This is the text of the speech delivered by Professor Barry Maitland, Professor of Architecture and Dean of the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Design at the Reunion 2000 dinner at Newcastle Town Hall on Saturday 8 April 2000. It has been requested by many of the Reunion 2000 attendees. This was Barry’s last public occasion before his retirement in July 2000.
Distinguished guests, ladies & gentlemen, I am greatly honoured to be invited to speak on this important occasion, but also somewhat hesitant, for I feel a little like the gamekeeper invited to address a reunion of old poachers.
By that I don’t mean to suggest that we are in any way on different sides, but it does seem to me that the main purpose of this evening is to renew and celebrate your memories and friendships of the Newcastle Architecture School as you experienced them as students, whereas my experience of the place has been as a teacher. And although as teachers and students we often inhabit the same world, and share a joke and a glass of beer along with the more serious matters, still there is a sense, I think, of us occupying parallel but separate existences. Looking out over a sea of faces frowning with concentration in my lecture, I may hope that they are considering the finer points of my argument, but I fear that they are in fact contemplating what they did the previous evening, and who they should apologise to for it.
Looking back to my own student days I would have to say that many of the things that we were most preoccupied with lay well below the horizon of our tutors’ consciousness – which was probably just as well. There was, for example, the difficult problem of contraception, and how to find it. Now things may have been done on a more civilized basis in Australia, but in those days in England, contraceptives were purchased in barbers’ shops. This probably explains why students had such short hair in the days before the Beetles made long hair obligatory. And it probably also explains why, when long hair became fashionable, something happened to the birth rate.
The whole operation followed a rigid and excrutiating ritual. The student would wait his turn in the barber’s shop, then sit in the chair to have his hair cut, which didn’t take long because he had probably had it done only a week or two before. Upon completion of the haircut, the barber would chant the ritual phrase, ‘And will there be anything else, sir?’ whereupon all the men waiting their turn would lower their newspapers with a loud rustle and stare at the back of the student’s neck, which would turn a bright pink.
The student would then stare up at the shelves above the mirror, as if this hadn’t occurred to him, appearing to wonder whether he did indeed need a comb, or another jar of Brylcreem. Then a thought would seem to strike him, and he would turn to the barber and whisper something. The barber would then say, ‘Certainly, sir. And will that be one packet, or two?’ More rustling of newspapers, and the student’s neck turning a deeper red. He would mutter again to the barber, who replied in triumph, ‘Very wise, sir! We can’t be too careful now, can we?’ as if the hapless student was going to use them two at a time.
Now I make this digression only to illustrate the special problems of student life, and you all have your own stories to tell and memories to share. But I don’t want to further lower the elevated tone of this evening, and I think we can accept that we all have different experiences and recollections of architectural education at Newcastle, which we are here to celebrate, each from our own viewpoint. Perhaps I would be safest to try to contribute some kind of perspective on the history of the school, and in this I am greatly aided by the text of Bob Donaldson and Don Morris’s splendid new book, ‘Architecture Newcastle : Its History Preserved’, which they have kindly let me read. It will be published shortly, and let me say that it will be essential reading for you all, for each one of you is mentioned by name within its pages.
The book makes clear that the School does indeed have an extended history to celebrate, marked this year by some important, if somewhat approximate anniversaries.
The oldest of these is the date of the beginning of architectural education in Newcastle, almost exactly 75 years ago, in 1926 when F.G. Castleden, president of the Associated Architects of Newcastle & District (later the Newcastle Division of the RAIA), following the 1921 Architects’ Registration Act, was pleased to announce the commencement of the Diploma course in Newcastle, at the Newcastle Technical College, and the appointment of local architects N.B. Pitt & W.D. Jeater as its first teachers. This marked the birth of the Newcastle School.
This was a long time ago – in Newcastle, electricity generation had only just begun, and F.G. Castleden himself had recently finished the Newcastle Club with Spain Cosh and Dods, and before that the Hamilton Ambulance station and the Newcastle Ocean Baths. Overseas the modern movement was just being born – this was the year of the opening of Walter Gropius’s new Bauhaus building in Dessau, and the Barcelona Pavilion was no more than a twinkle in Mies’s eye.
