Phyllis Murphy Modern Melbourne Video
Filmed interview with Phyllis Murphy
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 Phyllis Murphy.
Phyllis was one of two female graduates of architecture in 1949 at the University of Melbourne. She launched a practice with her husband John Murphy and the firm quickly became known for their interpretation of modernist design. in 1952, the couple joined forces with Kevin Borland, Peter McIntyre and engineer Bill Irwin to design the Melbourne Olympic Swimming Stadium. The Murphy practice was also instrumental in setting up the National Trust in Victoria, and Phyllis is now recognised for her collection of and expertise in Victorian era wallpaper.
Emma Telfer: Modern Melbourne is a series of interviews that document the extraordinary lives and careers of some of our most important architects designers, and looks at their lasting impact on Melbourne.
Emma Telfer: Today, we speak with Phyllis Murphy. Phyllis was one of two female graduates of architecture in 1949, at the University of Melbourne. She launched a practice with her husband, John Murphy, and the firm quickly became known for their interpretation of modernist design.
Emma Telfer: In 1952, the couple joined forces with Kevin Borland, Peter McIntyre, and engineer Bill Irwin, to design the Melbourne Olympics swimming stadium. The Murphy practice was also instrumental in setting up the National Trust in Victoria. Phyllis is now recognized for her collection of, and expertise in, Victorian-era wallpaper.
Emma Telfer: Can you tell me about your early interest in architecture? What put you on the path to going to university to study architecture?
Phyllis Murphy: Well, I really don't know why I was interested, but always interested in buildings, even as a small girl. Always played with building blocks. I was a bit unusual, I think. I know my mother thought so, because I was probably only about 10, perhaps, and I read in the newspaper that the first escalator had been installed in Melbourne, in the Manchester Unity building. I begged her to take me into the city to see it, which she did, and stood there at the bottom while I looked at it and went up and down and was thoroughly fascinated by the whole thing. I just don't know why that happened.
Emma Telfer: Your parents were really encouraging of your move into architecture?
Phyllis Murphy: Oh, yes. Well, my mother, I think, thought I was a bit strange, but she was a very good mother and went along with me. My father was very encouraging, and he just said, "Oh, look. Do what you like. There's the world out there. Give it a go."
Emma Telfer: You mentioned that your career counselor at school said to not study architecture and instead study fine arts.
Phyllis Murphy: Oh, the principal at school, yes, oh yes. Most unsuitable for a girl. Not the right thing to do. What else have you thought of? I said, "Oh, well," I thought anything to finish this conversation, and I said, "Oh, an arts degree," so he said, "Yes, right, Phyllis," and put that in his book. I went out the door and thought, "Well that's what you think, not what I think."
Emma Telfer: So you went and enrolled at what is now RMIT?
Phyllis Murphy:Well, yes. It was called the Melbourne Technical College then. I did. I went and it was a little bit after the beginning of the year, because I'd been uncertain sort of where to go or whether to join the armed services. I went into the office, and the enrolment officer said, "Oh, Phyllis, you know, your parents quite happy about this?" No, Miss Slater, he called me. "Miss Slater, our parents quite happy about this?" I said, "Oh yes, yes. Look." I said, "My father found out what the fee was and has given ..." No. He didn't know what the fee was, so he's given me an open check, signed, and I just have to fill in the amount of the cost. "Oh," he said, "Yes, all right." So yes. It was no difficulty, but just surprised, I think.
Emma Telfer: So you had a few years at RMIT ...
Phyllis Murphy: Yes. Well I did as much as I could, but then, of course, with the war years, the university course had closed, and I couldn't do any more subjects, so I worked in an architect's office for a couple of years, with Yuncken Freeman-
Emma Telfer: Yuncken Freeman.
Phyllis Murphy: ... which I loved being there. It was very good. Actually, it's a splendid idea, in fact, to work in an office like that, halfway through your course. It gives you a great amount of information and practice, and it was nice to enjoyable.
