Blair Mansfield Wilson (1930–2014)

With his father and his grandfather both prominent and well regarded architects, it could be said that Blair Wilson was born with a pencil in his hand. Architect, artist and educator, Blair Mansfield Wilson was born in Brisbane in 1930 to architect Ronald Martin Wilson and Olga Esme Mansfield Wilson (nee Wallis). His grandfather, Alexander Brown Wilson, commenced architectural practice in 1884 following his early career in the Queensland Department of Public Works.

Raised in Brisbane, Blair attended the Brisbane Grammar School and in 1949 enrolled in the fledgling architecture degree program at the University of Queensland. An accomplished scholar, he graduated in 1955 and was awarded the Queensland Institute of Architects Memorial Medal. Following registration as an architect, he worked briefly for his father prior to gaining broader experience in London. There he attended evening studio sessions at the Architectural Association and was admitted as an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Together with his wife to be, Elizabeth Ann (Beth) Moxon, he toured France, Italy and Spain and onto Holland and Scandinavia to see buildings and urban spaces that he knew from his studies.  On return in 1956, he joined his father as a partner of R. Martin Wilson and Sons bringing new energy and insights to projects  that included the Greek Orthodox Church, South Brisbane, the Hooper residence, Tarragindi, and the Stanthorpe Civic Centre and Library.  Blair continued the practice as Blair M Wilson after his father’s death in 1967.  

Foreseeing a potential growth in the higher education sector, Blair studied University Planning in 1966 at the Institute of Advanced Architectural Studies, University of York. The course gave access to the latest developments in the field and paved the way for Blair to undertake a range of educational and complex building projects throughout Queensland. Expertise in the design of higher education facilities remains a mainstay of the practice today.

At the time, there was interest in the application of the rationalisation of design and construction with a focus on flexibility and dimensional coordination. A member of the Modular Society of England, Blair maintained a focus on spatial flexibility and structural coordination in his projects for several tertiary institutions.

From York, Blair went onto attend a short but influential course at the University of Jyvaskela which included an inspirational address from Alvaar Aalto who Blair regarded as “one of the very best”. Whilst in Finland, Blair visited the DipoliStudent Union building at Otaniemi designed by Reima and Raili Pietala. It is tempting to deduce that the exciting and dramatic composition of its hovering, sculptural forms would have influenced several of Blair’s later designs in step with lessons learnt from Aalto’s work.

Beth Moxon graduated in 1955 from the University of Queensland with a BSc (majoring in Botany) on the same day that Blair graduated from architecture. Although a scientist, she had some insight into architectural culture via her uncle, architect and academic Bruce Lucas.  She and Blair married in 1958 and, with the birth of the first of their four children in the following year, her career as a plant pathologist was set aside.    In 1971 she joined Blair in practice following her graduation that year from the QIT (now QUT) as one of the first graduates from the newly established course in landscape architecture.  The strong interrelationship between landscape and architecture became a distinguishing characteristic of the practice and enriched the overriding consideration of people, place and context that continues to distinguish many of its projects.

Although modest in scale, the La Boite theatre (1972) was the best recognised of Blair’s building designs – Blair has modestly said of La Boite that it provided “one little touch of fame”.   Set on the corner of Hale and Sexton Streets near Petrie Terrace in Brisbane, this theatre was Australia’s first purpose built theatre-in-the-round and became an icon of Brisbane’s theatrical landscape. The home of the Brisbane Repertory Theatre, La Boite’s radical design brought an engaging sense of intimacy and audience involvement to theatrical production and presentation. Blair has described the design as being impromptu with the first sketches made in the dust whilst sitting on the kerb nearby the site with the director, Jennifer Blocksidge.  The project was driven by the urgency to achieve completion and constrained by a limited budget. With the contractor on site before drawings were completed, the location of perimeter walls and the truncation of the corners were conveyed by Blair with little more than arm waving and verbal directions. To reduce costs, dark coloured, reject bricks were selected unsettling the bricklayers who did not wish to be known to be laying “rejects”.   Ultimately the manufacturer marketed the distinctive bricks as “La Boite” bricks thus giving them an acceptable status. Fittingly, the project won the Clay Brick Award enabling Blair and Beth to visit examples of hand laid brick buildings and landscape elements in South America and Europe.

