What we love about Newcastle: Brian Suters

BRIAN Suters sits on a bench deep in the city’s heart, in Civic Park. All around him are buildings dear to the architect’s heart.

“Here you’ve got a whole parade of different styles of architecture,” he says, as he begins pointing out landmarks in stone, brick and concrete.

“There’s the English brutalism of the art gallery, there’s the early post-war style of the cultural centre, then two churches by Mencken.”

He is gesturing towards the two 19th-century buildings in Laman Street, the Baptist Tabernacle and St Andrews church, which were designed by architect Frederick Mencken.

Suters continues his on-the-one-spot tour of Newcastle’s architectural styles, as his pointing reaches the corner of Auckland and King streets.

“The Art Deco of Nesca House, the neo-classical of City Hall, and the administration building, which is -”.

The 80-year-old pauses.

“It’s just 20th Century modern”.

If anyone knows what description is attached to the council’s distinctive round building, it is Brian Suters. He designed it in the early 1970s. As it slowly took shape, before being finally completed in 1977, the building received other labels, such as “the beehive” and “the upturned egg cup”. Not that those nicknames worried him.

“No, it was probably even an honour; it never worried me,” he says.

The building’s shape was determined in part by history. An early rail line to the wharves had created the triangular shape of the building block, so “it was an odd-shaped site, and the circle fitted into it, but the circle is also a very strong shape”.

He also took inspiration from the neighbouring buildings, with the colour for the administration centre’s concrete veneer chosen to match the sandstone of Nesca House and City Hall.

“We wanted our building not to be taller than the [City Hall] tower, and Nesca House has rounded elements, so that justified it [with the administration building],” he says.

“We completed the trifecta. Town Hall in the middle, Nesca House, and then we had the round building. Forty years on, it certainly gives me great pleasure.”

ART: Brian Suters sketching one of the buildings he has been instrumental in designing. Picture: Marina Neil

ART: Brian Suters sketching one of the buildings he has been instrumental in designing. Picture: Marina Neil

Of course, there’s a new architectural kid on the block, impressing itself onto the cityscape as the shape of the future. Asked what Suters thinks of the University of Newcastle’s New Space complex, he replies, “It’s a very exciting building with great internal spaces, but I’m not completely convinced.

“It’s a different style of architecture, so many different things happening. It’s very much Melbourne architecture. It’s a wonderful building to be in, the views are superb, you get a different impression of Newcastle.”

Just near where we sit is a reminder of Brian Suters’ first big project in Newcastle: the Civic fountain. He had worked on that as a young man with artists Margel and Frank Hinder.  

It was 1964 when Suters returned to Newcastle to forge his career in architecture. He could have gone anywhere. He had won a university medal and had seen the world on a travelling scholarship. But Suters chose Newcastle, the city he had moved to as a five-year-old.  

“I saw a great opportunity in Newcastle, a smaller town, a town with great potential,” he reflects. “I thought I could make a bigger impact by coming back to Newcastle than going to Sydney.”

I think it’s a city of great opportunity - Brian Suters

In shaping his career, Brian Suters helped craft the look of Newcastle. Suters estimates he’s worked on more than a hundred buildings.

The project closest to his heart is one that attracted controversy when it was built in the late 1980s, the public housing development in Newcastle East.

“It was a good social experiment, and it actually got better,” Suters says, explaining it was “like an urban village” with a mix of disadvantaged people and those who had bought into the complex. “I think it was one of those projects that’s a dream.”  

When he looks around the city now, Suters sees “unfinished” work and potential unrealised. He feels that, for instance, when he looks at the Carrington pumphouse and the former post office building.

Brian Suters has been reflecting on what has been created, including his own contributions. He has been sketching some of the buildings he has designed. In the process, Suters has been contemplating that decision he made as a young man to return to Newcastle. So he has been thinking about not just the mark he has left on a city but the mark a city has left on him.

“I think it’s a city of great opportunity,” Suters muses. “It certainly gave me a great opportunity as an architect.

“Yes, I made the right decision.”

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