Flair and square: Architects Denton Corker Marshall
The 50th anniversary of the Australian architecture firm that has made a mark everywhere from Melbourne to Beijing to Stonehenge
When John Denton, Bill Corker and Barrie Marshall set up their architectural practice in 1972, it would be another two decades before screens and keyboards began to displace drawing boards and pencils from their studio. Work had only just started on Australia’s first skyscraper to reach 60 floors, the MLC tower in Sydney, impressively designed in sculptural concrete by Harry Seidler, at the cost of the destruction of the grandest hotel in the country. That same year the construction unions locked management out of the still far from complete Sydney Opera House, staging a work-in to demand a 35-hour week. Charles Jencks and the postmodernists were about to lay into both buildings. Although Seidler himself would never acknowledge it, the cracks in the moral self-righteousness of his form of modernism, acquired directly from Walter Gropius, would soon become apparent. In America, Minoru Yamasaki’s disastrous apartment blocks in St Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe housing project were dynamited in 1972. In Britain, the then Prince of Wales decided that a 22-storey building in the City of London designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe represented such an existential threat to civilised urban values that he abandoned his traditional constitutional neutrality to block it. To judge by the forest of new towers that now crowd the London skyline, Charles need not have bothered. In Melbourne, modernism’s nemesis took the form of Ashton Raggatt McDougall’s explosion in a green paint factory that is Storey Hall, at RMIT in Swanston Street.
Time, as the Swiss critic Sigfried Giedion once suggested, is as much of an essential issue for an architect to deal with as space. Time leaves a mark on architecture in both a positive way, by softening its sharp edges with the patina of age, but also when the damage done by the social or technical shortcomings of a design comes to the surface. Perhaps even more disconcerting than the physical effects of time is that 50 years is quite long enough for violent shifts in perceptions of architecture to take place, even if it seems such a slow-moving cultural form. The British costume historian James Laver was talking about fashion when he formulated Laver’s Law – a timeline of public perception of the fashion cycle, ranging from “indecent”, a decade ahead of its time, to “daring”, one year ahead, to “smart”, then “dowdy” and eventually “beautiful”– but it can apply equally to architecture. Sometimes all it needs for the formerly outrageous to turn into untouchable heritage, or even the once fashionable to become tedious, is the sufficient passage of time.
That hasn’t happened to Denton Corker Marshall’s work. An impressive collection of individual houses, from Barrie Marshall’s walled courtyard sunk into the landscape on Phillip Island, designed in 1983, to the 1997 Sheep Farm House at Kyneton, north of Melbourne, with a remarkable 200-metre concrete wall anchoring it to the site, and half a dozen others look as timeless as ever. DCM’s Manchester Civil Justice Centre, in the United Kingdom, is an impressively original solution to achieving high-energy performance standards for courtrooms. Their being stacked high, rather than spread low on the ground, allows for natural ventilation, and also creates an appealingly unintimidating presence for the legal system. The firm’s embassies across Asia have given Australia a sophisticated public face. Their academic and cultural buildings have contributed to civic life in Australia’s cities and suburbs.
The three founders of Denton Corker Marshall met as students during their first year at the University of Melbourne. Although Bill Corker retired in 2009, and Barrie Marshall recently stepped down as a director, they were part of the 50th year celebration of the practice, held at Melbourne Museum in February. There are currently five DCM directors in Melbourne, three in London and Manchester, and one in Jakarta.
The museum, which opened in 2000, is one of a sequence of DCM designs that has served to redefine the city. One vivid yellow segment of the polychromatic museum is showing signs of fading to white, but the design’s fundamental ideas remain convincingly intact. The entrance is signalled by a dynamic steel canopy streaking towards the sky over busy Nicholson Street, seemingly as a tribute to the constructivists. Behind the entrance façade is a generously scaled full-height promenade that runs the length of the building. Openings at regular intervals along it allow visitors to dive into one of the individual collections, and emerge again to sit and relax before moving on to explore the next.
The formal entrance façade forms one side of the piazza fronting the adjoining 19th-century Royal Exhibition Building. The other long side of the museum looks out over Carlton Gardens and takes a more organic form. An assortment of geometric elements is held within a rectilinear steel basket that is a reference to the Melbourne street grid, laid out by the surveyor Robert Hoddle, and suggests a half-open treasure chest or toy box, offering everything from a garden to an IMAX cinema from which to pick and choose.
The building uses a recognisable language that DCM has developed over the years. These are architects who enjoy the play between order and disruption, between equilibrium and instability, between containment and openness. Their colour palette is distinctive, a more acid-inflected range of orange, green, yellow and purple than, say, the conventional engineering colours of Rogers + Piano for the Centre Pompidou. And they use colours sparingly. As if to remind their 50th anniversary guests how important black is to Melbourne tastes, the DCM directors were dressed in black from head to foot, except John Denton, who deviated from the uniform only as far as opting for a black-and-white shirt.
