Modernist Architecture and Decor in Adelaide in the 1950s
While Constructivism and Futurism were lively aspects of modernism in Sydney in the 1940s, in the early years of the following decade there were unique developments in these areas in Adelaide. Firstly, there was a non-objective form of abstraction based on geometric principles, distinct from the type of abstracted Expressionism associated previously with the mostly Polish emigre artist brothers Wladyslaw and Ludwik Dutkiewicz in Adelaide in the early years of the decade. Secondly, in the art of Alexander Sadlo, there emerged a distinct form of Futurism that fused his interest in expressing movement in figure painting with folk art origins.
Evidence that identifies the Neo-Constructivist activity exists in a newspaper photograph associated with the awarding of the third Cornell Prize in 1953. In it, the two Dutkiewicz brothers are presenting their award-winning paintings. Ludwik, the winner, is showing Boats after Storm, while Wladyslaw, the runner-up, is showing Composition. The first is Expressionist and Tachist in style, while the second demonstrates an intersection of expressive drawing and geometrical, Constructivist-inspired abstraction. It was one of the first examples of a type of work that W. Dutkiewicz was experimenting with at the time and showed a shift in emphasis from abstracted Expressionist canvases based in landscape and the figure.
Lt Colonel and Mrs Moulds’ Norwood Galleries was an antique store now on the site of Chloe’s Restaurant on the Parade West in Kent Town. At the rear of the premises was located the stable housing the studio of the painter Francis Roy Thompson. The shop hosted meetings of the Moulds’ group, when papers and demonstrations on contemporary intellectual ideas, ranging from mathematics, physics, philosophy, contemporary architecture, visual and performing arts were given and discussion followed. The lectures enabled artists to engage with, and to understand, issues which otherwise may not have entered their intellectual orbits.
On one occasion, Edward Stirling Booth presented two scientific demonstrations that explained the mathematical principle of the fourth dimension (time). On another, Pierre Bonne-Maison of the Waite Institute lectured on Concrete Music to a group that included Professor John Bishop, later credited with founding the Adelaide Festival, and conductor Henry Krips. The artists most keenly interested in the explanation were the Dutkiewicz brothers and Sadlo. This material was discussed before Stanislaw Ostoja-Kotkowski had arrived in Adelaide, in 1954. Similar sessions were also held from 1950 at the CAS, which then had no centre and moved from St Peter’s College, to the WEA rooms in Twin Street and private homes, including those of the Moulds and the artist couple Mervyn Smith and Ruth Tuck.
The fact that ideas about the connection of art, science and philosophy were in circulation was underlined when the new National Gallery of SA director Robert Campbell presented a lecture for the CAS in 1951. In it, he traced the history of western art as a lineage from two-dimensional representations (Giotto), via Leonardo through Cezanne, to contemporary experiments in the fourth dimension.
More evidence that a stream of non-objective art existed appeared in newspaper articles on mural designs leading up to the Sixth Architectural Convention Exhibition in 1956. Nancy Claridge wrote an extensive article in the Sunday Advertiser on modernist mural projects in private homes in Adelaide in 1955. It was accompanied by photographs of the mural designed by W Dutkiewicz in her home, recently built to plans devised by her husband, and L Dutkiewicz’s design for the home of Mrs McLean Wright. She reported that Jacqueline Hick had painted a mural depicting ballerinas in the bathroom of Mrs Basil Harford’s house in Norwood; Thompson had worked on a wall at Mr G Rainsford’s home; and mentioned murals by Pamela Cleland. Claridge also referred to W Dutkiewicz’s work as reflecting his “cosmic theory of light and line,” which was discussed in an article prepared by her husband for the Polish emigre journal Kultura, in Paris.