Emma Telfer: Are there any projects from your time at Yuncken Freeman that you remember, that stand out to you?
Phyllis Murphy: Oh, well, of course, I wasn't fully qualified, so I didn't get the most responsible jobs. I did work a bit on ... They were doing hospital work, which was quite good. Then some of the smaller housing jobs and ... It was a variety. It was a great experience.
Emma Telfer: By this stage, you've met John Murphy, your husband, or soon-to-be-husband, and also partner in practice.
Phyllis Murphy: Yes. I met him ... I think was doing ... I must have still been doing couple of night classes, I think, and I did meet John, then. He was just out of the army, and actually, it was just before the war finished. A lot of students were being repatriated at that stage, and helped to start the training again. He had been in New Guinea and the Middle East for three years.
Emma Telfer: So after your time at Yuncken Freeman, you talked to me about the travel that you embarked on ...
Phyllis Murphy: Yes.
Emma Telfer:... I think with your parents. Your father had a posting overseas.
Phyllis Murphy: That's right. Yes. He said, "Oh, I'll shout you a trip over, if you like." I think he wanted me to be there with my mother. Of course, really, when you think, she was really just a Victorian lady, and I don't think she would have managed terribly well on her own. When I told John that I was going over to London, we might be there for quite a while, he said, "Oh, well, I'm going too."
Phyllis Murphy: He managed to get himself a berth, which was very difficult in that time. It was in a boat that was used, I think, as a troop ship. They stopped at India and picked up a lot of the wives from ... India was then getting its independence and the Davis Cup tennis team was on board. They all had to move into the hold and sleep in hammocks. Was very different life. Then he arrived in London before I did and told everybody that I'd chased him over. Yeah, so we had a very good time in England.
Emma Telfer: How long were you in England?
Phyllis Murphy: Oh, I think it was six, seven months. John worked in London. I went around with my mother and took her lots of places sight-seeing. I did apply for a job and I nearly took it, but then I felt I really had another role to play.
Phyllis Murphy: Then John and I went to Sweden for a marvelous holiday, looking at all the modernist buildings there. That was an absolute eye-opener. Was so impressive. Living in war-torn London, which bombed out sites all over the place, and lack of food and lots of cabbage and dreadful things to eat, we went to Sweden and it was all so sort of fresh and clean and unaffected by the war. A lot of the new buildings had such a sort of simple interiors and modest way of living that really impressed us greatly, apart from the fact that we had lots of lovely food, which we'd been missing while we were in London.
Emma Telfer:And then from there, you traveled back to Melbourne. I think you said it was about six weeks of boat travel back to Australia to start your practice.
Phyllis Murphy: Yes. Oh, yes. Was hard to get a berth back. My father had gone to America and some parts of Europe that you couldn't go to, because a lot of it you couldn't travel in then. We managed to get berths on a Swedish cargo boat, or ship, I should say, shouldn't I? It was a fascinating trip, because we came back via America through the Panama Canal, and then we went up the west coast of America, Los Angeles and San Francisco. My father left us, arranged for some money there so that we could stay ashore a bit, because it probably took about two weeks of sailing up that coast. That was a bit of a bonus on the way home.
Emma Telfer: Coming back from Sweden and maybe not so much England, but Sweden really impressed-
Phyllis Murphy: Yes, it touched a spot.
Emma Telfer: Yes. You can see that in your early work in the practice.
Phyllis Murphy: Well I think so, because when we came back to Melbourne, we both enrolled in the university degree course, which had opened again. We had to do two years to finish. Of course, some subjects went right, that we'd already done, but we did that. Then after we graduated, well we married immediately afterwards and started our practice. That was the time that the ex-servicemen were all trying to get houses and borrowing their 2,750 pounds, which enabled you to build a house.
Emma Telfer: I wonder what the equivalent is now?
Phyllis Murphy: A very modest house.
Emma Telfer: Yeah, yeah.
