Newell Platten was at the forefront of architectural change in South Australia and nationally from the 1950s in both the private and public sectors. ‘An inherent interest in the human condition [was] at the core of [his] architecture’ (Hurst 2004: 238).
Platten was born to Gil and Isabel Platten in 1928 in Rabaul, then administrative capital of the Mandated Territory of New Guinea. The son of a missionary, he believes his Methodist upbringing influenced his character, particularly a ‘tendency to self-denial’ and ‘a sort of obligation to improve the lot of common man’ (Hurst 2004: 238). He spent his childhood at a mission station at Namatanai, New Ireland. A tropical paradise in his view, it must have seemed even more so when, for his primary schooling, his family ‘was obliged to swap [to]…a South Australian country ministerial circuit and a gloomy parsonage at Two Wells’. Dwellings and their surrounds, however, in both countries, later exerted their influence in his development as an architect. Those of New Ireland contributed to his love of indigenous architecture with its natural materials and interaction of building with landscape, whilst from South Australia he ‘learned to enjoy stone walls and country towns and … that houses matter’ (Hurst 2004: 234).
Platten attended Prince Alfred College and Birdwood, Unley and Adelaide High Schools. Having considered engineering, he was intrigued one day in 1944 at Unley High, when ‘a little man in a grey suit walked into my classroom and talked about architecture as a profession’ (Platten to Hurst 2003). This fitted with his love of drawing, and as a result, and with the aid of a Commonwealth scholarship, 1946 saw him commence studies in the University of Adelaide’s Bachelor of Engineering (Architecture) course, with lectures distributed between the School of Mines and Industries, the University of Adelaide and the School of Art. He graduated in 1951.
Along with many of his fellow students, Platten was frustrated that Modernism was seen as a ‘passing fad’ by their teachers (Hurst 2004: 234) Among the student body were Brian Claridge (Dutkiewicz 2008) and Robert Dickson. The latter would become his future professional partner while the former introduced him to the art scene which in turn led to friendships with artists. Platten became president of the Contemporary Art Society of South Australia for a short time prior to travelling to Greece in 1961 (Platten to Hurst 2003).
From 1948 to 1951 Platten worked both in part-time and full-time capacities with the Adelaide-based architectural firm Lawson, Cheesman and Doley. Awarded the 1950 Kenneth and Hazel Milne Travelling Prize from the University of Adelaide, he went to London and spent some time in the office of Sir Thomas Bennett who was a Commonwealth Jubilee visitor to Australia in 1951 (South Australian Institute of Architects Bulletin 1952). Bennett, who had been head of the School of Architecture and Building at the Northern Polytechnic, North London, and had a thriving private practice, was chairman of the Development Corporation of Crawley New Town and for a short time, Stevenage New Town (Goulden 2004). From there Platten travelled to the Continent and he relates that, ‘this was when I began to love traditional townscapes such as Toledo and Nerja in Spain and Cassis in southern France’. He also worked in Canada and travelled for two months in the United States of America (Platten to McDougall April 2008). In 1954 he returned to Lawson, Cheesman and Doley where he was involved in residential, commercial and hotel projects and became a partner in the firm c.1955 (Newell Platten: Curriculum Vitae 2003). He worked closely with Maurice Doley whose love of natural materials led Doley to be one of the first architects in Adelaide to use straw in ceilings and construction (Hurcombe 1986).
In the early 1950s, Platten became a member of the Contemporary Architects’ Group (CAG) which also included Brian Claridge, John Morphett, Keith Neighbour, Dick Roberts, John Chappel, Laurie Brownell and Alan Godfrey. In 1954 CAG published Modern Houses: Adelaide and Suburbs. They also mounted an exhibition of contemporary architecture to accompany the Royal Australian Institute of Architecture’s (RAIA) 6th Australian Architectural Convention in 1956 (Dutkiewicz 2008). This was held in Botanic Park in the Adelaide Parklands. It was designed to show architecture by means of models and actual buildings and hence stimulate interest in the latest developments in the discipline (SAIA Bulletin 1955). As part of the Design subcommittee, Platten worked with Claridge on the overall concept and designed a number of individual exhibits, including the entrance canopy, the steel pavilion and the international pavilion (Platten to McDougall April 2008). The exhibition received considerable attention locally and internationally and was seen by many as a turning point in the public’s acceptance of modern architecture in Adelaide (Hurst 2004).
