IAN McKAY 1932-2015
Architect / Environmental Designer
One of Australia’s most exceptional but least celebrated architects, Ian McKay, died last week in Byron Bay. His deliberate low profile aside, Ian was propelled by innate talent, strong views, innovative thinking, independence and an intense love of his profession. As it happened, he had not one career in architecture but two: the first from the mid-fifties to the mid-seventies and the second, quite different practice, from 1980 onwards.
Growing up in a farming family in Coonabarabran, in central-western NSW, Ian developed a deep connection with nature and the land that sustained him throughout his life. After schooling at Scots College, Sydney, he studied architecture at the University of New South Wales, where he was intuitively drawn to the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. He was also indelibly impressed by an early trip to Japan, by the way the traditional architecture meshed with the landscape and the craftsmanship of its construction. He later said that “what craftsmanship expresses is commitment – and life without commitment is a denial of living.”
After graduating in 1954, Ian was already a rising star in the early sixties when Tocal Agricultural College and Leppington Boys Home, which he designed together with Philip Cox, were both honoured with the Australian Institute of Architects’ Sulman Medal. Their shared intention had been to make truly Australian architecture and Ian remained proud of the heritage-listed Tocal buildings, describing them as ’Australian to the core.’ In 1965, Ian also qualified as a town-planner. He produced a number of medium-density housing developments in Sydney and Canberra, where his Swinger Hill project was described by Robin Boyd as ‘the first substantial revolt against suburbia ever to be made in Australia.’
By the mid-seventies Ian was running a Sydney practice with a staff of 50, but he came to loathe the bureaucracy, scale and commercialism of the business. When the Sydney property market crashed in 1975 he opted out to Mullumbimby, where he built himself a wooden house, grew his own vegetables and rebuilt his life.
By 1980, he’d returned to Sydney where he met his third wife, architect Helen Peoples, and entrepreneur John Cornell, for whom he went on to produce numerous projects in Byron Bay and surrounds including the Byron Bay Beach Hotel and Motel. At this time Ian worked alone from his studio at home, and for over thirty years he was assisted by just one architect/draftsman, Lawrie Huxley. As work flowed in by word of mouth, he designed many projects in the northern rivers area, as well as in Sydney and beyond.
Throughout both careers Ian designed bespoke houses for private clients, as housing was really where his heart lay. He felt his contribution to architecture was fully realised in his houses – each one a highly-personal portrait of his client. He was also fortunate, for many years, to work with construction foreman Buko Vogel and a team of craftsmen whose skills were pushed to greater levels to bring Ian’s unconventional plans to life.
The houses, despite being quite different from each other, all carry Ian’s distinctive signature and are full of inventive details. The house he designed in Lobster Bay for photographer David Moore was described by architectural writer Phillip Drew as ‘a thoroughly modern masterpiece.’ Drew also compared Greengrove, the landscaped complex of stone and timber buildings designed for Rod and Kathy Muir in Mangrove Mountain, with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin East. Then there were his own houses, in North Sydney, in Kangaroo Valley, and lastly, in Tuntable Creek west of Byron – a completely self-sufficient house set on 100 acres of degraded farmland which he and Helen transformed with new dams and roads and a vigorous regeneration program including planting 30,000 native trees. This was Ian’s way, not just to design buildings but to create a whole environment to be enjoyed.
Ian loved his home life there with Helen and the dogs. He loved working in the garden and observing the wildlife. He loved his many good friends, and the conversations that would invariably continue around the fire-pit late into the night. For all these things, he considered himself fortunate. And then there was architecture. He said “I see myself as having been blessed by an overriding concern, and having the capacity and the opportunity to realise it. Architecture is the essence of my life – it’s been a lifelong act of devotion.”
Diminished in his last years, Ian was lovingly cared for by Helen. He will be sadly missed by her and his children, David, (Kirsten-deceased), Robin, John, James, Christopher and Holly and their partners, and by his grandchildren, Sarah, Felix, Tessa, Archie, Henry, Saskia & Rose.
A memorial service and wake will be held at the Byron Bay Community Centre, at 11am on Friday 14th August, 2015.