Every major Australian city has a town close by where the architecture, vernacular and modern, better represents local traditions than in the bigger smoke. Muscular industrial buildings in Geelong, wine farms in the Barossa, Queenslanders on the Sunshine Coast (but not the Gold Coast), cool weather manicured resort gardens in Leura / Katoomba, grainy brick warehouses in Fremantle.
Each is an example of ‘critical regionalism’, an idea promulgated by Kenneth Frampton (but not invented by him) to argue against the universality of the international style and the stylistic obsessions of post-modernism.
In a seminal essay in 1983, Frampton proposed that ‘critical regionalism’ should adopt modern architecture critically for its universal progressive qualities, but at the same time value should be placed on the geographical context of the building: topography, climate, light, tectonic form (rather than scenography) and focussing on the sense of touch rather than the visual. The essay was at the beginning of a resurgence of interest in phenomenology.
Based on this definition, Freo is the place that most represents the ideas of critical regional modern architecture in Australia. The vernacular low-rise warehouses in orange textured bricks converted into commercial and houses with respectful but clever infill. Verandas against the sun and internal urban courtyards climatically better than the watered green gardens of suburban Perth.
The revival of Fremantle as a vibrant architectural place was probably down to one man, architect Brian Klopper. If you’re there in a building with a brick floor on sand, wrought ironmongery for stairs, flooded in light through large internal windows in fine steel frames, looking up brick barrel vaults or exposed recycled timber rafters, then you are either in a Klopper building or one in a style that became known as Klopperesque.
Looking back, we can see how this melding of modern planning in rough-hewn raw materials derives from Klopper's early life. Born in Northam, a traditional bush town 100 kms north-east of Perth, he attended Perth Modern School, where he often topped the class, and studied architecture at Perth Technical College. He rejected the tenets of modernism in favour of the simpler direct forms he knew from his bush upbringing.
Unable to get a builder for a small project early on, Klopper became both builder and architect which gave him the freedom to build as he saw fit using traditional and found materials. This included clinker bricks - overburnt, misshapen and usually rejected by the local brickworks - which were also fashionable in the hands of Ken Woolley and Peter Johnson and crucial in the making of the ‘nuts and berries’ Sydney school.
Klopper went further, contrasting solid walls with small, often triangular, openings outside with large areas of glass held in steel angles into courtyards. Ceilings were often brick vaulted, initially small and sandwiched between recycled railway lines, later larger areas held aloft with steel ties or brick buttresses.
His early work in Subiaco was followed by almost thirty years in Fremantle, putting his finances on the line in building small housing projects, such as the early Raphael Street townhouses, and then putting them out to market. The process of working with sub-contractors on site was always deeply satisfying to Klopper.
When it was the turn for students at the Canberra CAE to put on the biennial student conference in 1981, they pursued ‘The Next Wave’ of rising Australian architects. Feelers went out to discover who was worth talking to; and the one that came back from the WA was Brian Klopper. The students at the conference delighted in his no-nonsense talk, direct manor, and forceful belief in the need to build.
After Klopper retired from practice he moved back to Northam, which he likened to salmon returning to their place of spawning. There he designed, built and operated a wine bar, named for his grandmother. At Laura's he served as publican, which he didn't find as engaging as being an architect, working on site. Now that we are tourists in our own land it is worth noting that Northam is part of The Public Silo Trail: a tourist drive to highly decorated silos that ring Perth.
This memory of Brian Klopper is occasioned by his passing last month at 83, after a lifelong interest in the qualities of buildings, the beauty of space and the qualities of light. His two sons Sam and Matt survive him as architects.
His obituary in ArchitectureAU, by Peter Hobbs, the current AIA WA President, out of modesty neglects to mention that as an early employee of Klopper's, Hobbs was encouraged to obtain his builder's license, and to follow no nonsense approach to architecture. Vale Brian Klopper, whose legacy is both in inspiring practice, and transforming Fremantle into the delightful, architecturally gorgeous place that it is today.
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]