In the 1930s theirs was an adventurous architecture, ‘overtly modernist and avant garde’. In a city barely ten years old where conservative domestic styles were more evident, their work added a new character.
Some Moir and Sutherland houses still grace Canberra’s older suburbs, many in the heritage precinct of Blandfordia. Houses now attributed to Heather Sutherland include three in the suburb of Forrest – 30 Arthur Circle, 35 Tasmania Circle, and 9 Ord Street, a house at 2 Mugga Way Red Hill, another at 2 Hotham Street in Deakin, and the house she was working on in 1953 when she died, 20 Denman Street in Yarralumla. Her name also appears on the drawing for the ‘delightful external staircase’ giving access from Ord Street to the studio and office above the family’s house at 43 Melbourne Avenue Forrest.
The biographer of their practice, Peter Freeman, rates theirs an impressive achievement in the expression of modernist architecture in the national capital.
Education and early career
Heather Sutherland, like Malcolm Moir, was a student of Professor Leslie Wilkinson in the new Faculty of Architecture at the University of Sydney. They were the same age, though he enrolled in 1921 and she in 1923. On his graduation in 1924 he was immediately registered with the NSW Board of Architects of NSW and employed in the Government Architect’s Branch of the state Public Works Department. Heather Sutherland registered four years after she graduated in 1926; at times in the first decade of her career she apparently worked from home, as recalled by her youngest sister.
In 1927 Malcolm Moir and fellow student Laura ‘Nance’ Aubrey were married and moved to Canberra where Moir worked for the Federal Capital Commission. He established his own architectural practice and was also Manager of the Capitol Cinema. They had two small children and Nance Moir was very active in the Canberra Mothercraft Society when she was diagnosed with tuberculosis; she died of the disease in 1935.
From 1928 to 1931 Heather Sutherland worked in the Sydney architectural office of Clement Glancey, as did fellow graduates Rosette Edmunds and Winsome Hall Andrew. Little is known of her work in the early 1930s, when building like all other economic activity plummeted during the Depression. In this period Heather Sutherland completed the manuscript of a novel and according to her son the theme was architecture and feminism. Writer and artist Norman Lindsay read the manuscript for her and reported his
distressed astonishment that anyone who writes as lightly and well as you do should waste an excellent talent on such a febrile theme. . . .
In May 1936 Heather Sutherland moved to Canberra and lived at the Beauchamp House women’s hostel in Acton, while working with Malcolm Moir prior to their wedding that November.
Heather Sutherland had been accredited by the NSW Architects Registration Board on 20 January 1930. She later became an associate member of both the Royal Institute of Architects Australia and of the British Royal Institute of Architects.
In their 16 years of shared work Moir & Sutherland were remarkably prolific, completing at least 70 houses as well as domestic alterations and additions and commercial and public buildings. As with other husband-and-wife architectural partnerships like that of their friends Winsome Hall Andrew and Eric Andrew, the woman’s work was often assumed to be that of the better-known male partner. Only close investigative research reveals the identity of the architect, especially where drawings bear the name of the practice rather than the designer.
Oral history is one means of discovery – for instance, building contractor Jack McNamara recalled a job where Heather Sutherland was architect:
She was energetic and very competent. I always thought she was a very good architect. . . There was a brickie who tried to give her trouble but she put him in his place with cheerfulness and with authority . . .. I was the foreman and I didn’t realise she was on site when her dark cropped head popped up through a window, at the top of a long ladder.
Attribution is also more complicated when other architects contribute to a practice as happened with Moir & Sutherland, with several women architects involved. In 1938-39 Winsome Hall Andrew worked with them and for six months so did European refugees Hugh and Eva Buhrich before they established themselves in Sydney. Rosette Edmunds worked with Heather Sutherland on a house in 1946 and, in 1950, when the Moir family went overseas on an extended trip she was their locum, establishing her own practice in the suburb of Braddon after this. Winsome Hall Andrew worked with them again in the early 1950s when she and Eric Andrew collaborated with the Moirs on several larger projects including the Brisbane Building in Civic and the US Embassy in Deakin.
Identified below among the joint Moir & Sutherland houses of 1936-53 are six that can now be attributed principally to Heather Sutherland – 2 Mugga Way Forrest (1936-37); 30 Arthur Circle (1939); 35 Tasmania Circle (1946); 2 Hotham Crescent Deakin (1951); 9 Ord Street Forrest and 20 Denman Street Yarralumla (both 1953). This simple sketch of her contribution to the Moir & Sutherland practice also points to Heather Sutherland’s as yet unrecognised part in the early development of the neighbourhoods that were the cradle of a national capital.
While the Moir & Sutherland practice also designed houses in the northern suburbs of Ainslie and Turner, most of their houses were in the original inner south division of Blandfordia, which became the suburbs of Forrest, Deakin and Griffith developed between 1924 and 1954.
When Heather Sutherland began working with Malcolm Moir in 1936 he had a wide range of commissions including the service station for Manuka and at least eight Canberra houses.
