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Neville Gruzman

Neville Gruzman, by Eric Smith


IN 1970, Eric Smith’s portrait of Neville Gruzman won the Archibald Prize. It’s a confronting image. Gruzman’s penetrating eyes stare out and upward from the canvas. This person speaks his mind. He’s sitting on a stool in a short-sleeved shirt, with no background to speak of, no indications that Gruzman was an architect. It’s just him, the person. But the portrait’s frankness belies Gruzman the architect, the man who was always in a suit and whose buildings are complex, unusual, difficult to categorize, intensely personal, serene, shimmering and reflective. “Oh but that’s what Neville is really like”, people would say. His work, like his personality, was chimerical, brilliant, outspoken and assertive. You could not divorce the two.

In the published histories of Australian architecture, Gruzman makes only a limited appearance. Robin Boyd and J. M. Freeland don’t mention him or his work. Jennifer Taylor discusses Gruzman only as a name among what could be loosely described as a Wrightian school in Sydney, and also in terms of the career of Glenn Murcutt. This is surprising but perhaps not unusual, as these histories track “movements” rather than the individualist architects who began their practices in earnest in the 1950s – architects like James Birrell, Peter Burns, Alex Jelinek, Stuart McIntosh, and, of course, Neville Gruzman. As a consequence, these architects sit outside any current architectural canon. At the same time, Gruzman and his works are well known. His houses were consistently published in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Then there was a gap in exposure until 1983, when a commemorative exhibition devoted to Gruzman’s work was held at the RAIA NSW Chapter, and another retrospective in 1992 at the Rex Irwin Gallery in Sydney. These drew considerable and intense interest.

Gruzman was a Sydney architect. Almost all of his work was built in Sydney. Almost all of his public pronouncements were focused on Sydney’s urbanism, architecture and its architectural personalities. Gruzman showed no mercy and for this he raised the hackles of many within the architecture profession, the halls of academe, and at the level of local and state government. Though Gruzman might have believed the opposite, he earned himself notoriety. As Mayor of Woollahra, Gruzman was outspoken (sometimes dangerously so), a vocal supporter or vocal denouncer. His prickly insistence earned him loyal friends and mortal enemies, and for this latter effect he simply didn’t seem to care. He felt that Sydney’s power cliques needed unravelling and that architects should be allowed to criticize each other’s work. He felt that architects should try harder to better their efforts and the appearance of their city. He was passionately committed to his view of the world. He was a stirrer. He was a teacher. He was an architect.

A different but equally compelling portrait of Neville Gruzman might be an architectural one. In his house at Darling Point, Sydney (1958), Gruzman designed in 1965 for his wife Margot a very special dressing room. It’s mirrored on all four sides and on the ceiling. The effect is an infinite number of images in all directions. In a photograph of the space, if one looks closely, there’s a figure slipping from view. It’s the photographer of course, but is it also Gruzman the artist-architect slipping from view, creating the stage for others? Gruzman’s architecture was theatrical and performative. He created the scene and just as quickly disappeared, for others to take his place and live there.

A book about Gruzman is soon to be published. Neville Gruzman produced a unique body of work in Australia and the book’s aim is not to lionize but to bring Gruzman and his work finally into focus, to place it – and him – into a broader, richer and more inclusive discussion of the last fifty years of Australian architecture.
Sources: image, Eric Smith NPG, copy Philip Goad, AM