greaseproof architecture since 2000

Architecture for an uncreative race

BMA Sydney
[ Artist: Simon Fieldhouse ]

I have stumbled upon a curious article from 1935 expaining to Sydneysiders why the B.M.A. building should be awarded a medal by the RIBA – the first in New South Wales to receive one.

From the SMH, 20 May 1935 (next to an article reporting the death of Lawrence of Arabia in a car crash). Expect some typos.

“.. the civic aspect of architecture is one that should interest not only the architect, but every citizen who takes pride in the city of Sydney and wishes to make its appearance as attractive as possible. In this connection it is stimulating to find that the movement in England for the betterment of civic architecture has reached Australia, since next Thursday the Lord Mayor of Sydney will unveil at B.M.A. House a plaque designating the award by the Royal Institute of British Architects for a building of exceptional merit erected in this State during the period of three years up to 1933, whilst a medal is also awarded to the architects concerned, Messrs. Joseph C. Fowell and Kenneth H. McConnel, whose design was placed first out of the 60 submitted in the competition held for this building in 1928, and under whose supervision the work was carried out. This practice of awarding a medal and plaque was first established by the R.I.B.A. in London in 1922, and seven similar medals are now awarded triennially in various parts of England, and one each in Scotland, Wales, Ulster, Western Australia, New Zealand and New South Wales, but this is the first award in the State. It is stated that the medals and plaques have aroused public and professional interest overseas, especially in street architecture, the primary concern for the awards, and the plaques of honour have been affixed in London to the headquarters of the Underground Comany, to a small two-story residence in Clarendon Place, to two famous banks, a modern church, and to several office blocks.

New materials of construction have produced an evolution of new styles of architecture in modern times, since obviously a building of steel or iron will demand a different treatment from one whose materials are wood, brick, or stone. A steel structure, for instance, unlike a stone one, gives not a wall, but holes. Wood or stone or brick give in themselves a surface, which the steel does not. The B.M.A. building consists of fourteen stories, including the basement, and is of steel construction, with reinforced concrete floors. The problem of giving a surface has been met by the principal facade being faced with architectural terra-cotta. A stern critic may object that the ornamentation is a trifle too rococo, but the design of the building is distinguished be the recessing of piers behind the building line, the bays projecting in between, in order to gain that effect of verticality which is a special feature of the modern skyscraper, with its suggestion of “aspiration” reminiscent of the Gothic style. The recession of the piers is original in Australia, and helps to make the building successful in a departure from traditional styles to one more suitable for modern steel structures.

The presentation of the R.I.B.A. medal and plaque also draws attention to the Sir John Sulman medal, which will shortly be awarded for an ecclesiastical building. These medals should help to stress the importance of architecture in this country. Probably no other community needs the reminder more, since the appreciation of architecture in Australia is almost negligiblbe. On this point Mr. Hardy Wilson has written, “Englishmen visiting Australia have expressed amazement at the ugly condition of its architecture, and yet have not recognised that it is he uncreativeness of the race, seperated from creativeness, that is the cause.” He suggests that the enervating climate of Sydney is another reason why its people are indifferent to the ugliness among which they move every day. Whatever the cause, there is little doubt that Australia needs every assistance in making its people aware not only of their ignorance of and indifference to architectural matters, but of the common lack of interest in their own city. In this respect our cities and towns are very backward as compared to the strong civic spirit so noticeable in America. For architecture is only one aspect of the broader problem of town planning, and it is to be hoped that the R.I.B.A. award will succeed in all three of its objectives: “to envourage excellence in design, to stimulate public interest in and appreciation of architecture, and to foster a spirit of civic pride.”

BMA House photo gallery
BMA House map: 135 Macquarie Street, Sydney NSW 2000, Australia

Posted by Peter on 19.02.10 in  and 



Interesting post Peter. I love this building. It is a good example of how modern and decorative achieve an aesthetic balance. Interesting opinions on Australian attitudes toward civic pride. Not much has changed in 75 years ….

by Sean on 10.02.24, 10:52 am ·#

Commenting is closed for this article.

Contact All rights reserved and all that. 2022.