SIR ROY GROUNDS (1905-1981)
By O.H. Frankel
This memoir was originally published in Historical Records of Australian Science, Volume 5, Number 3, Canberra, Australia, 1982.
Roy Grounds is the architect of the Academy's first building (known as Becker House *, or often just the Dome). He gave a spectacular home and a lasting symbol to the infant Academy. Completed in 1959, only five years after the receipt of the Charter, the building was much more than an office and meeting place for a fellowship endeavouring to evolve and define the Academy's role in science and its place in the scientific community. The Academy building helped to generate a corporate consciousness and, thanks to its architectural distinction, it enhanced a growing pride in the Academy. For the public it became a symbol of Australian science. Its representation in the Academy's Coat of Arms ensures for Roy Grounds' design a lasting place of honour in the life of the Academy and in the Academy's communications in Australia and the world.
Sir Roy Grounds was born in Melbourne in 1905 where he spent his school years and received his architectural training as an articled pupil in a large architectural firm. An award by the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects enabled him in 1932 to go abroad, and in the next two years he gained experience of contemporary architectural developments in England and the United States. On his return, in partnership with his friend Geoffrey Mewton, he began his career as a designer of distinctive and innovative dwellings. In Neil Clerehan's words, 'The young firm...is generally credited with bringing the international style to Melbourne'(1). Two houses, each designed by one of the partners, were voted by the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects 'the best house design in Victoria this century'. Because of ill health Roy Grounds went again abroad in 1937, and on his return in 1939 he set up in practice by himself.
In the two years until the war closed the building industry in 1941, Grounds developed his architectural ideas in a series of buildings – mainly homes and blocks of flats – which established his reputation as one of the foremost architects in Victoria. In his designs for city and country homes he set for himself as particular aims to integrate the nature of the site, its possibilities and challenges, the chosen materials, the surroundings, and, foremost, the requirements, ideas and idiosyncrasies of the client, to result in a building in which simplicity and efficiency in construction and operation were combined with evident effort (and with evident success) to perpetuate the kind of good taste which some modern architects neglected. In these houses he developed his architectural idiom which was to be incorporated in his larger buildings twenty years later. He used interior brick walls and floors, hardwood wall covering fixed vertically, muted colours, a minimum of paint. Space was broken up to the least possible extent, allowing the most adaptable use and providing pleasing aspects throughout the building. The planning of form and space became a dominant preoccupation.
Beside the houses, for which he had become famous, Roy Grounds covered new ground in his designs for blocks of flats. Flats were relatively unknown in Melbourne, and Grounds set a pattern for efficient design of small spaces, combined with high aesthetic standards. Even the smallest flats were designed for efficiency and agreeable living in spite of, and perhaps thanks to their small size. They served as a model or standard for the thousands of flats built since then. Larger ones were innovative in the gracious use of space, such as the one in which he and his family lived for many years – a square unit with a round, glassed-in courtyard-garden in the centre, and wide-open living space in between.
Roy Grounds returned from his war service with RAAF construction units in 1945 but did not resume architectural work until 1948. He took part in organising the curriculum for the School of Architecture at Melbourne University and became a senior lecturer in Design. 'As such' – quoting again Neil Clerehan(2) – 'he had an enormous influence on several groups of graduates'. Incidentally, he took a University course himself and graduated in 1953. He had resumed his architectural practice designing mainly houses. He experimented with shapes – he designed a triangular house in Kew, and in 1953 a circular house in Frankston which attracted wide publicity.
In the same year he became the senior partner with two other famous architects – Frederick Romberg and Robin Boyd. The firm was enormously successful, with the three partners carrying out a great diversity of commissions – Roy Grounds, apart from extensions to Ormond College, University of Melbourne, mainly of houses and flats, although his interests and ambitions increasingly extended towards major building projects. An invitation to participate in a limited competition for the proposed building of the Australian Academy of Science provided such an opportunity.
