Centre for Architecture Theory Criticism History
School of Architecture

Moderately Modern: The Catholic School Designs of Frank Cullen

  • Paul Dielemans
  • Deborah van der Plaat (Principal advisor)
  • Keith Moore (Associate Advisor, QUT)
Project Timeframe: 2017-2022

Robin Boyd marks 1934 as the year in the interwar period when building design in the modern idiom arrived in Australia. That he was referring to a school building (MacRobertson High School for Girls, Melbourne) is significant as it supported a tenet of the modern movement that not only should buildings have a clear rationalist utilitarian function, uncluttered by excessive ornamentation, it should serve the needs of society. The advent of new building technologies coupled with mass production early in the 20th century promoted a “machine age” in which glass, concrete and steel were the new age materials that were used to rapidly fabricate structures. In Europe, this thinking was applied to the building of schools, which were considered to be “laboratories of learning” and from which bright educated scholars were to be produced en masse.

By the early 1930’s many European architects were actively engaged in designing schools that were functional, exhibited predominantly cubic geometric morphologies, were devoid of decoration, displayed an asymmetrical arrangement of contrasting vertical and horizontal elements (i.e. horizontal ribbon-like bands of windows and vertical towers), and flat or low angled roofs hidden behind a parapet, reflecting the most avant-garde design ideas of the era. Some designs also incorporated curvilinear elements, which was also reflected in Australian state government school designs during the mid to late 1930s when the Public Works Department architect commonly designed schools in a stripped moderne style and characterised by monumental massing.

Unlike the rest of Australia, this stylistic trend did not develop in government schools in Brisbane until after the Second World War. During the immediate post war period up until 1950, only 5 new State Schools were built, usually in the Georgian style, which was popular in the 1930s before the war.  It was only in 1950 that two government schools were built in the modern style. In contrast for the same post war period, the Catholic Church built four school buildings in the modern design idiom within the Brisbane Archdiocese and a further six schools in regional areas were also built in the modern style, mostly by Queensland architect Frank Cullen.

This research project proposes to investigate the work of Frank Leo Cullen (1909- 1991), whose output was prodigious, producing a body of work represented by over 200 churches, schools, monasteries, convents presbyteries and other parochial buildings that were constructed for the Catholic church in Queensland and northern NSW. Importantly, although apart from the Government, the Australian Roman Catholic Church was the single-most important architectural patron in Brisbane in the 20th century, its school building programme is largely undocumented. Prior to World War II church and school buildings in Queensland were largely built in Gothic and Romanesque styles. Signalling a softening in Catholic Church views to school design, Cullen had already commenced experimenting with non-traditional designs (including art deco to a modern geometric style) between 1938 – 1942; following the lead of Donoghue and Fulton who had constructed the very modernist Nudgee Junior College (now Ambrose Treacy College) in 1938.

This doctoral research is timely, as education architecture in Queensland to date has been solely documented from the State perspective, and this will be the first study of modern school buildings in Queensland that were built by the Catholic Church. By providing a collated study of Cullen’s interwar and post war Catholic schools it will investigate the debates and ideas behind education (secular versus denominational) and school architecture and the Catholic Church’s engagement with them. It will also explore why the Catholic Church adopted a functionalist modern style of school design during the interwar to post-war period (following a similar pattern of modern school building by the Catholic Church in the Irish Republic during the mid to late 1930’s up to and including the early part of World War 2).  

This research is significant as it will explore the role of the Catholic Church in the dissemination of modernism in Australia and regional Queensland by documenting the evolution of Catholic school design and examining any correlations with educational policy. This historical relationship is expected to reveal new understandings between architecture, education and religion in pre- to post-war Queensland. The role of the local Catholic parish community in the funding and development of these schools is also important in promoting the social importance of parish schools that also acted as multifunctional community hubs.

In addition, the cultural heritage value and importance of many of these modernist Catholic schools to Queensland state heritage has not been researched, and therefore remain largely unrecognised.