an architect, a missionary and their improbable desires
by Newell Platten
Hybrid Beauty is the story of a father and son, living and working during the twentieth century and the early part of the twenty-first. In some ways there were several similarities between the two but there were also vast differences. The father Gilbert James Platten, born on 4 January 1901 at Petersburg became a somewhat eccentric Methodist missionary in pre-war New Ireland and the son, Newell Platten, born on 16 April 1928 at Rabaul became a well-known and successful architect in Adelaide.
Both had high aims and worked hard to achieve them. Both travelled often, far and wide. For both men Methodism was an integral part of their lives. For the father it was a belief for dissemination at all costs but also subjected to criticism. For the son it was part of his formative years but ultimately became a rejected faith. Retirement for the father meant hardship and often loneliness, for the son it meant a new life, new experiences and adventures. Regardless of all the troubles and set-backs they experienced, the father’s marriage survived it all while the son’s did not.
Gilbert James, better known as Gil, spent his youth at Petersburg until his parents moved to Mile End. He enrolled at Brighton Theological College and received his Licentiate of Theology in 1925. His first appointment was at the Birkenhead Methodist Church. One of his parishioners was Isabel Rose Harcus, born at Birkenhead on 18 December 1905. They were married on 17 March 1927. A month later they were on their way to Rabaul where Gil took up his appointment as missionary.
Here the young and somewhat naive couple experienced a frontier atmosphere where rawness in life was much in evidence. Gil learnt fast and soon noticed that villages were shanty-like and people suffered terrible diseases like jaws and tropical ulcers. Treatment of the local inhabitants by the whites was even worse than that meted out to Aborigines in Australia. Massacres and rape were common as was the burning of villages. Prospectors were among the worst knowing that the Administration would do little to punish them.
The Methodist Mission and its missionaries often came in for substantial criticism. Extracting money from native villagers was common but objected to by Gil. In 1929 Gill and his wife moved to Uluputur on New Ireland where they lived like royalty. This was made possible by the slave-like labours of young men who were at the mission station for an education. Yet Gil didn’t see, or didn’t want to see, the hypocrisy of it all as he believed in ‘learning by doing’.
According to one missionary Gil had a very keen interest in anthropology and ethnology. He was very gifted in his ability to sit down unhurriedly with local people and discuss their culture, their social organisation, their concerns and dreams. After five years of hard work and observations Gil, who was not afraid to speak his mind, stated that South New Ireland was broken in spirit. The people seem to have lost the will to live; their apathy and fatalism are a sickness unto death.
To him ‘the village schools were, apart from reading and writing, almost devoid of anything that could contribute to the uplift and enrichment of village life’. The school system was a regime of pointless drudgery. Slowly but surely he realised how the so-called superstitious beliefs and customs of pre-Christian cultures had given practical assistance in everyday matters in a way not acknowledged or replaced by Christianity, leaving his people bereft in the advance of western modern life. It was the same process experienced by the Australian Aborigines.
Gil left his natives on 15 December 1933 for Tasmania where he took up his next appointment for a short time before moving to Two Wells in South Australia. It became an appointment very much disliked by his wife who felt out of place and didn’t mix with members of the mainly farming community. In April 1935 the family was on the move again, this time to Perth where he was responsible for raising funds to help missionaries in their work. This proved an onerous task as Australia was just recovering from the Depression.
In 1937 Gil and Isabel went back to Rabaul but this time their two children, both born in New Guinea, stayed in Australia. No sooner had they arrived then Rabaul was struck by the biggest earthquake ever, followed by a volcanic eruption which killed some 500 people and destroyed the town and surrounding area. After cleaning up Gil was put in charge of the education system which he had heavily criticised in 1932. During his years of absence very little, if anything had changed.
Unable to adapt or change it, he tried other ways to emphasise the social and practical aspects of village life and built respect for, not denigration of, the old culture and tribal customs among his students as they absorbed Christian teachings. It was a difficult if not impossible task made worst by meagre resources and little help from head office. But he carried on the best he could.
