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Ancher, Sydney Edward Cambrian (1904–1979)

by Richard E. Apperly and Peter Reynolds

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Sydney Edward Cambrian Ancher (1904-1979), architect, was born on 25 February 1904 at Woollahra, Sydney, son of Edward Albert Ancher, a journalist from New Zealand, and his Australian-born wife Ethel Puah, née Parsons. Educated at Mosman Superior Public, North Sydney Boys' High and Sydney Technical High schools, young Ancher was articled (1924-26) to the architect E. W. S. Wakeley and in 1926-30 gained experience with Wunderlich Ltd, Prevost, Synnot & Ruwald, and Ross & Rowe. From 1924 he attended Sydney Technical College at night and qualified as an architect in 1929. Next year he was awarded the Australian medallion and travelling scholarship of the Board of Architects of New South Wales.

In July Ancher arrived in London where he worked in the offices of leading architects, among them Cyril Farey, a perspectivist, and Joseph Emberton, a modernist. Travelling extensively in Europe, Ancher first saw the work of Mies van der Rohe at the Weissenhof-Siedlung housing colony at Stuttgart, Germany, and the 1931 building exhibition in Berlin. Van der Rohe and Le Corbusier became his idols.

Arriving home in January 1936, Ancher married a stenographer Aaletha Ethel Hasemer on 26 November at the Presbyterian Church, Mosman. He worked for Emil Sodersten and then with Reginald A. de T. Prevost. Ancher made a major contribution to the design of an avant-garde house for the Prevost family at Bellevue Hill. Completed in 1937, it was a rare Australian example of the radical International Style. He put the rigorous ideology into practice by using abstract geometric elevations, circular windows as a counterpoint to rectangular ones, curved walls in contrast to rectilinear shapes, and 'open planning' by means of the interrelated spaces on the ground floor adjacent to the entrance. Elsewhere, the house was conventional. In his typical, self-deprecatory way, he later dismissed this design as 'pretty ghastly', but the Prevost house revealed how Ancher was moving towards the kind of architecture which he would help to establish in his own country after World War II.

The partnership of Prevost & Ancher, begun in 1937, thrived on a steady stream of designs for hotels. Acknowledging that it was 'considered madness', in January 1939 Ancher sailed with his wife for England to seek more creative outlets for his talent. In London he was impressed by four lectures given by Frank Lloyd Wright; he also travelled in Denmark, Sweden and Finland, where he was 'bowled over' by some of the modern building. With the outbreak of war, he returned to Sydney late in 1939. He worked for three months for the Commonwealth government and subsequently with John D. Moore.

On 3 June 1940 Ancher enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force as a sapper in the 2nd/6th Field Company. He embarked for the Middle East in October. Commissioned lieutenant in March 1941, he was posted to the Garrison Engineers, A.I.F. Base Area. Back in Australia in March 1942, he performed engineering and architectural duties, mainly at Land Headquarters, Melbourne. He was transferred to the Reserve of Officers with the rank of major on 28 July 1944 and appointed technical officer at the Commonwealth experimental building station.

Resuming private practice in 1945, Ancher designed about ten houses a year until 1951, all in his mature, modern style, and made alterations and additions to numerous hotels. His own home at Killara, Sydney, was awarded the (Sir John) Sulman medal for 1945, despite postwar restrictions and shortages, and in the face of obstructions from a conservative local council which required amendments to be made to some of his designs. W. M. Farley's house at North Curl Curl also aroused the ire of Warringah Shire Council. When building approval was refused for Ancher's proposed flat-roofed house with large areas of glass, his determined client took the matter to court and the council's ruling was overturned in a landmark judgement in 1948. Among the other important homes which followed were the English house at St Ives (1949) and a house that Ancher built for himself at Neutral Bay (1956), the latter having a modular plan derived from its post-and-beam construction.

In 1952 Ancher took two of his assistants into partnership as Ancher, Mortlock & Murray. The flow of domestic and hotel work continued. From 1960 the practice expanded to take commissions for council chambers, municipal libraries and university buildings, and was joined by Ken Woolley in 1964. Ancher retired from the firm in 1966 and moved to Coffs Harbour where he completed a house for himself in 1968. His wife died in 1970. Two years later he moved to another self-designed home near Camden, and later to Fosterton, near Dungog. He had been a councillor of the State chapter of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects and was awarded its gold medal in 1975. Survived by his two sons, he died on 8 December 1979 in hospital at Waratah and was cremated.

With Arthur Baldwinson, Robin Boyd, (Sir) Roy Grounds and Harry Seidler, Ancher had pioneered modern domestic architecture in Australia. His houses of the late 1940s and 1950s became widely known and demonstrated to others the possibilities of a new approach to the field. Their appeal lay in their subtlety, their suitability for Sydney's temperate climate and their encouragement of a freer life-style for their occupants. Ancher was an unassuming man who firmly rejected the tags of 'intellectual' and 'rationalist'. Many of his planning ideas evolved from a response to simple functional demands, tempered by his penchant for doing things 'his way'. His houses, which have a quality 'rather like a hard-edged painting', demonstrate his conviction that the beauty of the natural environment could be sensitively complemented by the man-made precision of his structures. The rigorous simplicity which characterizes his architecture is tempered by understatement, and by a certain relaxed quality which may be seen as expressing something of the Australian ethos.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Saunders and C. Burke, Ancher, Mortlock, Murray, Woolley (Syd, 1976)
  • J. Taylor, An Australian Identity, Houses for Sydney, 1953-63 (Syd, 1972, 1984)
  • J. Taylor, Australian Architecture Since 1960 (Syd, 1986)
  • Architecture Australia, 69, no 1, Mar 1980
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8 May 1930, 27 June 1944, 29 Oct, 11 Dec 1946, 2 Mar 1948, 12 Dec 1979
  • National Times, 16-21 Feb 1976
  • R. Apperly, Sydney Houses 1914-1939 (M.Arch. thesis, University of New South Wales, 1972)
  • C. Boesen, Sydney Ancher: A Profile (B.Sc.(Arch.) Hons thesis, University of Sydney, 1979).

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Citation details

Richard E. Apperly and Peter Reynolds, 'Ancher, Sydney Edward Cambrian (1904–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ancher-sydney-edward-cambrian-9348/text16413, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 19 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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