SIR OTTO FRANKEL'S MEMOIR ON THE DOME
This memoir is intended as a record of events leading to the appointment of Mr R.B. Grounds (now Sir Roy Grounds), at the time head of the architectural firm Grounds, Romberg and Boyd of Melbourne, as the Academy's architect. This account is, to the best of my knowledge, correct, and events and dates have been checked in Council Minutes. It is meant for the record rather than for publication in my lifetime. However, should it be found desirable to publish this story of the Academy's design, these notes will have to be edited and perhaps published under such a title as 'Oscar Bayne's contribution to the design of the Academy building.'
|9.10.54||Minister for the Interior likely to make suitable site available. Professor J.C. Eccles to consult an architect, expenditure of £100 authorised if necessary.|
|5.2.55||Plans and report received from Messrs Musson, Mackay and Potter for application for a building site. Melbourne School of Architecture offering planning of Academy building as its Centenary project. Eccles and Marston to arrange preparation of specifications and sketch plans, expenditure up to £100 authorised.|
|26.3.55||Plans and report from Messrs Musson, Mackay and Potter tabled. Marston agrees to obtain further plans in co-operation with Eccles.|
My first contact with the Academy project occurred at the Second Annual General Meeting, 26/28 April 1956. At this meeting H.R. Marston exhibited a sketch plan prepared by an Adelaide architect for him. I found it appalling. It was in classicist style, decorated with columns the kind of building that an Academy might have selected some 50 years ago. Marston, when I asked him whether this conformed with his ideas of the building, denied this, but I felt that there was a considerable danger that this style, once widely seen, would be regarded as the pattern for the building. When the Academy building was discussed during the meeting, I suggested that Council, being preoccupied with organising the Academy's activities, might consider appointing a Design Committee. The Academy would wish to have a building of which we, our successors, and science in general could be proud.
At its next meeting, on 16 June 1956, Council appointed 'a Building Design Committee consisting of the President, Mr Marston, Dr Frankel and Professor Wood to advise Council on the design of a building.' According to the Minutes, a proposal that the University of Sydney School of Architecture 'be given the opportunity of working out a number of solutions' was referred to the Design Committee. I have no recollection that this was ever taken any further. The Design Committee never met as a body until the final stage of selecting the architect.
I was advised in writing of the formation of the Design Committee. I had already written to Mr Oscar A. Bayne, ARIBA, FRAIA, a Melbourne architect whom I had come greatly to respect. Oscar Bayne had been, for some years, a member of the Building Research Station of the Department of Works in Sydney, but for the last five or six years had been consultant to a group of architectural firms engaged in contracts for the Victorian Housing Commission. He was widely respected in the profession as a very knowledgeable architect and as a person with a judicial mind. He had scarcely ever designed a building himself with the exception of my own house, which happened because our wives had been friends years ago in New Zealand, and Oscar and I clicked on first acquaintance.
My letter to Oscar Bayne unfortunately cannot be traced. It must have been written early in May. I remember asking him whether we should approach a distinguished architect abroad, such as Frank Lloyd Wright. The original of his reply must likewise have been destroyed with other records I had at CSIRO, but the copy I sent to the President, Professor M.L.E. Oliphant, on 25 May is in the Academy's archives, as is my letter.
Mark Oliphant appeared to have been as impressed with the letter as I was myself. He told or wrote me that this letter contained the most pertinent advice so far received by the Academy, and that he was very appreciative of it. I have no knowledge of why and how it was subsequently decided to call a 'limited competition' of selected architects; the Design Committee was not called together, nor was I personally consulted. On 10 August 1956 Council approved £1,000 for preliminary studies, no doubt for the fees required for the limited competition. Professor Oliphant informed me of the limited competition, the list of firms which had been invited and the terms adopted. These, he told me, had been decided on the recommendation of one or more of the firms concerned. A Council Minute of 12/13 October 1956 is relevant. £250, plus expenses, were approved for each participating firm and £670 was approved for this purpose, additional to the £1,000. The majority of the firms were on Oscar Bayne's list.
An architectural interlude
Sometime between September and November 1956 I was asked by Professor Oliphant to stand in for him at a visit from the President of the Australian Institute of Architects, Mr W. Race Godfrey, who had been invited to present personally a protest against the Academy's use of a limited competition in a form which was contrary to the rules of the Institute. Such protest had been made previously, but our President thought it advisable to hear the Institute's President personally. Until Oliphant returned to his office I had some conversation with Mr Godfrey in which I heard of the form which a limited competition should take, according to the Institute's rules. While this procedure would have been wholly unacceptable to us, or for that matter, I should imagine, to anyone, since all authority is transferred from the client to an assessor appointed by the Institute, it occurred to me that the help of an architect in an advisory capacity might prove most valuable once we were to make our selection from the designs we were to receive. I could well imagine ourselves floundering, with some of us stressing aesthetics at the expense of utility and vice-versa; and with an inevitable clash between widely diverging aesthetic attitudes.
So when Oliphant advised me some time in November 1956 that the design sketches had been received and that the Design Committee was to meet to make a selection, I suggested that we might appoint an architectural advisor to assist us in this selection. Oliphant, to my surprise, suggested that we might appoint Mr Godfrey, the President of the Institute, whose feelings might be softened by this action. I knew nothing of him as an architect and was fearful that his advice might be conservative, and I suggested that I might ask Oscar Bayne for advice on whom we should invite. Oliphant insisted that we invite Bayne himself, who, he said, had been so very helpful. Hence I approached Bayne who accepted and, apologetically, proposed a fee of £50 to conform with the Institute's rules.
Selection of an architect
Marston being unwell at the time, Oliphant and I agreed that the meeting be held in Adelaide. According to the record of this meeting, M.L.E. Oliphant, T.M. Cherry, O.H. Frankel, J.G. Wood, J.S. Anderson, S. Sunderland, H.R. Marston, O. Bayne and the Assistant Secretary were present and, at the request of the President, I took the chair.
The meeting took place in Marston's rather magnificent library and the drawings had been pinned on boards. Soon it became apparent that a number, and probably the majority of members, favoured the Grounds design. However, there was a detailed discussion of every design, with enlightened comments by our advisor. He restricted himself to pointing out architectural merits and individual features of the projects.
Some members I especially recall Anderson and Sunderland had made preliminary studies of other work by some of the architectural firms in Melbourne. Their comments were especially helpful. The discussion as a whole was objective, open-minded and remarkably well informed. I have rarely been at a meeting at which the discussion was more relevant and more enlightened.
There were, of course, some doubts; and Council members thought that the design was unlikely to be acceptable to Council as a whole. It was decided to invite Oscar Bayne to be present at the next Council meeting.
I do not know what happened at the meeting itself since I was not present; but the design was adopted and the architect appointed at the Council meeting of 7/8 December 1956. Oscar Bayne was present but I never heard of his impressions of this meeting.
The Academy building was an adventure for me and, I feel sure, at least equally so for Oliphant. We were agreed, as was everyone else connected with the project, that this must be an outstanding building in every sense. Perhaps Oliphant placed more emphasis on the quality of materials and excellence of services, and my strongest emphasis was on aesthetics. Our feeling throughout was that we must obtain a building 'as good as we are able to design and build in Australia in the 1950s.'
The Building Committee was an active and highly argumentative body. Its main task was performed under Oliphant's chairmanship as President. All members contributed ideas and criticisms, but no doubt Oliphant himself deserves the greatest credit. Roy Grounds exhibited a mixture of imaginative initiative, resilience, and, at times, tolerance. I feel sure that we all, including the architect, were the richer for this experience.
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