In the proposed article the author outlined how W Dutkiewicz drew on his reading of Kandinsky’s texts and applied this knowledge to the mathematics of the fourth dimension to arrive at his artistic method. He wrote:
“… [the artist] starts with a series of arbitrarily chosen points in space, inside or outside the limits of the canvas. These are in no particular relationship to each other or to the artist. From any point to any other, pairs of lines are drawn completely freely, spontaneously, the hand guiding, not the mind. And so a kind of network is evolved upon the canvas, and from the intersecting lines, certain shapes and lines are chosen and consciously developed or refined, according to the artist’s aesthetic. Further, between each pair of lines is imagined and applied a colour, extending between the lines from point to point. Where the pairs of lines cross other pairs, so, too, do the colours. So new colours are born within the intersections in the same way as the shapes between the intersections are discovered. By this method colour and shape are thus two organic [my italics] elements which cannot be regarded as separate, but only as an indivisible unity – they are born as one, together.”
Following Claridge’s explanation, the possibility of better describing this activity as “Organic Contructivism” can be advanced, and it is the term used to delineate this work henceforth. The essential difference to the Sydney school of Constructivism lay with the intuitive manner of starting the work from a series of free lines. The development of shapes retains a similar method, although initially the arrangements of lines were suspended over independent background shapes, as in Calligraphy (c.1952, now showing in the Art Gallery of SA; see below, left rear wall). Dutkiewicz was certainly aware of the implications discussed in Kandinsky’s Point and Line to Plane on the relationship between the point and the line: that is, a line is the movement of a point through time. When a greater geometrical order was finally imposed on the work, he still tended to play with the time factor by bending, zigzagging and compressing lines, and thereby creating more complex shapes than those employed in the work of the Sydney Constructivists.
While Dutkiewicz acknowledged Kandinsky as instrumental in his gravitating to abstract painting, he had studied the classics and was interested in philosophy, and had read on Kant in Germany. He continued to study Kandinsky’s writing in Adelaide, particularly Concerning the Spiritual in Art, after his direct experience of the Blaue Reiter work and pre-war Parisian modernism. There was also a significant Constructivist movement in his native Poland before the war, with which Dutkiewicz would have been to some extent familiar.
David Pestorius believes Constructivist painting was connected with humanism, with the stated aim of “systematization of the means of expression to produce results that are universally comprehensible.” He said one of its principal objectives was socially directed, metaphorically adapted in a formal sense by making “an otherwise autonomous painting extend beyond the frame to ‘occupy’, by projection, the surrounding space and thereby assert the meaningful integration of art and life.”
The principles of objectivity, humanism and bringing art into life were shared by the Adelaide Constructivists, but their ideas on method, instead of remaining fixed to formal geometrical structure, traceable back through Cezanne’s theories to Platonic classicism, were at variance. Instead, they tended to pursue an interest in automatist line and organic, Euclidian (spatial) geometrical and metageometrical form. The Adelaide Constructivists were not interested in straight lines, rarely using the shortest distance between two points. Rather they enjoyed the complexity of extending the time-span in space.
A further difference was the Adelaide Constructivists’ intuitive shape-making. This method emerged from Kandinsky’s theories and from the artists’ reading of theoretical work on the fourth dimension, but connected with the surrealistic notion of automatism. The Adelaide Constructivists also applied these ideas to build their abstractions from a literal object, or to distill a structural essence from it. Thus it was possible, as in W Dutkiewicz’s Television (c.1953) and L Dutkiewicz’s mural and related painting, Composition, to create geometrical work that connected with recognisable objects from life (in the latter’s case a butterfly chair) rather than being restricted to formal, Platonic geometry.
The emergence of non-objectivity and “Organic Constructivism” can be situated in the period 1951-54 in Adelaide and it was associated with a lively interest, on behalf of the artistic community, with ideas across a range of disciplines. Although in the previous decade art had been connected with politics and the unconscious, and through the mysticism of Mary Packer Harris had impinged on spiritual territory, never before had it concerned itself with such conceptual, philosophical and mathematical ideas. Although geometric abstraction was established in Sydney and curvilinear and symbolic abstraction had survived in Melbourne in the work of Leonard Crawford and Leonard French, the activity in Adelaide had unique qualities that require closer inspection.
