Formidable designer Derek Wrigley, passed away last month, aged 97. You can find his obituary on the ArchitectureAU website and the DIA’s (Design Institute of Australia) website. I knew and worked with Derek for some years in Canberra and I think his design interests were so broad and deep that his exploits could have filled four lives.
Derek Wrigley graduated in architecture from the Manchester College of Art in 1945 and worked briefly in the UK before emigrating to Australia in 1947. Very soon he purchased an abandoned quarry in Dee Why on the NSW Northern beaches for £100, and he set about building a house, which he called OB1 (for owner builder).
The house, from hand-quarried stone, was modernist, not by aesthetics but created with reductive reasoning principles he had learned at university, it was made in response to the Australian climate. It had two wings with two low pitched roofs either side of an asymmetrical courtyard. The design was rejected by Warringah Council “as not looking like a house”.
With support from Walter Bunning and Sid Ancher he eventually received approval and finished the house in 1951. Ancher had taken Warringah Council to the NSW Supreme Court to get approval for a flat roofed house called Windy Drop Down; ironically it is one of the very few State-listed Historic buildings in Warringah.
Wrigley's house was not as big and didn't attract the same publicity and attention. He sold the house shortly after it was completed to return to the UK and for a world trip to the USA (visiting Philip Johnson, Walter Gropius, and Mies van der Rohe) and through Asia to complete what he called his architectural education. He returned to the quarry to build a small cabin whilst he designed and built OB2, a more ambitious structure and appearance, which he finished in 1956.
The houses were extraordinary for their time, and given the architect’s youth, and they rival works by Harry Seidler, Arthur Baldwinson and Walter Bunning - the creators of Sydney modernism. But the Cabin and OB2 were published alongside their better-known works in Phyllis Shillito’s Sixty Beach and Holiday Homes; in fact, the first two in the book, listed as ‘Young Idea for a Young Income’ and “Beauty Stems from the Structure’. Sadly, almost nothing remains of these three unusual striking and inventive houses, having been replaced by a block of flats and heavily altered.
Wrigley designed another ten houses, some in Sydney (the butterfly-roofed Hunt house in Dee Why), but most in Canberra where he moved in 1957, and these houses are part of Australia's most intense collection of modernist houses, elegantly documented in Milton Cameron's book Experiments in Modern Living: Scientists Houses in Canberra, 1950-1970.
These climatic adapted houses included his own OB3 in Janz Crescent in Griffith, and houses for Professors (Miles and Freeman) and others from the ANU and CSIRO such as the photographer Val Paral. If Wrigley had only designed these dozen houses, he would be rightly remembered as a significant modernist architect, in the vein of Gordon Drake in Los Angeles. But wait, there's more.
In 1957 Fred Ward, renowned furniture designer based in Melbourne, was appointed to establish the ‘Design Unit’ at the fledgling Australian National University. Ward approached Wrigley, whom he knew from establishing the Industrial Design Council of Australia the year before. Wrigley jumped at the chance to undertake what he called total design and he worked for 20 years at the University, eventually taking over from Ward as the head designer in 1961.
ANUDU managed all aspects of design: furniture, fittings, graphics, signage, the coats of arms, and the fit out for rooms and lecture halls, including the huge comfy armchairs in the Australian Academy of Science (Sir Roy Grounds). The design unit expanded to include industrial designers, landscape architects, graphic artists who collaboratively undertook the complete total design of the ANU campus in a way that had never been undertaken on any campus in the world.
Wrigley designed everything he could, from a waterfall on the main approach to the university to the choice of Garamond as its corporate font. ANUDU offered him a unique possibility to create a vast array of objects, which he later documented in two books: Fred Ward, Australian Pioneer Designer, 1900 to 1990 and later The ANU Design Unit, Design Awareness in the Modern University, 1954 to 1977.
I implore you to seek out these two books to see what a wonderful experiment was conducted at the beginnings of the ANU campus, integrating design into everything on the campus. The exhibition in 2019 of the 20 years of his work at ANU (for which the second book was created) would be enough to establish his reputation as one of Australia's leading industrial and furniture designers. But wait, there's more.