To appreciate just how long ago this was, consider this: in a recent survey, office workers were asked the question, what was the most significant technological innovation in the modern office? Was it the word processor, the fax machine, the telephone or the photocopier? No, the answer came back, the most significant thing was the invention of the paper-clip. Now the paper-clip was invented at that same time, 75 years ago. Imagine a world without paper-clips. It seems almost inconceivable that civilisation had progressed for 20,000 years without it, doesn’t it? And I see some parallel between the invention of this modest device and the birth of the Newcastle School – both small, humble, apparently insignificant but ultimately indispensable and highly valued.
The school almost died soon after its birth. In order to enrol, students were required to have employment under the supervision of a qualified architect, and in the Depression of the 30s this declined to such an extent that enrolments dropped from 11 in 1932 to only 1 in 1937.
But it did survive to celebrate another anniversary with the opening in 1951 of the Newcastle College of the NSW University of Technology, the Newcastle University College. By this stage its students included some names that I’m familiar with and who are with us tonight – Ross Deamer, who later was to go on to lead the Newcastle School as Associate Professor, and Don Morris who served the University with great distinction as both a lecturer and University Architect.
Now I hope they’ll forgive me if I suggest that this event, 50 years ago, was still a long time in the past. Civil aviation had just begun in the Hunter, with flights from Williamtown, electric trams had recently stopped running in Newcastle, and Stephenson & Turner’s Nixon Wing of the Royal Newcastle Hospital was under construction.
And one might locate this moment, 50 years ago, with another modest but important technological innovation. This one had been invented by two Hungarian emigre brothers during the war as a high altitude writing implement for the RAF. Their name was Biro, and their invention, the ballpoint pen, began to appear in the shops at this time, 50 years ago.
I remember this well, because at this time I won a scholarship to go to grammar school, and my father, normally a rather stern Scotsman, in an uncharacteristic flight of generosity said I could choose anything I wanted as a reward. No doubt he had calculated that a Len Hutton cricket bat, or even a Raleigh bicycle, would leave him well in front. I opted for the latest piece of cutting-edge technology, a biro pen. What a dummy. I can still smell the ink leaking over my fingers.
Following the establishment of the Newcastle College, a degree course in architecture was introduced under the enlightened leadership of Eric Parker. In accepting the invitation to come up to Newcastle from Sydney to take over the Newcastle program, Eric afterwards noted that in his experience, ‘Newcastle students were enthusiastic and friendly, and a considerable contrast with his students in Sydney’. Some things don’t change, you see.
During the 1960s the degree course became firmly established, with the first graduate Les Reedman, who converted his 1959 Diploma to the Bachelor of Architecture (NSW) in 1961. In the following year Cecil Hay, Don Morris and Brian Suters all graduated, Brian as the first University Medalist, and with First Class Honours. And if I can embarrass him further, can I also say what a pleasure it is to announce that he has accepted the offer of an honorary Doctorate of Architecture from the University of Newcastle, to be presented at the degree ceremony on 12 May, for his subsequent contribution to architecture and the arts, particularly in the Hunter.
The next landmark was the establishment 35 years ago in 1965 of the school as a Faculty of Architecture in the newly autonomous University of Newcastle, and under the direction of the first Newcastle Professor of Architecture, Frederick Romberg for the following 10 years.
Though still some time ago, this anniversary occurs in a world that is more immediately recognisable to us. Work had just begun on the Sydney to Newcastle Freeway, surely one of the slowest freeway projects of all time. TV transmissions had recently begun in the Hunter, and work was about to begin on the Captain James Cook Memorial Fountain in Civic Park, designed by the sculptor Margel Hinder with architects Wilson Barnett and Suters. One event links this year back to an earlier time, however, for 1965 was also the date when the Australian Agricultural Company, which had operated in Newcastle since it took over control of coal mining in the Hunter in 1829, finally ceased operations in the city.
What piece of representative technology could one choose for this anniversary? Perhaps none more appropriate than the Rotring drawing pen which succeeded the Pelikan Graphos pen at this time. These were miracles of scientific precision which used the laws of surface tension and capillary action in liquids to torture draughtsmen everywhere. These laws dictate that the surface tension of ink is inversely proportional to the degree of completion of a drawing, so that when the drawing nears completion the tension weakens and the ink descends in a great blob over the artwork. For those of you who haven’t yet seen it, Bob Donaldson has mounted a wonderful exhibition of student drawings over the years, in the Romberg Building at the School – a tribute to the perseverance of human nature over the Pelikan pen company.