Phyllis Murphy: You weren't allowed to build more than 10 squares. If you put a veranda on, that had to count at half the space, half the area, so was very hard to design a house for a family of that size.
Phyllis Murphy:Design a house for a family of that size and for that amount of money but quite difficult and there couldn't be any overruns, it just had to be done for the amount of money that they had and that was that. I think we did about somewhere around 30 of those little houses in the first five years, up until 1955. Most of them have gone or they've been renovated and added to beyond recognition or just a few are still there but in good order, I'm pleased to say.
Emma Telfer: One in particular is the concrete house.
Phyllis Murphy: Oh yes, well, the concrete house, we did this one quite nervous about it, never done this and was all poured in situ, but it was in very good order when I last saw it, perhaps 10 years ago.
Emma Telfer: From quite modernist houses for returning service men and their family, you then went on to win the Olympics Swimming stadium competition, which is a huge differences in scale.
Phyllis Murphy: Oh, well we had other workers as well as the houses, we did a couple of baby health centers and small office block and smallish work but we had quite a variety of work, as well as the houses, just to keep us sane.
Emma Telfer: Then you formed a partnership with Peter McCintyre, Kevin Borland, and Bill Irwin, engineer to put in your bid for the competition and so how did that partnership come about?
Phyllis Murphy: We were university friends, we didn't know Bill, but we knew Kevin and Peter and we just decided to get together and give it a go and yes ... we had already entered in for a competition for this stadium, it was decided not to build it anyway, and we weren't very happy with our submission and we decided we wanted to be more creative about the building itself and our approach to it, so we worked from our small office in Camberwell, which we started before. Had to do most of it at night and weekends because your clients ... we had quite a few clients and they'd get a bit impatient if you're too slow.
Phyllis Murphy:Then we got Bill Irwin and that was just the best thing we did. Not only that he was so creative and reliable and helpful with the design but it taught John and me a lesson, really that you should always work very well with your engineers that you can get such a lot from them and architects don't always do that. They're always more inclined to tell the engineer what he ought to do, but in this case, we gave Bill a free go to see if he could work out that shape of the building and that structural system, which he did so well. It was quite an exciting time, and of course, we were running short of time to finish the drawings and the last one was the perspective, a beautiful drawing that John did. He sat up all night, didn't go to bed at all and did that drawing and then we handed our submission in. It had to be in, I think, by 10 o'clock the next morning, just before Christmas 1952 that would've been.
Phyllis Murphy: Then of course, when we won it, we got so much publicity, our pictures on the front page of the newspapers and it was ... of course, having the Olympic Games here in Australia, I mean that's been ... lots of games have gone on since but it was a very new thing the and very exciting.
Emma Telfer: You mentioned to me that you hadn't really considered what would happen if you won.
Phyllis Murphy: No, we didn't give it a thought to what we'd do if we won it, and then when we did, John and I decided that we wanted to keep our own practice separate, and I think we were right because you don't just jump into long-term partnerships with people unless you've done a lot of work with them and worked out how you're going to operate. We decided to keep our practice going and I dropped out from the Pool partnership and John spends a lot of time with the others and when that was finished we all went back to our own practices, so it worked very well. I've still got the little agreement with the solicitor where I'd dropped out and the others stayed on.
Emma Telfer: In the early stages of the competition, the media really wanted to talk to you because you were a very rare female architect.
Phyllis Murphy: Yes, particularly the lady reporters. Oh yes, that was a bit tedious actually, but they did. They made quite a fuss of me because I was an architect and a woman, which was unusual.
Emma Telfer: You were one of two female graduates in your year and there were 80-
Phyllis Murphy: Two women out of 80 when I graduated, yes.
Emma Telfer: Looking back, do you feel that being a female architect ever meant that you were held back or disrespected on site? Did you contemplate that at the time or ...
