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Stephenson, Gordon (1908–1997)

by Jenny Gregory

This article was published online in 2022

Gordon Stephenson (1908–1997), architect, planner, and civic designer, was born on 6 June 1908 at Liverpool, England, second of three sons of Francis Edwin Stephenson, police constable, and his wife Eva Eliza, née Owen. Educated at the Liverpool Institute High School for Boys, Gordon won scholarships to attend the University of Liverpool (BArch, 1930). There he received a classical architectural education, under (Sir) Charles Reilly. He won travelling scholarships to Paris (1927), Italy (1928), and New York (1929) where he worked on early designs for the Rockefeller Center. ‘America,’ he wrote, ‘fills you with big ideas’ (1992, 24). Over the next two years he studied at the University of Paris, while working at the atelier of Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris), the ‘father of modernism.’ He recalled it as ‘an exhilarating professional experience,’ educationally ‘the best [time] of my life’ (1992, 26, 29).

Stephenson returned to Liverpool in 1932 to lecture at the university. Inspired by radical ideas, he introduced modernism to the curriculum, spent two months in the Soviet Union, and was secretary of Liverpool’s Relief Committee for Victims of German Fascism. Winning a Commonwealth fellowship, he travelled to the United States of America to undertake a master’s degree in city planning (MCP, 1938) at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Visiting lecturers included the leading planners Clarence Stein, Sir Raymond Unwin, and Thomas Adams. In Boston on 1 June 1938 he married Flora Bartlett Crockett, an American-born fellow student. In 1940 she became one of the first two women to be awarded the MCP.

Back in England, Stephenson taught at the Architectural Association School of Architecture, London. In 1942 he joined Lord Reith’s reconstruction group in the Ministry of Works and Building. He was seconded to work in (Sir) Patrick Abercrombie’s team on the Greater London Plan (1944) and then appointed head of the planning technique section, Ministry of Town and Country Planning. He believed that his profession provided the key to building a just postwar society. In 1945 and 1946 he oversaw the development of Stevenage, a prototype for Britain’s six Greater London New Towns.

Two years later Stephenson again returned to the University of Liverpool as the Lever professor of civic design. There he introduced Britain’s first two-year postgraduate planning degree and designed a new building for his department (1950), the beginning of his interest in campus planning. Taking on the editorship of the Town Planning Review, he reinvigorated the journal, commissioning contributions from prominent American urbanists. He was aided by Flora who was an assistant editor of the journal while raising their three children.

In 1953 Stephenson took leave to develop a regional plan for Perth, Western Australia. The city was expanding rapidly in the postwar period, and his arrival was hailed as ‘a red-letter day in Perth's history’ (West Australian 1953, 3). Then in his mid-forties, he was gruffly spoken, with a direct approach, energy, and confidence that was underpinned by his experience. Having the independence of a consultant and the status of an international expert, he found that there was little restraint on his leadership.

The 1955 Plan for the Metropolitan Region of Perth and Fremantle developed by Stephenson with Alistair Hepburn, the town planning commissioner, reveals elements of Stephenson’s previous experience. Highways and suburban rail lines connected neighbourhood units; a zoning scheme was implemented in Perth’s city centre surrounded by a ring road; and plot ratios were introduced radiating from the city centre. In this era the car was king. He had little regard for historic buildings; neither did he respect the natural environment, approving reclamation of Mounts Bay to build a highway interchange, despite his admiration of the Swan River. Later he regretted that he had not foreseen the extent of suburban sprawl or the need for wider planning controls to curb development.

Refused a visa for the United States owing to his alleged communist sympathies, Stephenson was unable to take up positions at the University of California, Berkeley, and MIT. In 1955 he became foundation professor of town and regional planning at the University of Toronto, Canada. During his residency he and his wife conducted urban renewal studies in Halifax (1957), and in Ontario in Kingston (1958), London (1960), and Ottawa (1958). In 1960 he returned to Perth, having been appointed consultant architect at the University of Western Australia (UWA). Building on his earlier advisory work at the university, he devised new campus plans (1962, revised 1965) and, as foundation professor of architecture and dean (1965–66), guided development of the new faculty. Between 1961 and 1970 Flora was employed as his assistant. His closest friend at the university was the head gardener, George Munns, who had spent forty years developing the beautiful campus landscape.

