The great architectural partnership of Edmond and Corrigan is now no longer. I have just heard the news that the Australian architect Peter Corrigan has died at his home in North Carlton. With his death a dream of Australian architecture slips away from us. This was not any old dream. It was foremostly, I think, a dream about Australia. It was about what Australia could be like as a nation of architects and artists and whose institutions served a social democracy of intelligence, difference and equality. This was not a dream of architecture justified by simple images, crude pragmatism, slick technologies, theoretical masques or private beliefs. Corrigan’s architecture and his vivid set designs were for everyone here in this country: the punters and the toffs and perhaps even the racehorses.
It was a dream Australian architects could take their place in their world with our own rightful predilections, language, traditions and canon; a critical canon of projects that suited our economic circumstances and both the optimisms and failures of our social democratic institutions. The work of Peter Corrigan was at times simultaneously mysterious, cryptic and complex. It was work that proclaimed architecture as an intellectual and artistic pursuit of the highest order in both our cities and our suburbs.
This was an architecture that drew on a broad range of eclectic sources Scharoun, Mendelsohn, Aalto and Venturi. In his set designs I think he liked Schwitters and George Grosz. Sometimes it was really hard to know what the sources of his work was. This was not the polite yet experimental modernism of Boyd or Grounds, nor was it the chamfered slip form slush of Borland, Gunn, Jackson and Walker or John Andrews. This architecture was different. Really fucking different. So much so that some doubted it was architecture at all. It was completely different to anything that has been done before or since. A cacophony of images and instinctual impulses thrown together but organised via exquisitely expressionistic and evocative plans.
The projects were in places like: Monbulk, Mortlake, Sale, South Belgrave, Dandenong, Wheelers Hill, Frankston and of course Keysborough. Suburbs and towns where architecture was and is virtually extinct these days. The buildings in these places weren’t luxurious commissions. These were projects that were a kind of poor theatre of Grotowksi and Brecht translated to architecture and we might now wonder if Corrigan wanted Australia to be a kind of Antipodean Weimar.
So many architects I know hated Corrigan. These haters were the gentleman architects, the straighteners and wowser architects the ones who were lucky enough to get the jobs. Corrigan always had his avid supporters and detractors. The now superannuated bureaucrats were afraid of him. At architecture school, and in his office, he generously protected students who had obvious promise, but needed time to develop. Under his wing a few of my friends did his studio quite a few times. Once grown, he would eventually let them go into the world.
As a young architecture student I was only brave enough to do his studio once. He was fierce to those he thought were upstarts and generous to those of us who shared his zeal. His studio, which he taught with Jason Pickford, expanded my brain a lot. It was the very best that a liberal education in Architecture could offer at that time. He had a library and taught us to read. I was told to read Patrick White’s Voss and he told me to go to the Pram Factory where we saw his set design for Bold Tales starring the actor Tim Conigrave who ended the show naked amongst Corrigan’s set of building rubble and a small statue of Michelangelo’s David. It was a long time before I understood what I had seen. His sets for Barrie Kosky’s operas and the Peter King plays were mesmerising. This was an architectural education that no longer exists in these current days of mindless managerialism and student experience scoring.
My memory has probably distorted my all too brief glimpses of Corrigan. I am sure there are others who have other memories and will rightfully claim more. Nevertheless, mine are brief but vivid. I remember him arguing with Peter Eisenman in the Gossard building about critical regionalism. When he came back from Harvard he gave a drunken lecture and showed 6 million slides of Saarinen’s Cranbrook. At the height of Post Modernism he told us that abstraction “still had legs” and to “keep an eye” on a relatively young architect then called Libeskind. I didn’t believe him. There was also the time when Corrigan and Stanley Tigerman did a drunken studio crit at Melbourne Uni excoriating the University students and praising each RMIT student as pure genius. It was a great and conniving set up. I can see a very young Corrigan and Jason P wearing woolly jumpers and smoking pipes in the Clyde as architecture students in 1961. I was too young to be there so I have no idea how I got that image into my head. I once heard him tell a student “you can’t put a fucking sound shell there” and he was right, but that student never came back to studio. One day in the studio he went on and on about the Japanese architect Maki. Another time I saw him in the Standard Hotel in Fitzroy drinking Shiraz with water and hanging out with Jack Hibberd. I remember the night Keating came to open Building 8 at RMIT and I felt that architecture had finally arrived in this country.
Even though, I was so hopeless as student, he was always generous and encouraging. Many people owe their lives to him. He once terrified me when he pointed at me and beckoned, I thought I was done for, instead in that kind of seductive Australian New England like accent he had, and he said it with a slow emphasis on every syllable: “ I want you to go downstairs and get me one of those big round sticky buns with jam and cream.” I was pretty relieved it wasn’t worse than that, and maybe he said it like that, because he thought I was dim, because in those days I didn’t talk much.
At architecture school I wanted to be him when I grew up.
He had a kind of Irish Catholic disposition and all that went with it. But, he was one of the few Melbourne architects to actually, yes actually, be in practice with a formidable woman. In some ways he always seemed to me most like the American author John Cheever with all his proclivities. A brilliant exponent of his art but a radical larrikin thrown into the middle class and high art. An outsider looking for an architectural home in the suburbs. A kind of Australian Cheever who would mention crazy Louis Kahn in the same breath as he would mention Henry Lawson, Joan Sutherland or Phar Lap. I always wondered what he had done at Johnson Burgee in New York during the Whitlam years.
All the fire stations and houses are amazing; and one hot day, with my friends Dean and Catherine we went to visit the Athan house in Monbulk as it neared its completion. We got lost, and hurt our shins, clambering over it’s unfinished joists. We found a labrynthine house of mystery; a suburban castle with an interior city within it. Nothing like the pornography of glazed box houses that I find in my social media feeds these days. Peter’s expressionism always seemed to touch on the ethereal and a kind sacred secularism at some point.
As with all great architects there are always lost opportunities. I think Edmond and Corrigan’s 1985 project for the State Library and Museum was one of them. It is tragic Edmond and Corrigan were not the architects of the City Square, Stockman’s Hall of Fame, or Parliament House or even the Geee. Yes, if Edmond and Corrigan had been the architects of the MCG we would all now be living in a much richer nation. A nation with significantly more cultural dignity than it has now.