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Walter Ralston Bunning (1912–1977)

by Peter Spearritt

This article was published:

Walter Ralston Bunning (1912-1977), by unknown photographer, 1968

Walter Ralston Bunning (1912-1977), by unknown photographer, 1968

Herald & Weekly Times Portrait Collection, State Library of Victoria, H38849/563 [detail]

Walter Ralston Bunning (1912-1977), architect, town planner and writer, was born on 19 May 1912 in South Brisbane, twin son of George Edward Bunning, an English-born pastoralist, and his wife Edwina Mary Huey, née Edkins, a Queenslander. Raised with five siblings at Braeside station, Walter went to the Slade School, Warwick. He studied art for a year at East Sydney Technical College, then worked in the offices of Carlyle Greenwell (Sibyl Morrison's husband) and Stephenson & Meldrum while attending Sydney Technical College at night. Bunning helped to produce the architecture students' news-sheet, won the Kemp medal on qualifying in 1933 and became an associate of the college in 1936. Awarded a travelling scholarship by the Board of Architects of New South Wales, in 1937-39 he studied town planning at the Regent Street Polytechnic, London, travelled in Europe, and was employed by architects in London, Dublin and New York.

An associate (1938) of the Royal Institute of British Architects, Bunning returned to Sydney and helped to form the short-lived Modern Architectural Research Society. He was elected an associate (1940) of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (councillor, New South Wales chapter, 1940-44 and fellow 1951). In 1940-42 he was chief draftsman with H. Ruskin Rowe. During World War II Bunning worked as a specialist in camouflage, served as executive officer (1943-45) on the Commonwealth Housing Commission and wrote much of its influential 1944 report. On 13 April that year at the district registrar's office, Paddington, he married a divorcee Audrey Gillian Carington-Walters, née Edkins; they were to remain childless. In 1945 he was appointed town planner under a Commonwealth scheme to redevelop the munitions plant at St Marys as factories.

A tireless writer of articles on the future of housing and town planning, Bunning believed that buildings should be designed to suit the Australian environment. He elaborated his view in Homes in the Sun (1945). According to Robin Boyd, the book established Bunning as 'the best known architectural publicist in the country'. In 1945 Bunning established a practice in Sydney and twelve months later took C. A. Madden into partnership. Kevin Smith and Noel Potter joined Bunning & Madden in 1960, and Arthur Robb did so in 1969. The firm designed many public buildings in Sydney and Canberra, and won the competition (1949) for Anzac House, Martin Place, Sydney. Opened in 1957 in College Street, Anzac House was one of Australia's first curtain-wall buildings and won the Royal Institute of British Architects' bronze medal (1958). The firm was awarded the Sir John Sulman medal for Liner House, Bridge Street, in 1962. Bunning & Madden gained many government and university commissions, including Bruce Hall, Australian National University (1961), and International House, University of Sydney (1967), but learned in 1957 that it had failed in its bid to design the Sydney Opera House. Bunning became a staunch critic of Jørn Utzon and of the opera house's spiralling cost, claiming in 1966 that it would be a second-rate building 'from a functional point of view'.

Forthright in his criticisms, Bunning accused State governments of being too timid in town planning, and called for tougher controls over land and housing design. Like Boyd, he despised the detritus of suburban Australia and attacked the spread of television aerials, advertising hoardings and the destruction of trees. He abhorred the dull products of the State housing commissions, but approved 'the spontaneous outburst of gay homes' at seaside resorts. One of Bunning's most highly regarded buildings was his own split-level house in Ryrie Street, Mosman (1952), overlooking Quakers Hat Bay. The National Library of Australia (1968, design approved 1964), said to have been inspired by the Parthenon after his visit to Greece, remains Bunning's best-known building. As principal architect, he interested himself in all aspects of construction and furnishings, including the design of art works, and in 1965 visited France to arrange for the weaving of tapestries to hang in its foyer.

Bunning's most important contribution to postwar Australia was to stress that well-designed housing and town planning were inextricably linked. A large, calm, lumbering man, he spent much of his life working for government committees and professional boards for little or no payment. Chairman (1945-64) of the Town and Country Planning Advisory Committee, he chaired or served on inquiries into Paddington (1968), which he recommended be declared a historical area, into the location of an Olympic Games complex (1972-73) and into the environment of the Myall Lakes (1974). As a founding member (1970-77) of the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority, he bore some responsibility for plans to build high-rise hotels and office blocks in the Rocks: this scheme was effectively modified by the 'Green Bans' campaign.

Fond of opera and ballet, Bunning also enjoyed playing the violin, painting, writing, tennis and golf. He lived at Bellevue Hill and at Mosman before moving to Potts Point, and belonged to the All Nations Club, Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron, Australian Golf Club, the Wine and Food Society, and the Commonwealth Club, Canberra. Among other positions, he was a member (from 1948) of the Arts Council of Australia, a trustee (1958) of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (president 1974-77), a fellow (1954) of the (Royal) Australian Planning Institute, a councillor (1971) of the University of New South Wales and a trustee of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. He was appointed C.M.G. in 1975. Survived by his wife, he died of a cerebral tumour on 13 October 1977 at Eastern Suburbs Hospital and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Boyd, Australia's Home (Melb, 1952)
  • J. Yeomans, The Other Taj Mahal (Lond, 1968)
  • Bunning & Madden, The Work of Bunning and Madden (priv print, Syd, 1970)
  • J. M. Freeland, Architecture in Australia (Syd, 1972)
  • J. Taylor, Australian Architecture Since 1960 (Canb, 1990)
  • Architecture in Australia, 66, Jan 1978, p 33
  • Royal Australian Planning Institute Journal, 16, Feb 1978, p 20
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 28 Apr 1937, 31 Aug, 21 Dec 1948, 28 June 1953, 23, 26 Apr 1957, 15 May 1958, 28 Apr 1959, 12 May, 12 Dec 1962, 18 June 1964, 11 Mar 1966, 15 Oct 1977
  • H. de Berg, interview with Walter Bunning (transcript, 1971, National Library of Australia)
  • Walter Bunning papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Peter Spearritt, 'Bunning, Walter Ralston (1912–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Walter Ralston Bunning (1912-1977), by unknown photographer, 1968

Walter Ralston Bunning (1912-1977), by unknown photographer, 1968

Herald & Weekly Times Portrait Collection, State Library of Victoria, H38849/563 [detail]

Life Summary [details]


19 May, 1912
South Brisbane, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


13 October, 1977 (aged 65)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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