Top draw: Neil Clerehan, a practising architect at 88, at his office in Windsor.
The Bureau of Meteorology confirms that July 12 is, on average, one of the three coldest days of the year. On that freezing Monday morning Neil Clerehan is on a building site in Hawthorn. He zips up his brown suede jacket as a buffer against the icy winter. Aided by a sawn-off branch of a silver birch tree, he leaps nimbly up onto a metal plank before walking to a timber platform to view his latest project.
Nothing unusual there – except the man is 88.
At an age when most people have retired or are at least thinking about it, Clerehan is at his drawing board every day with no plans to quit. “I don’t have any hobbies except for architecture and it is a very pleasant life,” Clerehan says.
“It is one of the very few professions where you meet people on equal terms. The clients are upbeat and happy because they are creating something … a house, an office, a factory. You are seeing people with a positive attitude in a happy situation whereas doctors and lawyers see people in less-happy circumstances.”
Heritage consultant, expert witness for planning applications, obituary writer for The Age and magazine columnist – Clerehan does it all while working full time.
He is currently overseeing four projects, all in the eastern suburbs. One is a huge renovation and extension to a Victorian house. “Lovely people, great site manager … you’ve always got to get on with the site manager,” Clerehan says.
“In architecture you keep on reinventing yourself. Most of my buildings are 20 years old, but most of my friends are in their 60s.”
Melbourne University professor of architecture Philip Goad describes Clerehan as “a national treasure”.
“Neil has been involved as a practitioner for more than 50 years,” he says. “He has made a great contribution to promoting modern architecture in progressive ways. Neil understands the way a house is to be used.
“It sounds prosaic, but in the 1950s and ’60s he knew how to design a house so that you would not get wet going from the carport to the front door. At the same time his houses have a great sense of proportion. They mix well-mannered construction with an understanding of how society has changed.
“The spaces of his houses are in many respects classic. His own house is a great exemplar of how we might increase density in the suburbs. He has built a townhouse and his own beautiful north-facing courtyard home on one block.”
Clerehan lives in the South Yarra house he designed 43 years ago. And he believes all architects who design houses should do the same.
“I am one of the few who lives in his own house,” he says. “Architects in the residential field should live in houses of their own design. To say they can’t afford it is?disingenuous.”
That’s just one strongly held opinion by this giant of Melbourne architecture. And Clerehan is never short of an opinion. His sense of humour, his wit and pithy turn of phrase are well-known among his family, associates and readers.
He calls Federation Square “a fine achievement for a first building for the architects. I particularly like the spaces between the buildings.”
He loathes the fashion for neo-Georgian or Tuscan-style houses. “We never thought period revival would come back. They (period revival houses) are not architecture but 3D social documents showing a lot about their owners’ social aspirations.”
Clerehan, a contemporary of the great Robin Boyd, has won a slew of awards including two gold medals from the Royal Australian Institute of Architects. In 2004 he received the President’s Award, entering the institute’s hall of fame, and in 2005 a Victorian Architecture Award.
The first gold medal was for a house in Mount Eliza that has since been coated in pink Sydney sandstone. The second came in 1963 for a South Yarra house that remains untouched and has only had two owners. The present owner always wanted to live in a Neil Clerehan house and snapped up this example when it came on the market some years ago. Clerehan has also won awards for houses he designed in New South Wales.
Clerehan’s 1950s houses in Kew’s Studley Park precinct are still prized, but some of his 1960s Toorak houses, including one in Hopetoun Road, have been pulled down.
“Yes it’s sad, but I am also sad when an old friend dies,” he says.
In 2009 Clerehan received an honorary doctorate from the faculty of architecture at the University of Melbourne, only the 13th person to be honoured in this way by the faculty.
The architect works out of a renovated former plastic ashtray factory in a dead-end street in Windsor – call it a cul-de-sac and he will fix you with a fierce gaze from beneath elegant eyebrows.
It is modern without being flash, cluttered, and filled with natural light. Four architects, mostly sole practitioners, also have desks in the space.
When the phone rings, he jumps up with alacrity and almost pounces on it.
“Could be another client,” he says, tongue firmly in his cheek, admitting that his client base, built up over the past 60 years, is diminishing.
He has built houses for a who’s who of Melbourne, including legendary Age editor Graham Perkin. There was a house in Sydney for Barry Humphries as well as houses in Melbourne, Sydney, London and Mittagong for Michael Ball, the chairman of Ogilvy & Mather. An old-fashioned sense of decorum prevents him from naming the long list of clients who were not or are not public figures.
Like many architects, Clerehan started with houses but dreamed of doing the big stuff. That came mid-career when the Bank of Melbourne became a major client. He designed all the Ogilvy & Mather offices when the international advertising agency came to Australia in 1967 and continued to do so until 1987.
