Born in Johore Bahru, Malaysia, on 1 August 1932, John Neville Morphett is the son of John William Morphett, Chief Surveyor, Kuala Lumpur, and Nellie Ireland. He was educated at Christ Church School in Western Australia before attending St Peter’s College, in South Australia in 1945. He then followed his childhood ambition of studying architecture, studying jointly at the University of Adelaide and the South Australia School of Mines and Industries, and completing a Degree of Engineering in Architectural Engineering in 1955 (Graduation Booklet 1955). He was a successful student, working at Hassell, McConnell and Partners during the University holidays (Morphett 2000), and winning the SA Gas Company prize in 1950 and the SA Architects Board Scholarship 1951. In 1955 John Morphett married Vivienne June (nee Williams) with whom he had four sons and one daughter.
Following his graduation Morphett was employed by Hassell, McConnell and Partners, a firm which with he would continue to be associated for over forty years. However, after it was suggested that he should apply to study architecture in the United States of America by the Head of the School of Architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Pietro Belluschi, who was a guest at the 1956 Australian Architectural Convention held in Adelaide, Morphett enrolled at MIT Graduate School. There he was taught by such architectural luminaries as Le Corbusier, Philip Johnson, Richard Neutra and Paul Rudolph, graduating with a Master of Architecture, and winning third prize in the 1957 International Solar House Competition run by the Association for Applied Solar Energy. The third place entry had ‘a roof covered with a visually dynamic array of diamond-shaped collectors’ (Barber 2007: 3).
On completing his Master of Architecture, Morphett gained employment as an architect with The Architects Collaborative (TAC) in Boston, Massachusetts, working closely with the 74 year old Walter Gropius (Morphett 2000: 2). He stayed with TAC for three years (1957 to 1961), stating that his ‘time there had been the most enlightening of [his] life’ (Morphett 2000: 3) and working both in the USA and Italy. Among the buildings he collaborated on during this period include the Pan-Am building over Grand Central Station, New York, and the University of Baghdad, Iraq.
Morphett rejoined Hassell, McConnell and Partners on his return from the United States in 1962, bringing with him a fresh understanding of the collaborative nature of the design process. He was made a partner of Hassell Architects in 1967 and a director in 1975. With his understanding of the importance of good management, Morphett enrolled in the Advanced Management Course at the Australian Administration Staff College, Mt Eliza, Victoria in 1978 (Curriculum Vitae). In 1979 he became managing director of the Hassell Group and in 1992 he was made Chairman of Hassell Pty Ltd, a position he held until his retirement in 1997 (Who’s Who 2004: 1451). Since then Morphett has continued to act as a consultant for Hassell. Under his Directorship, the firm expanded significantly and diversified into landscape architecture, planning, urban design and interior design.
Morphett has always been active in the architectural community, beginning in the 1950s when he and a group of fellow young architects formed the Contemporary Architects Association (CAA) for which Morphett acted as Secretary. Other members included Keith Neighbour, Dick Roberts, John Chappel, Laurie Brownell, Alan Godfrey, Brian Claridge and Newell Platten. In 1956 the RAIA staged an exhibition in conjunction with the Sixth Australian Architectural Convention. The Exhibition, held in Botanic Park in the Adelaide Parklands was designed to show architecture by means of models and actual buildings and hence stimulate interest in the latest developments in Architecture (Hurst 2007; Dutkiewicz 2008). His interest in modern design can also be seen in his winning design for the 1960 Timber Development Association Home of the Year competition. In 1974 Morphett was the guest of the Federal Republic of Germany and spent time there studying the integration of public art into architecture (Curriculum Vitae) this trip also included time in North America, Russia, Japan and Europe to study urban design, theatres and cultural facilities (Page 1986: 274).
John Morphett became an Associate of the South Australian Institute of Architects (SAIA) from 1956 and of the South Australian Chapter of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA) from its formation in 1962. He was elected SA Chapter President of the RAIA and served between 1981 and 1982. In 1982 he was made a Life fellow of the RAIA for his services to the architectural profession. In 1997 he was awarded the Sir James Irwin RAIA SA Chapter’s President’s Medal.
In 2000 he was awarded the prestigious RAIA Gold Medal. RAIA SA Chapter President, Christine Landorf, described Morphett as ‘a modest, generous professional’ (Landorf 2000). Morphett has been praised as having ‘a strong social agenda, believing that “excellence in design results in social benefits and that good design is also cost-effective and efficient”’ ('2000 John Neville Morphett' 2006).
Between 1974 and 1986 Morphett served as a government nominee on the Architects Board of South Australia which oversees the Registration of Architects. His interest in education can also be seen through his role as visiting lecturer for the University of South Australia (formerly the South Australian Institute of Technology) and the University of Adelaide’s Schools of Architecture (Curriculum Vitae).
Morphett joined the Adelaide Chamber of Commerce as a member of the Council in 1971, and when it merged with the SA Chamber of Manufactures to form the Chamber of Commerce and Industry SA Inc. in 1973 he continued on the Board and was elected President from 1990 to 1991. This body itself merged with the South Australian Employers’ Federation in 1993 to form the Employers’ Chamber on which Board Morphett also served. At a national level he was a Board Member of the Australian Chamber of Commerce from 1990 to 1992.
Community service has played an important part in Morphett’s life. From his time as President of the Adelaide Jaycees in 1970 to serving as Governor of the Wyatt Benevolent Institution from 1983 to 2004, Morphett’s service to the community was broad. He also held positions on the Council of the National Trust of SA (1985-6), served as director and chairman of the Australian Dance Theatre, as Chairman of the Adelaide Festival of the Arts (2001-2) and as an Adelaide Rotarian. Morphett was Honorary British Consul-General of South Australia from 1986 to 1997 (Landorf 2000). Reflecting this service was the awarding of Morphett with a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) and an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) both in 1996 (Who’s Who 2004: 1451).
The architectural works with which John Morphett has been involved in South Australia date back to some of Hassell and McConnell’s early modernist buildings such as the Bragg Laboratories at the University of Adelaide (1962) and the National Insurance Company of New Zealand offices, Waymouth Street, Adelaide (now demolished) (1965).
A major project for Hassell, McConnell and Partners was the Adelaide Festival Centre (1969), which opened in 1973, receiving a RAIA Award of Merit. The clients were the Adelaide City Council and the Adelaide Festival Centre Trust (Hassell 1974). The design developed from the inside out (Hassell 1974) and introduced the then unusual concept of ‘continental’ seating where a central aisle did not divide its span across the auditorium (Page 1986). The ability to control the acoustics in the Festival Theatre gave it flexibility unknown in earlier theatres (Page 1986). The Festival Theatre was the first stage in the Festival Centre complex and was regarded as an emphatic step forward in modern architecture for South Australia (Page 1986).
Other significant buildings designed by Hassell and Partners include the eight-storey open deck Rundle Car Park (1975-77) on the corner of Rundle and Pulteney Streets, Adelaide, the Bradman Stand at Adelaide Oval, (1972), the eleven-storey Colonel Light Centre, Adelaide (1978), the Gilles Plains Community College and Darwin Airport. Urban design projects by the firm include the Leigh Creek South Town Centre. More recent projects are the University of South Australia’s Amy Wheaton Building at its Magill Campus (1996), Finlaysons Offices, Flinders Street, Adelaide and Westminster School Performing Arts Centre.
Christine Sullivan and Julie Collins
Sullivan, Christine and Collins, Julie, 'Morphett, John Neville’, Architecture Museum, University of South Australia, 2008, Architects of South Australia: [http://www.architectsdatabase.unisa.edu.au/arch_full.asp?Arch_ID=22]