Allan Powell Modern Melbourne Video
Filmed interview with Allan Powell
Presenter Emma Telfer
Directed and Produced by Bart Borghesi and Emma TelferContributors
Reproduction of this content for public purposes must be approved by Open House MelbourneCopyright
Open House Melbourne
Modern Melbourne is a series of interviews that document the extraordinary lives and careers of some of the most important architects and designers. In this interview, we speak with Allan Powell.
In the early 1970s, Allan graduated in architecture from the University of Melbourne, followed by a masters degree in architecture from RMIT in 1992. He worked for architect Guilford Bell, before establishing his own practice in partnership with his wife Gail in the late 1970s. Along with his significant work in restaurants and hotels, he has designed many celebrated projects in Melbourne and on the Mornington Peninsula including Di Stasio House and Tarra Warra Museum of Art.
Emma Telfer: Modern Melbourne, is a series of interviews that document the extraordinary lives, and careers, of some of our most important architects and designers, and looks at their lasting impact on Melbourne.
Emma Telfer: Today, we speak with Allan Powell. In the early 1970s, Allan graduated in architecture from the University of Melbourne, followed by a Master's degree in architecture from RMIT in 1992. He worked for architect, Guilford Bell, before establishing his own practice, in partnership with his wife Gail, in the late 1970s. Along with his significant work in restaurants and hotels, he has designed many celebrated projects in Melbourne and on the Mornington Peninsula, including Di Stasio House and TarraWarra Museum of Art.
Emma Telfer: Allan, can you tell me about who or what put you on the path to studying architecture at the University of Melbourne?
Allan Powell:Well, I've mentioned before that my uncle was commercial fashion artist, and I picked up the instability of what he did, and always summer over and was new work only come in for autumn, and I was very aware of that. And I was also very aware of what it was that artists, painters, people, musicians, how unstable it was and so not having, having my father die when I was three, I was very big on stability, and I think I've said that in the 60s when the police would be rounding people up for being unsocial, antisocial, I always felt for the police, because they looked like the sort of cozy, kind, fathers that I would have liked.
Allan Powell: And met somebody who was about 15 ... we were both very sophisticated. We thought we were, and we were too, to a degree. And, is older sister was studying architecture and so here was an entree to a world of sophisticated, older, other that is 20s, something, students, and it suited me fine. I loved the whole feel of it. I love the design gurus of the time and I remember where Gallery Mars is now in Toorak Road, there were Italian and English furniture advertised, in the window, and I loved it. And I was very receptive when one day I was in Mars, and we bumped into the most glamorous girl I'd ever seen. I'd never seen anything like her. And she became my wife.
Allan Powell: And ... she traveled a lot, she traveled with her mother. Her father had died too. We traveled, so they traveled. And ... she was going to do architecture, and so the evidence was mounting for architecture. It was a way of life that I liked and I liked the glamorous seeming people. The ... most of the university students then were pretty dull, or bad temperedly radical and irritating in a way, because I was used to a more sophisticated analysis, from my uncle and from his friends. And so, I was drawn to it for those reasons, and I felt I had something, I always felt I had something to give architecture. I always felt that they didn't touch on the things, the teachers and the people who knew what was to be.
Allan Powell: I felt they didn't touch on the truth of things, that architecture was very different, that the lessons that they were giving and teaching, and seemed very puerile and childish to me, and I thought that about all the students who ... including the older lecturers and things. They seemed suburban and childish. And, I knew a different type of, a different sort of student, and I suffered a lot through it really being my uncle's progeny. They were very confident, knew all the latest ideas and latest books, and didn't think for themselves the way an artist does, the way an artist starts with nothing, a white sheet, and has to do something with it. And I was very conscious of that fact.
Allan Powell: And I found the people who had the most to say and all the latest ideas and things, seemed childish to me. And so I was very drawn to architecture. And, I was also a bit naughty in that I was a bit ... a bit of a smart Alec. My wife and ... her mother had been recently widowed, and she looked like Gail's older sister, she was very good looking, and glamorous. And they used to go to Italy and when Australians didn't go to Italy. And it was very exciting, the way of life they led and, I liked being part of it.
Emma Telfer: Did you travel much?
Allan Powell: No, I was never a traveler. I've never been a traveler.
Emma Telfer: No?
Allan Powell: No, I wrote down why today when I was thinking about seeing you. I believe with Oscar Wilde, that travel narrows the mind, and it never interested me, whereas Gail would go with her mother, keep her mother company, and they'd go to Rome. And one day, a young ship owner, Italian ship owner, asked Gail's mother out for dinner and Gail was so irritated and annoyed by such it., by her mother's response to it, that she accepted it when the father asked her out. So, she went out with the father, the ship owning father, and Gail's mother went out with the ship owning son. And I thought that was about as groovy as you could get.
Emma Telfer: Going back to ... you mentioned them, your contemporarys, or your classmates at university, and we're probably talking somewhere in the late 1960s, graduating in 1970. How did they influence your ... or I guess you just described that you're a bit of an outcast to them. Were they, they were really following the experiential nature of architecture at the time, and you had quite a different approach.
