From Sydney to Harvard and back: John Andrews exhibition at Tin Sheds Gallery

17 April 2024

Surveying the career of a celebrated University of Sydney & Harvard-trained architect

Following an exhibition at Harvard‘s Graduate School of Design, this showcase of a globally influential Australian architect is currently on show in Sydney.
Two men standing in front of a wal displaying architectural drawings and photos

Co-curators Paul Walker and Kevin Liu

Perhaps the first thing to say about John Andrews is that not enough has been said. Architect of Uncommon Sense, an exhibition now running at the University of Sydney’s Tin Sheds Gallery, marks a significant and welcome change in recognising the achievements of this titan of twentieth-century Australian architecture.

“Quite simply,” says co-curator, Kevin Liu, “it’s a story that ought to be told.”

Co-curator and Professor of Architecture at the University of Melbourne, Paul Walker, adds: “When I came to Australia 25 years ago, I wanted to work on Australian material, and Andrews seemed to be a figure who had been somewhat forgotten.”

John Andrews (1933-2022) was born in Sydney and studied at the University of Sydney and the Graduate School of Design at Harvard. The current exhibition is fitting in more ways than one, having arrived in Sydney following its inaugural showing at Gund Hall, one of Andrews’ very own buildings at Harvard and home to its Graduate School of Design.

The travelling exhibition’s journey, which is set to continue with stops around Australia, reflects the prodigious trajectory of Andrews’ career. At just 26 years of age, he was one of five finalists in the design competition for Toronto City Hall, considered to be the next big international competition following the Sydney Opera House.

“John Andrews’ career is just insane,” says Liu, who is also a University of Sydney architecture graduate. Drawing attention to Andrews’ commission for the Harvard Graduate School at the age of 34, Liu notes just how exceptional it is for an Australian architect to have had such an impact in North America at the time.

Architect of Uncommon Sense presents a survey of Andrews’ career, covering important projects in the USA, Canada and Australia. Liu’s contribution is an extension of his thesis, which was completed at the Harvard School of Design, while Paul Walker is the lead author of a book accompanying the exhibition. John Andrews: Architect of Uncommon Sense was published alongside the inaugural Harvard exhibition, marking 50 years since the completion of Andrews’ building there, and features the work of graphic designer, Willis Kingery, as well as specially commissioned photography by Noritaka Minami.

“I really enjoyed getting to know [Andrews],” says Walker. “When we started, most of the drawings and files from his Sydney practice were in a shipping container on a farm he owned in Canowindra and were a terrible mess. It was a slow process!”

With his emphasis on ‘common sense,’ concrete materiality and the urban scale of many of his ‘megastructure’ projects, John Andrews fits firmly into twentieth-century modernism. This exhibition certainly serves on one level to simply shed light on an under-told story. However, with a focus on architectural publishing and discourse, it has also used archival detective work to open up new ways of framing the work of an architect who rarely engaged in self-promotion. “The narratives around Andrews’ career are largely one-dimensional,” notes Liu, who poses an emphasis on Andrews’ communication as an alternative framing.

“He did something very dramatic and strangely cutting-edge – he just made sure the client knew what they were doing,” explains Liu. The diagrams and drawings on show at Tin Sheds Gallery illustrate this, while a notable feature of the exhibition is the presence of a 60-page construction document set. Drawings, text, historical objects and contemporary and vintage photography allow for a multifaceted and informative exhibition. 

Walker also entertainingly tells how some of these exhibition materials were acquired – large mounted drawings and photographs that the State Library of New South Wales could not take when they acquired the Andrews archive in 2017. “Andrews rang me and told me to come and take whatever I wanted,” he says.

“I drove a station wagon up to Orange one weekend and took everything that would fit. I am very pleased that some of these things are now on show at the Tin Sheds.”

Walker continues, “There are new observations in the book on seven themes: geography, the third generation of modern architects, urbanism, building, environment and sustainability, teamwork, and cultural agency. In particular, I think that the contributing authors and I have been able to show that Andrews' work was driven by a very strong urban imagination. We have also been able to show that an interest in the environmental performance of buildings was a key driver of his work.”

Liu concludes with the thought that, ultimately, the exhibition “is about objects and stories."

"I think there’s an interesting mix of an individual architect, an attitude and a generosity.”

John Andrews: Architect of Uncommon Sense is now showing at Tin Sheds Gallery until 24th May, 2024.

Timothy Alouani-Roby

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