In 1995, just as he was beginning to ease up slightly at the age of 72, Clerehan’s partner in the firm Clerehan Cran, David Cran, died. Then the Bank of Melbourne vanished, taken over by Westpac. That would have been enough to stop most 72-year-olds. But Neil Clerehan wasn’t most 72-year-olds. He just kept on going and going. He keeps fit by swimming 500 metres every second day at the St Kilda Sea Baths.
His enthusiasm for buildings and houses is infectious. It is nothing for him to jump up onto the bottom rail of a paling fence to see the house on the other side. A drive down a suburban street is like an education in Melbourne housing history. “Look, see how the houses become better as the slope increases.”
He is a walking encyclopaedia on suburbia, but claims to be knowledgeable about six suburbs – Hawthorn, Brighton, Kew, South Yarra, Toorak and Camberwell.
South Yarra is his favourite because he has built a lot of houses there and lived there all his married life.
His greatest influences were his contemporary Robin Boyd, and the firm of Mewton and Grounds when he was young, he says.
“Robin Boyd had a very good approach to design,” says Clerehan. “He was very innovative and every commission was a new challenge. He almost invented a style for every building.”
In a sense Neil Clerehan was born to be an architect. He was the younger of two boys of elderly parents – his mother was 48 when he was born. The family lived a comfortable life in Brighton. He learnt about Australian architecture from his mother, who had studied painting at the National Gallery School.
He liked houses, he says, because “I was discontented with my own”. “It didn’t have double doors into the dining room. I was at school with the son of W.?L.?Buckland who was an industrialist. At the age of six I went to their house and came back very sad.
“I told my father, ‘They’re not very rich because they don’t have double doors into the dining room’. I had been into the first L-shaped dining room.”
At the age of 12 he was given a Home Beautiful magazine for his birthday and his course was set.
Educated by the Jesuits at St Patrick’s College, East Melbourne, Clerehan says he respects the teaching of this Catholic order, but is anti-clerical and an atheist.
Clerehan studied architecture at RMIT and then the University of Melbourne, graduating in 1950, after his studies were delayed by war service and his failure to pass the only engineering subject at his first attempt. He met Robin Boyd when Boyd was his sergeant and he was a sapper during the war at Milne Bay, in New Guinea.
In the late 1940s he was apprenticed to the great society architect Marcus Martin, who studded Toorak and South Yarra with his white houses.
“In a Marcus Martin house the grand spaces were very good but, like all houses of that period, they deteriorated out the back.
“I lived through the cream Australia policy years from the 1930s to 1950s when you couldn’t get a white refrigerator,” he says. “White paint came in after the war and now it’s everywhere and I am sick of it. Now every kitchen has an island fixture with an up, across and down marble benchtop. I am getting tired of those too.”
He established his first practice in 1951 and a year later went to America, where he hitch-hiked and caught the bus to 40 states. There he met Frank Lloyd Wright and other architects such as Mies van der Rohe and Oscar Niemeyer. Thereafter his designs were influenced by modern American architecture.
He married Sonia Cole in 1955 and designed their first house in South Yarra. But by the late 1960s, with four children, the family moved to a bigger home.
As the director of The Age Small Homes Service from 1954 to 1960, Clerehan’s influence spread.
He took over from the founding director Robin Boyd. Another big name in Melbourne architecture, Daryl Jackson, succeeded him.
The Age Small Homes Service provided documents and drawings for people who couldn’t afford an architect. “It changed a lot of our newer outer suburbs such as Nunawading, Box Hill South and East Bentleigh,” Clerehan says.
He maintains he does not have a “favourite style” of architecture. “I do my variation of contemporary, which means you do what’s right at the time for the site.”
Philip Goad believes that Clerehan has done more for architecture than simply design a collection of suburban houses and prize-winning buildings.
“His contribution in terms of his writing is extraordinary,” Goad says.
“His columns in The Age as director of the Small Homes Services – and more recently in The Melbourne Weekly – were widely read.
“It sounds strange but his obituaries capture the personality and currency of architects’ lives. Neil has a great handle on understanding Melbourne’s societal connections and how those connections work in architecture,” Goad says.
“At 88 he remains a great enthusiast for architects and his profession.”
What makes a good architect
An interest in living patterns, construction and planning; an interest in people; being able to interpret their stated and unstated requirements to get a mutually satisfactory result.
Favourite Melbourne building
The New Treasury Building at the top of Collins Street (incorrectly called the Old Treasury Building). A beautiful Italianate 19th-century building designed by a 23-year-old (J.J. Clarke) with a very clever 20th-century addition.
Undiscovered city gem
The McPherson building at 546 Collins Street. For 50 years nobody was interested in buildings below William Street. Built in 1935 in the Moderne style as a warehouse, office and storeroom for hardware merchant Sir William McPherson. The four-storey building, which originally had a tennis court on its flat roof, is classified by the National Trust.