Contemporary Architects’ Group
A group of young, ambitious and progressive local architects met under the monikers of the Architectural Research Group (ARG) (est. 1952) and the Contemporary Architects’ Group (CAG). The CAG included Brian Claridge, John Morphett, Keith Neighbour, Dick Roberts, John Chappel, Laurie Brownell, Alan Godfrey and Newell Platten. The members were interested in using new materials and design innovations. Some set up inter-disciplinary relationships with other fields of art, most notably visual and performing arts; and involved themselves in administration. Claridge was particularly prominent, but Neighbour also promoted the idea of corporate and public art and Platten was President of CASSA in 1961.
In 1954 the CAG published Modern Houses: Adelaide and Suburbs, in which it listed and located a number of the most progressive house designs that then existed in the city and its suburbs. It was a select list, and among them were several houses attributed to Philip Claridge and his various partners; and one solely attributed to Brian, which was his own recently finished home in Stonyfell.
B & N Claridge House, Stonyfell, 1952
In his first major newspaper article, Claridge wrote of the benefits of using the free-plan. His comments reveal his aversion for contrived detail and ornamentation: he enjoyed stripping back to economical solutions, and his preferred, ecological aesthetic gravitated towards what is now referred to as “Organic” architecture (a form whose modernist, Orientalist origins began with Frank Lloyd Wright and was influenced by some of the early-mid 20th century Scandinavian and Californian designer-architects).
In the early 1950s Claridge was radical and ahead of his time in Adelaide, and he was able to put his ideas into practice in his Stonyfell home, his first major statement as a contemporary architect. Here Claridge insisted on not clearing the block before building, as preliminary photographs of the site and early photographs of the house indicate, for a large Eucalyptus tree and much of its understorey were accommodated.
In the structure he explored his taste for interfacing outside and internal elements by using decking and large window walls, with an open-plan design; and provided texture by using natural materials, such as the string “harp” near the entrance, unpainted timbers and bare stone. It included a feature mural by local artist Wladyslaw Dutkiewicz. Murals on walls were very rare in Adelaide then; but a mural in abstract was completely new.
Claridge was attracted to flat or slightly sloping roofs: they provided a leaner look and were far more economical, as they required less wood and cover. This is a consistent feature of his entire oeuvre, even in large commercial designs.
The most striking feature of the plan of the Stonyfell house is its construction in two intersecting rectilinear sections, the living area essentially of random stone and the rest areas of timber. The siting of the building, however, with its spectacular, panoramic view of the plains and lights of Adelaide, caused him to slightly compromise the best possible solution and orientation for solar control: in order to open up the western side , south of the feature random stone chimney that was placed at the heart of the house, he incorporated a large window wall with sliding door opening onto a substantial deck. This area was cross-ventilated by another large, opening window area further north, which allowed sun to penetrate the living space in winter.
Another feature was the continuation of sandstone in garden walls in areas at the eastern, front of the house, where a number of ferns grew in this cooler, darker area of the garden around the entrance. On the western, steeply sloping area, mostly native shrubs flourished.
Claridge undertook two sets of renovations at Stonyfell; firstly, in 1967, for a new bedroom for his second daughter, by extending the northern aspect (as accommodated in the original plan), sensitively matched to the original random stonework and timber; and secondly, around 1972-73, by adding a new master bedroom and study to the west of that extension to a parapet block wall to allow room for his two new children by his second marriage.
Sedunary House, Crafers, 1957
The Sedunary House, Crafers, was constructed on a considerable slope in bushland in 1957 (Figure 18). Engineer Philip Fargher noted that this house provided an opportunity “to define spaces by using varying floor levels without interposing any vertical separation.” He added that it had “a flavour of stage design, yet keeping a sense of privacy between spaces, affording a great sense of freedom, and luxury without ostentation.”
