The Australian architectural community is mourning the loss of Gabriel Poole, awarded the 1998 Australian Institute of Architects Gold Medal. Gabriel was a giant of domestic modernism in Queensland.
Tributes have flowed for this highly influential architect and no wonder: his houses were delightful experiments in in the subtropical living, forms that are indelibly embedded in Australian architectural psyche.
I would like to celebrate Gabriel Poole with three stories from my occasional times with him, but first some background biographical and architectural data.
Gabriel was born in Ipswich, west of Brisbane in 1934. From 1951 to 1955 he was jackarooing at Burnett in Queensland. In 1957 he started work as a draftsman in the office of Robin Gibson in Brisbane and during that time he completed his first house in in 1962 in Brisbane. Leaving Gibson's office in 1963 he worked in London for James Cadbury Brown, and Powell and Moya.
Returning to Brisbane, in 1966 he graduated from the Queensland Technical College with a diploma in architecture, but not before he was failed in his final project by the redoubtable Jim Birrell. Gabriel worked for a time in the office of Conrad and Gargget in Brisbane, but then set out on his own, designing a series of houses, including his own second house at Graceville.
In the early seventies Gabriel designed increasingly lightweight houses on the Sunshine Coast: Mooloolaba, Buderim and Yandina, at a time when Hastings Street in Noosa was a dirt track. From 1978 until 1985 he was in partnership with John Mainwaring, a fellow traveller of invention, creativity, and love of life.
Their work included small commercial buildings on Hastings St (now gone) and the ‘Hastings house’ on one of the early canal developments around Noosa. He also designed the first of the Quadropod houses in Noosa (in association with Michael Gloucester) (on both of which more in a moment).
After leaving John Mainwaring, he worked by himself and then in partnership with his wife, the interior designer Elizabeth. The key house from this time was the Eumundi house, which won the RAIA Queensland innovation award, the Robin Dodds award and the RAIA National Robin Boyd award. It was half tent / half house. It expressed all the experimental work that he was becoming so well known for.
He continued to design innovative houses in all the areas of the sunshine coast. In 1996 he designed the Alkira apartments in Noosa heads as well as some project houses (at Rainbow Shores). In 1997 came another stunning house: three steeply pitched roofs over loose sheds: Poole house 3 at Lake Wyeba, which it was named after.
Lake Wyeba House
In 1998 he was awarded the RAIA Gold Medal for lifetime services to architecture. The citation, written by the eloquent Michael Kenniger, professor of architecture and friend, included:
“In many ways, the achievements of Gabriel Poole can be taken to represent the ideals and aspirations of the majority of sole practitioners who are the backbone of the profession. He has consistently maintained an exploratory and innovative stance to the making of architecture, and his career has been characterized by his resilience and by his determined and imaginative responses to the challenges of practice. His dedication to him invention and the achievement of quality in architecture has resulted in a body of work that has had an extraordinary impact on colleagues, clients, students, and emerging architects”.
Amongst the many architects to pass through his doors, learning at his drafting table, were Lindsay and Kerry Clare, who paid tribute to him in the Gold Medal presentation. The Clares were featured along with Gabriel and John Mainwaring in Peter Hyatt’s beautifully illustrated 2001 book Local Heroes, documenting what is now the ‘Sunshine Coast style’.
Lindy Aitken and Stephen Guthrie, the co-founders of Bark Design, another architectural practice that has flourished in Poole spirit, also worked in his office. And just in passing may I ask, what is it about these successful married architectural couples on the Sunshine Coast?
Gabriel worked ever more intensely on low cost housing solutions: flat pack prefabrication systems and self-funding an exhibition project home on a prominent corner, although it was better known, and copied, than built. Right up until his death Gabriel was working on ideas for lower cost modular designed homes, particularly ones for tri-generations of parents, grandparents and children, to include a particular care for aged care facilities.
An impressive life, a worthy gold medal winner. But what was Gabriel really like? I can share three stories of time spent with Gabriel to illuminate the man as well as the architect.
The first was in 1981 or 82 when, as an architecture lecturer at Canberra University (then CAE), I took a small group of students to the SE Queensland for a study tour. I’d arranged to visit the Hastings house one afternoon. We were to have a view of the house and some discussion with the architects and move on.
As the afternoon turned to evening, wine was brought in, some food and a lot more discussion ensued. The students were staying in the local caravan park (and I in some motel), but we all ended up sleeping in various corners of this open pavilion structure that John and Gabriel had designed at the edge of the water in Noosa.
It was an entrancing evening into long night. The students had met architects of ideas and passion, with a deep understanding of site and climate. And such invention and creativity. An engaging commitment to, and passion for, architecture, all of it lived large. One night that has lasted with me, and I suspect a dozen students, who were there almost 40 years ago.
My second interaction with Gabriel was throughout the 90’s, when frequent trips to the Sunshine Coast would mean looking out for the latest Poole houses. Every architect knew where the really good houses were, but if you wanted the secret insights (or was it ‘in sites’), then Lindsay and Kerrie Clare were quick to point out where to find them.
This often meant going around, and particularly underneath, for an inspection of the Quadropod system, a single post that splits into four arms to hold up the structure; an elegant structural solution, like a tree with its trunk anchored in the ground rising to a few points branching out to support the bearers and lightweight.
My third interaction with Gabriel came recently with his restless invention. He'd designed a system of spaced sheets of corrugated steel that promoted air flow up between the sheets, creating a ventilated lightweight roof, naturally insulated. He was certain this lightweight low-cost solution would solve some problems of low-cost housing.
However, at that time ‘NatHERS’ regulations had been introduced requiring certain standards of thermal performance for the buildings. Gabriel needed an ‘R-value’ for this new roof type so it could be used in houses and gain a NatHERS rating (so it could be approved).
He asked for my help as I was one of the first practitioners who had looked under the bonnet of NatHERS: I knew its fine intentions, but I had railed against its limitations. I was dedicated to finding loopholes. I laboured long and hard to find a ‘work-around’ loophole, but in the end I failed: all I could suggest that the roof would be useful on semi-outdoor spaces (the bulk of his house designs IMHO), but NatHERS required a more conventional roof for the indoors.
This was the ultimate triumph of inflexible technology defeating the inventive creativity of someone like Gabriel Poole. The roof design certainly works, reducing heat loads like a ‘fly- tent structure’ for the outside spaces of the building, but you couldn’t twist architectural physics to give it an R-rating to satisfy a computer program so beloved of tick-the-box bureaucrats.
I mourn the passing of Gabriel Poole, but I celebrate a life well lived. He was the quintessential regionalist in Kenneth Frampton's terms. Like all the architectural generations who followed I am forever in his debt for his enthusiasm, creativity, invention, and for thinking the box into a tent, and then beyond the tent into the portable, modular, lightweight, low cost house.
Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. Comments or corrections can be addressed to [email protected].