HOW do you assess a life’s work?
For most of us, the answer lies in memory. For Brian Suters, he can see what he’s done. He can touch it. He can walk around it and into it. He can live in his work.
Actually, we all can see what Brian Suters has done with his working life.
He is an architect who has designed some of the most significant buildings in Newcastle and, in the process, has helped shape how we see this city.
The renowned 20th century American architect Philip Johnson once described architecture as the art of how to waste space. For Brian Suters, architecture has been about the art of how to spend his time and passion.
He has been designing buildings in Newcastle for more than half a century.
Through his work, he has created beauty and controversy. He has given shape to everything from family homes to churches and headquarters for business and local government.
Brian Suters is a modernist with great respect for tradition and history. He possesses a world view, informed by studying and working overseas, yet he is in his heart and soul a Novocastrian.
He moved to Newcastle when he was five. Then, as a young architect, his talent and a travelling scholarship took him away for a couple of years to the Old World, to the great and time-seasoned architectural streams and schools of Europe. The world was Brian Suters’ oyster. But in 1964, he chose to return to Newcastle. He believed he could make a mark in his hometown.
Suters estimates he has designed more than 100 buildings in the area. Which means he has plenty to ponder when assessing his life’s work. The sheer number of his creations also provides the foundation for a challenge.
I ask the 81-year-old to nominate his favourite designs, so that we can go on a tour of them.
Suters accepts the challenge.
After a week, he has drawn up a long list of 22 buildings, along with design projects that didn’t come to light. He explains the selection process has been very hard, not so much to come up with nominations but to leave projects dear to his heart off the list. To Suters, his buildings seem to be like his children; it just doesn’t seem right to anoint a favourite. Suters also emphasises that he worked with many others through the years: “Architecture is a team effort.”
Still, the list is painstakingly whittled to four houses and four commercial or public buildings – with a few more included as “drive-bys”.
And so, with the list in hand, we set off on a guided tour of a Brian Suters’ Top Eight.
DRIVING through Newcastle East, we pass the former Carlton Hotel on the corner of Scott and Zaara streets. In this building, now converted to units, Suters began his own contribution to Newcastle’s architectural history.
“This is where it started in 1958, Ray and myself,” he says. Back then, while studying architecture at university, Suters was working with Ray Wilson, who had convinced young Brian to shift his ambitions away from being an engineer. They worked on the top floor, overlooking the roofs towards the harbour.
“I was dreaming of Europe,” recalls Suters. “I used to love watching the ships and I thought, ‘One day I’ll get on one of those’. Ray convinced me I should go, and away I went.”
Having won a prestigious travelling scholarship, Suters and his wife, Kay, sailed for Britain in 1962. He wanted to research architecture and liturgy.
So, basically, Suters studied churches, and Europe was an ideal place for that. He worked at the Church of England Bishop of London’s Palace, and he was involved in a church project in Wales.
Suters also worked for a commercial architect in London, before he and Kay returned to Newcastle in 1964. What he learnt in Europe he applied to one of his first commissions back home, a project that is on his Top Eight list.
- Christ the King Anglican Church, Toronto
“This church was quite revolutionary,” says Suters, as he walks out of the thrum of traffic on Cary Street and into the quieter space cloistered in timber and bricks.
When the church was to be built for this western Lake Macquarie congregation in 1966 for about $29,500, Suters wanted to employ new ideas in the design.
As he tells parishioner Linda Carter, who is showing him around, “Everyone had moved forward except the church. They were still building Gothic buildings.”
The interior doesn’t look like a church in the traditional sense, but more like a meeting hall. Which, in one way, is what the architect intended.
“The whole idea was that this is a single space, and that the people and the clergy are all one. So the idea is you gather around the altar without separation.”
Above the altar is a stunning forest of beams sprouting from the ceiling. Suters explains it is a three-dimensional structure that references the octagon in the medieval Ely Cathedral in England.
“We always thought you designed that as a crown of thorns,” says Linda Carter.
Looking around, Suters sees changes to his original vision; there have been alterations and extensions. And he recalls the struggle to bring the project in on budget.
From here, Suters went on to other Anglican church projects, including the design for Cathedral Close in the city and an extension to historic St John’s at Raymond Terrace.
He also designed the St Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Hamilton East.
So, more than 50 years since he drew the plans, Brian Suters looks on the Toronto church with something more than nostalgia.
“In a way, it was a summation of my research that I went overseas for, to study church architecture,” he says.