Mugga Way Red Hill
Among her first projects was the design of a house for entomologist Robin Tillyard and his wife Patricia Tillyard, well-known in Canberra’s civic organisations. They had just let their large family home, ‘Dial House’ in Moresby Crescent where they had raised four accomplished daughters, Faith, Hope, Patience and Honour. The new house around the corner at 2 Mugga Way was nearly complete when Robin Tillyard died in January 1937; it became Patricia Tillyard’s home for more than thirty years. With a ‘low, red-tiled roof and sand coloured bricks blending sympathetically into the reds and browns of the hill behind’, this was described as ‘the most indigenous house in Canberra’. Patience Wardle identified Heather Sutherland as the designer of her mother’s house, recalling that it
caused great local interest with the use of the (then) modern steel-framed windows, low hung and giving maximum light and air . . ..
The practice designed 36 Mugga Way for the Phippard family in 1936 and then two pairs of neighbouring houses, at 9 Mugga Way in 1937 for the Hungerford family and the following year for Walter and Madge Emerton at 11 Mugga Way; as well as Numbers 25 for the Monahan family in 1936 and 27 Mugga Way for then Parliamentary Librarian Harold White the following year.
Melbourne Avenue Forrest
The Moir house at 43 Melbourne Avenue, designed by Malcolm Moir in 1935 and completed in 1937, has additions by them both including Heather Sutherland’s ‘delightful external staircase’ added in 1941 to give access from Ord Street to the studio and office above their family home. This house is listed on the ACT Heritage Register.
In 1937 Moir & Sutherland designed the house at 45 Melbourne Avenue, the next house to theirs, for Chief of the Commonwealth Police HE Jones.
Empire Circuit Forrest
Moir & Sutherland designed the house at Number 60 in 1937 for new arrivals Jean and Austin O’Malley and their adult family; the house at 51 Empire Circuit for Joseph and Irene Collings in 1940 and the house at Number 39 in 1948, altered by them in 1951.
Arthur Circle Forrest
Among plans that, unusually, bear Heather Sutherland’s own signature are those for 30 Arthur Circle which she designed in 1939 for the family of surveyor Julius Knight; this was Mrs Knight’s home for sixty years.
Moir & Sutherland designed 58 Arthur Circle in 1941 for Charles and Elizabeth Chandler, as well as the two-storey house at Number 60 for the Hogg family, and the house for the large family of Head of Hansard William Campbell at 74 Arthur Circle in 1947. In the next few years they designed 7, 8, 10, & 12 Arthur Circle, with Number 10 among those now demolished or substantially altered.
In a study for the ACT Heritage Unit Rosemarie Willett identified 58 Arthur Circle as showing how the inter-war functionalism of their designs evolved into highly skilled spatial planning notable in larger houses like this one. She described this house as ‘a late example of Inter-War Mediterranean style with rendered wall surfaces, tiled roof and major rooms opening onto especially fine stepped terraces, the entrance terrace at the front and the other terraces facing north-east’.
Tennyson Crescent Forrest
Heather Sutherland worked with Malcolm Moir on the two-storey house at 22 Tennyson Crescent, designed in 1951 for the Canberra manager of the newly amalgamated accounting firm Cooper Bros Way & Hardie (now PricewaterhouseCoopers).
The following year the firm also designed the large single-storey house opposite at 19 Tennyson Crescent for prominent Canberra builder H Meli. This house, now seamlessly blended into its landscaped setting, still expresses the original design, with sympathetic additions to the northern wing in 1980.
Tasmania Circle Forrest
Heather Sutherland worked with Rosette Edmunds in 1946 on the design of the house at 35 Tasmania Circle for Mrs Leigh Baird. Moir and Sutherland also designed 23 Tasmania Circle in 1948 and 27 Tasmania Circle the following year.
Evans Crescent Griffith
In 1938 Moir & Sutherland designed five flat-roofed houses ‘with carefully arranged proportions’ at 7, 9, 11, 15 and 17 Evans Crescent Griffith. Several of these houses still retain their original character.
In 1939 they built two blocks of eight flats nearby on Canberra Avenue for builder WJ Perry, each with six large and two bachelor flats, with every flat afforded a separate entrance and front porch, and a private stairway between the ground and first floors. Canberra Brickworks supplied the wire cut buff bricks for the exterior walls and they chose blue tiles for the roof ‘to harmonise with those of the Hotel Kingston’ on the opposite side of Canberra Avenue.
Ord Street Forrest
The single-storey face brick house with timber windows and a low-pitched roof Heather Sutherland designed at 9 Ord Street in 1953, like their home nearby, had a garage built under the house, a feature that ‘caused some interest’ at the time. Heather Sutherland’s own name appears on the plans for this house, built for Rowan Osborn.
Malcolm Moir’s practice completed a large second-storey addition to this house in 1967, with further alterations by their son’s firm in 1973, both projects for the original owner. The completed house ‘has an interesting v-shaped plan form with the living wing is angled to face north’ and is described as ‘a late example of Inter-War Chicagoesque style and Post-War American Colonial style’.
The house still stands, now with painted brickwork.
2 Hotham Crescent Deakin
Another plan that actually bears Heather Sutherland’s own signature is that dated 16 April 1951 for the house at 2 Hotham Crescent Deakin, built for the Advertiser Newspapers company.
