For over forty years local architect Tony Deakin OAM has literally shaped the Armidale environment through his professional activity and community service – including a stint as Mayor. Here he talks about what makes Armidale such a great place to live and work.
> How did you find yourself in Armidale?
I was raised in India, as my father was in the Army, but with the partition of India my family moved to Australia when I was nine. After finishing my schooling in Sydney I studied architecture at the University of Sydney before starting work in Armidale on a part time basis in 1965.
There were two reasons for coming here: my old partner Reg Magoffin bought a practice here and my wife had some Armidale connections, as her mother had been to school at the New England Girls’ School.
> What were those early days in Armidale like for you?
The practice was based in Sydney and, because of my Armidale connections, I got the job as the Armidale architect. I used to come up for one or two days a week from Sydney for around seven years before moving here with my family in 1972. Initially we thought we were only going to stay a year – 37 years later we are still here!
I used to stay at the Tattersall’s Hotel, which might surprise some people, but it used to be a very smart hotel in those days. The office was in what is now Lindsay House; interestingly, years later we got the job of restoring the building into a boutique hotel. That was a nice job to do.
> You were awarded an Order of Australia Medal for your community and architectural work in 2000. How did you become so involved in local affairs?
When I first came here I hadn’t been on a committee in my entire life, but within two years I’d been elected to the City Council, I was on some ten committees, finally becoming Mayor. If you have expertise or enthusiasm, it’s easy to be a part of this town. I think the ease with which you can involve yourself with a range of things here is one of the best things about Armidale.
> What is it like being an architect in the New England?
Armidale is a great place to live for an architect. It’s small enough for you to know everybody in the related industries, but it’s big enough for things to happen here. While I’m partially retired now, I can still turn up on a building site and know everyone. This means if there’s a problem, it’s easy to fix straight away. That local knowledge is vital. Over the years we’ve actually done work with some of Sydney’s best architectural firms, because they realise the value of having a local connection. Of course, this works both ways, because we get to make connections with some big city expertise.
For instance, The Armidale School’s (TAS) new Creative Arts Centre, which has a really terrific theatre in it, was done with Peddle Thorp and Walker, one of Sydney’s oldest and biggest firms. If you include my old partner, we have been the architects for TAS for 55 years. We have done a lot of schools and retirement villages over the years.
> You must have seen a lot of change in the industry?
Yes, particularly in the way documents are produced and transferred. I first heard about using email to send drawings in America. We had never done that; of course, now we wouldn’t think about doing it any other way. We also use all of the modern software, though I have to admit I still use a pencil and paper and get someone else to enter it into the computer – but I have other skills, like over 40 years’ worth of experience!
There is no doubt you get a better result with computers, though. Firstly, you get a better standard of documentation, and secondly, it is much easier to amend things and look at alternatives.
In the old days this meant getting a razor blade and scratching out the ink before doing another drawing. Now I can easily ask someone to move a bedroom to the other side of the house and see what it looks like there. This ability to look at options should really lead to better design. Of course, using a computer to take clients for a walk-through of the design is also a great benefit.
> Why, then, should someone employ an architect given these innovations ?
It’s true some people need convincing because of the fees, but we think this cost really should be saved in the efficiency of the building process. Also, if you have a look at real estate advertisements, they often mention that a building has been ‘architecturally designed’, so obviously they think it adds value to the building.
I’ve said for years that architects should get royalty payments like authors or musicians.
> Tell us about your involvement with the Horbury Hunt Society …
Horbury Hunt was a Canadian architect who worked in America before working in Australia for most of his professional life. He designed a variety of buildings in Sydney and the country, with Armidale being particularly well represented.
For example, he designed St Peter’s Cathedral in town, as well as Booloominbah and Trevenna (the Vice-Chancellor’s residence) at the University of New England. Interestingly enough, he also designed the Armidale Hospital: today you can just see two little peak roofs, but the rest of it has completely disappeared under the subsequent works.
He was known to be quite difficult, wanting things done in exactly the right way, but because of this he has been remembered for the exceptional quality of the brick and timberwork in his buildings.
The society is really a bunch of good-natured nutters who go around the buildings and have a lot of fun. They always take us out to dinner and we show them around a bit.
Actually, I did the Parish Hall building for St Peter’s, which is located in between two Horbury Hunt buildings. I never would have tried to compete with Hunt, but I had to remain sympathetic to his designs, so we did things like getting special bricks made, using the exact shape of the arches from one of the other buildings and using quite a forest of wood in the trusses.
> What kind of work are you doing now?
I’ve sold the practice and I’m most often engaged as a consultant specialising in heritage work. There aren’t a lot of architects who do this kind of work these days; I guess it has become a bit of a specialised area.
I’ve done a lot of cinemas. I’ve done Bingara and I am doing others at Quirindi, Bowerville and Goulburn. The one at Bingara is well worth a look; it’s a very beautiful Art Deco building – one of the nicest jobs we’ve ever done. I’ve also got three or four of those sort of heritage jobs on in Tamworth at the moment.
> Thank you Tony.
Interview by Alex Dunn