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Retirement not on drawing board

Architect Peter McIntyre sees no reason to ease up, writes Paul Best.

Architect Peter McIntyre sees no reason to ease up, writes Paul Best.

AT 85, seminal Melbourne architect Peter McIntyre has no plans on the drawing board to retire. "I get that all the time, 'Are you still practising?' " he chuckles, over his office conference table, which is littered with architectural drawings of current projects. "I don't feel any different now from when I was 60."

Most mornings McIntyre can be found on site at his alma mater, Trinity Grammar in Kew, where he has overseen the construction of the school's new resource centre, due for completion by the end of the year.

When he's not there, McIntyre is working from his office, one of several buildings, perched on almost 2? hectares of sloping riverfront land off Studley Park Road, which he bought in 1947 as a 19-year-old architecture student for #200.

"This [Trinity] job has been my life for the past few years," he says, by way of explaining the challenges of designing a place of modern learning that these days is more open and homey than institutional. But then McIntyre is no stranger to a challenge and certainly not the notion of progressive thinking. When he graduated from The University of Melbourne's school of architecture in 1949, where he had studied under the revered likes of Robin Boyd and Sir Roy Grounds, modernism was taking hold. Architecture was hard-edged, toying with form and function, employing new technology and scarce materials in highly innovative ways. It was the era of concrete, steel and glass.

"The colour of Melbourne was grey and black, then suddenly, bang, everything [postwar] opened up, people were optimistic . . . looking for a new life, a new house," McIntyre recalls.

It inspired McIntyre, who had worked for his father, also an architect, since he was seven and was, more or less, railroaded into the profession. Embracing this bold new approach, McIntyre came up with the winning design for Melbourne's Olympic swimming pool in 1952 (now the Westpac Centre, whose refurbishment he supervised in 2002).

Using similar principles, he also built the following year his elevated traffic-stopping home, River House, comprising a central steel frame with 12-metre cantilevered platforms on either side and originally clad in brightly coloured strawboard. "People used to stop on Victoria Street Bridge and wonder what the hell it was," he says.

McIntyre, though, experimented further, incorporating over the past three decades what he describes as "emotional function" to "try to work out what it is people will be feeling in a space". He won the 1982 Robin Boyd Medal for his one-time holiday home, Sea House, on Mornington Peninsula's Beleura Hill, McIntyre's favourite work and best example of an emotionally responsive building.

He's also immensely proud of Dinner Plain alpine village, for which he won the Sir Zelman Cowen medal in 1987. He points out on an office wall, plastered with just a fraction of his many projects and awards spanning his 62-year career, how the village's modernist interpretation is more sympathetic to its environment compared to '50s design.

He's also been professionally and academically active, taking up dozens of posts, including president of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects and emeritus professor of architecture at Melbourne University. And with his architect wife, Dione, he helped to raise $1 million to save and restore the Kew courthouse in the mid-2000s.

While he's as busy as ever, McIntyre still makes time for his other loves. He skis most weekends in winter and sails in summer. He's also surrounded by family: his wife, four children (two of which, along with Dione, work in the practice) and three grandchildren.

As he shows me around the sprawling riverbank compound, McIntyre agrees traditional notions of what's thought too old to work are breaking down as people live longer. Experience counts for a lot, he says, believing he is more discerning and a better judge than when he was 60.

"The thing that decides [whether I continue working] is if people keep giving me jobs. If they give me work, I'll do it."

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