After a talk with Bob Dickson in October 1957 about his travels in Italy and approach to architecture, Platten suggested they start an office together and in July 1958 they formed Dickson and Platten Architects. This partnership continued until 1973, although from 1961 to 1963 Platten was an architect-planner with Doxiadis Associates, Athens. Platten was a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and, through that association, had became aware of Doxiadis’ work and recent Gold Medal from RIBA. Platten contacted Doxiadis’ practice and was offered an internship. During his two years with the firm he was involved in urban planning and design projects in Pakistan and Ghana. In awarding Platten the RAIA SA Chapter’s Sir James Irwin President’s Medal in 1993, President Mary Marsland commented: ‘Doxiadis was one of the first architects to champion architecture beyond the building and the potential shallowness of shape and form … it is paradoxical as to whether Doxiadis was the trigger to future directions or whether Newell sought out Doxiadis because of the person Newell himself was’ (‘President’s Medal: Recipient 1993: Newell Platten’ 1993: 4). At the time, Platten was already concerned at the near-irrelevance of architecture in the making of cities, towns and suburbs and hence was attracted to Doxiadis’ holistic views. Platten’s experience in working with the Athens-based firm reinforced his existing attitudes (Platten to McDougall April 2008).
Dickson and Platten together pioneered and developed a ‘friendly and more relaxed form of modernism’, known as Adelaide Regional (Apperly 1989: 248). They ‘became exponents for architectural change through publications, exhibitions and professional activism’, thereby taking on the Adelaide architectural establishment, albeit in an unassuming way. (Hurst 2002: Abstract; Hurst 2004). They aimed to produce work characterised by ‘an approach where objectivity is the overriding attitude guiding the creative act’; they let the problem guide the solution (Dickson in Hurst 2002: 4). The partners had a ‘professional companionship’, working in the one room, generally on separate projects but frequently conferring. In fact much of their individual work was difficult to distinguish (Hurst 2002).
In reference to their use of ‘sturdy red brickwork, expressed off-form concrete structural elements, solomit straw ceilings, dramatic exposed timber trusses, and robust internal carpentry’, Platten recollected, ‘we thought that buildings should reflect their structure, should go back to basics’ (Ward 2004: 21). This approach, with ‘its concerns for human scale and relationships’ (Hurst 2002: 4) became known nationally. Platten claims their approach preceded the ‘Sydney School’ as described by Taylor (1990) and in contrast to Apperley et al’s inference of ‘fluent transition’, remembers that ‘progress was slow, hesitant and accretionary’ (Platten to Hurst 2007). This initially happened in a climate of strong conservatism in Adelaide where Neo-Georgian still held sway and where they had to rely on clients who shared their vision (Hurst 2004). Both Platten and Dickson designed their own homes, Platten in 1956, using the style they were developing.
Early commissions for Dickson and Platten Architects were predominantly domestic, which they regarded ‘as the most pure form of architecture’. Platten explains, ‘I had to bond with the people I was working for. Houses are about life, in pure, continuous solid form’ (Hurst 2004: 235). The first residential project was Platten’s 1959 Lee House at Gladstone Road, Brighton. Simple and modern in design the front elevation is symmetrical with large windows, bedrooms on the eastern side and the living areas to the west separated by a central service core (RAIA SA Significant 20th Century Architecture). Other houses designed by Platten included the Hurcombe House, Torrens Park (1959); the Destree House, Hewitt Avenue, Toorak Gardens (1961) and the Taylor House in Douglas Street, Millswood (1966), which received the 1970 RAIA (SA Chapter) Award of Merit. Dickson and Platten were awarded first prize in the 1965 News House of the Year Competition for their design which featured an inner courtyard, a direct result of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences (Hurst 2004). In the late 1960s, Platten was engaged by Hickenbotham Homes, an early and uncommon collaboration between an architect and a housing developer, to prepare house plans with a split-level capability that could adapt to various site conditions. These particular plans turned out to be unpopular with potential home buyers, although other Dickson and Platten designs were successful (Hickenbotham 2004; Platten to McDougall September 2008).
