Architecture The Profession

Resources in the 18th Century

In the 18th century, at the time of settlement in New South Wales, architects came from varying backgrounds. There was no formalised institutionalised training such as exists today, and no prerequisite qualification or certified standards of skill. Some took the path through the building trade, particularly stone masonry, while others worked with a master architect and spent long hours in fine pen work, copying and tracing drawings. Yet others applied their military, engineering and surveying skills to building design. A spate of archaeological fervour had resulted in the rediscovery of Greek and Roman buildings, which led to treatises interpreting the features and symmetries of classical architecture. Translations were made of the writings of the Italian architect, Vitruvius, who worked in the first century BC. Translations were also available of the writings of several Italian architects of the 16th century, including Palladio, who had based their work on Vitruvius. Aspiring architects visited the sites of ancient classical buildings, and Rome was well known as the centre for enclaves of foreign artists and architects. The fortunate architects travelled to observe famous buildings at first hand and make drawings of them, while the less fortunate made do with the numerous illustrated manuals, encyclopaedias and reference books on architecture.

A major impetus to architecture during this period was the ambition of monarchs to display their power in palaces, monuments, museums and public buildings. Architecture, like art, depended on patronage, with families of wealth, education and culture fostering the demand for fine buildings. England and the German states were strongly influenced by ideas from France, and the monarchs often employed French architects for major projects.


Academies, which were set up to promote fine arts in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, were meeting places where students as well as experienced artists and architects could study and exchange ideas. They not only held lectures but organised major competitions, rewarding the winners with foreign travel and the prestige which assured them of a promising career.

In 1648 the Academie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture was established in France, followed in 1671 by the Academie Royale d'Architecture, both under the royal patronage of Louis X1V. They were incorporated into the famous Ecole des Beaux Arts where architecture was taught from 1819 to 1968. The concept was an extension of the mediaeval craftsmen's guilds, but it adopted a broader philosophical approach to the cultivation and appreciation of fine arts. Initially it enabled the king, who had no control of the guilds, to influence artists and architects. During the 19th century many of the students of the Ecole became prominent architects who had a profound influence on architecture in Britain, Europe and America, and indirectly, Australia.

At the Academy of London, founded in 1786, the Professor of Architecture was required to give six public lectures each year. The Institution Polytechnique, which opened in Paris in 1795, boasted ten schools, one of which was the school of painting, sculpture and architecture. Lectures given here by Jean Durand, an eminent architect, were published in 1802 and became a standard reference. His designs, which achieved practicality and economy, were based on principles of geometrical symmetry. The external walls were drawn as units divided into squares, allowing architectural elements to be harmoniously repeated, horizontally and vertically. Designs inspired by Classical, Gothic, Romanesque or other influences could be applied using his principles. This probably encouraged the eclectic approach to architectural styles which prevailed in the 19th century; it was this freedom of choice which influenced Australian architecture of the time.

Berlin also had an Academy of Fine Arts and in 1799 the Bauakademie (Building Academy) opened under royal patronage. Until 1886 it was housed on the upper floor of the Royal Mint which was designed by Heinrich Gentz. Gentz had taught architecture at the Academy of Fine Arts until the Bauakademie opened and he transferred there to teach town planning. Photos of the Mint building show many of the architectural elements inspired by French influences which were known as the Georgian style in England at that time. Apart from the ornate frieze, the simple classical monumentality of the building somehow suggests some of Australia's Commonwealth buildings more than a century later; brick work for the ground floor, cement rendered upper floors, tall simple windows, some with arched headers. The total effect was elegant yet monumental symmetry.

Time of Expansion

At the time of European settlement in Australia, architectural activity in Europe was rapidly increasing. In 1800 the population of Europe was 187 million and by 1900 it had reached 420 million. During the 19th century existing cities grew and new ones developed in response to industrial development. Post and telegraph facilities and railways were crossing the country, with offices and stations marking their progress. Markets and hotels multiplied, as did schools, hospitals and asylums. Imposing town halls reflected the civic pride of growing cities.

Because of the urgency and scale of demand, it was expedient to design basic plans for many public facilities so that they could be used in different places as required. Resources for ideas and styles of building, which circulated worldwide, included pattern books for domestic houses and drawings made on overseas tours. Builders' journals illustrated architectural details of noteworthy buildings, featured articles promoting professional development, and advertised new building products.

The Australian colonies did not lag behind, either in the growth of commerce or in the need to provide public services. Town planning was proceeding at the same pace as in Europe; in 1836 Charles Darwin commented that even London and Birmingham did not appear to be growing at the same rapid rate as Sydney.1 The achievements of the early Australian colonies were the more remarkable considering the short space of time in which public infrastructure was set up. Australia's government architects followed the trend of using certain styles for certain buildings; classical pillars topped with domes or triangular pediments graced court houses, and towers inspired by Italian influences adorned post offices.

Architecture in Early Australia

When Governor Phillip faced the task of building a colony at Sydney Cove in 1788, he had only one free man with building skills - a midshipman who had trained as a carpenter. The obvious people to bridge the gap were military surveyors and engineers, but there was not a surplus of this talent, and nothing to spare for public buildings.