- Suters’ House, Wolfe Street, Newcastle
When he designed his new family home in the early 1970s, Brian Suters was ready to make a bold modernist statement that he could inhabit, and that everyone could see. And he chose to do it in the midst of heritage homes on The Hill.
As we stand outside his former home, with its four storeys of concrete and glass and a rooftop platform offering 360-degree views, Suters says he had “no problem” in placing something modern in a neighbourhood dotted with buildings dating back to the colonial era.
“If you’re doing buildings that are of their time, then that’s a fair exercise, to contrast with what’s there,” he explains.
“I used modern building techniques. For instance, you can see in the top slabs, the waffles [in the concrete], which allows you to get maximum strength with minimum concrete.”
The block itself is narrow. On the bottom level is a garage and entrance, on the next floor are bedrooms, a rumpus room and laundry, then up to the kitchen and living areas, and on the top floor are a couple of more bedrooms and a study.
Linking each storey is a curved stairwell. A light well plunges through the levels, adding to a sense of openness inside. That, and the views to the east and the west, from the sea to Mount Sugarloaf.
The house won a string of accolades, including the Blackett Award in 1980, with the judges calling it “an unabashed townhouse” and declaring “the Suters’ residence sits in the setting and belongs”.
The Suters lived here for 25 years until 1999. Among the many visitors to Wolfe Street was perhaps Australia’s best-known architect and shaper of late 20th-century Sydney, Harry Seidler.
“He congratulated me on the quality and the integrity of the building,” Suters recalls.
“It’s probably the only one of its kind [in Newcastle], a true modernist-inspired structure. It’s a very important building.
“And it was our first major home.”
For the present residents, it’s also a house of pride. The building’s pedigree remains on display. A couple of plaques, including for the Blackett Award, are on the wall in the foyer.
“Wherever you look, there’s a sculptural element,” says owner Julia, who bought the property in 2007. “It made us fall in love with the house when we first saw it.
“And it’s really engaged with the outside world.”
- Newcastle City Council Administration Building
While Brian Suters was making a statement on The Hill with his family home, he was also drawing the lines of a major talking point just down the slope, in the Civic precinct, with the distinctively round Newcastle City Council administration building.
Indeed, to get a sense of the scale of Suters’ influence on the look of this part of the city, it can be as easy as a walk in the park. Civic Park, to be precise.
He stops at the Captain James Cook Memorial Fountain, that beautiful work of art in bronze, stone and water conceived by sculptor Margel Hinder. In the mid to late 1960s, Suters was the architect coordinating the project.
“Working with the likes of Margel and [artist husband] Frank Hinder was a once in a lifetime opportunity; they were like surrogate parents to me,” Suters says, as he treads on the cobblestones fringing the pool and smiles. “I put in the cobblestones later to stop the skateboarders.”
He looks up, gazing across the park, peering back in time.
“As a result of the fountain project, I got the round building.”
As we sit in the park, looking across at the council administration building, Suters explains how he worked with Frederick Romberg to design what has become known by a string of nicknames, including the Roundhouse, the Beehive, and the Champagne Cork.
“It’s a dramatic building,” Suters says. “You’ve got a purely cylindrical shape, which becomes dramatic by spraying out.”
It was a protracted and complex project, as the team dealt with a high water table and old coal workings underground, a difficult triangular site, a spate of engineering challenges and industrial disputes. What was supposed to take 80 weeks blew out to five years, and its cost doubled to $5.2 million. The building was finally opened in 1977.
More than 40 years on, Suters loves what he created: “It’s a significant building. It’s iconic.”
Which is why he is concerned about what the future holds for the building, as Newcastle City Council plans to move its staff to another site in Newcastle West, and it will sell the property.
Suters is appealing to the NSW Government to list it as a building of state heritage significance.
“I cannot understand why the council, with this asset and being part of this precinct, has decided to pull it all out and move downtown,” he says.
“I think it should remain as an office building. It’s perfect as an office building.
“The important thing is it’s part of the Civic and it shouldn’t be demolished, that’s for sure. It should have a dignified use.”
- Jacksons’ House, New Lambton Heights
Unlike many other art forms, architecture rarely allows the creator to be selfish. It’s not enough for the architect to be satisfied; the client has to be as well. While the architect creates the space, someone else usually fills it with their lives.
So for Brian Suters, much of his career has involved a balancing act between bringing his vision to reality and meeting the hopes and needs of his clients. Art doesn’t imitate life in architecture; rather, they have to share the same space.