The Arkaba restaurant at Glen Osmond Road, Fullarton (1963) and subsequent hotel was the firm’s first large scale commercial project and one of its best known. Adelaide architect and architectural commentator John Chappel described it as ‘humble brickwork, timber, ‘off the form’ concrete and strawboard ... honestly used to contribute to the overall design’ (Chappel in Page 1986: 237), while the RAIA records that the restaurant and hotel complex is known for its ‘intimate planning and straight forward use of natural materials’ (RAIA SA Significant 20th Century Architecture). While Dickson ran the project and most of the finer details were his work, Platten’s contribution came during the conceptual stages for the twelve-sided (originally circular) inner core building. Platten recalls it was a strong team effort which also included the work of engineer Philip Farger (Platten to McDougall April 2008). The Arkaba won the RAIA (SA Chapter) Award of Merit in 1965, bringing Dickson and Platten local and national attention. However the complex has been altered since then. According to Peter Ward (2004: 22), ‘the integrity of its design has been progressively and now comprehensively destroyed by coarse additions and accretions by designers and builders unknown’.
Dickson and Platten designed several recreational buildings notably golf clubs at Mt Lofty (1968) and Blackwood (1970), the Youth Camps for the National Fitness Council at Mylor in 1969, and later at O’Sullivan’s Beach, and the Whyalla Recreation Centre (c.1971). Industrial buildings at the Hope Valley Water Treatment plant, designed by Platten and built after he left the office, received both a Civic Trust award (1977) and a RAIA (SA Chapter) Award of Merit.
Educational building complexes were a significant component of Dickson and Platten’s work. The Kathleen Lumley College, a project steered by Platten, was a residential college for university students. It won the 1969 RAIA (SA Chapter) Award of Merit and a Civic Trust Award for the landscaping (in association with Ray Holliday). Platten contributed to one of Dickson and Platten’s most significant commissions, namely the Adelaide University Union complex. Although primarily and substantially Dickson’s work, its vocabulary of brick, concrete and timber, and its detailing, can be said to represent the culmination of a joint approach developed over many years. It received an Award of Merit from the RAIA in 1974, a Civic Trust Award in 1975 and a RAIA Twenty-five Year award in 2005 (Platten to McDougall April 2008).
When Newell Platten left the partnership to join the South Australian Housing Trust (SAHT) as Chief Design Architect and Chief Planner in July 1973, he took with him this ‘unpretentious but fine-grained sense of the fitness of things’ (Ward 2004: 22). Ward believes South Australia’s best post-war public housing was the result.
Before moving to the SAHT, Platten had been engaged as a private consultant to the Advisory Committee of the Noarlunga Regional Centre, a new service and housing area south of Adelaide, chaired by Hugh Stretton. According to John Byrne, co-ordinator of the SAHT’s planning team, Stretton provided the theoretical genius whilst Platten contributed the design genius. The Noarlunga project was complex. Unlike the new town of Elizabeth (1955) which was built on a greenfields site, Noarlunga had to fit within adjoining areas and required co-ordination with other government agencies. The end product was one of compromise (Marsden 1986). When Platten took on his seven year contract with the SAHT it was with the view ‘to try to boost the Trust’s design standards’. He felt that ‘in the area (of private practice) I’d gone as far as I want[ed] to go for some time’ and that he was ‘interested, personally, in exploring new area[s] of architectural design activity’ (Platten 1982: 1,2). ‘I also had a desire to return something to the working class, from whence I’d come’ (Platten to McDougall April 2008). According to Marsden (1986: 330) this was done ‘in terms of human scale and gentleness’. His self-described ‘emphasis ... was on siting, composition and landscaping to achieve satisfactory environments’ (Newell Platten: Curriculum Vitae 2003). In ‘Design in the Housing Trust’ (nd, Johnson Collection) Platten wrote of the ‘exceptional opportunities ... for public housing authorities ... to pursue design goals while freed from the market inhibitions of the private sector’ (31). He went on however to observe that these opportunities were tempered by the ‘lack of time to develop ideas due to keeping up with the ... steady supply of serviced allotments’ (34).
