Derham Groves


My latest book titled, Out of the Ordinary: Popular Art, Architecture and Design, is due to be published in September this year by Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

    The book’s blurb by Andrew Chrystall:

Out of the Ordinary is one part unembellished documentation and one part verbi-visual equivalent of a Pro Hart work made with nineteenth-century, paint-loaded canons. It is a cultural history, resource for contemporary designers, imaginarium and luminous almanac of an explorer of the stranger species of creativity — from brick art to letterboxes, junk mail, mail art, television, fashion, food, model trains, Disney’s imagineering, amusement parks, feng-shui, Postmodern architecture, human-scale craftsman­ship, forgotten Australian architects in China, famous architects (that, perhaps, should be forgotten save for their bow ties), collectors of Sherlock Holmes memorabilia, outsider artists and clients — and none of these things exactly.

Everywhere Derham Groves attends to and finds significance in the minutiae of everyday life, inter-association, and those things that affect us so profoundly but remain just outside the purview of the “normal.” And in these things — objects, art, architecture, environment(s) — he finds stories and teaches his reader how to do the same. Out of the Ordinary is also a motivational text. It begins with bricks, perhaps the most standardized and repeatable units of construction, and reveals how they can be used as vehicles for unfettered creativity and not merely for the creation of containers. Groves shows how art and architecture can emerge and receive nourishment from the garbage of the everyday and creative collisions. Groves also calls, albeit subtly, for a turn away from homogeneity, the standard­ized, and unimaginative or “lazy” design informed by principles of economy, efficiency, utility and function conceived in abstraction. Rather, Groves celebrates the reanimation and/or rejuvenation of place by the makers of anything out of the ordinary (who don’t necessarily pray to the demiurge of good taste) who have created spaces and things through which the creative imagination shines.

Dr. Andrew Chrystall, School of Communication, Journalism and Marketing, Massey University.

    A review of the book by Michael Jørgensen:

Derham Groves is a unique thinker and one might say that he himself is “Out of the Ordinary.” An extraordinary range of phenomena fascinates him, which he investigates with an unusual tenacity, skill and erudition. In each case these topics and issues — at first glance deceptively diverse and unrelated — is meticulously dissected, illustrated and described with clear, unpreten­tious and very readable prose, which puts much other so-called academic writ­ing to shame. Consider just some of the things he covers, taken at random here from the contents page of his latest book, Out of the Ordinary: Deceptively “mundane” things such as bricks and brick­work; do-it-yourself letterboxes; and (who would even think of this?) junk e-mail or spam. Then there is television and its manifesta­tions in the days of its introduction in Derham’s home country, Australia; Disneyland and the feng-shui of Hong Kong Disney­land; the shop-houses of Vietnam and elsewhere; Sherlock Holmes and other crime fiction, one of Derham’s longstand­ing interests; a little-known Australian architect and a better known one; and an eccentric naïve Australian painter, the late Pro Hart. But that is not all! Dr. Groves has written elsewhere of the 1939 tour of Australia by Anna May Wong, the celebrated Chinese-American actress, and since the publication of his book about her in 2011, he has become intrigued by another tour “Down Under” by an American, William Boyd, a.k.a. Hopalong Cassidy, in 1954. Der­ham has also become interested in the crime novels of a little-known Australian writer, the late June Wright, whose crime novels were published in the 1940s through to the 1960s. He has also traced the overseas travels in North America of a group of young Australian men in 1959 using an old diary written by one of them. Where did he obtain the diary? On eBay would you believe it, just one of Derham’s research tools and so like this most unusual person — archi­tect, aca­demic and cultural historian. I cannot recommend this book more highly. Derham Groves’ many-facetted interests and the manner in which he so skilfully draws you into them will fascinate you.

 Michael Jørgensen, Architect, author and publisher.

    A book review by Zoe Nikakis in the September 2012 edition of Voice:

In Out of the Ordinary: Popular Art, Architecture and Design, Derham Groves explores his academic and personal passions. Zoe Nikakis dives into his world.

Derham Groves investigates, “the popular, the ordinary and the odd”.

So writes Dr Groves’ frequent collaborator, the celebrated architect Corbett Lyon, in his introduction to the recently published Out of the Ordinary: Popular Art, Architecture and Design.

“His definition of ‘popular’ is broad and not restricted to the high pop art and architecture of the elite,” Mr Lyon writes, “but embracing and celebrating the popular culture of the masses – do-it-yourself renovators; collectors of kitsch; high street commercial architecture; and the signs and symbols of our suburbs.”

Dr Groves focuses on seemingly unconnected topics and types of Australian ephemera and art – from the use and importance of brickwork as an artistic medium and the place of letterboxes in pop culture – but his passion for the obscure and the overlooked ties these disparate oddities together.

His interest in letterboxes and the everyday as art began when he was completing his PhD in the US during the 1990s.

