Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

History revisited - early architects form Australia's cities

Have you ever wondered why Australia’s capital cities look so different outside the uniformity provided by modern buildings? Yes, part is due to climate, part to variations in available building material. However, beyond this lies a more unseen influence, the impact of early architects. 

Each of the new Australian settlements from NSW in 1788 (Francis Greenway or John Verge) to South Australia in 1836 (Sir George Strickland) to Canberra in 1913 (Walter Burley Griffin) had an early dominant architect or architects who placed their long term mark on the built environment.

The very early architects such as Francis Greenway had limited formal training yet could still design attractive buildings. They brought with them their knowledge of English building and architecture at the time they left for the colonies, but they also brought or had access to architectural pattern books, essentially architectural manuals, as did some of their customers. 

Governor Lachlan Macquarie and his second wife Elizabeth are examples of the second. Both were very interested in architecture, with Elizabeth bringing several pattern books with her to NSW in 1809, books that provided the basic designs for early construction.

Macquarie himself was very much the builder whose grand ideas could outrun both practicality and indeed the financial patience of the Government in Westminster. In addition to the Sydney works he commissioned, he became dissatisfied with the ramshackle layout of Hobart and had new town plans drawn, creating the layout that exists today. By the time he resigned as Governor in 1821, he had left an indelible imprint on the still young colony.

But what of architects with Northern or New England connections? Arguably, the one who had the greatest impact on the built environment as we know it today was James Barnet (1827-1904)

Barnet was the NSW Colonial Architect from 1862 until 1890. During the first expansive period of his career, he used growing Government revenues to build significant public buildings. Northern examples include the Newcastle customs house, post offices in places such as Tamworth, Kempsey and Grafton and the Inverell court house.

His post offices came in a variety of shapes and sizes, but always had an open loggia which provided a meeting place and shelter for the post boxes and a large clock. His court houses usually assumed a monumental and classical form designed to enforce the majesty of the law.

So far as Armidale is concerned, the city is something of an architectural gem because of the varying styles concentrated in such a compact area. However, it is the work of Canadian born architect John Horbury Hunt (1928-1904) with buildings such as Booloominbah or St Peter’s Cathedral that give the city its most prominent place in the architectural history books.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 14 January 2015. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015.

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