Marr Grounds, artist, teacher and environmentalist passed away late last month at the age of 90. This is not an obit (they are elsewhere), and there is not room here to show the span of his art (for which see his website). Rather this is a personal tribute to a dear friend.
I met Marr on my first day at architecture school, some 50 years ago. After my retched high school education (in a private borstal with neither art nor music) Marr was a complete revelation as to the possibilities in art, architecture, if not life. He ‘clamped a new set of eyes’ on me (as his colleague Col James was want to say).
My life in sustainability, and indeed socially based architecture, started in that first term. Not so much in what Marr said, although that was endless interesting, more in the strange combination of ideas: a dedication to the outer reaches of environmentalism, combined with a demanding rigour for skills. One lesson would be on hippy versions of passive solar, the next on the need for accurate line weights in drawings as found in Fraser Reekie’s Draughtsmanship.
It wasn’t until much later that I discovered the source of these two opposing attributes. But a little back story first. Marr was born in 1930 in the USA to fledgling modernist hero architect Roy Grounds and his then paramour, later wife, the American divorcée Virginia Lammers, née Marr. Hence the strange name. Grounds senior had worked in Britain (he met Lammers on the boat over) and was working and learning his architectural chops in the USA.
Marr came to Australia with his parents at age 3 and stayed for 6 years before the marriage frayed and Lammers returned to the USA with Marr. He stayed for the duration of WW2, whilst his father, to whom he was increasingly estranged, continued his practice and served in the war. After the war Marr returned to Australia as a teenager with a strong American accent (that never left). He stayed 3 years, but it was not happy times (according to one late night chat) as his father had remarried and had a daughter, Victoria, (later a renowned landscape architect and teacher).
Marr returned to the USA at 21, was conscripted into the US Navy (I never discovered why) and served in Guam and Asia for nearly 5 years. He learned skills in mechanics and engineering in maintaining the ships he served on. After service, at age 25, he returned to Australia, for 2 years (a complete lacuna to me).
Returning to the USA in 1958 he started a free college education at UC Berkeley, a benefit of serving in the US armed forces, studying architecture and then Fine Art. In the early and mid-sixties Berkeley, and particularly the UC campus, was the centre of alternative culture, radicalism even, and Marr lapped it up, particularly the emerging issues of environmentalism as well as hanging out with Ken Kesey and Alan Ginsberg.
In 1965 he moved to Drop City, a ‘counterculture artists community’ in Southern Colorado, where his skills as a maker were put to good use, cutting cars to pieces with axes, and then re- assembling them into domes and ‘zomes’. The definitive book, Drop City, is by Peter Rabbit, I kid you not.
Marr returned to urban life, met and married Joan, a ceramics major undertaking a Master of Arts at UC. Having graduated, Joan and Marr travelled to Ghana for his appointment teaching architecture in 1966-68. At the end of the second year in Ghana, he was offered a position as lecturer on architecture staff at the University of Sydney.
The appointment was seminal in a pedagogy being pursued by the then Dean and Professor Peter Johnson. He was to help organise and teach the radical new program: splitting the architecture course in two parts: a BSc followed by a professional course. This split, now common but then radical, allowed for the first degree to be much more wide-roaming in its interests in response to the rising concerns for social and environmental changes
Marr rose to this challenge by fostering a diversity within the course matched by the hiring of tutors from diverse fields, often outside architecture, including Paul Murty, a computer programmer, Liz Fell and Wendy Bacon, sociologists and ardent feminists and the ecologist Harry Recher. The course was notable for being open to any idea that may touch upon design. And it was led by a man gifted with these twin compelling ideas that so arrested me when I met him: free flowing art and intense mechanical rigour.
An early example of this seeming oxymoron came in 1969, when an invitation was sent out by the artists Christo and Jean-Claude for assistance in undertaking their first wrapping project, a part of Sydney’s coastal sandstone cliffs at Little Bay. They wrote to every art and architecture school but only received one offer of assistance, from Marr Grounds. A cohort of 14 students took the opportunity to engage in the construction of the John Kaldor-sponsored environmental artwork, in woven fiberglass and orange cord, all fixed with Ramset bolts. It demanded both creativity and immense logistics and the involvement of Marr and those students, including renowned artist Imants Tillers, is discussed here.