Since these hills’ and beach-side residences were exposed to cooler conditions in winter, the fireplaces were central, catering for an era predating central heating or air-conditioning. This recurring feature of the fireplace as the core of domestic design, in this case made of copper, the combinations and juxtapositions of natural materials and glass walls and the use of open-plan under flat roofs, suggest an emerging regional style and a distinct period within local modernist residential architecture.
Sedunary House was a classic example of modern house design responding to a warm, Mediterranean climate with cool winters, and positively exploiting the natural surroundings. Like Frank Lloyd-Wright’s Falling Waters, it jutted out into space above a slope. An interior view towards the outside shows the potentially stimulating effect on the psychology of the inhabitants, a dissolution of interior and exterior space .
It was included in Houses around Adelaide (1964), and had previously been featured in Neil Clerehan’s book, Best Australian Houses (1961).
The Sixth Australian Architectural Convention Exhibition, 1956
The CAG decided to stage an exhibition of contemporary architecture to accompany the RAIA’s Sixth Australian Architectural Convention Exhibition (6AACE), scheduled for Adelaide in 1956. The idea for the exhibition was conceived by Claridge and Robert Dickson. The latter recounted how around that time they had become “disillusioned” with much of the modern architecture that was getting exposure in international journals from America. But after seeing an issue of Domus (February 1955), which featured the 10th Triennale of Architecture in Milan, Italy, they thought it would be possible to do something exceptional that would put the Adelaide convention on the map.
They surveyed the site and spread the word and, as Colin Schumacher recalled, they “sparked enthusiasm for the project among their peers, and an exhibition committee was formed which won the support of the SAIA [sic], the Architectural Students’ Association, the building industry and the South Australian Government.” Through his contact with Wladyslaw’s Dutkiewicz’s younger brother Ludwik, who worked at the Botanic Garden as a signwriter and scientific illustrator, the idea of using the location in Botanic Park, which was suggested by the City Council, was put to the Director, Noel Lothian, and the Board.
Newell Platten and Ian Campbell soon joined the Design subcommittee. Platten recalls the group discussing the plan and making a drawing in the dirt at an initial meeting, but Dickson has recorded that it was Claridge who drew the original drawing. So Claridge designed the overall layout. Keith Neighbour, who had returned from overseas’ work experience in America in 1954 and was then ensconced as a partner in Lawson Cheesman Doley & Partners, was elected Chairman.
The project was ambitious: it featured the design and erection of a number of temporary buildings and artworks in Botanic Park, featuring modern design principles and new materials. It has been argued by a number of people involved that the 6AACE changed architecture in Adelaide and beyond. It attracted the attention of international and national architectural journals and press.
The 6AACE was perhaps the finest example of Claridge’s activity in the broader community. It reached out to the public, and provided something for Adelaide that was on large scale and exciting, linking it to the Olympic Games’ activities in Melbourne, scheduled for November in that year, and activity beyond national boundaries.
In the published Exhibition Report the names of architects associated with the twelve scheduled projects are given. On the original typed list, however, Claridge is associated with the Timber Pavilion and Plastics Pavilion; but that is corrected in pencil and described as a Geodesic Dome.
The Timber House was assembled with laminated timber arches, floating walls and prominent timber panelling. In his design Claridge provided a formal variation by exposing the arches, spanning about ten metres, and extending them away from the perpendicular at the base, thus creating parallel rhomboid planes that cut through the rectangular design to spectacular effect.
The design process for the 6AACE was complex: it involved producing plans for the twelve major structures, and working in collaboration with architectural draughtsmen from a number of different firms (and government departments). The plans for the Timber House were completed by the firm of Dean W Berry and Gilbert & Barker.
The then Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Adelaide, Frank W Bull, described the engineering problems associated with the arches and how problems were addressed.