Six architecture students graduated in the University of Newcastle’s first degree ceremony in the following year. One of them was Sue Park, the first woman to graduate from the School, and who sadly died last year, a teacher in the Design program of our Faculty. The others were Bill Crook and Kevin Hoffman, who I believe are with us this evening, as well as John Guy and Malcolm Park, who was to subsequently become an outstanding lecturer.
The sixth graduate of that year was Chong Wai Wah, an overseas student, from Singapore, and this is particularly significant, I think, because it points up the longstanding role that international students have played in the life and history of the Newcastle School. This is also apparent looking around this room this evening, with the presence here of former graduates who have come all the way from Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore, as well as from the UK.
And so we come to the last date to celebrate this evening, which is the present, and the fact that, thanks to the energy and enthusiasm of Bob Donaldson and Ron Armstrong, John Hoffman and their indefatigable committee, we are all gathered here. And we find that, once again, the School has greatly changed. Whereas Professor Romberg could speak of the small size of the School in 1965, with less than 60 students in total and a staff to student ratio in the final year of one to four, we now have 300 equivalent full-time students and 18 staff. And where there was then one international student, we now have over 80, from over 20 different countries around the world. Where we then had borrowed space in a building at Tighes Hill, we now have three outstanding purpose-built buildings, all designed by world class architects. Where we then were an isolated discipline, we are now part of a faculty which includes construction management, industrial design and graphic design. And if one were to identify a characteristic piece of technology of our time, instead of the paperclip, the ballpoint pen and the Pelikan Graphos, it would be the Imac perhaps, or Powerpoint, or the Virtual Reality Visualization NT Workstation we are about to acquire, whatever that is.
But my point in recalling these dates and going on about paperclips and the like is simply this – that despite the enormous changes in technology, in character and setting, something constant has persisted from that moment 75 years ago when the School was born. We may call it the Newcastle Architecture School, but effectively it is you who have lived it, and its soul is the memories and experiences you share and bring together tonight.
Now I could stop there, having reflected on the past, but you would probably regard me as something of a coward if I didn’t speculate a little on the future, which I can do with impunity since I shall shortly be withdrawing from it, and will become one of you, sitting in the back row muttering that things have gone completely to the dogs since my day.
Now to look into the future one needs to understand the past as more than just a catalogue of facts, and as having a structure which shapes the present and continues into the future. One recalls George Santayana’s famous observation, that those who don’t understand history are condemned to repeat it. I was struck by this while reading Bob and Don’s book, as for example by the fact that the University Senate within 3 years of the foundation of the University proposed to restructure the Faculties, and to absorb Architecture into Engineering, a suggestion that provoked great agitation from the School and the profession. Perhaps there is a message there for the present University, as it contemplates another round of restructuring. And one is reminded also of Karl Marx’s comment, that history happens twice, the first time as tragedy, and the second time as farce.
So let me try to speculate on some pattern which may be seen to have shaped the evolution of the Newcastle School from its beginnings in 1926 to its present state, and perhaps on into the future. I am well qualified to do this, since I’m not a professional historian, and am therefore entirely uninhibited by scholarly methods or the facts. But I am guided by two eminent historians, the first of whom some of you may remember from your lectures. He is Sir Gordon Frawles, whose great work ‘Fragments de l’Architecture’ was such an inspiration. And the other is the American historian Professor Wylie Sypher and his book ‘Four Stages of Renaissance Style’.
And let me say at once that, re-reading these great works, I was struck by the extraordinary parallels between the evolution of the Newcastle Architecture School between say, 1926 and 2026, and that of the European Renaissance between 1400 and 1700.
Both began with a period which we may call the Early Renaissance with their birth out of a barbarous past, the Gothic, somewhere south of the Hawkesbury, and the first flowering of an independent spirit in Florence, or Newcastle. It was characterised by freshness, originality and inspired improvisation. I am thinking, for example, of the stories of students taking the overnight ferry to Sydney in order to spend the following day studying at the Sydney Technical College, before returning by boat on the following night; one can imagine the spirit of adventurous scholarship engendered by such trips. Or again, there is the lovely account of Eric Parker, surely the Brunelleschi of the Newcastle School, declaring his Rover 75 as the School office, when no other accommodation could be made available. And most inspiring of all, as a story of almost impossible improvisation, is the wartime tale of Tim Mayo, also with us tonight, who joined RAF No 12 Bomber Squadron only to be shot down over Holland in1942, and then proceeded to study architecture in a succession of prisoner of war camps with the aid of assignments brought to him from London by the Red Cross. Having carefully preserved these pieces of work throughout his captivity, he returned to London at the end of the War and submitted them to the RIBA for assessment.