In a tree-lined street in New Lambton Heights is a house designed for a doctor’s family, where art and life have been happily cohabiting since the early 1970s.
The owner, Elisbeth Jackson, recalls how when she first met with Suters to discuss the brief, she handed over a thick folder of clippings and pictures. But the architect told her, “I don’t like to be told what I’m to do, I like to feel free to do my own design.”
“I said, ‘That’s fine, Brian. As long as you ignore everything in here’; I had cut out all the things I didn’t like,” Jackson laughs. “I don’t know if he ever looked at it.”
“I can’t remember,” says Suters, smiling.
“Well, we got exactly what we wanted!,” Jackson says.
Suters explains he chose this house for his Top Eight list, because he thinks it is a good example of the so-called Sydney School of architecture, where modernism was modified and had some of its sharp edges knocked off, often with the use of local materials to give a building a more rustic look.
“In the 1970s, I did a lot of this type of dwelling,” Suters recalls. “In some ways, modernism has a clinical approach.
“When we get into the ‘nuts and berries’, or the Sydney School, the architect is dealing with textures in materials, such as brick, timber. But doing it in a modern way, with a little bit more humanity.”
The Jacksons’ house is built from Muswellbrook bricks, with bedrooms facing a private courtyard, while the living area looks out on the reserve behind. This is a warm place that is comfortable in its environment. And the Jacksons have been comfortable in this house.
“There’s lots of areas in the house, and they’re not closed in,” says Elisbeth Jackson.
Seeing the house for the first time since the late 1980s, the architect says he’s “elated”.
“It’s a house that worked well. It’s a house that’s got character about it. And it seems right for the people I designed it for.”
- Former Tubemakers Office Building, Mayfield
Deep in Newcastle’s industrial heartland, Brian Suters created a “temple to steel”.
Suters explains he was commissioned to design an administration building for Tubemakers at its Mayfield site in the early 1970s.
“This was the first project I had in the industries of Newcastle,” he says as he surveys the building, which is now part of the Liberty OneSteel Metalcentre. The modernist building has a concrete podium with tree-like columns and a flat roof.
“It was Tubemakers in those days and I wanted to use their products. So it is very much of the idiom I was working in, with steel and concrete.
“Inside I used tubular steel in a three-dimensional fashion. I wanted to show how good tubular steel was in making structures.
“In the 20th century, we believed in structure, form follows function. That’s where the spirit of architecture was going, to express structure.
“In many ways, this is not unlike the Pompidou Centre [in Paris], where that was really the revolution for where we express all the guts of a building, put it on the outside.”
In the main office area, with steel trusses and tubular columns running along the ceiling, Suters sits and talks with the manager, Mark Resevsky.
As Novocastrians can do, they quickly find a link. Resevsky’s father, Charles, was an engineer who did a lot of work with Suters’ former business partner and renowned architect, Kevin Snell.
“It’s a great environment,” Resevsky says of the building, praising the use of glass. “If you stand in the middle, it shifts your boundaries out.”
The building now holds a much smaller workforce than it was designed for, so it feels empty to the architect. But as he leaves, Suters murmurs that he is pleased to have seen it again after so many years.
“It’s quite emotional really.”
- Domus 1 House, Merewether
Henry Street, Merewether, seems like a showcase of Brian Suters’ creations. As we drive along the road, he points out a few houses he designed in the 1960s and 1970s.
But the one he is taking us to is a home he designed as a prototype for a local building company, Graham McGovern Constructions. In that way, a buyer could get an architect-designed project home. Suters called it Domus 1.
“It’s just one level below going directly to an architect and getting a house designed,” explains Suters, as we walk into the house, which has been owned since it was built in 1977 by Kaye and Rob Daniels. Back then, the Daniels recount, this sleek three-bedroom house in a new estate stood out.
“In ’77 a lot of people would look at the house and say, ‘Oh, it’s very sterile. Stainless steel [kitchen benches] and white bathrooms’,” says Kaye Daniels.
“‘It looks like a hospital’,” adds her husband, recalling another comment they heard.
The design features a few Suters signatures: curved walls, a long skylight and liberal use of glass, including glass bricks.
To accommodate their three boys, the Daniels made a few alterations over the years, commissioning Suters to design the changes – “A good choice you made”, comments the architect.
“We say, ‘If we won a heap of money, would we move?’,” asks Rob Daniels, before his wife answers.
“No, we wouldn’t. We love it.”
