Tasmania’s modern architecture is often overlooked, but one man has spent the last 20 years taking a step back and appreciating it.
From the brutalism of buildings like Launceston’s Henty House and the former offices of Hobart’s Murray Street, to quirky suburban Art Deco, Thomas Ryan has captured the modernist art movement through his lens.
The visual artist and architectural photographer documents everyday life in modern times and tells the stories behind the buildings.
“I’m trying to create a human point of view that people can connect with,” Ryan said.
“I often think that a photograph can’t save a building, but it’s a driving obsession and becomes a visual reminder of a place.”
He interviews people who have connections to buildings and has befriended some of the architects behind them, such as the late Dirk Bolt, who designed Hobart’s 10 Murray Street government building
He also befriended the foreman on the demolition project.
“I walked in when they literally ripped it to pieces,” said Mr. Ryan.
Mr. Ryan aims to tell all angles of a building’s story, celebrating and protecting the era of design through his project Tasmanian Modernism.
“Tasmania is linked to its rich heritage of historic buildings and history, but there is still a long way to go to protect these buildings for future generations,” he said.
“There is now greater appreciation and protection for Art Deco buildings, but modernist designs across Tasmania go unlisted and risk being lost.”
Mr Ryan said it wasn’t long ago that art deco buildings were out of fashion and threatened with demolition.
“Modernism today faces many of the same historical problems as buildings of the past,” he said.
“What we see today as history and heritage will change over time, so it’s important to see heritage as more than just sandstone.”
What is modernity?
Mr. Ryan’s project encompasses the Art Deco movement, which in Tasmania represents the design period between 1930 and 1945, which was later than the European movement.
Modernism is the period after World War II and lasted well into the 1980s.
“Within modernism there are all kinds of styles like mid-century modern, brutalism; they’re all in that context,” Ryan said.
“The Art Deco movement focused on decoration and ornamental qualities, such as the former Hydro Electric Commission headquarters, and the Modernist movement removed decoration from buildings.”
The design principle of modernism was “form follows function,” said Ryan.
He said Tasmania had many excellent examples of Art Deco and pointed to the Holyman House in Launceston and the Colonial Mutual Life building with its gargoyles and terracotta details in Hobart’s CBD.
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“Examples of modernism are the State Library in Hobart from the 1960s with its glass curtain walls,” he said.
“In the second half of the 20th century, design influences shifted towards experimentation with concrete.”
Examples include buildings such as the Lands Building in Hobart, Don College in Devonport and Henty House in Launceston.
“Henty House is still one of my favorite buildings; it’s so sculptural, it’s like abstract art,” said Mr. Ryan.
The High Court in Hobart was designed by the same Tasmanian architect, Peter Partridge.
A boom time
Mr. Ryan has been working on the modernism project for 20 years and would like to turn his work into a book.
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He believes his passion for this era stems from growing up in far north Queensland before moving to Tasmania.
“Looking back I was probably homesick and you dig into what you remember and what you know and a lot of those buildings were in North Queensland,” he said.
It wasn’t the historic sandstone buildings of Tasmania that caught his eye.
“A lot was done in that earlier period of architecture, but I grew up with that other period of architecture and it’s part of my history,” Ryan said.
“The more you look at it historically, it was such a boom time.
“It all really took off after the war and with immigration, and it’s a unique story that needs to be told that hasn’t received much attention before.”
The Star Theater
Mr Ryan said the 1936 Star Theater in Launceston was a great example of streamlined Art Deco.
“It had a relatively short life as a cinema, closing its doors in 1969 just 33 years after it began showing its first films,” he said.
“Many movie theaters have struggled to stay open due to the advent of television.”
He said Launceston lost a major art deco theater to the wrecking ball in the 1960s and many others across Australia met the same fate.
“The Star operated as a charity shop for decades after that, before reopening as a theater in 2018,” Ryan said.
“With its recent reopening as a cinema, it’s a case of back to the future for the star.”