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Cummings, Robert Percy (1900–1989)

by Ian Sinnamon

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Robert Percy Cummings (1900-1989), architect, was born on 11 September 1900 at Kelvin Grove, Brisbane, third child of Victorian-born Frank Percy Cummings, warehouseman, and his wife Catherine Elizabeth, née Brown, who came from England. At 14 Robert left Eagle Junction State School to work in the timber-manufacturing firm of Brown & Broad Ltd as office-boy and then draftsman. His contact with structural prefabrication and his ability to prepare meticulous working drawings encouraged an interest in architecture. From 1916 he took evening classes at the Central Technical College (Dip.Arch., 1923). Articled at various times to Lange Powell, Francis Hall and H. G. Kirkpatrick, he was employed (1919-23) as an architectural draftsman by the Commonwealth War Service Homes Commission. He had enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on his eighteenth birthday, two months before World War I ended, but was not called up.

In 1924 Cummings won the Queensland Wattle League’s architectural scholarship, enabling him to study for three years at the Architectural Association School, London, and to obtain its diploma of architecture (1928). Awarded (1927) the Rome scholarship in architecture, he was in residence for two years at the British School at Rome. He became (1928) an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. After further professional and teaching experience in London, late in 1930 he returned to Brisbane. On 17 April 1933 at his father’s house at Clayfield, he married with Methodist forms Mavis Mifanwy Williams, a schoolteacher. In 1934-36 he was in charge of the architecture course at the Central Technical College. He formed a partnership with F. Bruce Lucas in 1936, a time when architectural work was scarce. Two notable commissions were the First Church of Christ, Scientist, on North Quay (1939), reminiscent of the Dutch public buildings of the (Willem) Dudok school and ingeniously planned on a restricted site, and extensions (comprising a self-effacing group of slab and local stone buildings) to Binna Burra Lodge, in Lamington National Park.

When the University of Queensland’s faculty of engineering introduced a part-time diploma course in architecture in 1937, Cummings was appointed lecturer. In World War II he assumed additional tasks, including working with erstwhile students and artists for a unit researching and implementing military camouflage systems in south-east Queensland and northern New South Wales. He and his wife held a regular `open house’ at their Alderley home on Sundays for visiting servicemen and women. Their guests included the official war artists Douglas Annand and Donald Friend. This custom of domestic hospitality was later to extend to successive waves of students.

In 1948 the university established a faculty of architecture, having instituted a degree course the previous year. Cummings was awarded (1948) an honorary bachelor’s degree, and was appointed foundation professor in February 1949. He and his colleague Bruce Lucas provided a sound framework of theoretical, practical and professional knowledge, retaining always the affection and esteem of colleagues and students. On retiring in December 1966 he was made emeritus professor. In 1987 the university conferred on him an honorary doctorate of letters.

President (1948-50) of the Queensland chapter of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, Cummings was made a life fellow in 1959. Fulfilling other public roles, he was a trustee of the Queensland (National) Art Gallery (1939-67) and of the Royal Queensland Art Society (1944-69), and a member (195868) of the Greater Brisbane Planning Committee. He was a skilful photographer and a keen gardener. In retirement he lived at Currumbin on the Gold Coast. Survived by his son and two daughters, he died on 27 September 1989 at his home and was cremated. His wife had predeceased him. A portrait of Cummings by his daughter Elisabeth is held by the department of architecture, University of Queensland. His stocky figure also appears in a gallery of sculptures of founding professors, in the guise of grotesques, on the walls of the cloisters of the Great Court.

Select Bibliography

  • I. Sinnamon and M. Keniger, Ideas into Practice (1987)
  • Courier (Brisbane), 21 June 1924, p 6
  • Queensland Architect, Nov 1989, p 4
  • Cummings papers (University of Queensland Library)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ian Sinnamon, 'Cummings, Robert Percy (1900–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cummings-robert-percy-12379/text22247, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 21 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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