Obituary: Professor Henry Jacob Cowan, AO (1919-2007)

20 August 2007

Jack Cowan, a pioneer of architectural science
Jack Cowan, a pioneer of architectural science

Jack (as he was known to everyone) Cowan passed away in Sydney on Sunday, 15 July, 2007 after a brief illness. His adult life saw the development of the science of architecture: it was largely driven by him.

He was born on 21 August, 1919, in Glogau, Silesia, a region of Germany that is now part of Poland. At 15 he went to England as a Jewish refugee and completed his school education at Whittingehame College in Brighton on a scholarship. After matriculating he studied civil and mechanical engineering at the University of Manchester, gaining first class honours at the age of nineteen. Two years later he had a masters degree.

Like so many other German Jewish refugees, Jack Cowan was interned. He was sent to Canada but as soon as his antecedents had been established, he returned voluntarily to the UK to join the British army. After a short period with the Pioneer Corps, he was transferred to the Royal Engineers. He spent the rest of World War II involved in the dismantling of mines until he was seriously injured on 1st January 1945, and was honourably discharged.

He resumed his academic life in 1946, accepting a position as an assistant lecturer at the University of Cardiff, teaching many war veterans. In 1948 he had a lectureship in civil engineering at the University of Sheffield where he completed his PhD.

The war saw rapid developments in most technologies, including the realisation in the UK that architecture needed a strong research base and education in the sciences and technologies of building. Recommendations were made by the RIBA in the early 1950s to establish chairs of "architectural science" in major British architecture schools. The RAIA accepted the recommendations and coincidentally the University of Sydney needed to fill a vacant chair of architecture. Jack Cowan was appointed to the chair of architectural science in 1953, making him the first such appointment in the world.

That appointment was inspired: Jack created the field of study in Sydney when the main means of communication were by ship and letter. After a short time the University created the Department of Architectural Science and Jack started a program of graduate education, undertaken by many of Sydney's leading architects. That program evolved into the Master of Building Science which has provided a strong foundation in building science and technology to hundreds of graduates from Australia and internationally. One of Jack's research students, Peter Smith, was the first PhD graduate in architecture in Australia.

A spin-off from the graduate education program was the journal Architectural Science Review, another first and until last year, edited by Jack for the past 50 years. A new field of study also needed textbooks and throughout his career Jack authored and co-authored 25 books, with the last, The World's Greatest Buildings, appearing this year.

In recognition of his contribution to architecture, the Royal Australian Institute of Architects made Jack an honorary fellow and for services to engineering, the Institution of Engineers, Australia, awarded him the Chapman and Monash medals. He was awarded a DEng by the University of Sheffield in 1963. Australia recognised his outstanding achievements with an AO in 1983. The University of Sydney awarded him a honorary doctor of architecture for his outstanding contribution to the university. He was the recipient of many other awards and honours throughout his career.

I had the pleasure of working with Jack since 1971 when, unexpectedly, he invited me to fill a position of temporary lecturer in architectural science. I was a student in the Master of Building Science, filling in the gaps in my engineering education. A counterintuitive nature was a hallmark of Jack's life. He was full of surprises.

Superficially, Jack appeared conservative, with the manners of the educated central European: formal, proper and a little aloof. This was far from the real person who was essentially modest and shy but a liberal with a wicked sense of humour and a strong social conscience. He was an inspired risk-taker in the appointments that he made to the staff. It might be expected that, due to his experiences before and during World War II, he would tend to appoint people similar to himself. He didn't and I was amazed at not only my appointment but at most of the others he made.

However, he built up an outstanding group that made his department the jewel in the Faculty of Architecture's crown and the leader in Australia and most of the world.

All who met him, especially generations of students, found a man with an intense interest in architecture who had the knack of inspiring others through his passion. He is always remembered with affection.

Jack married Renate, a nurse, in Sheffield in 1952. They had a mutually supportive marriage of work, shared interests and goals. Kitty, the younger of their two daughters, was born with disabilities and Jack and Renate, became much involved in disability issues, particularly wheelchair accessibility and gave strong support to the Spastic Centre. Judith, their elder daughter, a PhD from the University of Sydney, her husband David and their daughters Eleanor and Isabel, all contributed to Jack's happy family life.

Like all great people, Jack's legacy is not so much in his considerable works but rather in the impact that he made on others. For that, he will be sadly missed.

Warren Julian

Acting Dean

Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning

University of Sydney

Contact: Richard North

Phone: 02 9351 3720