Phyllis Murphy: I don't know, I quite enjoyed it, I fitted and of course, John and I were very much of an item then, so that was a lot of support, you know, I realize looking back. All through the practice, and of course, I had my name was in the firm name which was very unusual. I've thought about it since and number of woman architects perhaps coming a little later than I did ... they worked with their husbands but the practice was always in the husband's name. Where ours was John and Phyllis Murphy or when we incorporated John and Phyllis Murphy proprietary limited and so there I was and I was accepted without question. I think I was rather fortunate.
Emma Telfer: That would probably be one of the most important things that John gave you in your practice as an architect is that equal support or respect.
Phyllis Murphy:Very much so, yes. I said to someone not long ago I was really lucky because I married a lovely husband who was an architect, so that was good.
Emma Telfer: Yes, along with a very busy practice, you then got involved in the early stages of the National Trust.
Phyllis Murphy: Oh yes, we did well. It was Robin Boyd who suggested that we should join the National Trust and today, no one will realize just how interesting, how exciting, how new the whole concept was because there's no heritage work being done before the late 1950s and we joined and we became very interested and we were honorary architects for more than the next 10 years, until such time as we felt we couldn't really do it anymore and the trust was by then paying architects and employing them in a professional way, which was much better. The right thing to do.
Phyllis Murphy: We looked after some of the early work that the trust was involved in and knew nothing about conversation work, had to learn as we went along. Our rule was if you could leave anything and not alter it, you left it alone. You only dealt with things that were absolutely necessary for structural reasons and that sort of thing. They were not grand buildings but they're all very interesting and very important in the history of a colonial life. One I can think of is the Castlemaine Market, where the outside walls were leaning out, one was very off vertical. It was leaning out and become disconnected to the roof trusses and panel by panel we moved that back into place and it's now ... it' had further work done on it, which was needed over the years, but it's not quite sound and an important indication of the gold mining era in Central Victoria.
Phyllis Murphy: Then there was some little houses, like Governor La Trobe's Cottage, which only half of it was there, of course, so we moved the half that was there and then we managed to rebuild the rest because of the number of drawings on paintings that were available that showed us, and it's a prefabricated building, so of course if you've got a full panel, and then you got a picture of the building, you could work out all its dimensions and so on. That ... yes, we became very interested in that sort of work and over the years have led us to commissioned work which was some heritage work too. We enjoyed that.
Emma Telfer: Did your colleagues in architecture wonder why you moved away from championing modest modernism to more conservation work?
Phyllis Murphy: People do ask me that and say, "How could you have been a modernist architect and then become so interest in heritage work?", but I think that's quite a narrow-minded way to look at it because if you're interested in buildings, you're interested in any building and you're interested in its quality.
Phyllis Murphy: ... Building, and you're interested in it's quality, and you're interested in how it functions, and the external appearance is just one part of the whole design, really. And that's how I feel and even today I could be interested in all sorts of different buildings. Although sometimes I feel today's building technique, it may not lend itself to long life always, and that, I think that's rather a pity, because I think the building environment, some of it should always stay so that we know where we've come from, and then you know where you're going.
Emma Telfer: You mentioned Robin Boyd before. He encouraged you to join the National Trust. Can you tell me about your relationship with Robin?
Phyllis Murphy: We knew Robin quite well. This was actually in the 1940s, before we were qualified, before we'd gone to London, we used to often see him and Patricia. Sometimes go on a little bit of a jaunt around, looking at a few old buildings. Because I think Robin, that's not generally known, but I think he had a great interest in all buildings, which we did. Not just the one that was going on now.
Phyllis Murphy: Oh, that's right. When he won the Hadden Scholarship, we looked after the jobs that he had going. We did the supervision of them for him. Later on, we tended to go in different directions a bit. Perhaps horses and wallpaper were not especially interesting, you know.
Emma Telfer: You mentioned a story about a dinner that you were invited to where Walter Gropius came, and he knew about some of your projects.