Allan Powell: It seemed to me so cliched and obviously, they sort of picked out and made an issue out of principles that were obvious, and the difference between a fine artist and an applied artist, that there was a difference. There is a difference. And I didn't like what I saw what the others were doing. I found it very unadventurous, very un ... very disinclined to think for themselves and work out what they liked, and what they thought they were, they were very pleased with themselves and, simple minded, I thought.
Emma Telfer: So what led you to Guilford Bell from university?
Allan Powell: What led me to Guilford Bell was that my wife to-be rang me ... I hadn't exactly gone to an exam or gone to hear lectures, or anything. I hadn't done anything to do with it. And I was ... and Gail rang me one day and said that architect you like, is advertising for someone. So, it had just got so bad, my lack of, Hugo shouldn't hear this, but my lack of involvement was so wrong, that my mother came into the bedroom, I was lying in at 3 o'clock in the afternoon sleeping as usual, and she came in and picked up a telephone book and threw it at me, and told me to find a job. She nearly killed me, I maintain.
Emma Telfer: So this is when you're supposed to be studying?
Allan Powell: Yes.
Emma Telfer: But you're sleeping instead?
Allan Powell: Yes. Yes.
Emma Telfer: Okay.
Allan Powell: And, I went and worked for Guilford and I said, I see you advertised for someone, I'd like to work for you. Oh, but I can't afford to have people working for me. Well then you don't have to pay me. And-
Emma Telfer: But he advertised? Which is interesting.
Allan Powell: Yes. Well he didn't worry about details. And Guilford was unusual, as an Australian in those days too, because he traveled a lot, and he'd studied in London in the 30s. And, he was sophisticated, and I had been brought up to love that world. And, so it led to things like people being very rude about Guilford's clientele, and saying, well of course he's got such rich clientele. He can do what he likes with them, he can ... he doesn't have to worry about budgets. It is true that after the war, when I was studying at the university, that there was a preciosity, and we all know that there was a shortage of materials and things, and going into Guilford's office, you were putting your lot in with the privileged lot, with ... there was no budget.
Allan Powell: And, I had my uncle and Guilford's attitudes, plus, because I was objective about them, and saw what they were, and saw what they weren't. Saw where they were missing out on long and where there was a generational issue.
Emma Telfer: You've mentioned in past interviews, that what admired most about Guilford's work, was that it can be distilled down to a corner, a wall, a shadow. What was it about that, that attracted you compared to say the more experimental work?
Allan Powell: Well it was very, it was sensitive, and it wasn't fashionable, what he was doing and ... what's the architecture magazine? The Italian one? Domus came out, and it was simply an interior courtyard with a shadow cutting across it. And I was just bowled over by it, to think that such an elegant, simple thing could exist. And it was the first time really, I mean he's valuable, he was valued in the profession because of ... I wasn't the only one who thought, but in fact I was the only one who, for instance in Australia that I was was doing, brutalist buildings, and I was very ... I was totally bowled over by Barragán, and ... the things that he did, were wholly rewarding to me, and then when I got out on my own I could do the bits that he hadn't done that I could fill in the bits. Because he had a thing for symmetry and plans, and elevations, and they could be very wearisome.
Emma Telfer: The repetition?
Allan Powell: The repetition.
Emma Telfer: Of his projects.
Allan Powell: But it was still to my mind, it was still a long way further towards what I found interesting and stimulating, than what other people were doing. And in fact the list of people you read out as you talk about them makes my blood run cold. People that I couldn't understand at all. And ... so, Guilford influenced me that way, and it started me off on a rather pathway that is probably not very admirable, but I used to ... I found Guilford's work, I found it rewarding. I don't want to be negative about it, I want to try and be ... because I started a line in negativity about it and ... he did a house for instance in South Yarra, double-fronted, double-story house, and it was, inhuman. It had ... the owner said, I'd like somewhere for the children to play, and he made a three meter square courtyard on the boundary, like a jail exercise yard.
Allan Powell: And he just couldn't see what was wrong, because as long as cocktails were rolling and the smartest people visiting Australia were not ringing on the doorbell, he couldn't see that there was a problem. He thought everything was wonderful. And what's wrong with him wanting him a place for the children to play. The children would be old enough soon, they can join the cocktail party. And so it was a bit ... there were some things that were dubious, in a way. But he had a language, he produced a feeling in buildings that I could like, whereas mostly I couldn't stand what was being produced. And that'll go down well.
Emma Telfer: So, from there you went on to launch your own practice-
Allan Powell: Yes.
Emma Telfer: ... And you did that in partnership with your wife, Gail?
Allan Powell: Yes.
Emma Telfer: Can you tell me about that stage in your life? This is around 1950 ... sorry 1976?
Allan Powell: Yes.
Emma Telfer: I believe?
Allan Powell: Well, she was quicker than I was. She was more alive and bright. I remember we were set a project to design a car park, and she failed. And she said, I haven't failed, what I've done is much more complex than the others have done, and the tutor was irritated and said, don't be ridiculous, it doesn't even work, you can't get anywhere, the first floor, and she explained how it was ... it was brilliant, it was really clever what she'd come up with, and she was like that.
