After a short hibernation, there can be no better way for Tone on Tuesday to return than to commemorate the life and work of architect Philip Abram. Like so many in a small practice his work was exemplary but largely unknown. But like so few he found a way to bind those myriad small practices together for the better.

Philip (one L) was born in Amsterdam in 1946 to Phillip (two L’s) and Selien, Holocaust survivors whose first spouses had been murdered in the Shoah.  He had said that his love of architecture was inspired by growing up in Amsterdam Zuid, a modern district masterplanned by H P Berlage in the early 20th C. We imagine he was in social apartments designed by Michel de Klerk, a noted Jewish architect.

The Abrams emigrated to Australia in 1954 and settled in Maroubra. Phil took an instant liking to the sea: an avid surfer hitting the waves before and after school, where he learnt English, whilst dodging the racist name-calling of the times. Selien found work as a seamstress; Phillip worked for General Motors before starting his own cabinet making business.

The only member of his family to attend university, Phil studied and graduated in architecture at UNSW. He traveled to Europe, worked briefly on the Barbican, but returned to Sydney when his father was ill, taking over his joinery shop. Phil married Freda, a designer, and belatedly started professional life in his early thirties. For the next 40 years he mostly practiced with only one assistant, and for over half that time it was the dedicated and highly talented Anna Bowen-James.

He designed and had built over 150 projects, mostly homes, alts and adds and some small shops and bars in eastern Sydney. He worked from the homes he designed, first in Randwick, then Double Bay, and finally Paddington. The designs were ‘neo-vernacular’: balconies, verandas and traditional roof forms over delightful spaces. He was dedicated to the craft of building. He practiced as thousands of architects do in small practices.

Phil was creative curious, naturally gregarious, and deeply interested in education and development. But how do you address those ideas with only two or three people in a small practice? Phil’s way was to unite those disparate small practices through a network: Sydney East Architects, or SEA.

Local architecture networks grew from an idea forged by former UTS lecturer in architecture, Frank Lowe. An early adopter of IT, he started the HDAA (Housing Designers Association of Australia) as a chat room where members could ask or answer questions. The HDAA spawned many networks in Sydney, IWAN (Inner West Architects Network), SPUN (Small Practices Upper North, ANSR (Architects Network Southern Region, EmAGN (Emerging Architects and Graduates Network) and many more.

Architects in small practices are isolated professionally and emotionally. Networks were a genius idea to bring small practices together to find commonality and support: every practice has a bastard client who won’t pay, and a builder called Jerry. Every practice had the same struggles with local Councils, consultants and building codes. The same difficulties, questions and answers were shared.

If networks were genius, Phil Abrams was the guru operator. He helped run (and eventually chair) SEA for 20 years; growing to be the largest network with almost 700 members. SEA organised four to six CPD talks a year, originally in a Bolo, later at an RSL on the Harbour, Club Rose Bay. The excess money raised was donated to architectural charities, notably Paul Pholeros’ Health Habitat.

The joy of coming together, always with his love of food and drink to be shared, SEA-siders gathered for more than CPD, it offered continuing emotional support. Even when threats of defamation, some aimed at Phil, closed the chat line for many months, Phil re-doubled efforts to keep SEA going without the aggressiveness that has bedeviled some others. The members, of which I am one, love SEA, and we mourn Phil’s passing this month.


Architecture is the most disparate of all professions. Data is scarce; it's been almost 10 years since the AACA (the peak body of Architects Registration Boards) published a comprehensive analysis on the makeup of the profession. Based on that, my guess is that somewhere between 75 and 80% of all architects work in a practice with five or less people, often as sole traders.  Less than 2% of the 13,000 architectural businesses have 20 or more people.

The recalcitrant in this piece is the AIA (Australian Institute of Architects). By focusing on prominent practices, they advocate for expensive projects through awards and speaker’s programs. Despite never undertaking any worthy analysis of the profession (unlike the AACA), they know that the membership is going backwards relative to registered architects as a result of ignoring small practice.

When the AIA got into financial difficulties, they jettisoned the few initiatives they had for small practice: Architext bookshops (a social and information center) and Archicentre, (an introduction to possible clients). One AIA initiative I experienced that supported small practice was the NSW Country Division conference – intimate presentations of members’ work. The NSW Chapter just closed its Country Division.

Networks grew completely from without the AIA. Several years ago, they invited them into the tent, only to be alarmed at the almost anarchic discussions; scared of litigation they threw them out. In a belated attempt to capture the network culture a little over a year ago the AIA instigated the ‘Open Form’, run by a community manager. It feels like your parents trying to gate crash your hip hop party. Even the BDAA (Building Designers Association of Australia) has a better network.


To honor the memory of Phil Abram, and his support for small practice, Architecture & Design is starting a weekly feature next year called Under the Radar, which will showcase the work and projects of SEA architects. It will show the vast array of cleverly designed and beautifully crafted work that is almost never seen in public. It is the hidden base and beauty of our profession.

It will show the work of architects who make a project for the client, not an architect’s project. Architects that show up, not show off. Vale Phil Abram.

Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to [email protected].