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architect was a fascinating and maverick teacher

At that time in UNSW, as in other Australian universities, the education of architects was still largely focused on the teaching of design in the studio. For students the study was like a second home, a site of wide-ranging conversation among themselves and with their assigned tutor. It was here that Proudfoot made his presence felt.

His singular passion for the subject, influenced both by his father’s commercial art career and by his undergraduate tuition by Lloyd Rees and Roland Wakelin, saw architectural design akin to the making of art, a process of developing ideas as far as they would go.

Proudfoot would urge his students to work with their own desires and tastes, and to make the most of these things – to “think big” – even when those ideas (precedents and models such as the work of Frank Lloyd Wright) were contrary to his own taste.

A former student remembers that Proudfoot always encouraged his students to attack a design problem from first principles. Failure in this regard leads to an analogous but inferior result which does not allow for real creativity. Many of his students have proven successful within the architectural profession, predominantly as a result of being taught in this way.

Proudfoot would often take up a pencil himself to show what he meant. In his work in the studio he never questioned his students’ good faith or their capabilities, but he insisted on their engaging in a frank dialogue. And he was always formally addressed as “Dr Proudfoot”, and addressed his students by surname only.

A sketch made by Proudfoot during his time in Rome.

The studio experience with Proudfoot left a lasting impression: a rare encounter with a personality, flawed and eccentric, cutting and encouraging, sometimes comic, who took architecture seriously, and saw it as a calling in which they might excel – a fascinating, seemingly maverick figure.

Once he brought a portfolio of his own work into the studio, including his 1965 Rome Prize scheme. Marked by sinuously curving ceilings and portentous towers, this work seemed to channel the spirit of the baroque, in sharp contrast to the abstemious modernism and earthbound localism prevalent at the time in Sydney.

His design brilliance, by which he had won the Rome Prize in Architecture in 1965, did not reach its apogee in the built environment, but when given the opportunity to design a scheme – for the new Parliament House in Canberra – he was able to let fly to creativity, non-conventionality, and amazing structures.

Proudfoot faced demons in the form of alcoholism. The years 1975 to ’80 were a dark period for him as he lost almost everything that he valued. Through his desire to be reunited with his family of him and the help of a good doctor, he eventually shook that demon and never relapsed.

At least once in his days of behaving badly he was taken to the lock-up in a police station he designed himself. Whenever anyone mentioned Dad’s sporting ability, he would quip: “I did my best times running from the police.”

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In retirement, Proudfoot often visited Gunnedah, the home of his wife Helen’s family property. His legacy of him lives on there, as well as the family home in Roseville, which he designed in 1984 in magnificent modernist fashion, and the buildings he designed for the government architect’s branch in the 1960s. However, his strength of personality and architectural brilliance informed a generation of architecture students.

Proudfoot was single-minded to succeed at his interests, but equally determined to avoid situations or circumstances not to his liking. He was never on the electoral roll or documented in the census. He was an anarchist at heart.

I have excelled at both sport and music. When young, he was a skilled cricketer as a leg spinner, on one occasion taking 10 wickets for 128 runs in a single innings. In his adult years, squash and golf sustained him. He was a student at the Conservatorium of Music and played the oboe in the Sydney Youth Orchestra. I seriously considered a career as a musician but chose architecture instead.

Proudfoot’s teaching at UNSW continued and he was awarded large Australian Research Council grants for multiple projects, including the Griffin Canberra design and architectural education in Australia.

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Old age became fraught for Proudfoot as he did not take instruction on how to improve his health kindly, and grew frustrated with his failing body and mind. But this Keats phrase was one of his favorites, and he lived it to the end: “I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination.”

Proudfoot valued the tenets of classical culture – academic pursuit, physical activity, and beauty from art, architecture and music. He had few daily worries. He had enough money to do the things he wanted to do, and he was really up with the gods on Mount Olympus rather than thinking about everyday life. These tenets informed his work of him as a teacher and where his strengths of him lay.

Peter Proudfoot is survived by his daughters Ann and Emma, ​​and grandchildren Matthew, Thomas, Claire and Leila. Helen passed away in 2011.

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