After the bombing of Rabaul and the invasion by the Japanese during the Second World War, Gil was able to escape by ship to Brisbane where he arrived in February. His wife and daughter Paquita had left by plane some months before. Gil was now posted to Woodside in the Adelaide Hills and later to Sydney. His son Newell who had remained in Australia attended the Birdwood High School and boarded with a family in Oakbank. In 1944 the family was reunited once again and lived for some time at Stirling. The house had no running water, bath water came from a wood-fired copper and the dunny was in the backyard. It was here that Newell decided to become an architect.
By the time he started his studies at Adelaide University in 1946, his father was back in Rabaul which had all but disappeared. After the Japanese bombing and occupation, the Natives had changed and village life, as he had known it, had almost disappeared. Roads had been made impassable and bridges destroyed partly as a result of Allied air raids. Gil was often disappointed with the Church’s leadership, particular those who were responsible for the mission work.
He was even less impressed by their inability or unwillingness to arrange transport for his wife after more than 15 months separation. She eventually was able to join him but after a short holiday in Adelaide in 1949 she remained there ‘to watch over her daughter’s late teenage years’. For the next 10 years Gil had many appointments as Chairman, Director, Principle and Superintendent of Methodist organisations and programmes. He finally retired in 1959 and returned to Adelaide but needed a job until his pension came through.
Although he became a full-time caretaker of the Goldsborough Mort building on North Terrace, his habits remained the same. Up at 4.30 am and bedding down under his mosquito net at eight in the evening. He returned once more to Rabaul for a special project but was even more disappointed than previously as Christian teaching had destroyed the old ways of life and the traditional magic. His dreams of a Hybrid Beauty, a Christian social order retaining the best of tribal traditions were fading rapidly.
Meanwhile his son Newell had graduated in 1951 and had saved enough money to see the sights in Europe or anywhere else. On a stop-over at Bombay he, and some other male passengers, went to visit an up-market brothel but found the charges too expensive. Marseilles was more of his liking and what he saw there would influence his concepts of space and architecture in later years. He landed his first job in London and stayed until May 1952 when he resigned and set off to discover the architectural wonders of mainland Europe.
Having satisfied his curiosity he left for America in 1953. When he finally returned to Adelaide he married Margaret Walter, honeymooned in the Flinders Ranges and started his first job working for the Sixth Australian Architectural Convention to be held in Adelaide in May 1956. Two years later he went into partnership with Bob Dickson. The partnership managed to gain some substantial contracts and did well. However Newell had not forgotten his European experience and in September 1961 he went to live in Greece with his wife and two children.
On 16 October 1961 he punched his card in the time clock at Doxiadis Associates and began team designing houses and community centres for Islamabad, the new capital of Pakistan. Another project he was involved with was the redevelopment of part of Accra, capital of Ghana. After a fantastic time and gaining both confidence and experience the family returned to Adelaide in 1963 where Newell re-joined the partnership of Dickson and Platten.
The partnership landed some big contracts and one of the first Newell was to handle was the designing of the Arkaba complex on Fullarton Road for Hungarian migrant Istvan Zsolt. This was followed by a holiday camp for the National Fitness Council of South Australia at Mylor, The Kathleen Lumby College, The Mount Lofty and the Blackwood Golf Clubs and the Hope Valley Water Filtration Plant. There were also design requests for private houses at Belair, Torrens Park, Mitcham, Millswood, Hawthorn and Brownhill Creek.
In 1974 he became involved with the Monarto Development Scheme. However after six years of planning, discussing, drawing, meetings and whatever else, it flopped and finally became a Zoo. Another major involvement was working for the Housing Trust for seven years and designing the Noarlunga Town Centre. During that time he was appointed to the City of Adelaide Development Committee and later served on the City of Adelaide Planning Commission.
Apart from all his successes, there were also the personal problems which had a major impact on Newell. In 1971 both his father Gil and a long friend died. An extra-marital relationship resulted in the separation from his wife and three daughters. Luckily for him his new partner was a very understanding woman. She suggested that they should travel to Japan. They did and Newell found, like his father before him, a love for gardens and gardening. They still visit Japan whenever possible and enjoy not only the gardens but also the galleries and architecture.
Review by Nic Klaassen
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