 A second theatre, the John Kindler Memorial theatre for the QIT (now QUT) completed in 1973 was shaped by an adventurous exploration of form and space for which Blair received the 1973 Royal Australian Institute of Architects Bronze Medal. Blair recalled that this project literally commenced with a plan sketched on the back of an envelope during a discussion with the Director. Blair’s ability to think on the run was matched by his graphic skills as a draftsman that enabled him to explore and resolve complex, three dimensional design challenges as evident in the resolution of the Kindler’s intersecting forms.

The founding of Griffith University drew in the accomplished architect, planner and landscape architect Roger Johnston to develop the master plan for its Nathan campus.  He appointed architects for the three initial buildings with  Blair commissioned for the School of Science (stage 1). Blair considered Johnston to be ‘truly inspirational” and valued the opportunity to respond to the ideals and ambitions of the new university through design.

Beyond his many architectural achievements, Blair gave principled leadership to his profession as National President of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA) (1976-77), as President of the RAIA Queensland Chapter (1970-72) and as a member of the National Capital Planning Committee (1976-82). His considered and diplomatic approach to challenges facing the profession earned the respect of his peers who valued his ability to achieve consensus through reasoned negotiation. He also served as the President of the University of Queensland (UQ) Alumni Association (1979-87), as a member of theUQ Senate (1976-82) and as President of the Brisbane Repertory Theatre (1973-76). Less formally, he contributed to architectural education over many years as a tutor at QUT and took care to ensure that young staff and students in his practice received a breadth of experience, mentoring and guidance. 

As the Wilson family’s third generation architect, Blair’s overriding contribution was to stabilise and rebuild the Wilson practice after taking over the reins from his father.  His perception, judgement and dedication expanded the reach and scope of the practice, enhanced its viability and underpinned the continuing success of the Wilson architectural and landscape practice now in its 130th year. After 40 years as practice leader, Blair moved aside in 1995 to enable his second son, Hamilton, to take on the leadership of Wilson Architects.  The seamless handover from the third to the fourth Wilson generation maintained momentum and successfully fostered the further advancement of the practice to position it as one of Australia’s leading architectural firms.

In recent years, Blair was able to spend more of his time with his family at their house on South Stradbroke Island, built with Beth in 1968 as a family retreat. An enthusiastic and prolific painter from his childhood days, Blair exhibited his works on many occasions. His particular skill was as a water colourist and he had a commanding ability to capture and portray the many moods of beach settings and landscapes through the subtlety of his control of light and shade, colour and form.  His love and care for his family is apparent in their recurring presence in many of his Stradbroke paintings.

Blair Wilson’s attendance, with Beth at his side, just a few weeks ago at the opening of the Hot Modernism exhibition at the State Library of Queensland revealed his evident pleasure in being reminded of his personal contribution to Queensland’s architectural legacy. His work was justly exhibited in the company of that of his peers with recognition and acknowledgement of his contribution to the transformative period ofmid-twentieth century architecture and design in Queensland

Said by many to be both a gentleman and a gentle man, Blair Wilson was very much a man of his time. His assured authority and his thoughtful approach to architecture, to practice and to the world, matched by his encouragement and generous support of the efforts and ambitions of colleagues, friends and family, earned well deserved affection and respect.  Such attention and appreciation was largely deflected with wry, good humour drawn from his sense of fun and his genial modesty. He will be missed by all that knew him. Fittingly, after a such a creative life, well lived, Blair passed away peacefully with Beth and his family close by.  He is survived by his dedicated and loving wife, Beth, their four children: Andrew, Hamilton, Ross, and Elizabeth, grandchildren and his sister, Leith.

 

Michael Keniger

14th August 2014