Phyllis Murphy: Oh, yes, that's right. It was a lunch. It was at Robin's and he complimented us on our little modernist houses, and said that they had a quite distinctive Australian character. And Roy Grounds got rather uppity then. He was with us at the time, and he said, "Now don't you get swelled heads over that." Yes, but ...
Emma Telfer: During the work you were doing with the National Trust, you started to build up a really impressive collection and knowledge about wallpaper. Can you tell me about that work?
Phyllis Murphy: Yes. Yes. Well, when we were about to retire, we were looking to buy a house in the Canton area, and having lunch with some friends up there, and they were asking us about some of our conservation work, and the hostess said, "Oh," she said, "you'd be interested for this. There's this shed full of old wallpaper here, and I think it's going to the Tip, unless somebody wants it." And it turned out that it had been the premises of a painter and a decorator, who begin in the late 1850s. The shed was to be demolished to make a car park, and nobody wanted all these wallpapers. But the family was rather upset that they might be disappearing, because they're part rolls and all sorts of interesting things, because I would have said, "Oh, how fascinating." And she said, "Oh well, I could arrange for you to have a look if you like."
Phyllis Murphy: So that took place, and we ended up ... It was a deceased estate, and John and I was speechless, and I could hardly believe my eyes. And it was just a bit of fun, a sort of retirement thing then. I had lots of time to spare then, and he said, "Well let's get onto the executive of the estate and see if we can't get the collection." So we did that, and I ended up with hundreds of part rolls of wallpaper that I knew nothing about. I was extremely ignorant. I had the idea that every Victorian interior was dark and gloomy, and when I saw the color in these marvelous papers, and some of them hand blocked and really beautiful, I started to research the subject, and became very interested in it.
Phyllis Murphy: And I've written a few pieces for an English magazine, and I do have contact sometimes with overseas people who want to know what we used in Australia and the use of wall paper was so extensive. I couldn't believe it. Even when I was started finding out more about them, and people gave me samples. I was in a wonderful place to collect, because I've got a lot from that area. And I found these little own farm houses that were lined with Hessian, and then had a beautiful flock wall paper inside, and realized how much it meant to live in this strange new country for those people who came from England and Europe, and they're out in the back blocks, and yet they still wanted to keep up their standards and have a lovely home.
Phyllis Murphy: So I learned a great deal, and I've had a lot of pleasure from it, and I still get asked now and again to identify papers, and sometimes I've scrapped them off the walls of buildings that are going to be renovated. And I keep those ones in my lair enclosures, so they're safe and sound for posterity. And it's still an interest for me now.
Emma Telfer: You mentioned that John also took an interest in retirement.
Phyllis Murphy: Oh yes, oh of course. He had Parkinson's Disease for about 20 years, and I cared for him. Towards the end it was quite difficult. And it was something that interested him too, because he used to sit with me when I was doing my untrained conservation work. I read up a lot about it and I make my own pasted and used my own non-toxic tissue paper at the back of the papers, and when I'd scraped off a lot of fragments, sometimes I could put them together and get the folders on. So he'd sit with me, and he was always quite interested in it, when really he wasn't that to much conversation then, not very interested to look at the television all day, so that was a wonderful assistance to us. And it was great for me, because I do something that he enjoyed, but it was a benefit to me, too. And I think as a carer, you need that.
Phyllis Murphy: So it's been wonderful, and I still read a lot, and I've actually just started writing another little article the other day. So yes.
Emma Telfer: Thinking back on your career, would the work with the National Trust be something you're most proud of, or is it earlier work? Are there any projects that come to mind that you're most proud of?
Phyllis Murphy: Well, you know, I think an architect's role is one of great responsibility, and I think of it almost as a service, really. And I hope that our work was well done, and that we did satisfy the requirements, and that they looked well, and that's all I really wanted. I don't feel that any was very so much more important than others, large or small.
Emma Telfer: Thank you, Phyllis. It's been absolutely delightful speaking to you today.
Phyllis Murphy: Oh, it is a pleasure. And I enjoyed thinking back over my life.