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Sir Roy Burman Grounds (1905–1981)

by Conrad Hamann

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Sir Roy Grounds, by Henry Talbot, 1959

Sir Roy Grounds, by Henry Talbot, 1959


Sir Roy Burman Grounds (1905-1981), architect, was born on 18 December 1905 at St Kilda, Melbourne, fourth son of Victorian-born parents Herbert Algernon Haslett Grounds, chemist, and his wife Maud Hawkesworth, née Hughes. Roy attended several schools before completing his secondary education at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School. Unsettled in his search for employment, he eventually joined his brother, Haslett, as an articled pupil in the practice of Blackett & Forster. He attended the Melbourne University Architectural Atelier (1927-28) and took night classes at Brighton Technical School, developing an interest in the Bauhaus and architectural modernism.

With Geoffrey Mewton, also at Blackett & Forster, Grounds began experimenting with house plans that fused living and dining areas and minimised passage ways. In 1928 their winning entry in a Royal Victorian Institute of Architects competition for a house to cost £1000 was praised for its fresh 'Australian style'; that year Grounds also won the RVIA's annual war memorial scholarship, and travelled to Britain with Mewton and Oscar Bayne, a colleague at the university atelier.

After working for a variety of employers in Britain and Europe, Grounds sailed for the United States of America. He settled at Santa Monica, California, and began designing studio sets for Radio-Keith-Orpheum Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc., and accepting architectural commissions. On 9 August 1932 at the office of the Los Angeles registrar, he married Virginia Lammers, née Marr, an American divorcee whom he had met aboard the ship to Britain. Grounds returned to Melbourne that year and established a partnership with Mewton. As the Depression passed, they became known as the leading Australian exponents of modernism in house design.

Mewton & Grounds's industrially grained aesthetic was evident in their prize-winning entry for the Centenary Homes exhibition of 1934. Increasingly, however, Grounds was moving away from an 'International Style' to a more regionally attuned architecture. His Lyncroft at Shoreham (1934) and Chateau Tahbilk homestead (1935-37) adopted a weathered, later limed and pastelled colouration, and softly textured walls; using materials drawn from each site, these houses had overtones of rural vernacular. In 1938 poor health prompted a temporary retirement to Provence, France, and another period in Britain but by 1939 he was back, resuming practice from a flat in Toorak. On 24 October 1941—the day of his divorce from Virginia—at the office of the government statist, Melbourne, Grounds married Alice Bettine Ramsay, née James, a secretary and also a divorcee (for whom he had designed a house in 1933).

Four apartment buildings in Toorak, designed by Grounds in 1939-41, attracted attention in Australia and overseas. Clendon and Clendon Corner were elegant in a stripped neo-Georgian mode, with flat roofs, mews paving and open plans. Moonbria and Quamby showed Californian references in their lanai terraces and sundecks. All, however, were distinctive Grounds syntheses in their explicit urban form and adaptation to often challenging sites. Robin Boyd assisted with these projects, and—seeing Grounds as the pivotal figure in the arrival of the 'modern house' in Australia—admired their honesty and ingenuity. In 1940 Grounds was registered as an architect.

From 21 February 1942 Grounds served in the Royal Australian Air Force, performing works and camouflage duties in the South-West Pacific Area and finishing as a temporary flight lieutenant. His appointment terminated in May 1945, and—suffering nervous strain—he took to orcharding at Mount Eliza, then dairy farming at Buxton, north of Melbourne. Following the death of their infant daughter, Roy and his wife returned to the city. At the University of Melbourne (B.Arch., 1951) Grounds became a senior lecturer (1951-53) in the faculty of architecture. He retained a right of private practice, became an associate (1947) of the RVIA (fellow 1951) and undertook thirty-five projects over the next six years. Styling himself both a modernist and traditionalist, he also gained a reputation for radicalism in handling geometric forms, notably in the triangular Leyser house at Kew (1950-51) and the circular Henty house at Frankston (1951-52). His own house in Hill Street, Toorak, won the Victorian Architectural medal (1954): its circular courtyard divided a set of rooms within a square perimeter; three adjoining flats adopted the double height subdivision synonymous with Le Corbusier. Other projects from this period included prefabricated classrooms—'Bristol portables'—which appeared in schools all over Victoria without the sun protection Grounds had specified.