During one of his overseas visits Grounds had visited the new Kresge Auditorium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. This dome-shaped structure interested him greatly and confirmed him in his concern with geometrical shapes in building design. This became fully alive when he saw the proposed site with the prospective front, or entrance, of the building facing a semi-circular boundary line. Presumably this is when the now famous Academy dome – early on affectionately or ironically referred to as the 'igloo' – took shape in his mind. The association with Canberra's round hills may have been an afterthought. Roy Grounds himself wrote the following explanation for an early Academy booklet describing the building:
At the architectural level attention was concentrated on controlling Canberra's blindingly brilliant natural daylight while designing a building suited to the locality and the semi-circular perimeter of the site. The adoption of a circular plan was strongly influenced by the shape of the site. The domed shape was a corollary of the rounded hills and mountains which enclose the valley of Canberra. The wide overhang of the dome on the arches was adopted to lessen the intensity of the sun's direct rays. The moat combined the structural need for a ring beam to contain the thrust of the dome with a reflecting pool to distribute evenly the light from the sky.
The history of the building, from the selection of the site and of the architect early in 1956, to the opening by the Governor-General, Field Marshall Sir William Slim, in May 1959, is related in the Academy's history of its first twenty-five years(3). Hence only some few personal remarks are needed here.
The contract was concluded with the partnership firm, Grounds, Romberg and Boyd, but Roy Grounds was the principal architect. The Academy was represented throughout the design and construction period by a building committee (M.L. Oliphant, president, S. Sunderland and O.H. Frankel). Its relations with the architect were crucial for the success of the project. Accord and sympathy were mutual and almost immediate. Roy was intrigued and at times perhaps a little overawed by the scientific heavyweights who – especially Oliphant – wanted to know reasons for some of the minutiae which derived from experience. Roy solicited and received comments, criticisms and suggestions. The scientists in turn were impressed with his recourse to technical expertise where needed, his imagination and resourcefulness which overcame difficulties as they arose, often devising superior alternatives to proposals which met with criticism. Equally, his strict adherence to the pre-set time schedule impressed us all, with the building completed two years and three months after the appointment of the architect.
The Academy building was Roy Grounds' first large commission. It became one of the most widely known buildings in Australia and one of the best publicized at home and abroad. The architects were honoured by two awards, the Meritorious Architecture Award of the Canberra Area Committee of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, and the Sulman Award for Architectural Merit. No doubt the building enhanced his stature as a foremost architect. From a prominent and much admired architect in his home state of Victoria, he became a national figure and probably the best known architect in Australia.
It was natural that his practice expanded in Canberra. He designed the Canberra phytotron for the CSIRO Division of Plant Industry, the School of Botany for the Australian National University, a block of flats (one of which he occupied for some time as a Canberra pied a terre) and several houses – three of them for Fellows of the Academy of Science. He maintained his friendly contacts with the Academy. According to Neil Clerehan, the Academy 'is reputedly the architect's favourite building'. The highlight of his career came in 1959 when he was invited to design the Victorian Arts Centre and National Gallery. Having been named in the contract as the architect, he remained in charge when Grounds, Romberg and Boyd was dissolved in 1962, as Governing Director of Roy Grounds and Company Pty. Ltd.
The vast project was the principal commitment of the firm. The National Gallery was opened in 1969. The two other components of the centre – the concert hall and the theatre complex – met with various difficulties, but at the time of Sir Roy's death were approaching completion which was expected in 1982 and 1983, respectively. In addition, the firm undertook a variety of other projects, including university buildings for Melbourne, Monash and La Trobe, master plans for the Victorian College of the Arts and the Swan Hill Pioneer Settlement – a project dear to Sir Roy's heart – and various commercial and housing developments. There were a number of projects in New South Wales, including a cinema centre and an insurance office in Sydney.
During this period Roy Grounds received various honours. In 1968 the Royal Australian Institute of Architects awarded him its highest honour, the gold medal. A year later he was elected a life fellow of the Institute. He was knighted in the same year.
In his last fifteen years Sir Roy spent a great deal of time and effort at a magnificent coastal property in southern New South Wales which he had acquired in partnership with Kenneth Myer. With loving care he initiated and supervised recovery of the forests from past abuses and neglect, preparatory to the declaration of a wildlife sanctuary under the charge of the N.S.W. National Parks and Wildlife Service which the owners effected a year or two before Sir Roy's death. As a strong individualist he was intent on doing his own thing in nature conservation, as he had done in architecture.
Roy Grounds died in March, 1981.
The author gratefully acknowledges information and suggestions from Mr J. Deeble, Professor David Saunders and Mr Fritz Suendermann.
Sir Otto H. Frankel, FAA, FRS is a Senior Research Fellow at the CSIRO Division of Plant Industry in Canberra.