Australian Dictionary of Biography

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David Arthur Lewis Saunders (1928–1986)

by Judith Brine

This article was published:

David Arthur Lewis Saunders (1928-1986), professor of architecture, was born on 11 October 1928 at Warragul, Victoria, son of Lewis Stephen Shears Saunders, an English-born Methodist clergyman, and his wife Agnes Ernestine, née Buchanan, born in New South Wales. After attending Melbourne High School David studied architecture at Melbourne Technical College (Dip.Arch., 1952) and the University of Melbourne (B.Arch., 1951; DTRP, 1954; M.Arch., 1959). For his bachelor’s degree he wrote a thesis on the architecture of Joseph Reed; among the first students at Melbourne to be awarded a master of architecture degree, he produced a thesis on terrace housing in the city.

In 1949-52 Saunders gained practical experience with three Melbourne architectural firms, including Bates, Smart & McCutcheon, and in 1952-53 in London. He worked in 1955 as an assistant-curator at the National Gallery of Victoria. Next year he began lecturing in architectural history in the faculty of architecture, University of Melbourne, not an easy task as it was anathema to the predominantly modernist faculty. By innovative and inspirational teaching and by introducing the study of Australian architecture into the syllabus, he altered its status in the department. He sent students into the city to examine buildings, encouraging them to evaluate older styles and to develop their research interests and techniques. In 1960 he was promoted to senior lecturer.

Saunders’s appreciation of historical buildings and his interest in contemporary architecture were brought together in a practical way in the design, with his wife Doreen, of a terrace house at Parkville, completed in 1962. It was notably modern but blended into the historic precinct. He also engaged with current architecture, editing (1955-61) the critical newsletter, Cross–Section, which had been founded by Robin Boyd. This publication played a significant role in influencing Australian practice.

Participating in the work of the National Trust of Australia (Victoria), Saunders listed and classified historical buildings for conservation. This culminated in Historic Buildings of Victoria (1966) which he edited, and, in 1968, an honorary membership of the trust. He also developed the Victorian architectural index, systematically listing and giving details of architects, historical buildings and building techniques.

In 1968 Saunders was appointed senior lecturer at the (John) Power Institute of Fine Arts, University of Sydney. He made a major contribution to the academic development, administration and research reputation of the institute, while teaching with infectious enthusiasm. His compilation of architectural indexes was expanded to cover New South Wales. In 1969 he was a Fulbright senior scholar at Yale University, United States of America. He continued to write and publish on historical architecture and to critique contemporary work. During this period the Commonwealth and State governments began to assume responsibility for the conservation of Australia’s heritage. In 1977 Saunders published A Manual of Architectural History Research for the Australian Heritage Commission.

Appointed professor of architecture at the University of Adelaide in 1977, Saunders introduced a new course, which was probably the most theoretically oriented in the country; architectural history also played a strong part. He carried out vigorous research into South Australian historic buildings, and edited A Manual of Architectural History Sources in Australia (1981). Furthering conservation within the university and outside it, he served a term as chairman of the South Australian government’s heritage committee.

As second president of Australia ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) from 1978, Saunders engineered the organisation’s acceptance of the Burra Charter (1981), aimed at ensuring that restoration work on buildings was carried out professionally. He hoped the charter would be a model for conservation in Australia and in the rest of the world; it was adopted by many countries.

At a conference on architectural history organised by Saunders in 1984 the Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand, was formed. Founding president (1985-86), he set up the structure and activities which have seen the society prosper, running conferences and publishing on architectural history.

Survived by his wife and their four daughters, Saunders died of cancer on 23 September 1986 at his North Adelaide home and was cremated. His teaching, writing and example had inspired architectural research and practice in Australia. Since 1998 SAHANZ has awarded annually the David Saunders founder’s grant, to foster research by early-career researchers of architectural history.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Page, Sculptors in Space (1986)
  • J. Brine, ‘Obituary’, Architecture Australia, Nov 1986, p 29
  • Architecture Bulletin, Nov-Dec 1986, p 14
  • Art and Australia, Winter 1987, p 88
  • Saunders papers (University of Adelaide Library)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Judith Brine, 'Saunders, David Arthur Lewis (1928–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 30 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


11 October, 1928
Warragul, Victoria, Australia


23 September, 1986 (aged 57)
North Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (not specified)

Cultural Heritage

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