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Baldwinson, Arthur Norman (1908–1969)

by Richard E. Apperly and Peter Reynolds

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

Arthur Norman Baldwinson (1908-1969), architect, was born on 26 February 1908 at Kallaroo, near Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, son of native-born parents Horace Stanley Baldwinson, railway employee, and his wife Florence Augusta, née Griese (Grice). Arthur was educated at Quorn Public School, South Australia (1920-21), and the Goldfields High School, Kalgoorlie (1922 and 1925); while living at the Cottesloe household of his uncle, the schoolmaster Charles Grice, who interested him in poetry, literature and art, he went to the High School, Perth (1923-24). He attended the Imperial Jamboree of boy scouts at Wembley, London, in 1924.

A talented sketcher, Baldwinson was encouraged to study architecture and in June 1925 enrolled at the Gordon Institute of Technology, Geelong, Victoria. Having qualified in 1929, he taught there until 1931. He won the William Campbell sketching competition in 1930 and next year was admitted as an associate of the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects. The Depression brought building to a standstill. After saving £42 for the fare, in April 1931 he reached London where he was employed as a casual illustrator and in the office of the Australian-born architect Raymond McGrath. In 1934 Baldwinson travelled through Europe, visiting galleries and modern buildings. That year he worked in London for E. Maxwell Fry, a leading English modernist, who was joined by the architect Walter Gropius, a refugee from the Nazis. Baldwinson became Gropius's assistant in 1935, designing halls of residence at Cambridge and Oxford, and the college at Impington, Cambridgeshire.

In November 1936 Baldwinson agreed to join the Melbourne architects Stephenson & Meldrum and soon took charge of major projects in the firm's Sydney office. Within one year he returned to Melbourne where, on 18 September 1937 at the government statist's office, he married Elspeth Lee-Lewes; they were to remain childless.

Settling in Sydney in March 1938, Baldwinson won all three categories in a competition organized by the Timber Development Association of Australia: his experience with Gropius had enabled him to design simple houses in the modern style. He entered private practice, first at Manly and then in the city, assisted only by Elspeth as secretary and typist. That year, with John Oldham, he designed 230 houses and recreational and shopping facilities for the Coomaditchy Lagoon project at Port Kembla, only part of which was completed. His domestic work in Sydney produced some influential designs: William Collins's uncompromisingly modern house (1938) at Palm Beach, a rectangular box, clad in Sydney blue-gum weatherboards, on a rock-faced sandstone base, its severity relieved by a strong, diagonal, external staircase; and the Kingsford Smith house (1939) in dense bushland on Pittwater, another timber-framed building, with simple massing and a low-pitched, skillion roof.

In 1939 Baldwinson became a founding member of the Modern Architectural Research Society which was disbanded late in 1943 when most of its members were away on war service. In 1940 the Maritime Services Board engaged him to design major reconstructions of the ferry wharves at Manly and Circular Quay; the clean lines of these cream-painted, timber-clad structures were appropriately 'modern' and 'maritime'.

Appointed principal architect (1940) for the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation Pty Ltd factory at Lidcombe, he left Sidney Hirst in charge of his practice. Baldwinson was based in Adelaide until early 1942, converting General Motors-Holden's Ltd's plant at Woodville for aircraft production. Seconded to the Commonwealth Department of Aircraft Production at Fishermens Bend and Essendon, Melbourne, he designed buildings for the production of Lancaster aircraft. From 2 August 1943 until the end of the war he was chief architect of the Beaufort division. In January 1946 Baldwinson produced a series of prefabricated houses for the State government, using the Beaufort facilities at Fishermens Bend; a steel-framed prototype was erected in three weeks in May at the Treasury Gardens. The government ordered five thousand houses, but only twenty-three were built.

From 1946 Baldwinson worked from an office in Sydney. He designed houses (often in bushland settings) in the modern style, mainly for artists and photographers, including a split-level home for Richard Foot and his wife Elaine Haxton at Clareville (1949), and Max Dupain's at Castlecrag (1952). Cleanly planned and crisply detailed, these houses used large areas of glass to take advantage of the views and the sun. Baldwinson designed in 'an unaffected fashion', uninfluenced 'by conventions or tradition'. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he often used natural timber finishes to add a touch of warmth. As happened to Sydney Ancher and Harry Seidler, one of Baldwinson's designs was rejected by local councillors who alleged that it was 'more like an air raid shelter than a home'. His own house at Greenwich (1953) was described by one alderman as 'a fruit box on four walls'.

Beyond his busy practice, Baldwinson was involved with the Royal Australian Institute of Architects as New South Wales correspondent (1948-55) for its journal, Architecture; he was an assessor for the (Sir John) Sulman award (1950) and became a fellow (1951) of the R.A.I.A. From 1953 he was senior lecturer in town and country planning at the University of Sydney. His business partners included Charles Vernon Sylvester-Booth (1953-58), Charles Peters (1956-58) and Geoffrey Twibill (1958-59); the firm designed houses, motor showrooms and factories; their Hotel Belmont won the Sulman medal in 1956. Baldwinson produced a perspective drawing of Jørn Utzon's winning design for the Sydney Opera House which was presented to the public on 30 January 1957.

Late in 1960 Baldwinson closed his office, but continued to teach until 1969. With Elspeth, he went abroad in 1961 and 1966-67. At weekends he visited and photographed old buildings for the State branch of the National Trust of Australia. Survived by his wife, he died of myocardial infarction on 25 August 1969 in Royal North Shore Hospital and was cremated with Anglican rites. The quiet, unassuming modesty which had so endeared Arthur Baldwinson to his friends may help to explain why his achievement was relatively unrecognized in his lifetime.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Boyd, Victorian Modern (Melb, 1947)
  • R. Boyd, Australia's Home (Melb, 1952)
  • Art and Australia, 1 Dec 1941, 7, no 3, Dec 1969
  • Architecture Australia, Oct 1950, 59, no 1, Feb 1970, 66, no 1, Feb 1977
  • RAIA News, 6, no 12, Dec 1969
  • Architectural Science Review, 12, no 4, Dec 1969
  • R. Apperly, Sydney Houses 1914-1939 (M.Arch. thesis, University of New South Wales, 1972)
  • G. C. Holman, Arthur Baldwinson, His Houses and Works (B.Arch. thesis, University of New South Wales, 1980)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 19 Mar, 26 July 1938
  • Australian, 27 Oct 1967.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Richard E. Apperly and Peter Reynolds, 'Baldwinson, Arthur Norman (1908–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/baldwinson-arthur-norman-9414/text16547, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 15 October 2018.

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

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