Stephenson was a leading campus planner in Australia. His consultancies included the universities of Western Australia (1953–72), Tasmania (1954 and 1971–72), and Adelaide (with Geoffrey Harrison, 1964), as well as Flinders (1962–64), James Cook (with James Birrell, 1964), and Murdoch (with R. J. Ferguson, 1970–75) universities. Internationally, his work extended to the universities of Dublin (1952); Toronto (1955–60) and British Columbia (c. 1957), Canada; and Nanyang University (1971–72), Singapore. His designs made provision for organic growth and drew on aspects of the historic campuses in Britain and the United States, creating courts and park-like environments, and removing vehicles to the periphery.

In Western Australia Stephenson’s local commissions included a plan for Perth’s central area (1975), Joondalup and Midland regional centres (1976–77), the Shire of Swan (1978), and the elegant Mount Henry Bridge (1982). Elsewhere, he consulted on civic design for the Sydney Law Courts and the Christchurch Town Hall, New Zealand. He also served on Canberra’s National Capital Development Commission (1967–73) and was responsible for the conceptual design of two of its suburbs—Charnwood and Wanniassa. His accolades included a Royal Institute of British Architects distinction in town planning (1958), being appointed CBE (1967), and honorary doctorates from four Australian universities.

After retiring from UWA in 1972, Stephenson continued to work as a consultant until the late 1980s. With Christina DeMarco he prepared his autobiography, On a Human Scale: A Life in City Design (1992), and wrote Compassionate Town Planning (c. 1995). While not all aspects of his work have stood the test of time, judged by the modernist spirit of the era in which he worked, his contribution to planning, spanning three continents and six decades, was remarkable. He was both a catalyst and an integrator, described as having ‘one of the great planning minds of the twentieth century’ (Wright 2001, 39). He died on 30 March 1997 in Perth and was cremated. Predeceased by his wife (1979), he was survived by their three daughters. A building was named after him at the University of Liverpool, and Stephenson Avenue—a section of a highway that he proposed in 1955—and Gordon Stephenson House in Perth commemorate his name.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Dix, Gerald. ‘The Compassionate Planner: An Appreciation of the Life and Work of Gordon Stephenson.’ Town Planning Review 68, no. 3 (July 1997): iii–xiv
  • Garnaut, Christine. ‘Flora Crockett Stephenson (1914–1979): A Life and Professional Partnership in Planning.’ Planning Perspectives 31, no. 4 (2016): 505–31
  • Gordon, David L. A., and Jenny Gregory, ed. ‘Gordon Stephenson.’ Special issue, Town Planning Review 83, no. 3 (2012)
  • Gregory, Jenny. City of Light: A History of Perth Since the 1950s. Perth: Perth City Council, 2003
  • National Archives of Australia. A6119, 6071
  • Stephenson, Gordon. Interview by Criena Fitzgerald, September 1991–February 1992. Transcript. J. S. Battye Library of West Australian History, State Library of Western Australia
  • Stephenson, Gordon. On a Human Scale: A Life in City Design. Edited by Christina DeMarco. South Fremantle, WA: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1992
  • Webb, Martyn. ‘If You Seek His Memorial—Look Around You.’ Western Planner 15, no. 5 (April 1999): 1–7
  • West Australian (Perth). ‘D-Day for the City.’ 10 January 1953, 3
  • Wright, Bruce. Expectations of a Better World: Planning Australian Communities. Canberra: Royal Australian Planning Institute, 2001

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Jenny Gregory, 'Stephenson, Gordon (1908–1997)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stephenson-gordon-31956/text39423, published online 2022, accessed online 9 December 2022.

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