Wrigley left the university in 1977 to continue his interests in practice and particularly advocacy, a life-long dedication. In the quarry in OB2, he had meetings that led to founding the NSW chapter of the Society of Designers for Industry, inaugurated around 1955. This subsequently became the Industrial Design Institute of Australia, and eventually was a founding member of the Design Institute of Australia. He designed the original DIA logo (circle, square and triangle)
Wrigley purchased the historic Byrne’s Mill in Queanbeyan, to set up his architectural practice. Not content just to do his own work, he also founded the New Millwrights to act as advocates for sustainability. The idea was that the original millwrights forged the original industrial revolution, and now the ‘new’ millwrights would drive a post-industrial revolution for environmental sustainability by design.
Along with Roger Mann, (landscape architect at ANUDU), Alan Langworthy and several others I was one of the foundation members of the New Millwrights. I was to benefit from their enthusiasm and connections to win a grant for an exhibition of sustainable lifestyle changes for ACT secondary schools. A comic strip story called Watts Life, it reads now as a relic of a time of moral encouragement for people to change their lives, one of Wrigley’s passions.
Wrigley started the ACT branch of Technical Aid to the Disabled, known as TADACT; designers provide free services to design bespoke devices to improve the lives of disabled people in the region. For which work he earned an order of Australia. As an enthusiastic founder of societies and an advocate for design education, he deserved this recognition, but wait, there's more.
The fourth chapter of Wrigley’s life was an obsession with passive solar design. This he did in two ways: through a number of new experimental houses to show the possibilities for autonomous living, and later through books on how to renovate existing houses to make them more sustainable.
His first venture was whilst working at ANU: he suggested a prototype solar house design for a regular site in the newly open Tuggeranong valley. The building had innovations for both active and passive systems, but the university declined to proceed with the project. He later included many of his ideas in OB4 on the Burra Rd, past Queanbeyan.
This house, built from timber portal frames, had an angled roof for both water and air heating for the house and a series of ingenious canvas blades that could be tilted upwards to allow winter sunshine into the house in that cold climate, or could be folded down to provide better solar control in the summer. Typical of Wrigley's dictum that a passive house needs an active occupant.
He designed further versions of these solar houses, including the Kalma house in Kaleen ACT which had built in solar hot water panels, behind the highlight glass, and in 1983 his son Ben built OB5 just outside Canberra, using the same ideas for occupant interactive passive design, together with an active roof at a steeper pitch for better solar gain, as a skylight down through the center.
When Wrigley moved into an existing architect designed townhouse in Canberra in 1991, he discovered to his horror that it had few environmental attributes, leading him on a path to publish ideas to address sustainability in existing housing. Most architects concentrate on new buildings, dreaming to create a better world through their next original creation, ignoring what already exists.
In the last 25 years of his life his advocacy moved towards making existing homes more comfortable and he published guides on how to retrofit improvements to existing homes to make them more passive solar and more energy efficient. This included some remarkable experiments in using mirrors and heliostats to bounce sunlight from the south back into a house to improve its solar performance.
This was an ingenious combination of his love of industrial design and architecture but was not widely adopted. The rest of the book contains essential reading of ways to improve what is world's most poorly climate-adapted housing, and Australia’s big suburban failure.
This is my fondest memory of Derek Wrigley: an enthusiast for good design, which always meant good sustainable climatic design, and ultimately means addressing the issue of the huge number of unsustainable houses that we have in our suburbs. His lasting legacy at the end of his life was to address how those houses could be improved.
This summary draws on Derek Wrigley's own website, which contains a wealth of information on his life in design. Information also comes from an interview by the design historian Michael Bogle in June 2011 and an interview I did with him in 2019.
Derek Wrigley never stopped writing. At 95, he was calling for radical changes in how design is understood, taught and practiced, published by the DIA, The Future of Design in Australia and the Need for Action Now, which can be read here.
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]