra Festival is to promote design education, design excellence and design history and what I love about your book and your research and your long involvement with architecture is that you achieve all three things and it’s just such an honour to bring it together. I love hearing the social history behind these beautiful designs, I love seeing the beauty in these hand-coloured drawings, it’s quite exquisite. So thank you so much, Peter, we’re super-excited about having you in the Festival this year and this is just a wonderful contribution to the design sector, thank you.

P:         Thank you. I have to say that very surprisingly, and I don’t know why – I do know why, actually, but I was given an Order of Australia not because of the architecture I did which was the heritage stuff I did and the books so you get your comeuppance in the end.

R:        It’s wonderful, it’s just a wonderful resource. Thank you.

P:         Thank you.

R:        Well thank you, Peter, I think we all want to get our hands on that 300-page book, it’ll be some beautiful reading for everyone and we’re really looking forward to having you in the Festival and it’s just amazing to see the resources that the National Library has here in their Preservation Lab and it’s a wonderful opportunity just to learn a small part of the extraordinary knowledge that you’ve obviously gathered over 20 years in developing this project. Thank you for being part of this and thank you also to the National Library of Australia for hosting this wonderful conversation and making your archives available to us.

Join Peter Freeman and Dr Rachael Coghlan as they explore the lives of early Canberra architects Malcolm Moir and Heather Sutherland – their work, their impact on the developing city, the times in which they lived, and the legacy that remains.  

Peter Freeman is an author and Conservation Architect. His new book, THOROUGHLY MODERN: Moir + Sutherland Architects, studies the life and work of these two architects pivotal in the development of Canberra. Peter will be launching his book on Friday 20 November at the DESIGN Canberra Festival. More information about the book launch can be found online.

Dr Rachael Coghlan is CEO of Craft ACT: Craft and Design Centre, and Artistic Director of the DESIGN Canberra Festival.  

This partnered online event has been produced by the National Library of Australia in association with Craft ACT and the Design Canberra Festival.