Emma Telfer: You two would've been quite the duo, at the university, and then to have practice.
Allan Powell: Yeah we were, we were. Because one summer holiday, we went up to Eldon, her family had a house boat and she'd excused herself for a minute, and she'd gone out, and stood outside the zone which was lighted by the encampment and the ... and she made an international phone call, in the middle of the Australian bush. I was just breathtaking, you know, the phone filled the boot. And here she was, in the middle of nowhere, making a phone call. And I thought it was the most ... I'd just never seen anything like it.
Emma Telfer: What type of projects were you working on, when you first launched your own practice?
Allan Powell: Any bricklayers houses that I could stick on the back of. I was very modest, I wasn't that confident, and I would look at projects done by other architects, that were admired as being current and what ... I've forgotten how you'd described it, and I found them to be ugly. In fact at one stage I started an ugliness file. Because I thought that was the word, I didn't know what the other word was.
Emma Telfer: So, in your early practice, were you offered the opportunity to work on projects were you could change the way that people were living and improve upon these ugly projects?
Allan Powell: I worked out that Guilford could charge what he liked because only he did a Guilford Bell. If you wanted a Guilford Bell house, you had to go to him. And when Wood Marsh started up, I explained that to them, and they took of straight away. They did houses that were ... If you wanted something that attracted attention that their houses did, you had to pay their fee. And that was something that I got onto, because I'd seen that with Guilford. And, the clients I had were ordinary enough people, but they were Australians who had good paintings and antiques, and you didn't get that. I was a real talker, and I could talk people into building houses like that, houses that were not just modernist houses, but had good paintings and gardens and ... I was very critical too of what was done. I mean there, was some rather terrible Robin Boyd houses, the plans were diabolical. I don't know why I'm saying this and causing trouble for myself, but ...
Emma Telfer: Thinking back on your rich career, which projects are you most proud of?
Allan Powell: Di Stasio House, TarraWarra and Crigan House in St. Kilda. I Realized that I liked ... what I began to recognize more and more, and identify what I liked in architecture and what interested me, and then by that stage I was starting to be more emphatic, and annunciate what I cared about, and what mattered to me. And, Ronnie Di Stasio was interesting, I see how it happens all round the world that the interior designer introduces the entrepreneur to art, and the entrepreneur becomes a collector. Di Stasio was very important because I introduced him to art, and he started collecting. He wasn't having any of the namby-pamby, polite things that I had introduced him to, he jumped straight into complex, difficult, Australian painting.
Allan Powell: And for that reason, I've ... I tried to get to the real, what I felt was the real power of architecture, and it doesn't have to be architecture. I think I've said to you, I'm happy to not call it architecture. I don't know what it's called. I don't care. I think that what most architects turn out is undesirable, and ... I am looking for a more metaphysial, difficult, complex, sort of reality. And, I ... and it leads me to liking things such as half built buildings, and ruined buildings, and try and get that power that we ... that I said to you, where we feel like children, where we climb a tree, and to go one branch further is to enter a magical realm and to ... and I always felt that I had that to hang on to, when I wasn't doing so well in architecture, I didn't care, because I thought that I was doing what mattered to me.
Allan Powell: And so it interests me to deal with people these days who are anxious to produce what they think is ... admirable, engaging architecture, and they don't know where the ideas come from. Well I do know, because I hung onto them right through, and I'm happy to not be called an architect. I ... it's fairly recent anyway, the whole notion of architecture as a professional. And, you know the renaissance architects would design party hats and decorations for the dinner, just as easily, as what we now consider to be essential to an architect to produce. So I guess that brings it to a line. Doesn't it?
Emma Telfer: Can you tell me about the ideas expressed at TarraWarra?
Allan Powell: A thing like TarraWarra, is like a ship at sea. It turns in the wind and the sun is coming from the north, and it turns, and so you get a whole different understanding of the universe, of where you are. And I designed it so that one end, that there was water to be floating, floating in the reflection, and the other end was a fire, that was man-made and an attempt to find solace, and so ... you had the different states of mind that were possible and feasible.
Allan Powell: You have to find some basis, from which you can regard the city. You're sitting, having a milkshake and the city's there, and if the city was there, the milkshake would be different. It would be a different thing. And, so ... I was very keen that the building should, the complex should, have to do with such issues, that the idea of meaninglessness, versus meaning, versus the truck pulled up with ... throwing a shadow. And the closet thing to it is a ship , a ship turning. That it's not a building, it's a state of mind. And it's a state of mind that enables you to be in the middle of nowhere, and to maintain sanity.
Emma Telfer: Let your minder wander.
Allan Powell: Let your mind wander. Yep.
Emma Telfer: Thank you Allan. It's been absolutely wonderful speaking to you today.
Allan Powell: Well, thank you for listening.
Emma Telfer: Pleasure.
Allan Powell: Especially during the long silences.