With the interruptions of the Depression and then the War, this first period of beginnings and early growth was rather protracted, lasting perhaps 40 years. But eventually development reached a point where a new level was reached, and the Early Renaissance gave way to the next phase, the High Renaissance. In this stage improvisation gives way to order, the establishment of clear rules and the emergence of a distinctive character or voice, and the central role in this was played by Professor Romberg, the Bramante of the Newcastle High Renaissance. The School now existed as an autonomous institution, recognised by the profession, and speaking with a sense of authority. Now there occurred the codification of stable rules, which tends to give the High Renaissance a somewhat authoritarian character.
This is an important and necessary stage, but it also carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction, for the world is not stable, and soon events occur to undermine this sense of clear authority.
In sixteenth century Europe these shocks took the form of the 30 Years War, the Sack of Rome, and the Reformation, all of which acted to shatter the certainties of the High Renaissance. Those of you who were present at the time may identify the Newcastle equivalent of the Sack of Rome, which probably occurred around 1972, when the Vice-Chancellor was obliged to take on the role of Dean of the Faculty of Architecture, and Ross Deamer was recalled from the golf-courses – I’m sorry, libraries – of Europe to pilot the School through the turmoil.
And the result of these traumatic events is to put an end to the certainties of the High Renaissance and to usher in a period in which change, not stability, is the ordering principle. This is the Mannerist Period, and I have to admit that this is for me the most interesting of the four stages of the Renaissance, probably because my architectural history teacher when I was a student was Colin Rowe, who made it clear that he found this the most fascinating period, and whose influential 1950 essay ‘Mannerism and Modern Architecture’ had drawn parallels between the works of Vignola and Michelangelo and those of the pioneers of twentieth century Modernism.
Certainty and stability are replaced by a sense of experiment, and a willingness to embrace change. It is a time, not of one authoritarian voice, but of the flowering of many talents, who nevertheless share a common sensibility and willingness to experiment. And I would suggest a parallel between this sensibility for innovation and growth and the spirit which has flourished in the Newcastle School over the past, say, 20 years, exemplified by its espousal of integrated problem-based learning as a distinctive approach to architectural education perfectly suited to the profile of what we have come to recognise as the characteristic Newcastle architecture graduate – practical but reflective, with a strong sense of place but also a wide international perspective.
And what happens next? I find it rather significant that one of our graduate success stories, Michael Ostwald, University Medallist in 1990 and now a Senior Lecturer, should have recently won a Byera Hadley scholarship to go to Harvard to study at the archives there in order to examine the parallels between the work of recent architects like Frank Gehry, and the architecture of the seventeenth century European Baroque. Because of course what comes after Mannerism is the Baroque, and if Colin Rowe’s essay may have remotely encouraged a Mannerist tendency in the development of architectural education in Newcastle, perhaps Michael’s study heralds its next manifestation, in the final quarter of its first 100 years.
With the Baroque, a new certainty and stability return, resurrecting the authoritative voice of the High Renaissance, but in a more expansive, all-embracing form. It is confident, prosperous, materialistic, and not prone to self-examination or self-doubt. And if this is to be the way of it, it promises much that is positive for the next 25 years of the Newcastle School – a time of prosperity, stability, and of glorious, golden manifestations.
But perhaps it would be as well to add a word or two of caution. The Baroque was an invention of the Council of Trent, which restored the centralised power of Rome, insisted on faith over reason, and enforced its will with the Inquisition. This is the dark side of the Baroque, and while we may not know who will be its Borromini, we might reflect that he may need some help from time to time to temper the more over-enthusiastic tendencies of his time, for, as Wylie Sypher reminds us, the Baroque also has a terrible tendency to descend into kitsch.
And perhaps that is where I should stop, with the thought that I believe the Newcastle School has a wonderful future in front of it, but that, as in the past, it will be all the better for wise council and timely help from you, who represent the whole tradition of the School, through all its periods, and in that sense its memory and soul.
And so we may look forward to meeting again in 25 years time to celebrate the centenary of the Newcastle School of Architecture, and to reflect upon all four periods of its great history.
Barry Maitland, April 2000