We dive into the Indesign archives and reflect on the life and work of Indesign Luminary Bruce Rickard (1929-2010).
May 1st, 2018
As a young architect and student in the 1950s, Bruce Rickard was deeply impressed by his first-hand experience of Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterworks. Returning to Sydney, Rickard adapted Wright’s organic principles to develop his own more open-hearted approach to housing by capitalising on the experiential pleasures that climate, landscape and spatial aesthetics can contribute to domestic life. In the process he was among the first wave of architects to offer a new way of looking at housing, initiating ideas that have become fundamental to Australian residential architecture today.
Designs incorporating open-planning and indoor/outdoor living are now expectations of contemporary lifestyle. Rickard’s early insistence on a north-facing aspect has been recognised for its effective temperature control, environmental efficiency and natural light quality. His organic approach focused on the flow of space, the use of natural materials and the integration of the house with its site. His appreciation that the built form and the landscape it inhabits are inseparable parts of the total environment also drove his interest in town planning and multiple housing projects.
From the early sixties, and continuing right up to until the very end, Rickard pursued and refined his commitment to these principles and with the spread of his ideas through a part-time teaching career that spanned almost as many years, his influence on local architecture has been widespread, if not profound.
Peppered with serendipitous encounters, Bruce Rickard’s career began as consistently as it continued. On the strength of aptitude tests taken at school, Rickard was advised to be either a policeman or an architect. Fortunately for architecture, Rickard’s great-uncle was H. Ruskin Rowe, a prominent architect in Sydney in the 1930s, who offered him a job as a junior with the promise of eventual partnership in the firm.
It was 1947, and Rickard concurrently began his architecture studies at Sydney Technical College. By 1949 his interest in modernism had been aroused and while poring over images of architect Syd Ancher’s work in a city bookshop one day, architect Stuart Mortlock (later of Ancher Mortlock and Murray) tapped him on the shoulder and informed him that Syd Ancher needed a junior. “He was one of the few modern architects practising at the time,” said Rickard.
“I worked for Syd Ancher and I was right in the middle of it there. I learnt about Mies [van der Rohe] and Corbusier, but not so much about [Frank Lloyd] Wright because he was very much against Wright, as was nearly everyone at that point.”
Rickard paints the picture of Frank Lloyd Wright as a controversial figure, who was regarded as morally deficient because disreputable tales of his serial wives were repeatedly in the press. “The prevailing architecture at the time was the International Movement, which was what Syd Ancher was doing, and Harry Seidler… white boxes and so on,” said Rickard, whereas Wright’s organic philosophy was often denigrated.
In around 1937, Rickard recalled, the influential American architect and ardent advocate of Modernism, Philip Johnson, scornfully described Wright as “the greatest architect of the nineteenth century.”
Rickard’s interest in Wright was fuelled by a co-worker in Syd Ancher’s office, Adrian Snodgrass, who later became a renowned authority on Buddhism and Buddhist art, but who, as Rickard recalled, was at the time “very influential in the organic movement out here. I learnt a lot from him.”
After completing his Diploma of Architecture, Rickard left for Europe in 1954. “In those days it was fashionable for architects to do the grand tour,” he said. He travelled around Europe looking at architecture and worked in London.
“We had a great social conscience in those days I suppose,” said Rickard. “We were very fired up and thought that architecture could change the world. We’d read all about Corbusier and his great cities projects, and Frank Lloyd Wright and his Broadacre City, (a radical suburban development concept) – so all the heroes of the time were interested in much more than just a single building in the landscape.”
Committed to the idea of designing the total environment, and as landscape architecture was barely known in Australia at the time, Rickard studied Landscape Design at University College, London.
The course was geared more towards garden design than landscape design, and looking for something more depth he applied for and won, a scholarship to study a Master of Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. Working part-time in conjunction with these studies, and visiting celebrated architectural works he’d previously seen only in photographs, Rickard’s experience in America was pivotal.
“When I first saw Wright’s houses I was absolutely amazed. You step into this very warm house, a lovely scale, everything all natural timbers and brickwork and stone – I once described it as like being inside a rum barrel, very mature, absolutely fantastic – and it completely sold me on his work. Everything was integrated, the furniture was mostly built-in, the light was great, and although he didn’t go in much for outdoor spaces, inside and outside were pretty amazing.”
On his way back to Australia Rickard took a Greyhound bus across America and stopped to see Wright’s house in the Arizona Desert, Taliesin West, which he said was his favourite building. He described the living room used by “the 10 or 20 apprentices he had. There were little spaces with low ceilings, which were quite intimate, and then the major spaces had higher ceilings. He was playing with scale and it was very intimate and warm, very powerful. It also had the indoor/outdoor relationship. It was really a complex of buildings with a very processional way [of moving through them], a very informal one, where water-towers and bell-towers and different spaces were happening along with it. That was such a great experience.”
Returning to Sydney in 1957, Rickard began teaching Landscape Architecture at Sydney University and established Bruce Rickard and Associates, Architects, Landscape Architects and Urban Architects. His direction was clear and his timing was opportune. The search for an appropriate regional style of architecture had arisen in response to the cubiform International Style, and Rickard joined the forefront of a ‘romantic’ school, influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, which was emerging in Sydney architectural circles.
Other proponents included Peter Muller, Neville Gruzman and Ian McKay. This ‘romantic’ approach also overlapped with New Brutalist thinking to create the loosely aligned Sydney School.