Early Australian architecture was born in the throes of dire necessity: the accumulated skills of a small group of people were put to work combining the resources of the natural landscape with the few tools and building materials brought from England. The first buildings, apart from houses, were stores, barracks, and mills to grind the grain to feed the infant colony.

The government was responsible for all major buildings in the penal colony of New South Wales, a legacy which has continued to influence Australia's building heritage. Public works have been a cornerstone of the country's development, and government buildings have been a major part of these works. As colonies were settled, their governing bodies took responsibility for services in the major areas of settlement and in outlying districts. In each colony, the work of the Government Architect was closely linked with that of the Public Works Department.

An Australian Style?

'Architectural style' became the catch cry of the 19th century. Throughout Europe eclecticism and reproduction were all the rage: all styles were available to the architect and could be combined in endless variations.

The question of an Australian style received extensive coverage in publications such as the Australasian Builder and Contractor's News which was circulating by 1887 and read widely by architects, surveyors and engineers. Like its overseas counterparts, it advertised building products, competitions and government contracts, and reported on the progress of major building projects and meetings of the Institutes of Architects in each of the colonies. It also published addresses given by prominent citizens and articles raising important issues. The issue of colonial style was a recurring theme. On 14 May 1887, the paper published the views of John Sulman, a leading Sydney architect, on this matter:

Some twenty years ago when I was a hard working and enthusiastic student in the classes of the Architectural Association of London, the question uppermost in our minds and often on our tongues was the development of a new style of architecture. At that time Gothic was in the zenith of its fame, and we youngsters fondly hoped that on it would be based the style of the future... Vain hopes! Soon to be dispelled by the advent of Queen Anne, which ere long carried all before it in the realm of domestic art, and at last had the audacity to infringe on the sacred preserve of ecclesiastical work.

When two years ago Fate sent me as a traveller to the southern hemisphere, I naturally took great interest in the architecture of the Australian colonies, and was much struck by the prevalence of the Renaissance style which Kerr and Ferguson had vainly championed at home. Here I found a climate similar to that of Italy, and buildings of Italian design, which are neither cold looking or out of keeping with their surrounding conditions.

But they are most of them sadly commonplace satisfying the needs of the hour, and doing little in comparison to what might have been done to beautify the streets of our city. 2

Architects' Accreditation

The gold rushes of the 1850s had attracted thousands of fortune hunters, not least among them some qualified architects. In 1840 an Institute of Architects had been formed in Britain and, as numbers of architects increased in the colonies, it was appropriate that similar bodies would emerge. In 1852 the University of Sydney was founded and was soon followed by universities in the other colonies. The second half of the 19th century saw the development of tertiary qualifications, as well as professional bodies with which qualified architects could affiliate to express their views. The Australasian Builder and Contractor's News was often used to publicise these; in 1887 an article about South Australia reported that:

Last week a deputation of architects interviewed the Premier to bring under his notice a draft Bill, entitled "The Architects Act" which they requested to be introduced into Parliament.

It was stated that one of the objectives was to get the profession recognised in the colony, as were those in connection with law and medicine.

The object of the Bill was that architects should not be allowed to practise unless they could show themselves properly qualified. 3

From Victoria comments similarly concerned with architectural education were reported on 12 May 1888:

The Royal Institute of British Architects have made it compulsory for all who aspire to become associates to pass an exam, and I think the Victorian Institute of Architects should also endeavour to make it compulsory for all persons wishing to become members to show that they are in some way fitted to practise their profession with credit...

The Working Men's College lately established in Melbourne, will spread technical education amongst the masses...and so...we see the necessity of higher education of architects and they must not rest content, after going through the ordinary school course, with such knowledge as they may gather whilst serving their three or four years in an architect's office. 4

Government vs. Private Practice

From 1850 onwards the number of architects in private practice expanded rapidly; but the office of Government Architect continued to carry out the work for most of the government buildings. This led to dissatisfaction, often expressed through the Australasian Builder and Contractor's News. On 17 September 1887 it reported:

In addressing the members of the Sydney Institute last week Mr. Rowe, the President congratulated the members on their having secured one important point towards a recognised rule which would throw open to public competition, the preparation of designs for all state requirements in future years...

And then he expressed...their feelings of respect for the Colonial Architect, and their admiration of many of his works, and the opinion that both he and many of the able men under him would do much better for themselves outside than as officers of a department for which he felt the time had now arrived for it to cease to exist. 5

Despite this optimism, and open competitions for some buildings, the influence of the Government Architect continued unabated. The office was called upon to design court houses, lands offices, customs houses, post offices, hospitals and schools. Today the most ornate are often found in the most unlikely places, their present condition bearing no resemblance to their past glory. Let us now turn to the development of the office of the Government Architect.


  1. 1 Charles Darwin, The Voyage of 'The Beagle', pp. 431-2, quoted in David Day, Smugglers and Sailors, Australian Government Printing Service, Canberra, 1992, p. 190.
  2. Australasian Builder and Contractor's News, 14 May 1887, p. 3.
  3. Australasian Builder and Contractor's News, 22 October 1887, p. 379.
  4. Australasian Builder and Contractor's News, 12 May 1888, p. 315.
  5. Australasian Builder and Contractor's News, 17 September, 1887, p. 297