Remarkable MacRob.

I remember my delight when I discovered MacRobertson Girls High School, and how my instant regard was confirmed by reading that Robin Boyd had described MacRob (as it's usually called) as  'the building that introduced the revolution of modern architecture into Victoria'

Located on the northernmost corner of Albert Park closest to St Kilda Road, the school was named after the wealthy philanthropist who funded it to celebrate the centenary of Melbourne's establishment. MacRob was completed in 1934 at the end of the Great Depression and the architect was a little known young man called Norman Seabrook.  What is so fascinating about the school is that the design had clearly been strongly influenced by the modernist Dutch architect Willem Dudok and his famous 1931 Town Hall at Hilversum in the Netherlands.

MacRobertson Girls High 1
Main entrance to school

MacRobertson Girls High 2
Rear courtyard of school

MacRobertson Girls High 3
Classroom windows

Norman Hugh Seabrook (1906-1978) was born in Northcote in Melbourne, his father was a clerk, and Phillip Goad's biography * reveals that after being educated at Wesley College, he was articled for two years before gaining his diploma in architectural design at the University of Melbourne Atelier in 1931. He married in the same year and in the then common rite of passage for recent graduates he went to England, working in London and Birmingham. 

His time in Europe culminated with the Seabrooks cycling over 3000 kms in the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium studying architecture, before they returned to Melbourne in 1933.  The Hilversum building was only completed in 1931 so this must have been when he became acquainted with Dudok's work. 

On his return Seabrook was admitted as an Associate of the RAIA, set up in practice in Collins Street and shortly afterwards won a competition for the MacRob school; he was apparently a brilliant renderer which never hurts in competitions!  It was a vindication of the anonymous architectural competition system that an innovative design was selected and the young unknown architect was entrusted with the execution of the work.

The whole issue of influences is a guessing game most of the time.
Did Seabrook visit the Bauhaus on his bicycle? Was he politically aware of the dark forces gathering in Germany by 1933 or like so many was he simply impressed with Hitler's autobahns?  And one wonders why he was so influenced by Dudok in particular as the Bauhaus had moved to Dessau in 1925 and Gropius' Dessau building was not only operating but was the 'hot' building at the time Seabrook was cycling around Europe.  The Villa Savoie was also finished (and published) in 1931 but there's no record that Seabrook ever visited France.

By then, with the War coming, the future of architecture was moving decisively in the direction of Gropius and Le Corbusier, so we can only speculate about what attracted him so strongly to Dudok in the face of this trend.  However Seabrook and his partner Alan Fides remained faithful to the Dudok aesthetic and the practice continued until Seabrook's death in 1978.  They designed Fire Stations and associated flats at Brunswick (1937) Brighton (1939) and Windsor (1939-40) and the Warracknabeal Town Hall (1939) along these lines, but these later buildings have none of the design panache of MacRob.

Although Seabrook's practice continued after the War, Professor Goad records only a few postwar buildings, commenting that his practice never regained the momentum and innovation of the Thirties.  Perhaps the Dudok aesthetic seemed unfashionable and out of date after modernism took hold in Melbourne and he doesn't get much mention in the history books after MacRob.  Except I've always wondered if it might have been MacRob's example that encouraged all that cream brickwork in postwar suburban houses? 

I like it that the original MacRob building hasn't been altered and is still faithfully serving its purpose 80 years later.  It's also the most successful State Girls High School in Melbourne with its students consistently topping the State.  I don't believe in the determinist view that good architecture creates successful students, but one would like to think that the design must have been one of the factors that helped create such a long established and successful institution; Seabrook and Fides must have got something right!

Quite apart from its modern design, the building was considered unusual at the time because it used cream brick rather than the traditional red brick, and because of its use of blue-glazed bricks as sills and mullions to the red painted steel windows and to highlight other areas.  The school is a remarkably consistent design internally as well, and still has many of the original light fittings, hardware and furniture.  They weren't simply selected from an on-line catalogue in those days, but were specially designed and made for this building.

The school has doubled in size since the 1934 building was built and the designers of the extensions have sensibly tried to fit in with the Seabrook building without imitating it; the extensions are of the same height and the same light cream brick has been used throughout.  Alas, although the new classroom wing attempts to match the qualities of the older building in a contemporary way, the design might best be described as bland.  And while the recent incorporation of pipes to collect rainwater is environmentally admirable, they don't improve the appearance and should have been undergrounded.  The most recent building, a gymnasium over a ground floor canteen is almost by definition of a different scale with a blank wall facing the park.

MacRob doesn't appear to have had much direct influence on late Thirties modern architecture in Melbourne, yet according to Boyd, MacRob was the first real modern building in Melbourne.  Every architect would no doubt have been to see it, so it's hard to believe something didn't rub off, if only to demonstrate that it was time, that radical change was both possible and desirable!

It's a much-loved building by those who know it, and in the social sense MacRob has played an exceptional role in educating a cadre of young women who have gone on to help make our society what it is.  I treasure it as a one-off, idiosyncratic, complete-in-itself design, and because it is further evidence of the power of good design to influence people's lives.

The photographs don't do justice to the colours, textures and details of this remarkable building.  Next time you're driving past, stop and walk around and give a thought to the tall bespectacled 28 year old Mr Seabrook, setting up in practice having just won his first major building after returning from two years in Europe. It was every young architect's dream played out! 

I can't help wondering what Seabrook was like as a person.  He was of my father's generation so I have a sense of how he probably dressed and I'm sure he always wore a hat.   What sort of books did he read I wonder?  Had he read Corbusier's seminal Vers une architecture which was first published in 1923?   Was he an Elder of the church, or rather was he a stalwart at the 19th hole of the golf club next to the school?  Did his early success make him arrogant, and was he a disappointed man when he retired?  

If Professor Goad knows he isn't telling and leaves us hanging with the tantalizingly precise personal information that after Seabrook retired he divorced his wife on the 18th March 1975 and on the same day married Mavis Black, a photographic retoucher and a divorcee, only to die in South Melbourne three years later aged 72.

There's a fascinating unknown human story there but it's justly overshadowed by MacRob, the one-off masterpiece of a young architect that should be celebrated as an important part of our architectural legacy.

Don Gazzard LFAIA
New Year 2015

 * See Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16 (MUP 2002)