Claridge is credited in a newspaper article (22 May 1956) as the designer of the Concrete Pavilion. Bull was once again consulted in its engineering, but the overall and modular appearance, and the amount of collaborative artworks connected to the building, most notably the nearby, free-standing abstract sculpture by Voitre Marek , suggest Claridge was involved with the design. Bull recalls the problem of a collapsed segment of the gridded roof was attended to by Claridge, which suggests his personal interest and authority.
There were some wonderful examples of contemporary structures and of interfacing of architecture and art in 6AACE. Most of the murals and sculptures were executed by W. Dutkiewicz and Stanislaw Ostoja-Kotkowski, but there were also sculptures by Marek and a mural by Francis Roy Thompson.
Dutkiewicz was subsequently commissioned to deliver a year’s course to the CAG, an engagement he undertook in early 1957. There is a sketchbook of drawings by Claridge executed during these sessions. On one, in Claridge’s handwriting, there are three dates, starting 8/2/57, and a list of names of architects, as if he were recording a list of those present. There are notes on the history of art as well as pencil drawings.
Ostoja-Kotkowski, a later arrival than the Dutkiewicz brothers, documented the 6AACE on colour film. He forged ongoing creative relationships with Dickson and Neighbour, and worked as a photographer of architectural projects from time to time. He was extremely prominent in embellishing corporate offices and factories around Adelaide and beyond in the years ahead, and made a major impact on stage design in Adelaide.
The internationalisation of architecture in Adelaide was in train, stimulated by the processes initiated in producing 6AACE and the cross-fertilizations of disciplines. It was in large part due to Claridge’s abhorrence of provincial outlooks and a culture, especially in Adelaide, that worshipped past and passé forms of art and architecture.
Philip Fargher wrote about Claridge’s novel approach to kindergarten design: “Sensitive use of structural elements has been shown in the two kindergarten buildings for Rose Park and Newlands Park, where rigid frames have been used to dominate the external features of the ‘closed’ section of the buildings. These serve to confine the formal paths surrounding the ‘close’, while directing one’s attention to what lies beyond, serving to integrate the buildings and their environments.” The durability of these structures, and their continuity of use, with only a few adjustments, testifies to the integrity of their original conception.
Claridge reworked the design of the Timber House in a Kindergarten project at Rose Park, completed in 1958, when he was still connected to the office of PR Claridge. The project was produced for a total cost of £6,900. It featured a wall mural by W Dutkiewicz.
The most interesting feature of this structure is the choice of steel for the main frame, evident by the overhang with angled arches. The durable design was light-filled and used well the angle of the sun for additional warmth in winter and shade in summer. The choice of butterfly roof, however, ultimately proved to be problematic because of overhanging trees, and required adjustment.
The first manifestation of Ostoja-Kotkowski’s idea of making art about light was discernible in his decor design for Paprika Restaurant in the late 1950s, in which Ostoja-Kotkowski incorporated a screen “showing patterns of coloured lights driven inside by wheels and coloured lights.” His contemplation of the nature of light and colour led him into unchartered territory, as it was the purest way Ostoja-Kotkowski could devise for the human mind to engage with a visual art work. This transformation occurred in 1964, when he devised a series of abstract images that were photographs of electronic paintings made on a television screen. He later went on to use lasers and computers in his personal image making as well as public performances incorporating his photography, lasers and performance.
The above Notes were prepared for a talk at Ayers House, Adelaide, in March 2012
The PDF below was used in the presentation:
Here’s a link to a recent article on Ostoja-Kotkowski’s work at the Art Gallery of SA:
Adam Dutkiewicz, Brian Claridge: Architect of Light and Space (Architetcure Museum, University of SA, 2008)
Adam Dutkiewicz, “Raising Ghosts: Post-World war Two emigre and migrant artists and the evolution of abstract painting in Australia, c.1950-1968”, PhD thesis, SA School of Art, Univsity of SA (2002)