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Harrison, Peter Firman (1918–1990)

by P. N. Troy

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

Peter Firman Harrison (1918-1990), architect and town planner, was born on 21 October 1918 at Annerley, Brisbane, third of four sons of Reginald Ainsworth Harrison, a Victorian-born warehouse manager, and his English-born wife Winifred Nellie, née Jones. Arthur Mander Harrison was his elder brother. Growing up in Sydney during the Depression, Peter was educated at Rose Bay and Darlinghurst Superior public schools and at the Central Technical School, Ultimo, where he completed his Intermediate certificate in 1933. His first job was in a factory at Woolloomooloo, polishing pick handles.

In 1934 Harrison obtained a position in the drawing office of the Australian Gas Light Co. Two years later he commenced a civil engineering night-school course at the Sydney Technical College. He became a draughtsman in the works and services branch of the Commonwealth Department of the Interior in 1939. In the same year he switched to the architecture course, gaining his diploma in 1942. Through his studies he developed an enduring interest in the work of Walter Burley Griffin. His own experience and acute observations of the realities of commercial life for `ordinary people’ left him with an abiding appreciation of their aspirations and sensibilities.

At St John’s Church of England, Georges Plains, on 22 June 1942 Harrison married Joyce Paddison, a trained nurse. On 23 October that year he enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force. He served as an architectural draughtsman at No.1 Divisional Works Office, Sydney, and was promoted to temporary sergeant in January 1945. Discharged on 8 October, he joined the Commonwealth Department of Works and Housing. He was a draughtsman and planning officer for the Cumberland County Council in 1946-50, while studying part time at the University of Sydney for a diploma in town and country planning (1951). On completion he was appointed senior lecturer in Denis Winston’s department of town and country planning at the university. Divorced on 30 May 1957, he married Sheila Winifred Booth, a planning officer, on 22 June at St Andrew’s Scots Church, Rose Bay.

In 1955 Harrison was a member of the committee of the (Royal) Australian Planning Institute that made a submission to the Senate Select Committee on the Development of Canberra, arguing that the Griffin plan should be implemented. The National Capital Development Commission, established in 1958, appointed Harrison as its first chief planner early in 1959. He made a strong case for the expansion of Canberra, mounted a vigorous defence of Griffin’s approach and developed the case for the `Y-Plan’ for the layout of the city, which was adopted in 1967. One of his critical responses to some of the more adventurous planning proposals he dealt with was to apply the `mother test’, as in `Would my mother live in it?’ A man of high principle, he was impatient with humbug, and he dismissed cant and hypocrisy in colourful terms.

Harrison left the NCDC as first assistant commissioner to take up a fellowship (1967-79) in the urban research unit, Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University. In 1971 the University of New South Wales conferred on him a master’s degree in architecture for his thesis on Griffin, published posthumously by the National Library of Australia in 1995. He was awarded life fellowship of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (1971) and the RAPI (1978). In 1972 the Sydney division of the RAPI awarded him its Sidney Luker memorial medal in recognition of his contribution to town and regional planning.

Although his published output was prodigious, Harrison made few contributions to academic journals, preferring to exert his profound influence on his colleagues through professional journals, conference presentations and the popular press. His strong defence of the public interest in urban planning often saw him take issue with political leaders, senior bureaucrats and private entrepreneurs alike. This aspect of his independent character was not always welcomed although he did earn respect for his courage and independence.

In 1980 Harrison was appointed AM. His distress at proposals for Canberra’s development led him, in 1985, to resign from the Order. He also resigned his life fellowship of the RAIA in 1990 in protest at the policies of the institute’s Australian Capital Territory chapter on the Metropolitan Canberra Policy and Development Plan. Harrison lived modestly but was generous to students and colleagues. Survived by his wife, he died on 30 October 1990 in Royal Canberra Hospital and was cremated. He had no children. His most enduring legacy lies in his adaptation of the Griffin plan to accommodate the growth of Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Sparke, Canberra 1954-1980 (1988)
  • Australian Planner, vol 28, no 4, 1990, p 47
  • Canberra Times, 6 Nov 1968, p 19, 4 Nov 1990, p 21
  • Australian Business, 28 Nov 1990, p 43
  • P. Spearritt, interview with P. F. Harrison (transcript, 1983, National Library of Australia)
  • J. Weirick, interview with P. F. Harrison (transcript, 1990, National Library of Australia)
  • series A9301, item 72027 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Peter Harrison papers (National Library of Australia)
  • personal knowledge.

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Citation details

P. N. Troy, 'Harrison, Peter Firman (1918–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/harrison-peter-firman-12596/text22687, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 19 November 2018.

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

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