My Photography, Photography Story

A small piece of Canberra’s history

One little functional building in Canberra, the Manuka electricity substation (Chamber Substation 69), was built in 1936. It is thought to have been designed by Cuthbert Whitley. It may be the only one of its kind left. It is no longer used for its purpose and, right now in May 2022, Evo Energy wants to demolish it.

A Development Application (DA number 202240055) has been lodged for Block 5, Section 41, Griffith (zoned for community uses), where the building is located. The remainder of the block contains a small parking area and is, otherwise, undeveloped.

Image taken from the DA

There is now a temporary security fence around the building, which is covered with painted “street art”.

Chamber Substation 69 behind a temporary security fence © Brian Rope
Chamber Substation 69 behind a temporary security fence © Brian Rope

Who was Cuthbert Whitley and why is his involvement in any way relevant? An entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography by Roger Pegrum reveals much about  Whitley:

Whitley was an architect and public servant, who was born on 30 July 1886 at Rutherglen, Victoria.

He trained in design and building with the Victorian Public Works Department. In 1912 he joined the Commonwealth Public Service as a draughtsman in the public works branch of the Department of Home Affairs.

In 1920, Whitley was appointed architect in the Department of Works and Railways. Soon after, he was admitted as an associate of the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects and the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Whitley was transferred in 1929 to Canberra, where he worked under the principal designing architect (later chief architect) E. H. Henderson. In 1935, he was promoted to senior architect in the Department of the Interior. His first major project was a new building for the Patent Office on Kings Avenue, for which he chose a formal axial composition with sandstone facings and restrained Art Deco embellishment.

Patent Office on Kings Avenue © Brian Rope

In 1936, Whitley designed Ainslie Public School. His plans were both functional and elegant, with carefully articulated facades and creative treatment of conventional materials internally and externally. Art Deco motifs such as chevrons and vertical flutes suggested a fresh and forward-looking view of education.

Ainslie Public School (now the Ainslie Arts Centre) © Brian Rope

He followed this building with a dramatic design for Canberra High School (1939) at Acton, with a lofty clock tower marking the high ground overlooking the city centre and long symmetrical wings of classrooms terminating in bold semicircular ends. He enlivened the formality of the composition with decorative elements integrated into the overall design. Featuring many technological innovations, it was described at the time as ‘the most modern school in Australia’.

The original Canberra High School (now the ANU School of Art & Design) © Brian Rope

Following Henderson’s death in 1939, Whitley was acting chief architect for some six months. His ambitions for a truly modern Canberra were also realised in smaller projects, including houses, and the city’s first fire station, at Forrest. The flat roofs, crisp steel-framed windows and unrelieved brick walls of these buildings were early expressions in Canberra of the Inter-War Functionalist style.

Whitley travelled only for work and, despite his appreciation of contemporary architectural movements, never went overseas. After suffering the first of several strokes in 1941, he retired on 19 September 1942. He died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 23 October that year in Canberra Community Hospital and was buried in Canberra cemetery.

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