20 Denman Street Yarralumla
Heather Sutherland’s son recalled that ‘she went to a lot of effort for a house for a Miss Barnett in Yarralumla’. Designed in May 1953, this house was completed early in 1954, with alterations and additions two years later. Heather Sutherland’s client was June Barnett who had joined the Department of External Affairs as a cadet diplomat in 1948. In her first years in Canberra June Barnett had protested the lack of suitable bachelor flats for the many young postwar Public Service recruits. The year she moved into her new house June Barnett, who had been a member of the Communist Party of Australia during the war, was called to give evidence to the Royal Commission on Espionage. In Cold War Canberra even Malcolm Moir had been listed as suspect by the new Australian Secret Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), despite being the endorsed candidate for Robert Menzies new Liberal Party in the 1949 federal election that ended a decade of Labor Government and made Menzies Prime Minister.
The house at 20 Denman Street still stands; it was June Barnett’s home with her partner Kay Keightley for almost fifty years.
This was Heather Sutherland’s last house: it was on her way to inspect the building on the morning of 3 December 1953 that a truck collided with her Austin A40 as she was crossing Adelaide Avenue. She was killed instantly.
Eric and Winsome Hall Andrew sent one of their architects to Canberra to help Malcolm Moir after Heather Sutherland’s death in 1953, a tragedy that ‘distressed Eric and Winsome very much because they were close friends’.
The family lived at 43 Melbourne Avenue in Forrest in the house Malcolm Moir had designed in 1935 and which was completed in 1937, some months after his marriage to Heather Sutherland. Among later additions are 1941 changes attributed to Heather Sutherland. Their practice was situated upstairs in a studio space added to the original house and the house also included accommodation for domestic staff. http://www.canberrahouse.com/2006/11/07/43-melbourne-avenue/
Theirs was certainly a remarkably egalitarian relationship. The family included widower Malcolm Moir’s young son and daughter Ian and Barbara, and after 1942 their own son Angus, with both husband and wife working full-time with the assistance of domestic staff.
Describing the partnership as ‘a very cooperative arrangement…at every meal there was talk of architectural projects’, Heather Sutherland’s stepdaughter suggested that it was the fluid boundary of home and work that facilitated their success.
Heather Sutherland and Malcolm Moir and their friends Winsome Hall Andrew and Eric Andrew, were among the first Australian architectural couples, their design partnerships following that of Canberra’s designers Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin.
Among friends who regularly stayed with them were Winsome and Eric Andrew. From them came the story of a lunch at 43 Melbourne Avenue in 1938, when the two women saw someone on the footpath photographing the house. Curious, they went out and introduced themselves to discover the photographer was Marion Mahony Griffin. She told them the house was one of only two buildings in Canberra that her husband would have liked; the other was the Civic Theatre—also designed by Malcolm Moir but now demolished.
Heather Sutherland was born in Sydney on 25 May 1903, the eldest of the four children of Clare and William Sutherland. Her father was a successful city tailor and the family lived in wealthy Point Piper. Heather Sutherland went to school at Edgecliff’s Shirley College. Her mother died in 1919 when Heather Sutherland was 16. After her father remarried she gained two half-sisters, Barbara and Joan. Joan Sutherland, born the year Heather Sutherland graduated, became the world-famous opera singer. In her memoirs Joan Sutherland recollected being allowed as a young child to look at her eldest sister’s work on the drawing board in the breakfast room of their Point Piper house.
As a young woman Heather Sutherland impressed fellow architecture student Raymond McGrath:
She has most of the tantalising characteristics of her sex. She can be witheringly sarcastic…She had very large dark eyes and I found it dangerous to look into them…[she was one] of those enigmatic, tantalising people.
She and Malcolm Moir were both 33 years of age when they married on 25 November 1936.
Although Malcolm Moir was the more gregarious and very active in many of the civic organisations of the nascent city, the couple had a busy social life and both were well-known in Canberra’s expanding social circles.
Freeman, Peter Thoroughly Modern: the Life and Times of Malcolm Moir and Heather Sutherland forthcoming
Hanna, Bronwyn Women Architects in Australia 1900-1950 Canberra, RAIA, 2001
Hanna, Bronwyn Absence and Presence: A Historiography of Early Women Architects PhD thesis, University of New South Wales, 1999
Hanna, Bronwyn ’Australia’s Early Women Architects: Milestones and Achievements‘ FABRICATIONS, 2002 http://espace.library.uq.edu.au/eserv/UQ:23887/n12_1_027_Hanna.pdf
Moir Papers, National Library of Australia Manuscripts Collection, NLA: MS5789
[ASIO file] Moir, Malcolm Johnson 1948-49, National Archives of Australia: A6126, 775
[External Affairs correspondence file] Report of the Royal Commission on Espionage – June
Hyett Barnett 1954-55, National Archives of Australia: A432, 1955/2970
June Hyett Barnett Papers, University of Melbourne Archives
ACT Heritage Register Blandfordia Heritage Precinct Study 2007
Canberra Times 29 November 1935; 7 March 1939; 16 December 1953
Courier-Mail Tuesday 26 October 1954