Quotes this week

Canberra’s a good sheep paddock, ruined”, oft’ repeated, never attributed.

The CCAE School of Environmental Design turns 50

50 years ago, our most innovative design school was founded. The School of Environmental Design at the then Canberra College of Advanced Education (CCAE), pioneered cross discipline education in Australia.

Architecture, landscape, and industrial design shared studios technical workshops, common courses in first year, and interdisciplinary projects. Whilst that innovation has dimmed in the intervening years, its successes and future possibilities were celebrated in a symposium this month, which inspires today’s column.


Colleges of Advanced Education, an initiative of the Menzies government in 1967, had gathered pace under Whitlam from 1972. A CAE in Canberra was much discussed at that time, including a proposal for a school of design from Fred Ward and Derek Wrigley, two pre-eminent designers for the Australian National University, itself only started in 1946. As leaders of the ANU Design Unit, unique in Australia, they had a particular vison.

They proposed a multidisciplinary school, with a strong emphasis on the environment, given Wrigley’s early commitment to what we now call sustainability. They envisaged a school that used the ideas of the Bauhaus for design pedagogy, particularly in early years with studies common to the environmental disciplines. When the CCAE was formally founded in 1973 it included a School of Environmental Design (CCAE SED), with architecture, landscape architecture and industrial design.

Roger Johnson

The appointment of Head of School would be crucial, and in this the SED was blessed. Roger Johnson, then First Assistant Commissioner of Civic Design and Architecture at the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) was a multi-talented and innovative designer and, as it turned out, a brilliant choice to run the new school, probably without peer.

Johnson studied architecture at Liverpool University, but left to join the RAF in WW2, was captured, spent two and a half years in a prison camp, before returning to Liverpool to complete his studies.  He worked for Ernst May in Kenya in the early 1950s and taught at the University of Cape Town before returning to the UK and working for William Holford, and teaching at the Architectural Association. He founded a School of Architecture in Rangoon before moving to Perth in 1960, and thence to Canberra.

Greatly influenced by the modernists he worked with, he had developed a love of buildings in the landscape, and detailed designs that responded to the tropical climates of the place he designed for. He also had an integrity, humour, and charm that hid all the travails of charting a new course for the staff and students, and with such skill that he was the most admired academic I ever met.


The school was to be dynamic, one of few in the world with common multidisciplinary teaching in its early years. Others, such as the Rhode Island School of Design, had a higher profile, but the CCAE SED blazed a trail that sadly has not been taken up as assiduously at home as we may have wished.

Perhaps Johnson’s only misstep was returning to his English roots for the appointment of heads of discipline. Peter Corkery (architecture), Rex Fairbrother (landscape), and Tim Crick (industrial design) shared the vision, but in a more conservative way. With barely a year for planning and additional staff, the first intake of students was in 1974.

Building 7X

The interdisciplinary school was further enhanced in 1979 when a purpose-built building was added to the staid mansard roofed boxes along the central walkway that constituted the campus until then. Building 7X was designed by Roger Johnson, in conjunction with Eggleston MacDonald and Secomb, as a series of staggered trays, smallest at the top (landscape), then industrial design, then architecture. At the base was a multipurpose space used for crits, presentations, reviews and revues.

The building was wide open, with an angled stair, which caused some controversy. Every student had their own workstation, leading to a high level of work (and living) within the school walls. This intermingling of students had only one discordant note: the choice of music on the boombox, from classical to nouveau punk, solved with the advent of the Sony Walkman in the early eighties.

Basic design

The key course was Basic Design, 25% of every students’ studies in semester 1 and 2. Organised by Bill Green (an industrial designer from the UK), and Jean-Pierre Favre (a Swiss engineer) it was like no other tertiary course.

A series of exercises tested creativity, ingenuity, and adaptability of students; whilst fostering collaboration and comraderies that would through the later years in more prescriptive courses. Students were tested in their studios, or in the newly created technical workshops, but moreover in the external areas around the school. It became an outdoor learning centre par excellence.

Students had to protect an egg dropped for a great height using only toothpicks, build bridges using only ‘paddle pop’ sticks, cook sausages with the sun, or cross one arm of Lake Ginninderra, without getting wet, for no more than $5. Few remained as dry as the teachers’ commentary. Those, and many other, projects would now be defanged from the course as too risky. Nevertheless, the early intake of students took to them with alacrity, and the school enjoyed a reputation well beyond its numbers.


Some of the innovations in the course drew upon the work of Barry McNeil at the Tasmanian College of Advanced Education, ironically reduced at their home base with the appointment of John Webster, the most conservative of the CCAE SED, as head of the Tasmania school. The seed has not well propagated beyond its original bed.

The CCAE SED school had a reputation beyond its small size, further enhanced when it hosted the Australasian Student Conference in 1981 called The Next Wave. Foregoing the overseas luminaries, the emerging architects of Australia and particularly New Zealand were invited into a self-build city in the Canberra Exhibition Centre.

By the mid 80s, the rot of each professional discipline pulling up the drawbridge and demanding a greater concentration on their particular course had started, and the Basic Design was reduced to one semester, but the joint projects and interdisciplinarity approach continues, due in no small part to the energies of Ann Cleary, former student, former assistant to Aldo Giurgola and, for the last 20 plus years, one of the mainstays of teaching studio.

Many graduates from CCAE SED in the early days went on to work in Canberra, particularly for the then burgeoning Parliament House, and beyond. Attending the symposium, it was clear to me that the school has maintained much of that initial bravado of cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary studies with a number of exacting PhD and master's research projects emanating from the school, as well as a growing number of acclaimed alumni with spectacular careers.

As the last of the initial teachers appointed, you may say I am seeing the halcyon days through rose-tinted glasses. You’d be right, but whatever talents I had as a teacher at four other universities in the 30 years after, I learnt at the CCAE SED, an innovative incubator that could only occur in Canberra, and only at that progressive period in our history.


Two books by Roger Johnson. In the first, when working at the NCDC and reviewing Griffin's plan, Johnson realised that so much of it had been butchered, it would be better to start again. His bold move, set out in this book was to relocate Parliament House from the top of the hill (Griffin’s Capitol, a museum) down onto the water. An idea supported by many Canberra aficionados who believed this striking change could have led to a far better parliamentary triangle. The other book, published in 1979, shows how far ahead of his time he was as an interdisciplinarian.

Signs off

A 1980s notice in southern Canberra erected by the NCDC - by that time, towards the end of their reign, they were referred to as the No Can Do Club. It is extraordinary in its conceit that there is such a thing as standard housing, and begs the question of the stupidity of spreading the bungalow across the verdant plains, turning Canberra into a good sheep paddock, spoiled.

Next week

The architecture profession is broken. A little column.

Tone Wheeler is an architect /adjunct prof UNSW / president AAA.

The views expressed are his.

These Design Notes are Tone on Tuesday #190, week 48/2023.

Past Tone on Tuesday columns can be found here

Past A&D Another Thing columns can be found here

You can contact TW at [email protected]