photo-icon Ryan Cantwell

Modernism on show in the city

Cultural Heart People of Adelaide

With a new exhibition on in the city celebrating architecture and design from the inspiring modernist era in Adelaide, Meagan Cox, Project Consultant - Heritage at the City of Adelaide, spoke to the co-curators to find out what’s in store.

Adelaide’s stone buildings are the envy of the eastern states, a tourist drawcard and certainly the pride of the City of Adelaide. However, there are other equally valuable buildings scattered throughout the streets of the CBD and North Adelaide, that are worthy of admiration.

Following the Victorian and Federation periods in Adelaide came styles of architecture set to innovate the city’s skyline. These post-war pops of modernism are now striking reminders of a turning point in South Australia’s history.

The modernist movement showcased new design principles, construction techniques and materials which brought with it much excitement, yet these buildings also invited confusion and contempt when first erected - some even labelled ‘concrete monstrosities’ by Adelaide’s traditionalists.

While these buildings are in some ways underappreciated and many unprotected – placing them at risk, a significant number are still standing today, perhaps suggesting they are more forward thinking and timeless than their original critics labelled them.

Michael Pilkington (Director of Phillips/Pilkington Architects) and Dr Julie Collins (Architecture Museum, School of Art, Architecture and Design, University of South Australia), are the co-curators of the free entry exhibition: Modernism & Modernist South Australian Architecture, 1934 – 1977, showing at the Office for Design and Architecture SA from 4 to 22 November 2019.

I spoke with them about the exhibition and the place modernist buildings still have in our city’s skyline.

Tell us a little about what will be exhibited.

Julie: “This exhibition shows the range of buildings architects were doing in the modern period of the 1930s to the 1970s using photos, architectural drawings, ephemera and historical items from the archives of the Architecture Museum at the University of South Australia. It also showcases work by contemporary photographers who have gone out and taken some stunning shots of extant buildings.”

Michael: “The idea is to present buildings that people may know, but confirm the architect, their Heritage or demolition status and their age, but also show some that may be wholly new to the architectural and general public visitor.”

How many buildings are represented and how were they selected?

Julie: “Eighty buildings – chosen from a very long, long-list that we compiled from buildings which have been recognised by architects and historians and the Australian Institute of Architects, as well as some which have emerged from recent research at the University of South Australia.”

Michael: “Some of the lists we referred to contained over 200, but they were the whole century. We wanted to concentrate on the middle years, as we thought they could attract the most interest.”

What key changes did modern architecture embody?

Julie: “The ideas behind modern architecture were: efficiency in the planning of space, use of new materials, minimal ornamentation, and the provision of open, light, airy and healthy spaces.”

Walkley House image by Ryan Cantwell
photo-icon Ryan Cantwell

walkley house

What were the architects reacting to?

Michael: “The architects of Europe were re-building society after the cataclysmic First World War. The new design precepts started flowing through from the late 1920s, leading to the pivotal German Bauhaus Design School from the early 1930s. Visiting Australian architects like Colin Hassell and Jack Cheesman directly imported these new ideas.”

What new technologies or materials stood these buildings apart from the existing 19th century stock?

Julie: “In three words: steel, glass and concrete! John Gelder has written a piece about materials for the exhibition.”

Michael: “Certainly these materials are crucial to all new design, but from the late 1950s, one detects the emergence of ‘local context and materials’ informing the work, as architects try to better connect with location, climate and lifestyle.”

Mc Connell house north adelaide
photo-icon Ryan Cantwell


Why are these buildings still relevant?

Adelaide Grenfell Centre building


Julie: “The buildings are part of our shared history, so many people have memories of them and when they visited them.

"If I say the words ‘the black stump’, every Adelaidean knows which building I mean and will be able to tell a story about their experience of it (for those from out of town – it’s the black glass Grenfell Centre at 25 Grenfell Street in the city).”

Michael: “Mainly they still do their job admirably, and many are undertaking their original role. For others, extensions and changes have extended their life and function.

"For many different reasons, there have been demolitions of some very fine work, still featured in this exhibition, as we want the visitor to reflect on and understand the ‘lifecycle’ of a building.”

Who’s your favourite modernist architect?

Julie: “That’s a tricky one. I really like the work of Hassell and McConnell, and also Russell and Yelland, who did some amazing early modern work.”

Michael: “I’ll nominate one of the lesser known - Brian Claridge.”

Bragg Laboratories
photo-icon Ryan Cantwell

bragg laboratories at the University of Adelaide | ARCHITECt: Frank Colin Hassell

What’s your favourite Adelaide modernist building?

Julie: “The Bank of NSW on the corner of North Terrace and King William Street, but some of the small modern buildings are also great: Faraway House in Franklin Street, and the Bragg Laboratories. There are also amazing gems down at Port Adelaide.”

Michael: “We were keen to feature housing as much as other types, so I’m plugging for Claridge’s Sedunary House in Crafers from 1961.”

The old Bank of NSW building
photo-icon Ryan Cantwell

The Bank of NSW building on the corner of North Terrace & King William Street

What changes were made in the South Australian context through the modernist era?

Julie: “Overseas travel, publications, lectures, and migration all brought modern architecture to South Australia. This emerging generation was experimenting with pure forms reduced to their intrinsic basics, new and emerging technologies, and minimal ornamentation without reference to historical architectural precedents. As we moved into the 1960s, a South Australian flavour of modernism really developed, with redbrick, timber and off-form concrete helping to create a regional style best seen in the work of Dickson and Platten, John Chappel, and Cheesman, Doley, Neighbour and Raffen.”

Michael: “An early and comprehensive Modernist understanding yielded to the incorporation of a local ‘vernacular’, responding to regional character, directly exploring small and efficient planning, passive solar design, locally made materials and hand-built craftsmanship.”

Adelaide High School image
photo-icon Ryan Cantwell

adelaide high school

What influence did the Depression have on this style?

Julie: “This was a tough time for the building industry which was followed by World War Two and building restrictions, so many architects had to turn elsewhere for work. But the recovery and post-war boom which came afterwards allowed them to experiment with emerging materials, methods and styles, in commercial, industrial and housing design.”

Michael: “Less economically prosperous times are always hard and the Second World War was a real experience for many (mainly men) of this group. Surviving would have strongly informed their post-war experiences.”

Did societal changes (the rise of cinemas and apartment living) influence modernist architecture?

Julie: “New types called for new forms, with cinemas in the modern and Art Deco style perhaps best illustrating this. The modern architects believed that better design arose from functional planning, and that this approach was best exemplified through modern style. The burgeoning print media industry also allowed ideas, especially photographic illustrations in books and magazines to spread ideas around the world with much more speed.”

Were women involved in the movement?

Julie: “Marjorie Simpson was one. She was the Director of the Small Homes Service of South Australia, which produced plans for small houses designed primarily by SA architects during the post-war period. For a small fee, home builders could purchase plans and specifications of their chosen design to build.”

Michael: “They blossom in the 1960s and 1970s, but it was certainly a very male-dominated profession, in common with most others back then. Thank goodness those days are now gone!”

The City of Adelaide is a proud supporter of the Modernism & Modernist South Australian Architecture, 1934 – 1977 exhibition.

Office for Design and Architecture South Australia

1/28 Leigh Street, Adelaide

Modernism & Modernist South Australian Architecture, 1934 – 1977 Exhibition - Opening Hours

4 - 22 November 2019; Monday to Friday, 9 am to 5 pm

If you enjoyed this article, you may also like to read other articles by Meagan Cox on this era: The beauty in buildings or The beauty in buildings - part two.

Article by

Meagan Cox