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Warren, Robert George (Bob) (1920–2002)

by John Farquharson

As a practising Canberra architect for some 50 years, Robert Warren not only helped to change the city’s building landscape, but also made a significant contribution to its cultural, business and sporting life.

He will be long remembered for his legendary set designs for Canberra Repertory Society productions, as a foundation member, with his wife Joy, of the Canberra Yacht Club, a council member of the Chamber of Commerce and for his work in the interests of ex-servicemen.

Coming to Canberra from Melbourne in 1952, he had been enticed by the possibilities the still relatively fledgling city offered as a social laboratory. He saw it as a place where he could pursue his goal of designing and constructing good quality houses at affordable prices. But Bob Warren, who has died in Canberra, aged 81, found the going tougher than he had anticipated. The easy-to-erect prefabricated houses that he came up with, failed to impress the government authorities. Apart from not wanting them in Canberra, they did not consider the Australian population large enough to warrant prefabricated housing.

However, Warren’s work attracted the more discerning eye of the United Nations. He was appointed a housing consultant to the UN with a commission to carrying the planning and construction of affordable, prefabricated houses suitable for the environment of Indonesia. With the successful completion of that project, he was given a similar commission in Jordan. Returning to private practice with a sense of achievement and satisfaction, he continued to develop his vision for the affordable living unit. Even comparatively recently, as he battled deteriorating health with the onset of Parkinson’s disease, fresh interest in his housing ideas came from China.

Born in Melbourne on 30 July 1920, Bob Warren was always an outstanding student at school, winning scholarships for his secondary education at Huntingtower College, Malvern, and for his tertiary education at Melbourne University and Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). He was a student of architecture when he met his future wife, Joy. They were married in Melbourne by Joy’s cousin, the late Reverend Llewellyn Elliott, nine days before Bob, by then an AIF officer in the Royal Australian Engineers, went to war. He served from 1940 to 1945 with two years overseas. In all sorts of remote places in Papua New Guinea, he was in charge of a platoon building roads and bridges then, among other things, a military hospital in Lae. Having picked up various tropical diseases, he returned to Australia weighing a mere eight stone, compared with 13 stone at the time of his enlistment.

It took time to recover, but among the first things he did was to go back to university to complete his interrupted architectural course. On becoming qualified, he opted to go into practice on his own account. In this way he felt he could best satisfy his own interpretation of the art of architecture. One of his earliest projects was to build a home for Joy and himself in the leafy Melbourne suburb of Heidelberg. He didn’t build a conventional three-bedroom brick veneer with tiled roof, but an open-plan, tri-level house, opening up to views and sited to complement its environment. While still living in Melbourne he became vice-president of the Caulfield RSL branch, serving from 1948 to 1950.

Soon after coming to Canberra, Warren realised that the city was losing the direction Walter Burley Griffin had envisaged. So he worked with Ken Herde, of the Prime Minister’s Department, and others who shared his concern, to persuade Prime Minister Menzies to set up a controlling design commission. From this came the National Capital Development Commission, in which Herde and Warren had expected to have a future role. Both missed out. Warren received no recognition for the part he had played, nor did he receive any architectural commissions from the NCDC. Preference for NCDC commissions was given to well-known Melbourne and Sydney architectural firms. Undeterred, and being the fighter he was, Warren then took on the authorities, ‘for the benefit of a client’, over the maximum two-storied height limit in force at the time. He came out the winner, which did not endear him to the authorities.  

Apart from his passion to develop the quality affordable living unit, he persisted in his practice, building many private residences, mostly in the Deakin-Red Hill area. He was also responsible for St Mark’s Memorial Library on the Anglican Cathedral site, the Spanish embassy, the now heritage-listed Queanbeyan swimming pool, Canberra’s first water-slide pool in Jamison, the YMCA in Civic and the City Building in Ainslie Avenue.

Through the vital cultural institution that the Repertory Society was in the late 1950s and into the 1960s, Warren not only helped to maintain, but also enhance the city’s theatrical traditions. Though competent on the boards, it was in set design that he excelled. His spectacular set for Stan Speevak’s ‘Under the Sycamore Tree’, a story of ants observing human behaviour, with Joy as the Queen ant egg-layer, is unlikely to be forgotten by those who saw the production. President of Repertory from 1960 to 1964, he was later elected a life member.  Another absorbing activity was sailing, which he began on the unpredictable shallow waters of Lake George, before switching to the gentler Lake Burley Griffin.

If Bob Warren had pursued his early interest in art, it has been suggested that he would have made as equal a mark in that sphere as in his chosen profession. The sketches and drawings he created in PNG have been acknowledged as being of high artistic merit. His knowledge of art was well ahead of Joy’s when she set up Solander Gallery. But over the years he came to concede her wider knowledge. Though dissimilar in many ways, they were great life partners, giving each other mutual support.

Modest, sympathetic in manner and easy to approach, he was nevertheless not readily deflected from any cause he made his own. A true individualist, he stuck to his principles throughout his life. In architecture he had a strong individual style, eschewing current trends and fashion. Throughout a full life ‘he did it his way’, leaving a legacy of many visible and invisible monuments.

His wife, Joy and two sons, Robert and Boyd, and their families, survive him.

Robert George Warren, born 30 July 1920; died 24 July 2002.

Original publication

  • Canberra Times, 9 August 2002

Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Warren, Robert George (Bob) (1920–2002)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/warren-robert-george-bob-1002/text1003, accessed 22 July 2019.

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