One of Melbourne’s great examples of Modernist architecture, Mac.Robertson Girls’ High School in Albert Park, designed by Norman Seabrook, was the result of public competition held in 1933. Over eighty years on, it is worth reflecting on this competition to remind us of the vital role competitions can play in fostering innovative architecture within our city. Today, design competitions come in many different forms from open public competitions to invited shortlisted competitions. While the procurement of public architecture through competition brings about many challenges, there is great value in this procurement method in providing a platform where ideas can be tested and contested. Mac.Robertson Girls’ High School is testimony to this; it not only brought Modernism to the public realm in Victoria, but also innovated on many levels, from its use of materiality and technology to its experimentations with the school building type.
The competition for Mac. Robertson Girls’ High School came about after chocolate manufacturer and philanthropist, Sir Macpherson Robertson, generously awarded the state of Victoria with 100 pounds for its 1934 centenary celebrations. Robertson’s gift was to “register his pride in being a citizen of Victoria, and the fine record of achievement of the people in its first one hundred years.”1 Robertson requested the money be spent on the state’s building industry to create employment
and stimulate economic growth, much needed after the state’s recent economic slump. Robertson’s 100 pounds was thus divided up into 40 pounds for the construction of a new public girls school with the rest set aside for a Temple of Youth (later used for the construction of a Herbarium), a fountain near the Shrine of Remembrance, a bridge across the Yarra River in Toorak, and the promotion of an air race between Melbourne and London.
It was the girl’s school in Albert Park, named after Robertson’s chocolate factory, Mac.Robertson, which arguably remains the most significant outcome of Robertson’s gifts. Rather than directly engage an architect/practice to design the school, a design competition was held, open to all Victorian architects and advertised in local newspapers.2 With only two months to prepare a design, 44 submissions were received with entries from well-known local practitioners including Godfrey and Spowers, Mewton and Grounds, Edward Billson, and Percy Everett.3 It was the young Norman Seabrook (1905-1978) who took first place with his bold Modernist design, a stark contrast to the state’s public architecture of the period.
Seabrook’s winning design was a stark contrast to the myriad of traditionally styled private schools from the period and its Modernist design was new to Melbourne’s public architecture. With its composition of interlocking cream brick forms offset by a vertical clock tower, it is often compared to Willem Dudok’s Hilversum Town Hall in the Netherlands. While Dudok’s design had been published in local Victorian journals, Seabrook had probably visited this building during his bicycle tour of the Netherlands in 1931; the year Dudok’s town hall was completed. Seabrook’s design was not a direct importation of the Hilversum Town Hall but a similar synthesis of De-Stijl techniques applied to a school program, articulating the various functions within the interlocking composition of forms. The assembly hall, for example, was much taller than the classrooms, which were in turn higher than the staff rooms, cloakrooms and amenities. This approach was new to Melbourne’s school architecture where typically all the spaces were grouped within a uniform massing styled in the selected idiom. E.E. Smith’s design for Melbourne Boys High School (1928) and Philip B. Hudson’s design for Mackie House at Geelong College, for example, both embraced a linear configuration with projecting wings, typical of the period, though styled differently; the former with its turreted details and the latter employing a Tudor aesthetic. Seabrook’s articulation of the separate functions at Mac.Robertson Girls’ High School echoed the functionalist tendencies of European Modernism but was new to Victoria’s education architecture.
Beyond its Modernist massing and expression, Seabrook’s winning entry for Mac. Robertson Girls’ High School also brought to the state a new way of designing school buildings that drew on progressive theories surrounding education. Seabrook’s design pioneered the open-air schooling model: its expansive flat roof was not just a stylistic feature in line with Modernist aesthetics, nor did it function simply to provide the students with spectacular views of the city. The school’s flat roof, never seen before in schools in the state, delivered a new kind of outdoor teaching space that was informal and provided greater flexibility for teachers. While not implemented due to the site’s wind conditions, Seabrook’s initial design also included open air corridors on the ground floor to further connect the classrooms to the outside, a feature often sought in school design today. This connection to the outdoors was becoming increasingly prevalent within Modernist design during this period, particularly in hospital design, where the poliomyelitis (polio) epidemic prompted an increased concern with hygiene and fresh air.
The Mac.Robertson Girls’ High School plan was also a radical departure from previous Australian school designs. Seabrook adopted a Modernist zoning approach grouping the various functions into four distinct branches; the general classrooms, science rooms, art rooms and cookery rooms. Seabook also incorporated many new technologies into the design, such as the ‘Oil-omatic’ low maintenance heating system, a feature reported in local newspapers at the time,4 along with a sophisticated clock system designed by Seabrook in conjunction with a local clock maker.
These design innovations were remarkable given young Seabrook had been given only three months to complete the building’s documentation, specification and coordination of consultant’s drawings in time for the 1934 centenary celebrations. Builders also worked at great speed to complete the school in time for the celebrations and the opening in November 1934 was a spectacular affair; hundreds of people from the general public attended to witness the royal opening of the school by the Duke of Gloucester, along with the Minister of Education and Sir Macpherson Robertson. Flags were flying, girls were cheering and the experience for Seabrook must have been tremendous, particularly given Mac.Robertson Girls’ High School was this young architect’s first commission. Robin Boyd noted it “was the first time that many people noticed a modern building, the first modern school in Victoria, and probably the first and only time a practical architectural competition [had] been won with a modern design.”5
There is no doubt juries play a pivotal role in the outcome of design competitions. In the case of Mac.Roberston Girls’ High School competition, it was no coincidence that two of the three jurors had sympathies for the progressive ideologies and expressions of Modernist architecture. P.A. Oakley’s practice, Oakley and Parkes, had recently completed Yule House (1932) in the Modern style while W.O. McCutcheon, of Bates Smart McCutcheon, had worked on a Jazz Moderne design for the Buckley & Nunn store in Bourke Street (1933).
However, in today’s risk adverse climate, it is more than just the jury that determines the outcome of design competitions. Many of today’s architecture competitions, as I have reported in greater detail previously,6 exclude architects like Norman Seabrook, requesting credentials and demonstration of prior experience. This is a great shame given public competitions open to all architects, like the Mac.Robertson Girls’ High School competition, not only foster the talents of emerging practitioners, but also enable ideas to be tested and contested within our cities.7
1. Sir MacPherson Robertson, The Macrobertson Centenary Gestures, Specialty Press, Melbourne, 1934, p.2.
2. The Age, 21 September, p.4.
3.Macrobertson Girls’ High School file VPRS 003916/P0000 Unit 000089, Public Records Office.
4. ‘Girls’ High School: Fresh Features in Designing’, The Age, 27 November 1934.
5. Robin Boyd, Victorian Modern: One Hundred and Eleven years of Modern Architecture in Victoria, Victorian Architectural Student’s Society, Melbourne, 1947, p.28.
6. Christine Phillips, Tania Davidge, ‘A year in competition’, Architecture Australia, Vol 100, No 6 Nov/Dec 2012 pp 91-94, Christine Phillips, Tania Davidge, ‘In Competition’, Vol 100, No 6, November 2011.
7. For greater information about the architecture of Mac.Robertson Girls’ High School, refer to Christine Phillips, Planting the seeds of Modernism: The work of Seabrook and Fildes: 1933-1950, University of Melbourne Masters Thesis 2006, and Bryce Raworth, ‘The Mac.Robertson Girls’ High School Conservation Management Plan’, Heritage Victoria, Melbourne, 1996.