“When I first started, most houses were red brick bungalows with red tile roofs. Most of them faced the street, didn’t have any outdoor areas, or only token ones under the clothes-line. Even the good architects weren’t much interested in outdoor living,” said Rickard.
In this context, he says, the approach he took to capitalising on the delights afforded by sun, light, sky, breezes and the surrounding landscape was seen as quite unusual.
Rickard’s first house, built for his sister-in-law, incorporated many elements which later became part of his work, but his second, the Cohen House, Middle Cove, built in 1958, “was all-out organic,” he says. That was the first fully-fledged house that I was proud of.”
His own houses in Warrawee (1959) and Wahroonga (1961) were exemplary. With their openness, warmth and natural appeal, and the promise they embodied of a new Australian style, Rickard’s houses attracted a lot of magazine coverage, and each successive article would result in a new commission or two.
Between 1972 and 1992 four of his houses won RAIA Merit Awards, and in 2009, his Curry House 2, in Bayview, originally recognised in 1983, won the RAIA’s 25 Year Award. Included in the Institute’s list of important 20th-century buildings, the jury described Curry House 2 as “a seminal building by a talented and unassuming architect who has had an enormous influence on most Sydney architects.”
Over the last 50 years, Rickard has designed over 70 houses, adapting and developing the ideas and practices he drew from Wright to create his own confident vision of the Sydney house. His unwavering adherence to these principles has resulted in the consistent refinement of his work, a simmering progression of the same theme. “I don’t change my architecture every Monday morning, as Mies van der Rohe said, but I build on what I’ve done before,” he said.
Regarded as Australia’s foremost interpreter of Frank Lloyd Wright’s domestic style, Wright’s influence is evident in Rickard’s desire to integrate his houses closely with the landscape, visually, materially and structurally – so they don’t “stick out like a sore thumb,” said Rickard. But also to take full advantage of the natural environment for its capacity to connect us to place, to enliven the senses and to elevate the spirit.
The typically horizontal expression provides a strong linear grounding, and in contrast to the raw Brutalist use of natural materials – timber, brick and stone – both Wright and Rickard exploit their earthy warmth. In Rickard’s houses, the timber is often stained to a sheen, the stonework or brickwork is carefully expressive, the detailing is fine and the craftsmanship explicit. Like Wright, Rickard also likes to create a substantial hearth as the centrepiece of the house and the chimney as its vertical core.
Spatial flow and adjustments of scale are also Wrightian elements. “I’m interested in spatial quality and the flow of space rather than boxing it up into rooms,” said Rickard. ”I like to borrow space from other rooms, other floors,” so along with an overall sense of openness, he also created “spaces you can hide in, a lot of little corners,” where he would often include built-in seating. He cites the Curry House 2, as an example.
“The living space, on various levels right up to and including the laundry, is really one room,” creating both visual layering and spaces of varying scale, sense of enclosure and opportunity for use.
Not all of Rickard’s motivations stemmed from Wright, however – various fundamental rational and emotional directives are entirely his own. In contrast to Wright’s notion of the house as a cave or retreat, Rickard’s approach produces the opposite result: open, light-filled, extroverted places that embrace external space as if it were interior. Through his insistence on a north-facing aspect, Rickard controls the distribution of sun and light, moderating internal temperatures, eliminating direct sun access in summer and bringing it inside in winter.
Among other characteristics that recur through many of Rickard’s houses are his partiality for clerestory windows, for expansive glass doors to outdoor areas that completely slide away, and his adaption of the railing that surrounds terraces or verandahs into a bench seat, which he said, “separates you from the bush, gives you a sense of enclosure and helps bring the outdoor, man-made areas inside.”
Through open-planning – “I made the living room as big as possible, the living, dining and kitchen in one area,” said Rickard, and by including the outdoor space within the usable area of the house, (“details which were quite unusual at the time,”) he showed how architecture could overwhelmingly contribute to a way of living he personally enjoyed.
In his Wahroonga house, he said, “all the rooms opened out onto a terrace – it was just as easy to dine out outside as in the kitchen. There were trees all around so you got speckled light, you could live out there, summer and winter. We entertained there and we had parties, the students came to them too. I guess a lot of people were influenced by those parties.”
While some students were lucky enough to witness a Rickard house in action, many more experienced his thinking. His first bout of teaching was in 1957, and for many years until 2003, Rickard tutored in architecture at either Sydney University or UNSW. He also often employed undergraduate students in his office, and through both these avenues, he extended his influence on young architects.
From 1968 to 1984, Rickard was active in the NSW Chapter of the RAIA working on the Environment Committee, the Housing Committee and later on Historic Buildings. Despite all these other activities and achievements, it is housing, and his very considerable influence on the housing we have today, that made Rickard’s reputation.
“I expected big things, you know. I wanted to be a good architect – not a social one, or one that made a lot of money – the important thing was to be a good architect. If you’re going to put your whole life into it, you don’t want to slop through it do you?” stated Rickard.
“You put your heart and soul into it.” A modest man with a twinkle in his eye, Rickard didn’t speak at length about his accomplishments. He just said: “I express myself in architecture and hope you get it.”
Bruce Rickard was featured as an Indesign Luminary in issue #42 of the magazine, which was not long before he passed away in 2010.
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