Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Romberg, Frederick (1913–1992)

by Harriet Edquist

This article was published online in 2016

Frederick Romberg (1913–1992), architect and academic, was born Friedrich Sigismund Hermann Romberg on 21 June 1913 at Tsingtao (Qingdao), China, second child of German parents Kurt Romberg, judge, and his wife Else (Elspeth), née Gilow. His father had joined the German Colonial Office as a judge in the Kiautschou Bay concession in 1911. In September 1913 the family returned to Berlin, just prior to the outbreak of World War I and the reclamation of Tsingtao by the Chinese government. Kurt Romberg volunteered for service and was killed in action near Ypres, Belgium, in May 1915.

Else Romberg moved the family to Berlin-Dahlem where they remained during the war. In 1920 she married regimental doctor Hans Riebling and they moved to the northern city of Harburg where Frederick was educated at the Streseman Real-Gymnasium, matriculating in 1931. Intending to follow his father into the law, he spent a semester at law school in Geneva and continued his studies in Munich, Berlin, and Kiel. In Munich he was involved in leftist politics, became known to the police, and in mid-1933, fearing for his future, made a hasty departure to Switzerland. He enrolled in the architecture program at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH-Z), where he spent five years as a student and was much influenced by the charismatic modernist professor Otto Salvisberg.

To avoid compulsory military service should he return to Germany, Romberg accepted a scholarship from the Swiss Federal Board of Education, which he used to travel to Australia. Arriving in Melbourne in September 1938, by the end of the year he had secured a position with one of Australia’s leading architectural firms, Stephenson & Turner. On 21 February 1939 at St Peter’s Church of England, Eastern Hill, Melbourne, he married Swiss-born Verena Marguerite Sulzer, a fellow student at ETH-Z who had joined him in Melbourne. Romberg’s appointment by (Sir) Arthur Stephenson as job captain on the Australian Pavilion at the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition (1939–40) was testimony to the regard in which he was held. In 1940 he established a brief practice with Mary Turner Shaw, during which time they completed some significant works including the innovative off-form concrete Newburn flats in Queens Road (designed in 1939), which brought Romberg immediate recognition in the architectural press. In solo practice from 1941 he managed to complete a few works before World War II halted building, including the family house in Eaglemont where he and Verena lived with their four children before their divorce in 1958. All these projects show his debt to the humanist Swiss tradition of architectural modernism.

After service in the Civil Aliens Corps with the Allied Works Council in the Northern Territory (1943–44), Romberg returned to Melbourne and spent the rest of the war with the Public Works Department. Naturalised in February 1945, he returned to practice. The following years were dominated by projects for the developer Stanley Korman, of which Stanhill flats (1943–51) in Queens Road and Hilstan in Brighton (1947, demolished) became icons of the modernist movement in Melbourne. At this time Romberg commissioned Wolfgang Sievers to document his work, finding in the photographer’s German modernist training a complementary aesthetic.

In 1953 Romberg joined forces with (Sir) Roy Grounds and Robin Boyd to establish Grounds, Romberg and Boyd, one of the most innovative architectural practices in Australia. It harnessed the well-developed individual but complementary talents of the three principals, each of whom continued his own practice under the umbrella of ‘Gromboyd,’ collaborating on certain projects. Having focused on domestic building prior to the partnership, Romberg became the specialist in industrial, commercial, and institutional work, conducted largely in Melbourne. The ETA Factory (1957) at Braybrook became a benchmark for modern factory design. He also began to experiment with the centrally planned, geometric architecture that Grounds had pioneered for domestic work early in the 1950s. Sacred Heart Girls’ School (1954) at Oakleigh and Holy Trinity Lutheran Church (1960) in Canberra were both square in plan, while the Ormond College buildings Picken Court (1959), MacFarland Library (1962), and McCaughey Court (1965), commissioned by Davis McCaughey, were polygonal. These led to the commission by Sydney Rubbo for the Microbiology building (1965) at the University of Melbourne, a bold composition that, with McCaughey Court, indicated a move towards New Brutalism. At the same time Romberg developed the courtyard plan using vernacular elements such as the verandah at the ICI Staff Recreation Centre (1955) at Deer Park, Luther College (1958) at Croydon, and St George’s Church of England (1962) at East Ivanhoe.

On 19 April 1961 at the register office in Marylebone, London, Romberg had married Diane Fay Masters (née Bunting), a fashion journalist. On their return to Melbourne they lived in Carlton and then East Melbourne; they had two children. The partnership of Grounds, Romberg and Boyd dissolved in 1962 following a dispute about the commission for the Melbourne Arts Centre, which was carried out by Grounds alone. Romberg continued in practice with Boyd but both felt the breakup of ‘Gromboyd’ keenly.

Romberg entered a new phase of his career in 1965 when appointed foundation professor of architecture at the University of Newcastle. While in this post he designed the modest, warmly textured Architecture Building (1968) in bushland, now known as the Romberg Building. He designed the Newcastle City Council offices (1970) in conjunction with the local firm Suters; the structure developed the polygonal pavilion of Ormond College as a strong urban form. Romberg had always been interested in environmental issues and co-authored, with David L. Smith, The Decline of the Environment (1973). In 1975 he retired from the university as emeritus professor.

During these years Romberg and Boyd (d. 1971) retained their practice in East Melbourne, which in 1967 included Berenice Harris, Norman Day, Carl Fender, Bill Williams, and Paul Couch. Returning to Melbourne in 1975, Romberg conducted a small practice from his new home in Hotham Street, East Melbourne. The most significant work of these late years was the Aboriginal Keeping Place (1982) at Shepparton, now the Bangerang Cultural Centre, a polygonal pavilion constructed of modest materials with wide eaves and a verandah.

Impeccable in dress in a European manner, Romberg was not tall but held himself well, his black hair slicked back, his face tanned, and with dark eyes. He spoke with a slight accent and was careful with words but ready to engage in conversation, while waving his aromatic cigars around. Considered by the eminent engineer John Connell to be one of the ‘most complete’ architects he had ever worked with (Edquist 2000, 64), Romberg bequeathed to Australia a fine body of work that exemplified his ideals of a well-built, functional architecture that embodied European modernism while responding to Australian conditions. In 1980 Romberg and his family had changed their name by deed poll to Romney. Survived by his wife and the three sons and three daughters of his two marriages, he died on 18 November 1992 at home in East Melbourne and was cremated. An exhibition of his work was held at RMIT University in 2000 and the Australian Institute of Architects later named the Frederick Romberg Award for Residential Architecture in his honour.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Day, Norman. Personal communication
  • Edquist, Harriet (ed.). Frederick Romberg: The Architecture of Migration 19381975. Melbourne: RMIT University Press, 2000
  • National Archives of Australia. MT8/4, 5903428, Romberg Frederick
  • A435, 7012671, Romberg Frederick
  • Romberg, Diane (née Masters). Personal communication
  • Romberg, Frederick. ‘Before Gromboyd: An Architectural History.’ Typescript, 1986. RMIT Design Archives.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Harriet Edquist, 'Romberg, Frederick (1913–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/romberg-frederick-16350/text28309, published online 2016, accessed online 18 November 2017.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2017

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Romney, Frederick
  • Romberg, Fritz Sigismund Hermann
Birth

21 June 1913
Qingdao, Shandong, China

Death

18 November 1992
East Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Cultural Heritage
Occupation