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Guilford Marsh Bell (1912–1992)

by Philip Goad

This article was published:

Guilford Marsh Bell (1912–1992), architect, was born on 21 December 1912 in Brisbane, eldest of four children of Queensland-born parents Francis Marsh Bell, grazier, and his wife Frederica Lucy, née Darvall, members of the prominent Bell family in rural Queensland. Guilford grew up at Kooroomba station outside Boonah, which was part of ‘Coochin Coochin’ (said to mean two black swans in the local Yugarapul language), the twenty-thousand-acre property held by his grandparents; there he met the English crime writer (Dame) Agatha Christie in 1922. From 1925 to 1930 he was a boarder at The King’s School, Parramatta, Sydney, before being articled to the Brisbane architect Lange L. Powell. Studying at night at Brisbane Central Technical College, he gained his diploma of architecture in 1935 and won the Queensland Institute of Architects student gold medal. He registered in the profession in 1936 but his father determined that his son should be more fully qualified.

Arriving in London that year, Bell worked in the office of (Sir) Albert E. Richardson. He met Christie again and also her second husband, the archaeologist (Sir) Max Mallowan. In 1938 he accompanied Mallowan on two expeditions to Syria. This connection led to his first commission, the renovation of the Mallowans’ Georgian-styled ‘Greenway House,’ Devon. Syria gave him ‘architectural inspirations that would not be fully expressed for nearly two decades’: ‘simple masses, windows that were doors and never windows, and solid walls that shielded the privacy of the home … and gave the impression of permanence’ (Goad 1999, 109).

Passing his Royal Institute of British Architects examinations in July 1939, Bell returned to Australia at the outbreak of World War II and found work with (Sir) Reginald Ansett’s new airline company. On 22 July 1942 he enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force. Most of his service was spent in the Directorate of Works and Buildings at Air Force Headquarters, Melbourne. Commissioned in 1943, he was employed as an architect with No. 12 Survey and Design Unit in Darwin (1944) and as a works officer with No. 11 Group on Morotai, Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia), in 1945. He was demobilised as a flying officer on 20 November 1946 in Melbourne.

Bell registered in Victoria in 1946, and worked with J. A. La Gerche, the chief architect to Ansett Transport Industries, designing the Sydney booking office (1948), and a tourist resort at Hayman Island on the Great Barrier Reef (1949–52); living at the resort, he supervised its construction, planting, and landscaping. This commission gave him a new, wealthy, and cosmopolitan clientele.

Beginning sole private practice in Melbourne in 1952, Bell designed some of the most assured modernist houses of the decade. His influential client list included names such as Darling, Hordern, Baillieu, and Bardas. Many of these houses had courtyards and indicated his penchant for integrating service blocks and yards, pavilion carports, and garden walls into a formal symmetrical plan. A rare commercial commission was the Felt and Textiles building, East Melbourne (1960), one of Australia’s first free-standing high-rise office buildings to have a central core of lifts, staircases, and services.

In 1961 Bell went into partnership with Neil Clerehan. Both architects seemed to have similar aesthetic concerns: blank walls, privacy, and discreet urbanity. Their Simon House, Mount Eliza (1963), was awarded the 1964 Royal Victorian Institute of Architects single house medal. Further dwellings followed, but the two architects found their aesthetic differences too great and in 1964 the partnership dissolved. Bell resumed practice alone. His 1960s houses invariably had formal axes, symmetry, and carefully orchestrated sequences of entry, reception, and opening of views onto courtyards or distant landscapes, as epitomised by the Drysdale house, Bouddi Farm, at Kilcare Heights, New South Wales (1966). In 1969 he designed his best-known work, a pavilion at Retford Park, Bowral, New South Wales, for James Fairfax: a square structure of marble, sandstone, and black steel spanning a swimming pool and water garden. He had been elected a fellow of the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects in 1962.

During the 1970s Bell’s houses continued their aesthetic refinement and detachment from orthodox Australian architecture culture. He designed country residences and perfected the walled townhouse, most notably the arcaded McFarlane House at Vaucluse, New South Wales (1972), and one of his finest works, the Seccull House at Brighton, Victoria (1972), which was flat-roofed, in white stucco, black steel, and travertine. In 1983 he invited Graham Fisher, who had been working in the office since 1977, to become a partner. The firm of Guilford Bell and Graham Fisher Architects continued to produce designs that reflected Bell’s familiar aesthetic concerns. Significant constructions included the Grant/Collins House at Officer, Victoria (1986), and the Goold House at Port Douglas, Queensland (1990).

Bell’s architecture combined modernist and classical ideals. For more than thirty years ‘he was the supreme architect of manners in Melbourne’ (Goad 1999, 131), and his houses in Sydney bore the same quality, echoing the work of earlier architects such as Leslie Wilkinson and John D. Moore. In the late 1970s he had remodelled parts of the Lodge, the prime minister’s residence in Canberra, as part of his role on the Official Establishments Committee, later Trust (1976–86). He also served on the council of the National Gallery Society of Victoria and the board of the Australian Opera. He was appointed OBE in 1982.

‘Elegant, refined, private and talented,’ Bell had ‘a wicked sense of conversation and humor’ (Day 1992, 17). Survived by his partner of thirty-four years, the psychologist and later dance therapist Denis Kelynack, he died on 9 January 1992 at Malvern, and was cremated after a funeral at Christ Church, South Yarra. His ashes were interred in the family plot at Mt Alford, Queensland, which he had designed: a horizontal slab with two vertical fins bearing the image of Coochin Coochin’s two black swans, and supporting a cross. A travel scholarship at the University of Queensland commemorates him.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Bell, Guilford. [Illustrated reply to a series of questions on Australian domestic architecture.] Art and Australia 9, no. 1 (June 1971): 64–66
  • Day, Norman. ‘Architect Leaves a Lasting Legacy.’ Age (Melbourne), 11 January 1992, 17
  • Goad, Philip. ‘A Very Private Practice: The Life and Work of Guilford Bell.’ In The Life Work of Guilford Bell, Architect 1912–1992, edited by Leon van Schaik, 106–31. Melbourne: Bookman Transition Publishing, 1999
  • Imrie, Anne, ed. 1952–1980 Architecture of Guilford Bell. South Melbourne: Proteus Publishing, 1982
  • State Library of Victoria. Accession no. LTAD 111, Collection of architectural drawings by Guilford Bell
  • Tanner, Howard. Australian Housing in the Seventies. Sydney: Ure Smith, 1976
  • van Schaik, Leon, ed., The Life Work of Guilford Bell, Architect 1912–1992. Melbourne: Bookman Transition Publishing, 1999

Additional Resources

Citation details

Philip Goad, 'Bell, Guilford Marsh (1912–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2020, accessed online 19 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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