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Obituary: Col Madigan

September 22, 2011

Daryl Jackson remembers the life and career of celebrated Australian architect, Colin Frederick Madigan AO.

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Colin Madigan was a distinguished architect, an RAIA Gold Medalist and winner of numerous awards for buildings of material significance.

His works, constructed between the 1950s and the 1990s, reflect a philosophic substance that connects form to idea, light to mass, structure to detail, and design to the laws of art; all values of a universal kind endemic to the carriage of western intelligence from the beginning of time.

His concerns were many, never singular, as he scanned universal phenomenology in a search for substance and meaning, continually reading, absorbing and presenting a stance that went beyond the personal to find empiric truth; the idea that creative will is the optimistic generator that drives us all forward, himself included.

“It asks a lot for the brain to represent the world to itself and for architecture it must capture independent minded curiosity,” he once stated.

Madigan’s life was episodic. An early beginning in Inverell was spent colouring his father’s drawings, learning the craft of design, and wanting to excel in architecture, without yet knowing his fulsome capabilities or a certain pathway to fruition.

A war in the Pacific interrupted everything. HMAS Armidale was sunk in the open sea off Timor in 1942, a naval risk at the time for anyone flying an Australian flag. Initially adrift on a submerged raft after the ship went down with more than 100 drowned men, then for 10 days in a patched up cutter, Col, aged 20 or so and amongst 42 other survivors, escaped a Kamikaze dive-bombing attack in shark infested waters. He was one of very few survivors, not all of whom are alive today; and now, too, Col.

After the war, he began reading in earnest. George Bernard Shaw, Plato, Bergson, Teilhard de Chardin and Mumford informed his visionary intent and thirst for knowledge. Henry Miller consolidated the maverick ideals, as did a certain affinity with Colin Wilson’s The Outsider. The modern loomed ahead with Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and, above all, Louis Kahn showing the way for an emerging Australian talent not yet sure of the ground upon which he walked in the post-war brashness of an expansive Sydney.

He was to be discovered by a young woman distributing the high style journal L’Architecture d’aujourd’hui; Ruby Court-Rice married Madigan and, after living in King’s Cross, they built a white house of great refinement on the green, raw escarpment of the Collaroy Plateau. A blue Pacific lay beyond, and constituted the visible, more pleasing horizon. She had spent the war singing and dancing in General McArthur’s entertainment group in the Pacific.

Not unlike others, Colin Madigan has lived at least three lives with intention, aspiration, and intelligence to offer. The first is the life at risk: the saga of drifting in the Timor Sea, the subject for a ‘Survivor’ series of paintings by Jan Senbergs, with a published text by Don Watson. In fact, it was Col’s humour that suggested that while he was adrift and drowning in the Timor Sea, Ruby was entertaining troops in the Coral Sea.

‘Life two’ is that of his post-war intellectual extension. Mind and matter were the substance of design for him, and a political/critical search for meaning in a radical, dramatically changing, high-speed internationally focused ‘other world’, somewhat distanced from the 1930s. He saw liberated communication freefall and jet travel juxtaposed against a ‘cold war’ battle for universal values. Humanism versus materialism, beliefs in a socialist pluralism, avoiding the singular straight jacket that the communism of Eastern Europe had brought. In 1969 he said: “There are now people on the moon, looking at us!”

Back in Sydney, the wonder of Utzon’s Opera House lifted Australia’s architectural horizon and in part the myopic curtains of imperialism gave way to a more inclusive understanding of an Australian consciousness in literature, art, theatre, self-recognition and architecture. Colin, with Ruby alongside him, wanted Australians to be more self-reliant. Ruby was willing, as an activist, to launch the first grenade from a Blues Point Terrace House.

‘Life three’ was to be an era which saw Madigan’s practice (Edwards Madigan Torzillo Briggs) win the two national architectural competitions for the High Court and the National Gallery of Australia, alongside Lake Burley Griffin.

Both were key buildings, celebrated for establishing new-found energies for Madigan’s design intelligence: a reactionary force against set piece, classical, lack lustre modernism. This was at a time when in the Whitlam years (1972–75) there was another post-war sensibility about the worth and merit of the Australian cities, and the multiplicity of endeavours, undertaken by a more adventurous idealism.

Today, the vertically structured High Court stands above the lake’s edge, a guardian form to balance excessive injustice from the politics of Parliament on the opposite side of the street, measured surely by a succession of wise Chief Justices. The Gallery though, in need of expansion over time, suffered through a range of ill-fitting changes within, a mediocre addition and, above all, by a failure to have the planned entry point sequence, as designed by Col Madigan.

Some Gallery Directors were not always as sure footed as James Mollison, the Director that Madigan worked with so closely on the Sweeney Brief and with whom Colin and Ruby travelled to see galleries elsewhere, to test the model. Subsequent Directors went on to forge their own version of the future for art, without due consultation or awareness of the Gallery’s value as a sculpted, structured object – believing instead that art and architecture were not a conjoined exploration of ideals. Col saw the Gallery, bedded into the ground, as a castle, guarding for all time the treasures inside.

Having reached 90 years of age and with all his faculties miraculously intact, Madigan believed that in every work of art there is always innate complexity – never simplicity, for this promotes a superficial exterior view, one that sees the pie as crust, without penetrating the interior to taste the richness within. “It is how the brain works” he declared.

His argument was for a state beyond the personal: a more holistic understanding, lest in standing under the currency of sought-after novelty, the fires of continuity are too readily doused, and the substance of life is unnecessarily swamped. Not by art or intelligence, but rather by unseeing, unthinking awareness of the values we need to manufacture a just civilisation.

Vale Col Madigan (22 July 1921 – 17 September 2011)

This is an edited extract from Falls the Shadow, a collection of essays on the NGA to be published in February 2012 by Uro: www.uromedia.com.au

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