1950s - Designing ANU

By Derek Wrigley OAM

ANU was most fortunate in having been allocated a beautiful site by Walter Griffin with an intimate town and gown relationship as well as close Federal and local governmental access. Its first few decades after 1946 were a unique opportunity for an optimum development of a new and significant campus in Canberra.

In 1949 when Fred Ward, the Melbourne furniture and interior designer was asked to design furniture and equipment for University House, the campus was little more than a sheep paddock, but the potential fruitfulness of design as a practical and aesthetic profession was not fully recognised at that time.

ANU was growing rapidly during the 1950s and after the successful completion of University House in 1954 Ward was asked by the Vice-Chancellor Sir Leslie Melville to stay on in Canberra to form an ANU Design Unit. In January 1957, Ward invited me to join him at ANU as Assistant University Designer.

To my knowledge no other university in Australia (or even the world) has ever had a specific Design Unit. Mr Ross Hohnen, initially Registrar and later Secretary to ANU, should be credited with the initiation of a University Designer.

Because of Ward’s specific skills in furniture design the Unit was firstly established to design and procure distinctive furnishings for the ANU building program.

My architectural education in Manchester was very much influenced by Bauhaus philosophy and my design interests extended beyond architecture to include furniture, graphics, urban planning, landscape design, street furniture and solar utilisation. The invitation to join Fred Ward was consequently hard to resist and in practice we made a productive and deeply philosophic team.

When seen in retrospect ANU was forging significant milestones in design history.

Our first projects were the Haydon-Allen Building, SGS School of Physics and Bruce Hall with Geology, Psychology and Chemistry waiting in the wings. The late 50s and the 60s were a hectic period as the School of General Studies developed. Special furniture was necessary to ensure functional appropriateness and comfort for different academic disciplines, with good appearance and economy at all times. It also helped by stimulating a furniture industry in the Canberra region and eventually the Wood Workshop in the ANU School of Art.

It quickly became obvious that the design of lecture theatres required some research to meet the increasing numbers of students.  We had to consider longer viewing distances, the old ‘chalk and talk’ system was inadequate to meet such challenges and overhead projectors became commercially available requiring larger screens.

Equally important was the creation of Bruce Hall environment as a home from home for students on campus. This building played a key role in the fulfilment of one of Griffin’s planning elements, the University Avenue visual axis between the Supreme Court and Black Mountain.

After 1961, when Ward left the University, I was invited to take on a new position as ANU University Architect/Designer, which gave the ANU Design Unit more scope to engage in the integrated design of the ANU campus.

Our fundamental belief was that the scope for good design extended to all endeavours on campus and that its fulfilment had a very significant role to play in supporting ANU teaching and research.

It must have had some effect because in time we were asked to help many other universities, government departments and the late National Capital Development Commission.

This integrated design philosophy is indeed summed up in the motto on the ANU Arms “First to learn the nature of things”, fitting well with our vision of the role of design at ANU – “designing for the real needs of teaching and research”.