As he stands in a living area, near one of his curved walls, Suters smiles and says, “It’s wonderful to see it again”.
“It represents an approach which is a very good approach, in so far as people can get access to an architect-designed house.
“And the more you can get architects involved in house designs, the better our suburbs will be.”
- Newcastle East Housing Project
“I haven’t been here in donkeys’ years,” says Brian Suters, as he gets out of the car.
He is standing in the midst of the Newcastle East public and private housing development, which he was at the forefront of designing in the mid-1980s.
“It’s a great location,” he says. “Take a few steps and you’re out on the foreshore, by the harbour. It’s great, it’s a perfect location.”
Yet when the state government proposed the development on the former Zaara Street power station site, many argued it was too perfect a location for public housing. Suters says the controversy that flared “made me more stubborn”.
“I think this is very much part of my conscience,” says Suters, who grew up in a single-parent working-class household.
“Architecture is socially minded. This project, to me, represented everything that’s good about architecture. You’re given a chance to design housing for disadvantaged people in a very good location. So it was close to my heart.”
The project posed architectural challenges. Rather than have a wall of apartments creating a visual barrier between Nobbys Road and the foreshore, Suters stepped the blocks down the hill. The buildings’ appearance was softened with curves and arches, and textured brickwork
“I wanted this to be an urban village,” explains Suters.
The project was completed in 1989, with some of the townhouses facing the park sold to private owners. At the time, that annoyed Suters, but he has changed his view.
“In many ways, that improved the development because it meant that we had low-income people with middle-income people.”
He hopes it stays that way and doesn’t follow the fate of the monumental public housing building Sirius, in Sydney’s The Rocks, which the state government put up for sale earlier this year.
“I have concerns the state government sells up assets for money and then have new developments that are alien to the needs of disadvantaged people,” he says.
But the Newcastle East development remains as an affirmation of why Brian Suters returned to Newcastle in 1964.
“I think the opportunities Newcastle has afforded me to do projects like this ... is just a fantastic experience.”
- Suters’ House, The Junction
Brian Suters has designed five homes for himself and wife Kay.
He is adamant the house in The Junction where they have lived since 2010 will be the last. He’s also designed it for their future, with different spaces they can move into as they age, including a granny flat, “so we’ve got all the contingencies covered”.
Unlike other selections on his Top Eight list, this house is a demonstration of how Suters’ work isn’t all about the new; throughout his career, he has relished the challenge of adapting tradition and preserving the old.
At the front of the property is a brick cottage, Sunnyside, built in 1874 as part of the Australian Agricultural Company’s local dairy.
“We saw this property and I said to Kay, ‘I don’t want that, I don’t want an old place’,” Suters recalls. “She coaxed me in and I thought, ‘Wow! I can do something here’.”
Suters removed the 1980s additions to the original cottage, then at the back built a two-storey modernist “cube”. The architectural past and present are connected by a gallery skirting a courtyard.
A beautiful staircase, constructed from steel and recycled hardwood, rises from the gallery to the second storey of the metal-clad new section.
From up here, through the louvres, the Suters have a view across the rooftops, all the way to Strzelecki Lookout and the distant glint of the Anzac Memorial Walkway.
“It’s quite amazing we’re in a suburb, our neighbours are close by, and yet we’re able to create this spacious apartment with private spaces,” he says.
Brian Suters has retired as an architect, and he is living with Parkinson’s disease. But that doesn’t mean he’s stopped dreaming and designing.
From their home’s second floor, he can almost see the site of one of his dream projects. In the hope of inspiring the council to rethink the Shepherds Hill area, he has drawn plans for an underground museum in the former military installations.
And he’s keeping an eye on how the cityscape continues to change. Some of it worries him, such as the uncertainty surrounding his beloved Roundhouse, but he has faith in the next generation of architects and their vision for Newcastle.
“In any age, you’re interested in space, architecture is a spatial commodity,” Suters says. “You’re trying to provide space which is enjoyable.”
AT the end of the Top Eight tour, Brian Suters says he’s found the experience one of “agony and ecstasy”.
“It’s jogged my memory,” he says. “I’m slipping into old age, it just reminds me, ‘God, how did I do all these things?’.
“It’s a salutary lesson about the journey you’ve made. In many ways, it’s been a great journey, and I’ve enjoyed it.”
Yet all these buildings are more than markers of a life’s journey. They are part of the soul of Newcastle, and of the man who helped create them.
As Brian Suters himself says, “It’s all part of my DNA, I suppose.”