A founder of the ‘Sydney school’, architect and artist Ken Woolley was a national design treasure. Two years after his passing, we look back at his Indesign Luminary profile.
December 19th, 2017
Ken Woolley’s sustained performance in architecture is an outstanding achievement. Since 1964, when he joined Ancher Mortlock Murray & Woolley, and even before that as a gifted young architect with NSW Public Works, Woolley has been responsible for a diverse range of significant and highly acclaimed Sydney buildings – Town Hall House (1974), The Arc Glasshouses at the Royal Botanic Gardens (1987), the ABC Radio and Orchestra Centre in Ultimo (1990), the Park Hyatt Hotel at Campbell’s Cove overlooking the Opera House (1990), the Control Tower at Sydney Airport (1994), and the Convention Centre at Darling Harbour (1999). Woolley also designed the Australian Pavilion at the 1988 Brisbane Expo, the Australian Embassy in Bangkok (1978), and the Commonwealth Law Courts (1984) and the Blood Bank and Laboratories (1992) in Parramatta.
In more recent times he was responsible for the Royal Agricultural Showground’s massive exhibition halls at Homebush Bay which were integral to the staging of the 2000 Olympic Games, along with the State Hockey Centre, and the substantial Victorian State Library rejuvenation project (2007) and refurbishment of the Queen Victoria Building (2009).
These mainly civic buildings are genuine landmarks which are integral to our urban landscape and highlights within it. They are also completely individual statements, remarkably different from each other. Unlike firms such as Melbourne’s Denton Corker Marshall, with its distinctive signature style, Woolley’s buildings have no such recognisable commonality.
They are designed to respond individually to their sites and requirements in an approach that neither links them together in the public consciousness, nor draws attention to their creator. Each is a singular construct designed to fulfil its purpose in the most appropriate way, and executed with great confidence and discernment.
Along with these major civic projects, Woolley has throughout his career also pursued an enduring interest in mid-priced and medium density housing projects – beginning with his contribution in the 1960s and 1970s to the now legendary project developers, Pettit & Sevitt. He has also produced many other notable works of great variety – from the Chapel at St Margaret’s Hospital, Darlinghurst, now Object Gallery (1958) to the Mormon Chapel in Leura (1983); from the Australian Hellenic War Memorial in Canberra (1987), to the Cadets’ Mess at the Australian Defence Academy (1985), also in Canberra. There are numerous others: university buildings, medical and research laboratories, sophisticated naval facilities on Garden Island, libraries, radio stations and heritage refurbishments to his credit. The sheer range of these projects, which often include highly specialised technological requirements, is a testament to the agility and rigour of his working process.
His own houses have also been exemplary. His first house in Mosman helped galvanise thinking on the emerging ‘Sydney School’ style. His second house, in Paddington, was an arresting white brick modernist structure, and the third, a timber holiday house hugging a cliff in Palm Beach, has often been admired as the quintessential Sydney beach house. All three won RAIA Wilkinson Awards. The Palm Beach house also took a Robin Boyd Award.
Given Woolley’s versatility as an architect – the flexibility he has shown in moving between projects with wildly divergent demands – what is revealed is his consistency. He works ‘from the ground up’ to create the most appropriate building for its purpose. A strong sensitivity to place is evident – as much in relation to urban or heritage context as to landscape. He consistently uses materials in an honest and often innovative way, ever mindful of tone and texture; and he manipulates form to invest it with a distinctive visual character and presence, thus creating buildings that stand as memorable images.
“If I put myself into a broad context as an architect, it would be as a late modernist,” says Woolley. “But almost every building I do is an exploration of something I’m interested in. I don’t go on repeating that in the next building. I’m exploring something else next time. The thing that is most appealing to me (in architecture) is the chance of a new opportunity, another work, a new exploration – that’s a tremendous thrill.”
A defining feature of Woolley’s approach is his vision of architecture as art. “There is not much point practising architecture unless it is approached as an art,” he says. “To do otherwise is to be simply a technical arranger of buildings.” He sees building as the medium of the architect, much as paint is to the painter, or sound to the musician. “But the sounds that a good musician works with are the same sounds that a bad musician works with,” he says. “It’s a question of how you use them, and what rhythms you create; how you put them together – what is the idea. The thing that’s unique about architecture is that a building is an artefact which has a purpose. The best definition I know of is Robert Venturi’s, which is that (architecture) is ‘the art of shelter’. But it’s is a very difficult art because the architect has to find a balance between their duty to produce an effective, purposeful building from the funds the client is willing to spend, with creativity and the art of architecture.
“In all good art, I think, there’s an idea – in which the next step is to elaborate it into the artefact, whether it’s a painting or a building,” says Woolley. “You can see a single big idea in a work, which then has complementary ideas that are subordinate to it that each relates back to the structural concept and reinforces it. Good architecture must contain the intention for creative achievement in its concept, which is maintained in its execution.”
