Career Case Study #4: Sir Roy Grounds
This is Sir Roy Grounds, “one of Australia’s leading architects of the modern movement”.
Roy Grounds (1905 – 1981)
For someone born in Australia and who’s spent a large amount of their life learning about buildings, I’ve never known his name until recently. His Wikipedia entry seems to say all there seems to be to say and, for that matter, all we seem to need to know. It’s odd then, that he was awarded the Royal Australian Institute of Architects Gold Medal in 1968, made a life member of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects in 1969 and the same year made Sir Roy Grounds by Queen Elizabeth. It’s fair to assume he was knighted for his services to architecture but strange there’s no memory of what those services might have been.
It’s not the case with his contemporaries Robyn Boyd and Harry Seidler – two names I do remember. Robyn Boyd was born into the Boyd dynasty of Australian artists and painters. His first job was a studio for his cousin, the painter Arthur Boyd. Robyn Boyd developed a low-slung regional style with lots of timber. Although this was sometimes derided as the “nuts and berries” school, this high-fibre architecture appealed to Australians in general and university tutors in particular.
Boyd completed about 200 mostly small scale projects but is better known for being a prolific writer, commentator, content provider and The Voice of Australian Architecture. His 1960 book The Australian Ugliness was widely praised and admired for railing against suburban sprawl but, going by what’s happened in the 65 years since, was totally useless IF its true object was actually to change things for the better. If. We shouldn’t assume courting media controversy was something invented with the internet.
Harry Seidler was born in Austria in 1923. After attending the Harvard Graduate School of Design under Walter Gropius, being Marcel Breuer‘s first assistant, doing vacation work for Alvaar Aalto, doing a stint at Oscar Niemeyer’s studio and being taught art by Joseph Albers, his parents rocked up in Australia in 1948. Seidler was 25 and working for Breuer at the time. His parents immediately asked him to design their new house in their new country. I’d love to know more about these parents of his. The preliminaries over, Seidler’s career proper began.
Although only ten when the Bauhaus closed shop, Seidler positioned himself as the first architect to fully express its principles in Australia. In short, he became The Other Voice of Australian Architecture. He wore bow ties, spoke in quotes, seemed to live forever, and was Australia’s Gropius.
As part of a double act though, he was the Le Corbusier to Boyd’s Frank Lloyd Wright and all Australian architectural debate whether in magazines, schools or office, could be framed in terms of one or the other. The media history of Australian architecture, Australian architecture and Australian architects had no need for Roy Grounds and his or any other third way.
1905: Born in Melbourne
–1932: His work at a a firm called Blackett, Forster and Craig led him to receive an award that let him work in the UK and the US for two years.
1934: Returned to form a partnership with Geoffrey Mewton that is said to have introduced the international style to Melbourne.
1936: Partnership dissolved (why, we don’t know) and Grounds returns to the UK.
1939–1942: Sole practitioner between 1939 and 1942 and designed a series of houses and flats including Moonbria (1940–41) which established his reputation.
1953: Formed a successful and influential practice with Frederick Romberg and Robin Boyd who were also well established at the time.
1962: Grounds left the practice “acrimoniously” Wikipedia tells us.
It’s not much to go on. Let’s take a look at the buildings. First is Moonbria. It has its own website these days.
It’s a building with 21 apartments arranged around a courtyard and a circular stair feature.
Circles were to feature largely Grounds’ work. Here’s a 1953 house.
Grounds designed the Roy Grounds House for himself and his family in 1953.
The main house is at the front of the site and there are three ‘investment houses’ at the rear. (In the late 20th century, many single detached dwelling were to be demolished and replaced by triple-houses occupying a greater percentage of the site and contributing to the ongoing deforestation of Australia.)
The main design feature is the circular internal courtyard within a square plan. The house was widely publicized and praised at the time, winning the Victorian Architecture Medal in 1954.
Ground’s first major public building was the Shine Dome of the Australian Academy of Science, Canberra (1959).
This building has a special place in my heart for it was probably the first building I remember thinking was pretty cool. (I might have been about eight.) By the time I came to know Kenzo Tange’s Tokyo Olympic stadiums I’d become more aware of this thing called architecture.
I’d never seen Shine Dome mentioned anywhere outside of Australia. It’s from 1959, it’s completion coinciding with the conception of the Sydney Opera House. It’s a dinosaur – no, more of a fossil. It’s the missing link between Googie and Post-Modernism – some 20 years earlier than claimed – and, ultimately, the iconic building. It satisfies all the criteria.
- It looks different from anything seen around it.
- It looks different from anything known to exist at the time, including Eero Saarinen’s 1955 Kresge Auditorium and Pier Luigi Nervi’s 1957 Palazzetto dello Sporto.
- It looks like something not a building – a bit like it landed from the future.
When these three conditions are satisfied, the result is a building that merely looks alien, not iconic. Yet, it’s this alien-ness about it that satisfies the fourth condition for an iconic building – 4. It has an association of place – or at least it does if you know that Canberra is Australia’s diplomatic capital. This is no enigmatic signifier. It is the Martian Embassy.
Anyway. There’s a lot of circles happening. Grounds did a lot with circles. And rectangles. Here’s his 1959–1968 National Gallery of Victoria. Grounds was appointed the sole architect for this building, usually considered his masterwork. This seems to have been the reason for aforementioned acrimonious split.
The National Gallery is the high-lighted box of his own house with some Martian Embassy entrances. It has three square courtyards. The spire in the model was to be later redesigned by Grounds to become The Arts Centre.
There’s nothing wrong with reusing motifs. Many architects do. It’s no secret, but neither is it common knowledge that Fallingwater is Wright’s first Usonian House, the 1940 Pew House, pimped.
In the same vein, SANAA have repeatedly used thin roofs on many slender columns, the only wonder coming from the absence of visible cross-bracing. It works for them.
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History is a curious thing. Just as the Futurists always get to fill the gap in history because the 1920s was a slow decade for architectural history, things tend to get simplified when there’s too much happening. Boyd and Seidler were all that was needed. We’ll never know if the acrimonious split with Grounds hurt Boyd’s career but it certainly didn’t hurt his reputation. The Robin Boyd Award for Residential Architecture is an Australian architectural prize presented by the Australian Institute of Architects since 1981.
One thing many of the misfit architects featured in this blog have in common with Sir Roy Grounds is a lack of interest in media, marketing and self-promotion.
However, Grounds is a Career Case Study #4 and not Architecture Misfit #19 because he seems to have fitted in rather well. He didn’t go against any grain. He did a few things well and had a few ideas typical of the time and place. He was well-connected enough to obtain decent commissions. Media-wise, all he really had to do was impress his peers and not offend the public and he seems to have done this.
Boyd and Seidler reached a little bit further into the mass-media landscape of general circulation newspapers and magazines – which was all the media landscape there was. There, they were easily pigeonhole-able as Aussie-Regionalist vs. Euro-Modernist. Roy Grounds was neither. Compared to these two, his branding was vague.
Nor did Grounds appear to offer an agenda for Australian architecture at a time when it seemed to be wanting one. Together, this is what Boyd and Seidler did as a pair of media constructs, each defined in terms of what they weren’t as much as for what they were. It only needed two to work this co-dependent synergy until Glenn Murcutt came along and became both of them.
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