Alastair Hall Swayn 1944–2016

Alastair Swayn, who died on 4 August 2016 of brain cancer, left his distinctive mark on Australia’s national capital, Canberra, through his many striking and innovative public and private buildings designed in his role as director of Daryl Jackson Alastair Swayn Architects.  As the inaugural Australian Capital Territory Government Architect, Alastair ensured that design and contemporary thinking was at the fore of decision-making in creating Canberra as a small ‘new world city’.  As Professorial fellow in Architecture of the University of Canberra he was widely recognised as a distinguished teacher and mentor.

The boldness and imaginativeness of his vision are reflected in some of the city’s most distinctive buildings such as the Brindabella Business Park, the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University, the Singapore High Commission, and many others.

Alastair Hall Swayn was born on 8 December 1944 in the small Scottish coal mining port of Methil in Fife. With its industrial maritime feel, the town marked the start of Alastair’s lifelong love of ships and industrial architecture.

In 1948 Alastair and his parents moved to Liverpool, where his father, Frank, managed the British Cunard Line’s laundry service. As a young boy, Alastair would accompany him aboard some of the line’s famous ships such as the Mauretania and Caroni. The Art Deco interiors of these and other luxury liners inspired an abiding interest in the form.

At Merchant Taylors, Alastair showed a flair for architectural drawing, and he went on to study  architecture at Liverpool Polytech. His final year project, designing a new ferry terminal for Lerwick, in the Shetland Islands, earned him an additional year at the Polytech to study computer-aided design of housing.

In December 1972, he migrated to Australia, and was employed by the architectural firm of Collard Clarke and Jackson, in Sydney.  He moved to the Canberra office in 1975, beginning his 40-year association with the national capital city.

Alastair worked with Collards on iconic projects such as the Department of Health building before moving in 1978 to Daryl Jackson Architects to take over the Australian Public Service Commission building project.  This project was the beginning of a perfect union.  Daryl Jackson had not done a project on this scale before, and Alastair had experience with large commercial projects.

In 1987 the Canberra partnership Daryl Jackson Alastair Swayn was formed. As the practice’s reputation for award-winning projects grew, more major public works projects followed, including the Australian Institute of Sport swimming pool and indoor running track complexes and the CSIRO Discovery Centre.

Alastair’s Scottish heritage and strong family values informed much of his work. His belief that all people are born equal and have a right to be heard is evident in many of his building designs which treat workers and visitors equitably and eschew a sense of hierarchy. A common feature is a generous, naturally lit atrium—reminiscent of the structure of ocean liners—that distributes light through open-plan work areas.

Alastair drew inspiration from many sources, including Mexican architect Luis Barragán and Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill. From Barragán he developed his ideas of breaking down the building volume and allowing the structure to blend into its landscape, while adding a sense of intrigue and openness to the façade.  Bofill’s use of robust colours also became a Swayn trademark, demonstrated on a grand scale throughout the Brindabella Business Park, the largest group of office buildings by one architect in Australia.

An enthusiastic traveller, Alastair drew on influences from many places and cultures, from the Arabic architecture of Morocco to the development of nineteenth-century industrial design in British and American cities. From his days at the Polytech he was absorbed by Scandinavian architecture and design, and regularly visited Scandinavia to familiarise himself with the latest ideas.

Alastair’s five-year appointment as the inaugural ACT Government Architect in 2010 reinforced and provided an outlet for his ideas for Canberra as a city and the need for built environments of quality and substance to enhance health, wellbeing and overall liveability. He firmly believed that ‘green’ buildings create significant economic benefits for both business and community, and serve to define the culture of places.

He delighted in mentoring young architects and designers.  This has resulted in Daryl Jackson Alastair Swayn morphing recently into DJAS led by a team of four of his mentees.

A natural teacher, it became obvious that he should teach formally, first as a final-year tutor of young architects at the University of Canberra and, from 2010, as professorial fellow in Architecture, a post he held until late 2015.

Alastair had a great gift for friendship, and the warmth and regard in which he was held, personally and professionally, was reflected in the constant stream of visitors in his final months.  He died surrounded by friends and colleagues.

His estate forms the basis of the Alastair Swayn Foundation that will fund research into domestic and office architecture in Australia.

The Australian Capital Territory government marked his death by announcing the establishment of an annual internship for a recent graduate architect in his name. He was made an Officer of the Order of Australia on 26 January, Australia Day 2017 for distinguished service to architecture in the Australian Capital Territory, through executive roles with professional architectural institutes, and to the community. This was awarded with effect from 23 May 2016.

Colour and light, design and function, purpose and good management, humour and optimism, acceptance and inclusion—these mark the quality of the man and his architecture.

A book of his work will shortly be available at the school library.

Libby Amiel and Brian Candler, executors of Alastair’s estate