Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Oliphant, Kenneth Henry Bell (1894–1975)

by Roger Pegrum

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Kenneth Henry Bell Oliphant (1894-1975), architect, was born on 10 November 1894 at Bendigo, Victoria, fourth child of James Glen Oliphant, a schoolteacher from Scotland, and his English-born wife Hannah, née Bell. Educated at St Andrew's College, Bendigo, Ken trained as an architect in Melbourne. On 10 January 1916 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. He served on the Western Front and rose to corporal in the 10th Field Company, Engineers. After suffering a bullet-wound to the right thigh on 19 April 1918, he was admitted to hospital, and was discharged from the army on 3 December.

Continuing his studies at an atelier in Melbourne, Oliphant showed particular skills in residential design. He was elected an associate of the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects in 1921 and commenced practice that year. His designs for a two-storeyed house (1922), his drawings for a parish hall at Kew (1925-26), and the plans and photographs of three of his completed houses in Canberra (1930) were all published. By 1925 he was employed in the firm of Oakley & Parkes, which had won a Commonwealth competition to design homes for senior public servants at Blandfordia (Forrest), Canberra. Oliphant probably worked on the detailed drawings prepared for their construction; there is a clear connection in style and detail between the Canberra designs of Oakley & Parkes and the built work of Oliphant.

In 1926 Oakley & Parkes sent Oliphant to Canberra to supervise building in the Blandfordia subdivision. His professional association with the firm was apparently a loose one, for he was commissioned later that year to design two private residences in his own name. Oliphant's almost immediate success was deserved but unexpected. Recognizing the risk he was taking in setting up on his own, he left the firm in 1927, reportedly saying that he would rather starve in Canberra than in Melbourne. At St Philip's Anglican Church, Sydney, on 11 November 1935 he married Ruth Betty Moor.

By 1930 Oliphant had designed more than thirty private houses, commercial premises and other buildings in Canberra. The homes varied in style, but they shared a simple grace which in many cases has ensured their preservation virtually intact. He borrowed widely from Georgian and Queen Anne styles, with occasional essays into Tudor, Mediterranean and Art Deco. There was a marked degree of confidence in his siting and building designs, and his houses were finely detailed, beautifully crafted and soundly constructed.

Oliphant's materials included locally made red-brick and terracotta roof-tiles, and smooth or rough-cast plaster for external walls. Many of Canberra's early municipal buildings were similarly clad. A number of churches, hotels and private schools constructed at the same time exhibited the romantic imagery, axiality and garden plantings associated with Oliphant's houses. This use of a consistent but broad design vocabulary at a range of scales established the character of Canberra's original suburbs.

During the Depression, Oliphant designed the impressive Barton Court apartments facing Bourke, Macquarie and Darling streets, Barton, and maintained his practice, despite fewer residential and commercial commissions. Ill at ease with the new styles of architecture which emerged after World War II, he produced little of the spark in his later years that had characterized his earlier work. Although he contributed to the design of the Dairy Farmers' building, Mildura Street, Griffith, in functional modern style, he was more comfortable with traditional forms and materials. He assisted Professor Brian Lewis in planning the vice-chancellor's residence at the Australian National University.

Oliphant was a foundation member (1954) of the Commonwealth Club and an active Rotarian. For many years he served as honorary architect to the Church of St John the Baptist, Reid, to which he added the elegant lich-gates in red mahogany, the sandstone altar and the war-memorial shrine. He retired in 1965. Survived by his wife, son and two daughters, he died on 10 February 1975 in Canberra Hospital and was buried in Canberra cemetery. Oliphant was a tall, distinguished-looking and considerate man. Believing that there is 'art in everything', he expressed delight equally in the skills of tradesmen and labourers. His work exhibited an awareness of place not always found in architecture.

Select Bibliography

  • A. H. Body, Firm Still You Stand (Canb, 1986)
  • P. Freeman (ed), The Early Canberra House (Canb, 1996)
  • Australia Home Beautiful, 2 June 1930, p 24
  • Canberra Times, 4 Dec 1983, 23 Apr 1995
  • Kenneth H. Oliphant: His Life and Work, (unpublished report, 1996, Register of Significant Twentieth Century Architecture, RAIA/ACT Chapter, ACT Heritage Unit Library, Lyneham, Canberra)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Roger Pegrum, 'Oliphant, Kenneth Henry Bell (1894–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/oliphant-kenneth-henry-bell-11300/text20167, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 12 December 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2018