Marr used the ideas of ‘environmental art’ as a basis for his teaching (and for his own artworks) most frequently inviting students to construct pieces of art from found objects, often on trips to the beach. Marr actively supported Peter Johnson's further hirings, including two legendary teachers Col James and Anna Rubbo. He also set about building his own loft style residence and studio in an old warehouse he’d purchased with others in the then newly gentrified suburb of Paddington.
A key facility at that time at Sydney University was the ‘Tin Sheds’, a hands-on teaching studio that included some of Australia's foremost artists, sculptor Bert Flugelman, artist Guy Warren (incidentally turning 100 this Friday) and screen printer Chip's Makinolty, poster maker to every alternative and anti-war movement. Meanwhile, back in the lecture theatre, Lloyd Rees was waxing lyrical. Art filled the faculty.
One of Marr’s initiatives at the sheds was the ‘Avago’ gallery, a 600 mm cube built into the wall facing City Road. A generation of artists in Sydney got to ‘have a go’ with their first exhibition. It became notorious when a facsimile of a Picasso painting that had been stolen from the NGV was installed in Avago, and then it too was stolen. Maybe it was the real one? And a faked theft? You might think so, but I couldn’t possibly comment.
Marr was best known to a generation of architecture students for his teaching, an inspiration to some like myself, but there are no doubt others, particularly female students, who would not have such a rosy recall of the intertwining of his libertarian personal life and teaching.
However, beyond his students he is mostly known as the son of Roy, later Sir Roy, Grounds. Marr's relationship with his father was very complicated. Testy, distant, difficult and not often warm, despite the intertwining of their lives. There are two examples that can attest to that.
In 1969 Roy Grounds purchased a block of land on the foreshore of Balmain and designed a pair of houses intended for his use when in Sydney, and as a residence for Marr. A generous gift, no doubt, but Roy ceded the documentation to Marr, who would not have a bar of it, and engaged a young graduate, Stuart Whitelaw, for whom it was a poisoned chalice. Tension in the project seems illustrative of the awkward paternal relationship, and Marr’s reluctance to engage in ‘formal’ architecture like his father.
Let me attempt a reading: The duplex plan is two squares, laid on the diagonal, 3 levels tall. It’s all Khan-like geometry, without any relation whatsoever to site, landscape, views or climate. Melbourne cubic urbanity meets laconic, luscious Sydney Harbour. Pere was obsessed with geometry, fils with the environment. Quite a gulf, and you can guess where I landed as etudiant. As a sideline Marr hired students Ian Williams and myself to labour on the site.
The second example has a happier, if more artistic ending, but some scene setting is necessary. In the 50s, Roy Grounds, together with his close friend Kenneth Myer, established a personal retreat on a large area of coastal land of former dairy farms and spotted gum forests at Bithry Inlet, between Bermagui and Tathra on the NSW south coast.
Establishing a small airfield, they could fly from Melbourne for weekends to invest in various projects, including building two houses, a more conventional one for Myer and a very adventurous nine-sided ‘teepee’ for Grounds. They could play golf on their own a nine-hole course that switched backwards and forwards across a clearing with sand and water (dam) traps.
Crucially they invested in a process then being developed in the USA to preserve timber using a mixture of copper, chromium and arsenic (CCA) and they named it after a local farm called Penders. Infusing the local spotted gum, Corymbia Maculata, proved to be a failure and they switched to Radiata Pine, which went on to huge commercial success as ‘Kopper’s Logs’. The Pender’s logs were used in the two houses, as well as a plastic-covered dome held together with garbage tin lids as joint connectors
Marr loved holidaying at Bithry, swimming naked in the lagoon and making some refined artworks using local found objects and Penders timber, making art in a beautiful landscape. The extended family included half-sister Victoria Grounds and the actor and half-brother Robin Ramsay, who once picked me up in his Kombi as I was hitch-hiking to my home country at Tathra. He was only slightly miffed when I called him Charlie Cousens, stock and station agent. Double pun: Bithry rings to the sound of Bellbirds.
