Vale Peter Myers

Every ‘thing’ this week is in honour of Peter Myers, architect, scholar, teacher, above all intellectual. 1941 - 2023. You can read a beautiful eulogy / obituary by Tim Williams in this A&D. I can only add my gratitude to him for saving my student career.

Peter Myers was a tutor at the University of Sydney in the mid-seventies as the first intake of the new six-year program reached final year. The last design project was for student housing, which many students interpreted into ‘college’ form, tutored by Douglas Gordon, Glenn Murcutt and Swetik Korsenewski (who had recently returned from Louis Kahn’s office, and it showed in the schemes).

A more rebellious tute group was lucky to have Ric LePlastrier, who encouraged wider ranging and more radical solutions. My solution was shipping containers, held up on water-filled pipes (Beaubourg was all the rage), linked by walkways clambering all over Fisher Library. If not the most outrageous, certainly the most contentious. Ric gave great support, but Peter Myers, as visiting critic, would have a big say. A drole, and sometimes reticent critic, he said it was overly effervescent, but worthy of a pass. I graduated thanks to Peter Myers (and Ric LePlastrier).

Architect: public housing

Peter Myers designed housing for the NSW Housing Commission in Walker St Waterloo. The contemporary interpretation of the local terraces and apartments was masterful, beautiful composed of solid shelter and witty lightweight edges of roofs and verandas, clever in the use of the section, one of his chief concerns. The importance of the project was only enhanced by its pairing with a similar project by Philip Cox design on the opposite side of the street. These were early markers in ‘low and close’ Australian architecture.

Sadly, the building is being currently monstered, returning to some kind of faux historicism. Everything from the colours to the detailing ruins the delicacy and delight that was in the original. Which outraged Peter Myers as it does his many students - “ideas last longer than buildings” he would say, but surely these buildings could have lasted a bit longer. Not that he would want a heritage order.

Intellectual: writing and editing

Peter Myers was rigorous in drawing and writing and teaching. Our three architecture schools are shamed by never offering him a permanent position on teaching staff, despite being our most gifted and diligent intellectual in Sydney's architectural life for the last 50 years.

As guest editor of Architectural Australia in April 1992 he wrote of his own work, and encouraged others to hone their analytical skills. In Dilemmas of Urban Housing, Peter John Cantrill and Philip Thalis discussed the work of the then recently disbanded Urban Renewal Group (who had sponsored the Myers and Cox schemes) and the pre-WW1 work of Broderick and Vernon. The authors had been encouraging students to draw buildings in Sydney for many years, and above are those of the Myers (top) and Cox schemes.

Cantrill and Thalis would go on to produce the outstanding Public Sydney, a book that documented the great buildings and public spaces for all architects to use. A measure of the descent to poverty of thought in our architecture schools now, can be gauged by one academic describing the book as ‘not research, merely drawings’. More philistine than philosopher. There is a raft of Peter Myers’ students who can sort the wit from the chuff.

Provocateur: heritage

Myers wrote some very provocative architectural criticism. Australia's grid-suburbia, temporary housing in a permanent landscape? was published in 1996 in ‘B’, a Danish architecture magazine (with translations). One memorable paragraph goes: “Until the misnamed ‘heritage’ factor is seen for what it is - a miserable deception that has promoted the tradition of grid-suburban bungalow as a national archetype, whose survival now far outweighs the concomitant loss of established landscapes, there is no hope”.

This chimes quite pungently with a Guardian article this week titled Our cities are not museums. We must stop nimbys weaponising heritage laws to block affordable housing by Katie Roberts-Hull, describing how the increasingly prevalent and pernicious use of heritage is used to stop contemporary design. In this case a modest conversion of the Royal Hotel in Clifton Hill into housing (in the image). The only difference to Peter Myers’ comments thirty years ago is the increasing stupidity.

Bookends: Peter Myers writings

For this week's Bookends, I've chosen the two sources for Peter Myers writing mentioned above: his guest Editorship of Architecture Australia in April 1992; and article on suburbia in the 1996 Danish architecture magazine ‘B, which devoted a whole issue to Australian architecture entitled Imaginary.

Both are very hard to find now, but absolutely worth the effort to visit a physical library.

Sign of the times

Our sign this week is a 1980s notice in southern Canberra erected by the National Capital Development Commission, (NCDC) (although 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, the very thing that Peter Myers railed against. The stupidity of spreading the bungalow across the verdant plains, turning Canberra into a good sheep paddock, spoiled.

A younger, more recent critic is Amy Remeikis in The Guardian who wrote, How Canberra Became a Progressive Paradise and a Housing Hell, but it’s not a recent phenomenon, it’s a failure of ambition since WW2. Something Peter Myers spent his working life trying to reform and we must heed his ideas as we turn our heads to infill and higher density housing. Vale Peter Myers. So grateful to learn from you.

Tone Wheeler is an architect / the views expressed are his.

Short pieces are published every Friday in A&D Another Thing.

Longer columns are Tone on Tuesday, published then.

You can contact TW at [email protected].