The firm’s work over the past half century – built, unbuilt and, in at least two notorious cases, demolished – amounts to a history of contemporary Australia. It is also a reflection of the increasingly global nature of architectural practice. Early on, DCM expanded into Indonesia and Hong Kong, and later opened in London. When the Berlin Wall fell, the practice established an office in Warsaw, Poland. As China went through the biggest construction boom that the world has ever seen, DCM built 45,000 apartments there, more or less to its designs. As part of the marketing effort by their client in China, Sunshine 100, the faces of the three founding partners appeared on billboards in some of the country’s cities, and on millions of boarding passes for China Southern Airlines.
DCM has been impressively consistent, without being repetitive. Perhaps because of Australia’s long decades of economic growth, its architects were able to avoid the collective nervous breakdown of their peers when confronted with the public reaction against modernism. There was certainly a great deal of experimentation with new architectural languages, but to European eyes at least, not the same sense of guilt at a perceived responsibility for a soured modernist utopia. There have been no soul-searching reassessments or renunciation of early work, which have characterised some architects elsewhere. In Japan, for example, Kengo Kuma abruptly turned his back on designing buildings that took the form of eight-storey ionic columns and developed a more convincing appreciation for Japanese tradition and bamboo. At one stage, in the 1980s, America’s leading corporate practice, SOM, brought in squads of academics for Maoist-style self-criticism struggle sessions with their senior designers, looking for alternatives to the minimal glass box.
What has changed with the passing of time has been the kind of projects that DCM work on, a reflection of changes in society and technology. They began as urban planners, after Denton and Corker both added a planning diploma to their architecture degrees, and this is a strength that still underpins their work at every scale. Their first significant building project was a pilot station for Port Phillip, arising from one of those random family connections that start many architectural careers. Bill Corker’s father was a former sea captain who had become a harbour pilot at a time a new building was needed. Then came the office towers, and the diplomatic buildings overseas. More recently there has been a sequence of high-rise residential towers in Australia and Britain aimed at students. Academic buildings are now focused on medical research laboratories, while infrastructure has also been a theme, from the markers that line Melbourne’s freeways to the city’s bridges. What makes DCM unusual is the ability to do all that while still taking on modestly scaled but intense projects such as the Australian pavilion in the gardens of the Venice Biennale site, or the Stonehenge Visitor Centre in the United Kingdom.
DCM’s first high-profile project did not end well. In 1976, with not much more to their credit than the pilot station and a series of planning studies for Canberra, they won a competition to create a civic square for Melbourne, carved out of its 19th-century grid. They designed an intricate mix of blue basalt hard surfaces, punctuated by pools and fountains, organised on multiple levels and animated by video screens, cafes and a few shops. The design included an idea for a substantial piece of public sculpture on a scale that could act as a counterpoint to the two historic architectural monuments that framed the square: Town Hall and St Paul’s Cathedral. The square was a major project that Melbourne’s politicians and planners hoped would change the geography of the city, giving it a genuine civic centre for the first time. And though nothing of DCM’s City Square has survived – after several piecemeal alterations, the last traces were demolished in 2017 to make way for a Metro Tunnel station – its memory remains an important part of both their history, and that of Melbourne.
City Square was the first time that the firm worked with an artist on a large scale. Ron Robertson-Swann, once an assistant to Henry Moore, won an invited competition to create a piece for the site. His composition of bright yellow pyramidal forms composed from a cluster of sheets of welded steel, named Vault, was briefly one of the more sophisticated interplays between art, architecture and public space anywhere in the world.
“We were interested in land art, in the work of Richard Serra and Donald Judd, and we wanted a sculptural work that would address the scale of the space,” Denton tells me. “Up until then there had been nothing like it in Australia.”
Wearing what in photographs appears to have been a tea cosy, Queen Elizabeth II opened the square filled with enthusiastic crowds in May 1980. “Melbourne is renowned for beautiful parklands, wide streets and the contrasting architecture of the modern and an age past,” Her Majesty observed. “This magnificent City Square is a far-sighted conception and it will add a new focus to Melbourne, providing an opportunity to relax, to meet friends and to reflect on yet another illustration of Australia’s genius for creating a special image of her own in the 20th century.”
In fact, just two months later the city council voted to remove Robertson-Swann’s work after a bitter campaign against it led councillor Donald Osborne, who insisted on describing the sculpture as “the yellow peril”, and an equally forceful campaign to save it from what his opponents called out as vandalism. It was the first in a series of blows that saw City Square diminished, then cut in two by the building of a new hotel, and finally extinguished altogether after the creation of Federation Square. The fiasco prefigured an even more famous collision between art and politics in New York, where Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc only remained in situ in Manhattan’s Foley Federal Plaza from 1981 to 1989 before being dismantled. But while Tilted Arc is still sitting in a warehouse because Serra refuses to allow it to be installed anywhere except the original site, Vault was re-erected first in Batman Park, on the Yarra River, and then moved again to its present home outside the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, in the Melbourne Arts Precinct.
Despite those difficulties, DCM have gone on to work with other artists on many of their projects, notably in the remarkable site-specific work at the Museum of Sydney. Edge of the Trees, a collaboration between Janet Laurence and the Badtjala artist Fiona Foley, marks one of the first contacts with European settlers that took place close to the site. And it is as significant a part of the project as the architecture of the museum.