As it happened, it was art that led Woolley to architecture. A natural talent for drawing was encouraged at home and even as a young boy he attended classes at the National Art School. At Sydney High, he was interested in mathematics and physics. Through a family friend who happened to know the NSW Government Architect of the day, Woolley began a traineeship with Public Works, where the Assistant Government Architect of the day, Harry Rembert, became a significant mentor, and to study architecture at The University of Sydney.
“When I got to university my drawing ability was useful, and I found I had a natural capacity to absorb the issues of building construction and technology. I can see things in three dimensions very clearly,” says Woolley. “It turned out, happily, that this was my metier. It was terrific – the only thing I’d been good at before was golf!”
After graduating from University in 1955, and at the age of just 22, Woolley designed his first autonomous building for the Public Works Department in the same year, the Chapel and Sisters’ Home at St Margaret’s Hospital in Darlinghurst. On the acknowledged success of this, he was given Fisher Library at The University of Sydney to design (with T.E. O’Mahony), which was followed by the NSW Government State Office Block, in Sydney, (controversially demolished in 1998), both of which were prestigious projects and again, highly acclaimed.
When his own house in Mosman won the RAIA Wilkinson Award in 1962 it was clear his career was set to fly. He joined Ancher Mortlock Murray and Woolley in 1964, a most respected firm of the day. Ancher left shortly afterwards. “Murray retired in the mid-1970s; Mortlock retired in 1982; and from then on, for the last 20 years, I was the sole operator,” says Woolley.
It was Woolley’s house in Mosman that led to his reputation as a major figure in The Sydney School. Woolley rails against categorisation in general, and against the existence of a real ‘school’ in particular, describing instead a scenario consisting of two opposing factions: the followers of Frank Lloyd Wright, the Romantics; and the proponents of the English New Brutalism with its anti-adornment ethic and raw expression of materials. (In 1956 and 1957, Woolley worked with avant-garde London firm, Chamberlin Powell and Bon, which created London’s Barbican Centre on New Brutalist lines.) “I was a bit of a mixture of those ideas,” he says, “combined with a fascination with the Bungalow style.
“The Mosman house juxtaposed elements of bungalow style, modernist rationalising, and New Brutalism, in terms of the materials being very direct and exposed.” The clarity of the design, “like garden terraces stepping down the hillside” made a powerful impression and seen together with the work of architects such as Tony Moore and Peter Johnson, the idea of a regional Sydney architecture came together.
Sydney School buildings were mostly houses, which were built in harmony with their (often bushland) sites, sensitive to natural light and climate control, and made of straightforward materials – bagged, painted or clinker brick, stained timber and tiles – often with sloping roofs and multi-level layouts. Dubbed the ‘nuts and berries’ style, it proved a popular and influential movement.
In 1963, Pettit & Sevitt commissioned Woolley (together with architect Michael Dysart) to create the first architect-designed house for the firm – the ‘Lowline’ – which struck an immediate chord with the housing market. Pettit & Sevitt subsequently built over 3,500 houses, promoted as ‘15 squares for $15,000’ – practical and elegant houses that complemented their bushland settings. At least 3450 were designed by Woolley. A gauge of their success was the fact that when he joined Ancher Mortlock, Murray and Woolley in 1964 there was a staff of eight, but 18 months later the firm employed 60 people.
Buoyed by this experience, Woolley was keen to design townhouses and in 1967, together with Pettit & Sevitt, he created The Penthouses in Darling Point, for the Sebel family – a tiered design that maximised privacy, sunlight and views by co-opting the roofs of lower townhouses as outdoor areas for those above. “That was a tremendous feeling of breaking new ground,” says Woolley.
“On the world scene it was an important building because it was an expression of some of the principles of modern architecture and housing.” In the hilly terrain of Sydney, the idea was commonly adopted for subsequent housing schemes.
Woolley was always interested in the intellectual aspects of architecture: he was committed to teaching, to affairs of the profession and to fighting for its advancement. A prominent figure in the industry, he has been admired for his balanced views and sought after for advisory panels and adjudicating committees. While his career did not generate the public profile of architects such as Murcutt or Seidler, Woolley received substantial recognition, beginning with First Class Honours at university, the Sulman Medal, the University Medal and a travelling scholarship. To top off the dozens of competitions and raft of awards he won – upwards of 50 – he received the Order of Australia for services to architecture in 1988 and the Gold Medal from the RAIA in 1993.
After 20 years at Ancher Mortlock and Woolley, as Chairman and Design Director, Woolley retired in 2002.
“There were a lot of times I wanted to be a painter,” he says. “I certainly would have loved to have kept up with an instrument (he learned piano as a boy), it’s one of my greatest regrets.” Apart from being an accomplished architectural perspective artist, he has also exhibited and published a book of his travel drawings, Art Works: Drawings by Ken Woolley. These engaging drawings, mainly of the built environment in memorable places, are yet another form of his artistic expression. His real zeal, however, has always been reserved for the art of architecture.
Ken Woolley was featured as a Luminary in issue #39 of Indesign, November 2009.
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