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McCutcheon, Sir Walter Paul Osborn (1899–1983)

by Julie Willis

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Walter McCutcheon, by Norman Wodetzki, 1983

Walter McCutcheon, by Norman Wodetzki, 1983

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/2314

Sir Walter Paul Osborn McCutcheon (1899-1983), architect, was born on 8 April 1899 at Armadale, Melbourne, second of six children of Victorian-born parents Walter Bothwell McCutcheon, solicitor, and his wife Elizabeth, née Osborne. Raised in a strict Methodist household, Osborn was educated at Wesley College and in 1917 began attending lectures in architecture at the Working Men’s College, Melbourne. In 1918 he was articled to the prominent Melbourne architects Bates, Peebles & Smart, the continuation of the practice originally known as Reed & Barnes. In October that year McCutcheon enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force, but saw no active service and was discharged on Christmas Eve 1918.

In 1919-21 McCutcheon undertook a diploma of architecture (1928) at the University of Melbourne and then attended the university’s architectural atelier. He left Australia in 1922, working with the San Francisco architects Bakewell & Brown for about eighteen months and with Yates, Cook & Darbyshire in London in 1924. For most of 1925 he travelled in Europe. Returning to Melbourne, on 18 January 1926 he became a partner in his old firm. On 8 December 1928 at the Peace Memorial Methodist Church, East Malvern, he married Mary Frances (Molly) Buley.

McCutcheon brought a renewed focus on design quality to Bates, Smart & McCutcheon, demonstrated in an unprecedented three Royal Victorian Institute of Architects Street architecture medals: for the Australian Mutual Provident building, Melbourne (1932); for the Buckley & Nunn men’s store, Melbourne (1934); and for the Second Church of Christ Scientist, Camberwell (1938). In 1935 BSM won the national competition for the Mutual Life & Citizens Assurance Company (MLC) building in Sydney, further cementing the firm’s design credentials.

Increasingly involved in his profession, McCutcheon was part-time director (1930-39) of the school of architecture at Melbourne Technical College, where he taught professional practice. He was active within the RVIA (associate, 1930; fellow, 1939), serving on its council (1930-45; honorary secretary, 1933-39; president, 1941-42), as a member (1933-39, 1941-42, 1953-57) of its board of architectural education, and as one of its representatives (1929-42) on the board of studies in architecture at the University of Melbourne. President (1934-36) of the Victorian Building Industry Congress, he was also a council-member (1941-42) of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects.

In 1942 McCutcheon was appointed chief architect with the United States Army Corps of Engineers (South-West Pacific Area), and set about creating military infrastructure across Australia to service the war effort. In 1941-44 he was deputy-chairman of the Commonwealth War Workers’ Housing Trust and, after resigning from his post with the US Army, controller of planning (1944-46) and chief technical adviser on housing to the Commonwealth government. His contact with the Corps of Engineers gave him insight into highly organised management practices, skills that he brought back to BSM when he returned to full-time practice in 1946. He promoted this approach through a privately initiated architectural congress at Mount Eliza in 1953 and later through the RVIA practice groups that were formed after a series of meetings he organised among Melbourne architects in 1962.

By the 1950s BSM was one of Australia’s largest and most successful firms. Their projects were accomplished essays in modernism and many exhibited McCutcheon’s concern for linking architecture with other arts, particularly sculpture and landscape design. Under his direction BSM became a leader in commercial and educational design through projects such as the Imperial Chemical Industries buildings in Sydney (1956) and Melbourne (1955-58), the MLC building, North Sydney (1957), the master plan for Monash University (1960-61) and the chancery building for the Australian embassy in Washington DC (1964). He furthered his interest in urban development as a founding member (1967) of the Australian Institute of Urban Studies and managing partner (1969) of Urban Design & Planning Associates. In 1970-76 he served on the National Capital Planning Committee.

Awarded the RAIA gold medal in 1965 and knighted in 1966, Sir Osborn was good humoured and boundlessly energetic. He took up sailing in 1954, a passion that saw him win titles and help to establish a new class of yacht, the Flying Fifteen, in Australia. Conferred an honorary LL.D (1968) by Monash University and an honorary D.Arch (1983) by Melbourne, he was elected a life fellow of the RAIA in 1970 and of the Royal Australian Planning Institute in 1979. After retiring from active practice in 1977, he remained associated with BSM as a consultant and campaigned against his ‘pet hate’, ‘the tyranny of the motor car’ over urban living. Survived by his wife and their two sons and daughter, he died on 6 May 1983 at Frankston and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • J. M. Freeland, The Making of a Profession (1971)
  • G. Wilson, History of the Faculty of Architecture & Building, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Part I (1983)
  • P. Goad, Bates Smart (2004)
  • Architect (Melbourne), vol 3, no 39, 1976, p 8
  • Herald (Melbourne), 27 Sept 1972, p 2
  • C. McPherson, Biography of Sir Osborn McCutcheon (B.Arch thesis, University of Melbourne, 1983)
  • Bates, Smart & McCutcheon archives (Bates Smart, Melbourne)
  • private information.

Citation details

Julie Willis, 'McCutcheon, Sir Walter Paul Osborn (1899–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mccutcheon-sir-walter-paul-osborn-15066/text26265, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 24 August 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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