In 1953 Grounds formed a partnership with his university colleagues Boyd and Frederick Romberg. Over the next eight years the firm designed some of the leading modern buildings in Australia. While working on several houses, at Brighton, Toorak and Mount Eliza, Grounds now concentrated mainly on large projects. In 1957-58 he designed a workers' village at Glenorchy, Tasmania, for Claudio Alcorso's Silk and Textile Printers Ltd, Alcorso's first, circular house (1955) and a second house in 1965. With Romberg he oversaw a fanning sound shell in 1956 for the Sidney Myer Music Bowl (a project completed by Yuncken Freeman Griffiths & Simpson). Through Oscar Bayne he gained the Australian Academy of Science building (Canberra, 1957-59): a remarkable dome in shell concrete drawing on Saarinen’s sculptural architecture, which won the RAIA Canberra chapter’s award (1957) and the Sulman award (1959) and which, in 1984, was nominated for the international register of significant twentieth-century architecture. Other projects in Canberra followed, including the Phytotron (1962) for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, and the Botany building (1968) at the Australian National University.

In 1958 Grounds and his assistants prepared a master plan for the extension of Ormond College, University of Melbourne; by 1962 he had designed the master's and vicemaster's lodges. Reflecting an interest in the Italian Neo-Liberty movement, Grounds drew on palazzo forms and medieval references for the university's John Medley Building (1971). Such evocations of hybrid historical detail were seen by some critics as a betrayal of modernism; it was an approach, however, already evident in the design Grounds prepared for Melbourne's National Art Gallery and Cultural Centre in the late 1950s.

The public astonishment that met the unveiling of the plans for the gallery and cultural centre in late 1961 had been more than matched by that of Grounds’s partners when, in 1959, he was selected as the sole commissioned architect for the project. Boyd had misgivings over Grounds's highly sculpted and monumentalising bronze tower; Romberg—the most experienced of the partners on larger buildings and concrete construction—felt overlooked; the profession in general was unhappy that there had been no open competition. Earlier tensions among the partners over financial management and over Grounds's desire to run for the city council were exacerbated by his new prominence. Amid the dismay and anger of colleagues and friends, in July 1962 Grounds left the partnership, having already established his own design team.

Completed in 1968, the project's first section, the National Gallery of Victoria, received a mixed reception from architects, who were still not persuaded by elements such as the severe bluestone exterior redolent of the nearby barracks and an assortment of warehouses, 'pubs' and gaols, or the perceived theatricality of the quasi-medieval Great Hall. Gallery staff soon complained about the general functioning and spatial gradation of the building. Grounds soldiered on, encouraged by the Royal Australian Institute of Architects' gold medal (1968) and a knighthood (1969). The neighbouring Concert Hall was developed between 1977 and 1981; the State Theatre was finished posthumously in 1982. The proposed tower—still among the most controversial of the centre’s aspects—was completed as a rather timid space frame, given remedial height by Peter McIntyre.

Grounds continued to gain commissions for houses and larger projects: his George Street Cinema Complex in Sydney (1976) was appropriately festive; the imposing Blackwood Hall at Monash University (1971) was a more serious undertaking, emulating a great cathedral in its west front and rose window; and the Wrest Point Casino and hotel complex, Hobart (1973), was the first large building of its type in Australia. Through his later years his environmental commitment was reflected in a group of improvised buildings at Penders, near Tathra on the New South Wales south coast, which he would visit regularly. Next to them was a house he had designed for Ken Myer, whose patronage of the Arts Centre re-shaped Grounds's later career.

Handsome, of medium height, with thick dark hair, often unruly over a quizzical glare and a sharply trimmed moustache, Grounds was declamatory and sometimes abrasive in manner, with a flair for the dramatic in timing and demeanour. He was direct and often blunt—although it was his practice to rehearse a professional interview for a week. Enjoying a dual reputation as a leader in reshaping Australian architecture under modernist influence and as a traditionalist, he came to suspect that modernism was a scientific delusion. Sociable himself in clubs and discussion groups, including the Melbourne Club, the Boobooks and the Chevaliers du Tastevin, he also encouraged the Halftime Club, a forum for Melbourne's emerging architects and students. He was more accomplished as a house designer than a shaper of large buildings, although he came to see the latter as 'the only real architecture' and attempted so much in institutional architecture that his reputation in that field was also assured. Sir Roy died on 2 March 1981 at Parkville, Melbourne, and was cremated; he was survived by his wife, their younger daughter, and a son from his first marriage.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Boyd, Victorian Modern (1947)
  • J. Hetherington, Uncommon Men (1965)
  • C. Hamann, 'Roy Grounds 1905-, Frederick Romberg 1913- and Robin Boyd 1919-1971', in H. Tanner (ed), Architects of Australia (1981)
  • Architecture, vol 44, no 1, 1955, p 22
  • Backlogue, vol 3, 1999, p 73
  • C. Hamann, 'Arenas of the Public Good', Backlogue, vol 3, 1999, p 119
  • Argus (Melbourne), 1 May 1928, p 17
  • People (Sydney), 6 May 1953, p 12
  • Grounds, Romberg and Boyd records (State Library of Victoria).

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Citation details

Conrad Hamann, 'Grounds, Sir Roy Burman (1905–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 25 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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