“My supervisor was a Disney and television scholar, and she spurred my interest in popular culture,” Dr Groves says.

“Australian handmade letterboxes are much more than merely containers for mail. Firstly, they are Australian icons, since perhaps nowhere else in the world do people express themselves through their letterboxes with quite as much fervour as we do in Australia.

“Secondly, letterboxes facilitate links with the outside world. Most people love to receive letters – at least those containing good news. The letterbox is also where neighbours often meet to chew the fat and discuss the weather. Thirdly, letterboxes are symbols of home.”

The book also focuses on Dr Groves’ projects with collaborators and his students, who have created artworks for exhibitions made from bricks.

“I’m also interested in bricks because in some ways, they’re the very bottom line of architecture: you can’t get more basic than a brick,” Dr Groves says.

“Australia produces high-quality bricks in a wide range of colours so there is no reason for boring brickwork in my opinion.

“Often the problem is that architects do not design brickwork, but allow it to happen of its own accord. However the interesting brick buildings that have been designed by Lyons Architecture and others in recent years indicate that things are changing for the better.”

Dr Groves often incorporates his students’ projects into his books.

“Students produce so much work that it gets lost, so it’s important to record it,” he says.

“In the past I have investigated the design of brickwork from several different points of view. I have taught several design courses for architecture students focused on how bricks can be used in innovative and interesting ways.

“Earlier this year, I also spent time in Trivandrum in India doing a brick workshop with a group of first year students looking at a specific style of brickwork, so it all ties together.”

Other essays focus on the ways in which Dr Groves incorporates this research into his teaching.

“It’s all about material culture, and the interactions between art, design, symbolism, and popular culture,” Dr Groves says.

“It’s about pop art as architecture – sometimes buildings are ugly, provocative, edgy – and how important it is never to let good taste get in the way of good design.”

    Out of the Ordinary in Amazon’s top 10 “Hot New … Architectural Criticism” list!

A New Clubhouse for the Albert Park Golf Club

Albert Park Golf Clubhouse by A.W. Purnell

Miniature golf hazard by Tim Cameron

Albert Park Golf Clubhouse and miniature golf hazard by Yuan-Min Tao

Albert Park Golf Clubhouse by Gerry De Guzman

Albert Park Golf Clubhouse by Nur Zainal Abidin

Albert Park Golf Clubhouse by Avish Mungur

Forthcoming Talk at the Melbourne Chinese Studies Group

Date: Friday 3 September 2010, 6pm
Admission $2   All Welcome
Venue: Jenny Florence Room, 3rd Floor, Ross House, 247 Flinders Lane, Melbourne (between Swanston and Elizabeth Streets)
Topic: The forgotten Chinese architecture of Arthur Purnell
Speaker: Derham Groves

Arthur Purnell was an Australian architect who lived and worked in Guangzhou, China, between 1900 and 1910. In 1904 he and American engineer Charles Paget established an architectural and engineering firm over there. Purnell & Paget designed a number of important buildings in Guangzhou, including a marvellous cement factory that became Chinese political leader Sun Yat-sen’s headquarters. Almost all of the firm’s buildings in Guangzhou were European-style.  Purnell returned to Australia in 1910 and maintained a busy architectural practice, working either alone or in partnership, virtually up until his death in 1964. He designed hundreds of buildings in Melbourne, ranging from humble garages to huge grandstands. A significant number of these were influenced by his years in Guangzhou: some buildings were for local Chinese clients, some had Chinese-style elements, and some had Chinese names. Unfortunately Purnell has been totally forgotten in Guangzhou and largely forgotten in Melbourne.

Wattle Path Palais De Danse

Last week I spoke at the St. Kilda Historical Society’s ‘Memories of St Moritz’ evening at the St. Kilda Public Library. The St. Moritz ice skating rink was a famous St. Kilda landmark. However, the building was originally a dance hall called the Wattle Path Palais De Danse, which was designed by Arthur Purnell in 1923. Purnell’s initial design (the first and second images) was influenced by Islamic architecture, which I prefer to his final design (the third image and the model). Nevertheless, it was yet another iconic Purnell building.


Barlow Motors

Purnell’s 1924 sketch of Barlow Motors, 20 – 28 LaTrobe Street, Melbourne.

snapshot-2009-06-04-09-39-36.jpgNewspaper advertisement of 1927 for Barlow Motors.

