PETER PROUDFOOT, 1936 – 2022
Peter Proudfoot worked for many years with the government architects and designed a number of police station and courthouses which are still standing and in use. The quality of the government architect’s work in the ’60s brought it to the forefront of the architectural profession in NSW. He considered himself fortunate to have been part of this.
Proudfoot also did great work as an architectural historian in the 1980s and ’90s, publishing several articles, and two books, The Secret Plan of Canberra and Seaport Sydney, the latter based on his doctorate. There was wide-ranging interest in his Canberra book in particular, and he did several radio interviews about the book and the Burley Griffins.
Peter Reginald Proudfoot was born in Paddington in 1936 and grew up in Sydney’s eastern suburbs – the blue-collar section of Bellevue Hill. He had an uncertain childhood, as his father, John, enlisted as a serviceman in WWII and went to Papua New Guinea as a cartographer, and his mother, Adele, suffered from mental illness and alcoholism. He was mainly raised by his two grandmothers, Mary Proudfoot and Sylvia Bowden.
As a young boy Proudfoot participated in the Battle of Bellevue Hill, where the little boys would roam around inspecting the unexploded shells that landed in the eastern suburbs in 1942 from Japanese midget submarines. His father was a communist, and Proudfoot would go with him to Russian films in the old Trades Hall in George Street as a nine-year-old.
When he was 14, he moved with John to the Northern Beaches and finished his high schooling as dux of Manly Boys High School in 1953.
Proudfoot secured a Department of Education Commonwealth scholarship to study architecture at Sydney University in 1954. On graduating, he worked as assistant architect at the NSW Government’s Architects office from 1960 to ’64 and designed government buildings and police stations, some of which are still in use. He designed the police stations in Dubbo, Merrylands, Blacktown and Eastwood, as well as the courthouses at Hillstone and Blacktown. He claimed that the local mayor arrived on a camel to open the Eastwood Police Station.
After employment in England with the firm of Sheppard Robson, Proudfoot had time in Rome as the 1965 Rome scholar and completed his master of architecture under the tutelage of Louis Kahn in Philadelphia. Returning to Sydney, Proudfoot married town planner Helen Baker in 1968. Their daughters Ann and Emma were born in 1968 and 1970 respectively.
Requiring a steady job to support his young family, Proudfoot did a PhD at the University of NSW, and then took a position as lecturer in architecture there under the auspices of the newly appointed head of architecture and his old mentor, H. Ingham Ashworth.
At that time in UNSW, as in other Australian universities, the education of architects was still largely focused on the teaching of design in the studio. For students the studio was like a second home, a site of wide-ranging conversation among themselves and with their assigned tutor. It was here that Proudfoot made his presence felt.
His singular passion for the subject, influenced both by his father’s commercial art career and by his undergraduate tuition by Lloyd Rees and Roland Wakelin, saw architectural design akin to the making of art, a process of developing ideas as far as they would go.
Proudfoot would urge his students to work with their own desires and tastes, and to make the most of these things – to think big – even when those ideas (precedents and models such as the work of Frank Lloyd Wright) were contrary to his own taste.
A former student remembers that Proudfoot always encouraged his students to attack a design problem from first principles. Failure in this regard leads to an analogous but inferior result which does not allow for real creativity. Many of his students have proved successful within the architectural profession, predominantly as a result of being taught in this way.
Proudfoot would often take up a pencil himself to show what he meant. In his work in the studio he never questioned his students’ good faith or their capabilities, but he insisted on their engaging in a frank dialogue. And he was always formally addressed as Dr Proudfoot, and addressed his students by surname only.
The studio experience with Proudfoot left a lasting impression: a rare encounter with a personality, flawed and eccentric, cutting and encouraging, sometimes comic, who took architecture seriously, and saw it as a calling in which they might excel – a fascinating, seemingly maverick figure.
Once he brought a portfolio of his own work into the studio, including his 1965 Rome Prize scheme. Marked by sinuously curving ceilings and portentous towers, this work seemed to channel the spirit of the baroque, in sharp contrast to the abstemious modernism and earthbound localism prevalent at the time in Sydney.
His design brilliance, by which he had won the Rome Prize in Architecture in 1965, did not reach its apogee in the built environment, but when given the opportunity to design a scheme – for the new Parliament House in Canberra – he was able to let fly to creativity, non-conventionality, and amazing structures.
Proudfoot faced demons in the form of alcoholism. The years 1975 to ’80 were a dark period for him as he lost almost everything that he valued. Through his desire to be reunited with his family and the help of a good doctor, he eventually shook that demon and never relapsed.
At least once in his days of behaving badly he was taken to the lock-up in a police station he designed himself. Whenever anyone mentioned Dad’s sporting ability, he would quip: I did my best times running from the police.
In retirement, Proudfoot often visited Gunnedah, the home of his wife Helen’s family property. His legacy lives on there, as well as the family home in Roseville, which he designed in 1984 in magnificent modernist fashion, and the buildings he designed for the government architect’s branch in the 1960s. However, his force of personality and architectural brilliance informed a generation of architecture students.
Proudfoot was single-minded to succeed at his interests, but equally determined to avoid situations or circumstances not to his liking. He was never on the electoral roll or documented in the census. He was an anarchist at heart.
He excelled at both sport and music. When young, he was a skilled cricketer as a leg spinner, on one occasion taking 10 wickets for 128 runs in a single innings. In his adult years, squash and golf sustained him. He was a student at the Conservatorium of Music and played the oboe in the Sydney Youth Orchestra. He seriously considered a career as a musician but chose architecture instead.
Proudfoot’s teaching at UNSW continued and he was awarded large Australian Research Council grants for multiple projects, including the Griffin Canberra design and architectural education in Australia.
Old age became fraught for Proudfoot as he did not take instruction on how to improve his health kindly, and grew frustrated with his failing body and mind. But this Keats phrase was one of his favourites, and he lived it to the end: I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination.
Proudfoot valued the tenets of classical culture – academic pursuit, physical activity, and beauty from art, architecture and music. He had few daily worries. He had enough money to do the things he wanted to do, and was really up with the gods on Mount Olympus rather than thinking about everyday life. These tenets informed his work as a teacher and where his strengths lay.
Peter Proudfoot is survived by his daughters Ann and Emma, and grandchildren Matthew, Thomas, Claire and Leila. Helen died in 2011.
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