Platten gained the RAIA (SA Chapter) 25 Year Award 2007 for the SAHT development, Dr Kent’s Paddock (1982), Kent Town, which is also cited on the RAIA South Australia Significant Twentieth Century Architecture list. It had previously been awarded an RAIA (SA Chapter) Commendation and a Civic Trust Award in 1982. Platten gained particular satisfaction from this project through ‘achieving a high degree of environmental quality by using stock low-cost housing units’ (Page 1986: 261). Other examples of Platten’s SAHT work in Adelaide are the Playford group, Angas Street and the Box Factory group, Carrington Street, the latter receiving a Civic Trust Commendation in 1981 (Warburton 1986).
Upon leaving the SAHT in 1980, Platten set up in private practice which involved residential commissions and Stage Two of Dr Kent’s Paddock, Kent Town. He also undertook tutoring at the University of Adelaide and urban design consultancies. He continued tutoring and the consultancies after his retirement from practice in 1995 (Platten to McDougall April 2008).
Platten had a strong commitment to the wider field of architecture. He was a council member of the RAIA (SA Chapter) from 1966 to 1974, a member of the Federal Council from 1972 to 1974 and of the RAIA Publications Committee from 1968 to 1976. He was made a RAIA Life Member in 1996. In addition, he was a member of the Architects’ Board of South Australia from 1988 to 1991. He was involved in the formation of the Civic Trust of South Australia as a direct result of chairing the RAIA Public Relations Committee. That committee organised the 1967 symposium ‘Outrage’ which focussed on the state of the built environment in Australian cities and precipitated moves towards the establishment of a local branch of the Civic Trust. Platten was its President from 1984 to 1987(Newell Platten: Curriculum Vitae 2003; Hurst 2004; Warburton 1986).
Platten’s involvement in architecture, planning and design went beyond the RAIA. He was a Monarto Development Commissioner from 1973-1980, and a member of the ACT (Australian Capital Territory) Design and Siting Review Committee and of the National Capital Planning Committee from 1973 to 1979. Locally he contributed to several development assessment and urban design panels and from 1973 to 1976 was a member of the National Fitness Council of South Australia (Newell Platten: Curriculum Vitae 2003).
In his private life, Platten's interests outside architecture have been concerned mainly with family, visual arts, gardens, travel and writing. With his first wife Margaret, whom he married in 1954, he had three daughters. Tessa, born 1968, is a nurse; Anna, born 1957 and Bronwyn, born 1959, are both professional visual artists. Anna assisted her husband Rod Taylor in establishing the reputation of Adelaide Central School of Art. Platten likes to think that the sketching excursions he took Anna and Bronwyn on in Greece and the Flinders Ranges when they were children, provided the foundation of their later careers. In the 1980s he and his partner Alison Main, an ex-Sydney architect and visual artist whom he later married, developed a passion for Japanese gardens which they turned into a book, The Lure of the Japanese Garden (Wakefield Press 2002). It is believed to be the first English language guide book to gardens all over Japan (and perhaps the first in any language). From 2003 onwards he has spent much time writing, initially a manuscript constructed around his father's life as a missionary in New Guinea from 1927 to 1951, subsequently Gil Platten’s memoirs (Platten to McDougall September 2008).
During his working life, Platten advocated and frequently debated in public forums the need for quality environments and appropriate approaches to urban planning. He spoke out against the subsequently abandoned transport scheme for Adelaide, the Metropolitan Adelaide Transport Study known as the MATS plan (‘President’s Medal’ 1993). Platten was made a Member of the Order of Australia in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List on 12 June 1995 for service to architecture and to town planning (‘It’s an Honour’ accessed 2008). He passed away on 26 April 2021.
McDougall, Alison, 'Platten, Newell', Architecture Museum, University of South Australia, 2008, Architects of South Australia: [http://www.architectsdatabase.unisa.edu.au/arch_full.asp?Arch_ID=81]