In celebration of Marr’s return to Australia, and marriage to Joan, Roy gave a fiberglass houseboat as a wedding gift. By repute Marr and Joan only ever had one journey at Bithry inlet before it was hauled onto dry land, never in the water again. But it does appear twice more in this story.
Marr and Joan divorced in the late 70’s and Marr started to extend his reach of art. He undertook a series of works in the outback, culminating in an artwork along the dingo fence, that was captured in a beautiful book made by collaborator, and former student, Paul Pholeros. This work was partially responsible for Pholeros’s interest in designing for the indigenous, leading to the establishment of Health Habitat, an ornament in social activism.
In 1982 Marr undertook a residency in Berlin with renowned Australian artist Bonita Ely for a project based on the Berlin Wall. That co-operative project also included the birth of his only child Marina. By 1885 Marr felt that he had exhausted his teaching interests and retired from the University and Sydney to move to Bithry inlet.
(Side note: in 1985, when I was teaching at the CCAE, later Canberra University, I was approached and offered a position teaching at the University of Sydney before I knew Marr was leaving. It was essentially his position, and I then occupied his office next to Col James. His parting gift, the only thing left in the office was an A0 sized wall chart how he laid out the architecture course in Ghana. It stayed on the wall for my tenure, and is now a treasured possession.)
Roy had died 4 years earlier and Victoria and Marr inherited the estate. He decided to live as an artist in retreat, somewhat of a conundrum, as he seemed to be the only recluse who welcomed visitors. He constructed a small house that provided better winter accommodation than the teepee, a truly minimalist building, the size of a garden shed, called Decatur South (Decatur being the name of several US towns, named in honour of a nineteenth century naval hero).
By this stage Marr and Bonita had separated, but Marr undertook much of Marina's early education at Bithry where she roamed freely through the Bush, often naked as Marr did. All this is documented in photographs by close friend Sandy Edwards in the book Paradise is a Place (1997) with an essay by Gillian Mears. As a teenager Marina used the dry-landed houseboat as her house and refuge.
In 1976, the Grounds and Myer families had decided to donate the entire Pender's estate to the National Parks, forming a large part of today’s Mimosa Rocks NP. The area containing the houses and experimental buildings was excised from the donation on a separate lease until 2000 and Marr realised he could not continue to live at Bithry beyond that.
He purchased a hundred acres at the edge of his father's property so that he could build his own house and art studios. Not wishing to practice architecture himself, he turned to his former students, Paul Pholeros and this author. True to his environmental beliefs forged in California some 40 years earlier, the house became Australia's longest passive solar house, set in a landscape by Sue Barnsley. The house, much of it prefabricated, was expertly built for minimum cost by local builder Julian Barlow and the landscape was executed by his wife Robin Barlow.
Marr built a number of studios, including one in a deep valley behind the house, which he intended for use by artists in residence, but only one residency took place before Marr found the difficulty of having anyone else in his space too much. Marr invited local artists, particularly sculptors to contribute works on the acreage, now resembling a sculpture park.
Marr continued to execute artworks, including moving Decatur South, together with an upturned surf boat, as an Air BnB, and moving the houseboat up a steep hill, Fitzcarraldo-style, and installing it on a number of posts in amongst the spotted gum of forest. Artworks included a ‘world of wire’ stretched between burnt stumps, upturned versions of which abounded, called Narra Bukulla, believing that to be the local indigenous language for the black stump.
At the same time, he had excised some of his land and dedicated it back to National Parks. Now his houses and sculptures stand in splendid isolation. And it is up to his descendants and friends to devise a way in which Marr’s last 30 years could form a future South Coast sculpture park. His teaching activism and art interests will long live forward, through many of students that carry the idea of innovative art, and for those who may fortunate enough to visit his sculptural landscape retreat.
During the bushfires at the end of 2019 Marr moved into an aged care facility in Pambula, where he remained until he passed away three weeks ago. Marr is survived by Joan, Bonita, daughter Marina and two grandchildren. On my last visit on the Australia Day weekend he was just as engaging and demanding of an artistic life as when I met him 50 years ago.
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]