One of the most colourful clients of Melbourne architect Arthur Purnell (1878 – 1964) was Alexander George Barlow (1880 – 1937), a highly innovative—if slightly shady—businessman, who was a pioneer of the car retail industry in Melbourne. After his new car dealership Barlow Motors failed in 1930 during the Great Depression, he leased the Lower Melbourne Town Hall and installed a miniature golf course. Alas, this business went bust too. When things finally got too much in 1937, tragically Barlow killed himself. A.G. Barlow’s son Alexander (‘Alec’) Arthur Barlow (b. 1908) worked for Barlow Motors. In 1926 the company sponsored him and the Australian adventurer Frances Birtles to drive a Bean sports car from Darwin to Melbourne in the shortest possible time. They completed the 3391-mile journey in 205 hours, with many adventures along the way. If that wasn’t enough, Alec Barlow was also an aviator. In 1929 he crashed his plane on its maiden flight and then matter-of-factly bought a new plane a fortnight later.

This past semester at the University of Melbourne, where I teach, I asked a group of third year architecture students to imagine that A.G. Barlow and A.A. Barlow were alive today and needed a new building for Barlow Motors—consisting of a car showroom, a car service centre, a car park, a ‘bachelor’s apartment’ for A.A. Barlow, and a rooftop miniature golf course—which reflected the adventurous spirit of the Barlows. Since the types of cars sold by Barlow Motors no longer exist, the students had to choose a current brand for the company to sell. Following is a sample of the students’ buildings:

samuel.jpgDesigned by Samuel Liew.

img_2378.JPGDesigned by Gabriella Muto.

muhamad-firadaus-khazis-ismail.jpgDesigned by Muhamad Firadaus Khazis Ismail.

jason-ma.jpgDesigned by Jason Ma.

robert-smith-296301-3.jpgDesigned by Robert Smith.

yhy.jpgDesigned by Yong Hui Ying.

rivkah-stanton.jpgDesigned by Rivkah Stanton.

michael-collins.jpgDesigned by Michael Collins.

panel-3-sections-elevations.jpgDesigned by Roselyn Tan.

final.jpgDesigned by Sheldon Williamson.

andrew-jenner.jpgDesigned by Andrew Jenner.

wei-ren-choo.jpgDesigned by Wei Ren Choo.

final-presentation-part-1-nick-robinson-296693.jpgDesigned by Nick Robinson.

Early A.W. Purnell-Designed House For Sale

One of the first houses—if not the first house—designed by Arthur William Purnell is currently for sale for just under $AUS1,000,000. ‘Tarina’ in Newcombe Street, Portalington, was designed and constructed by Purnell & Sons, Arthur’s father’s firm, for Mr. P.M. Browne, in 1896. Arthur began working for Purnell & Sons only the year before. The Bellarine Herald praised the house’s ‘very wide verandah, with its deep roof in Queensland style, which must so greatly add to the comfort of the inmates during the worst days of our too intense summer’. Because ‘Tarina’ was so unlike any of Purnell & Sons’ previous houses, it may very well have been designed by the firm’s ‘new blood’—Arthur. Following are images of the house in 1896 (top) and today:

purnell-co-tarina-1896-house-copy.jpg 105107441mm1232411045.jpg

Francis Birtles & Alec Barlow

birtles-barlow.jpg3-33-copy-copy.jpgbirtles-barlow-3.jpg3-24-copy.jpgbirtles-bean-5.jpg3-23-copy.jpgbirtles-barlow-4.jpgA.G. Barlow, the proprietor of Barlow Motors, was one of A.W. Purnell’s best and most interesting clients. In 1926 Barlow Motors sponsored Francis Birtles, an Australian adventurer, and Barlow’s son Alec (a.k.a. Alex), an adventurer in his own right, to drive from Darwin to Melbourne. They did the journey in eight days and 13 hours, a record. Purnell designed houses, showrooms and stables for Barlow, which reflected the businessman’s spectacular rise and tragic fall.


A New Book About A.W. Purnell

save0603.jpgA very handsome large format book titled The Architectural Arts of A.W. Purnell and the Modern Society of Lingnan has just been published (ISBN 978-7-218-05804-7). It contains essays on Purnell’s architecture by Shi Hongping, Li Suimei, myself, Peng Changxin, Tang Guohua, Lu Qi, Zheng Lipeng, and Ma Wei. It is liberally illustrated with photographs of Purnell’s buildings in China, the majority of which were taken by the architect himself. The book was published in response to last year’s symposium on Purnell in Guangzhou.

A.W. Purnell and the Big Business Ball

citystage-copy.jpgThis spectacular art deco backdrop was designed by Arthur Purnell for the Big Business Ball at the Melbourne Town Hall. So far I haven’t been able to find out anything about this event, but judging by Purnell’s design it presumably took place in the late 1920s or early 1930s.

3-4-copy.jpgSince first posting this item I have discovered that A.W. Purnell’s backdrop design for the Big Business Ball could have been done in 1928 (when the ball moved from the Wattle Path Palais de Danse (coincidentally designed by Purnell) to the Melbourne Town Hall) or 1929 or 1930. My guess is 1930, only because I know for certain that Purnell was on the Big Business Ball Committee in that year (he is pictured fourth from the left).