City Square was a difficult and bruising experience for a young practice to go through, but it did consolidate DCM’s identity. Yellow became an essential part of its graphic style developed by Garry Emery. And the colour has been a recurring element in their work. It was there in the Adelphi, the hotel the practice built in Flinders Lane, with its daring rooftop swimming pool in glass cantilevered out into thin air, and it’s an essential part of the character of the Museum of Melbourne.
The destruction in 2021 of DCM’s Anzac Hall at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, just 22 years after it was completed, as the result of the intervention of another politician with an ego, was no less painful an experience, as well as a shameful waste of resources and a reckless release of embodied carbon that demolishing any building involves.
During the 1980s – having failed to win the competition to design Australia’s new parliament building in 1980, though Denton now describes the blow as “probably better for the long-term health of the practice” – DCM established itself as a significant part of the architectural landscape. In Melbourne they designed the 101 Collins Street complex, which combines a distinctive tower – briefly the city’s tallest when it was completed in 1987 – with the restoration of two 19th-century buildings at street level. DCM’s sensitive approach to creating a transparent entrance with views in beyond the lobby was subverted by their client’s insistence on bringing in architect Philip Johnson from New York to give it a postmodern makeover before its construction was even complete. In the event, it was Johnson’s partner John Burgee who rammed in a comically inappropriate colonnade of free-standing giant Tuscan columns, and filled the lobby with travertine slabs and gold leaf.
The building was followed by DCM’s 62-floor Governor Phillip Tower in Sydney, completed in 1993, a svelte landmark from which Tom Cruise later parachuted in Mission: Impossible 2.
DCM’s Australian embassy buildings in Beijing and Tokyo were understood as carrying the symbolic weight of a project of national significance. Beijing, where Australia had opened an embassy for the first time only in 1973, was particularly politically charged. The new building was part of a new foreign policy strategy that involved upgrading Australia’s international presence. But Australia’s Public Works Committee approved construction of a replacement on what reads like welfare grounds. Its resolution noted that Beijing had few suitable restaurants and no English theatres, that diplomats were restricted to a 20-kilometre radius of the building and were furnished with only a tennis court and open-air pool in the existing chancery, and that the city was cold in winter and hot in summer.
“Australia did a land swap with China for the new embassy,” Denton says. “They got a nice site near the water in Canberra, we got a plot in the fields. I met the farmer who was working the land. It was still a time when you could not get maps to scale.” Work on the new embassy began in 1982 and was not completed for a decade, in large part because of the lack of skilled labour.
“The Chinese said you must use our workers. They gave us Construction Brigade Number 5, that had built Mao’s tomb. But as a function of the Red Guard era, people with skills had disappeared, there were no project managers. We had to hire 20 experienced foremen from Australia. The Chinese could make straight ductwork, but they could not turn a corner.”
DCM’s building was designed as a pragmatic response to these conditions, built out of concrete on three floors, to avoid the need for lifts, introverted to face most windows towards its interior courtyards, and contained within high walls. It also has a clear conceptual idea, in paraphrasing the original ground plan of the Imperial City, with its north-south axis, its walled courtyards and an entrance across water.
When I flew to China to visit the embassy in 1992, Beijing’s airport had the feeling of a provincial bus station, with hard wooden benches and flickering monitors, and not more than 20 gates. The road into town was just two lanes, and choked with trailers taking winter green vegetables in from the country. There was no advertising, no neon signs, and the whole city went dark at 6pm.
The embassy was one of only two pieces of major contemporary architecture in the city when it opened. The other was I.M. Pei’s Fragrant Hill Hotel. Most new buildings in Beijing were either the product of Soviet advice, or attempts at creating traditional roofs, and DCM’s embassy building played an important part in introducing new thinking in Chinese architecture. What were just fields around the embassy when construction started have now turned into Sanlitun, one of the Chinese capital’s most fashionable neighbourhoods.
The challenge in Tokyo was entirely different. Delivering Australia’s embassy building in just four years at the height of Japan’s construction boom, DCM’s task here was to create a sophisticated and authoritative representation of Australia in the context of one of the most architecturally sophisticated urban environments.
In one sense, DCM is a traditional practice, its design language springs from the close working relationship of the three founders, whose method was to work on designs together, to share ideas and refine them.
For the past decade, the Melbourne office of DCM has been a floor in one of I.M. Pei’s Collins Street towers in Melbourne. Within the smooth, precast masonry panel cladding with uninterrupted sheets of glass, DCM have taken down the suspended ceilings and exposed the inner workings of the tower and created a generous reception space with a polished concrete floor. In among the bankers, management consultants and law firms above and below them, this is clearly a creative studio. The confident assurance of Pei’s geometry, which deliberately flouted its context by turning at 45 degrees to central Melbourne’s street grid, offers remarkable views of the city in every direction. DCM’s architects can look out over the streets below to see what the studio has accomplished in 50 years, be reminded that a living city is never finished, and see in the physical models that line their space what is coming next.