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News > Sadly Missed > Obituary: Emeritus Professor John Ballinger AM (DAC 1957)

Obituary: Emeritus Professor John Ballinger AM (DAC 1957)

Old scholar who made an enormous contribution to architecture, particularly in the development of solar energy and solar efficient design is remembered.

Emeritus Professor John Ballinger, B.Arch Hons (Adel.), AM, FRAIA
Born: 27 March 1941
Died: 3 October 2021

John Albyn Ballinger was born in Adelaide and grew up in and around Toorak Gardens. He was educated at St. Peters College and Adelaide University.

His father died when John was 11 leaving him with his mother Gwen and younger brother Michael. Gwen was a teacher and a very caring mum. From an early age John immersed himself quietly and diligently in his special interests.

At school he was an ‘A’ streamer (mainly in sciences) and spent much time in the engineering workshop under the guidance of the engineering master John Bateman. Bateman often opened the workshop on weekends to allow students to work on old cars. John participated regularly with his characteristically quiet enthusiasm.

Generally un-attracted to sport, John’s extra curricula activities involved anything mechanical whether construction or deconstruction – bikes, go-carts, motors and of course old cars. We were good friends staying at each other’s houses and getting around un-supervised on bikes. Long rides to Mt Lofty and the Adelaide Hills with other mates (no water bottles or helmets or hats in those days) included downhill racing.

Once remaining at our home while I went surfing, John persuaded my mother to lend him the keys to her new Morris Minor 1000. When she went to see what was keeping him she was horrified to find her new car in pieces – “don’t worry” he said calmly “it will be back together soon”, and it was. John was 14 then.

John’s treasured car was a 1932 Amilcar a green French soft-top tourer with dickie seat for two. Ladies loved it.

Staying at Port Noarlunga in the 50s he questioned architect Jack Cheesman closely regarding the design principles, philosophy and construction method for Jacks new family home. That award-winning and well-publicized house designed in 1948 demonstrated advanced features – solar heating, cross-ventilation, a unique and highly efficient plan form, sensitive siting and sweeping views. Jack held John in high regard and encouraged him to study Architecture.

With insufficient financial support John gained an apprenticeship with Woods Bagot Laybourne-Smith and Irwin to pay his own way through university. Jim (Sir James) Irwin took good care of John and when Professor Rolf Jensen refused to accept John as a part-time student, Irwin persuaded Jensen to change his mind. At Adelaide Uni School of Architecture the new Building Science Department established by Jensen and run by Derrick Kendrick featured inter alia the science of sunshine and shade – this was of particular interest to John.

John completed his B.Arch with Honours in 1964. Irwin remained a respected mentor.

Out of Uni, John launched into practice, married Susie Broinowski and settled first into a little terrace cottage in Marian Street North Adelaide.

In the 60s, with Joan Baez, the Beatles, jazz, classical music, conscription, Vietnam protests, and long hair we all grew acutely aware of un-sustainable social, economic and environmental directions. Many of us were attracted to Canada to be influenced by Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller and Ian McHarg (Design with Nature). We worried about increasing excesses (the ‘waste-makers’) habitat, pollution, and destruction of forests.

In 1966 John and Susie travelled through Europe and the Middle East in a Land Rover which John had converted to a campervan. The trip ended in Montreal in time for Expo 67 (Moshe Safdie’s Habitat was a magnet for architects) and John had no trouble securing work with Ray Affleck in the renowned architectural & planning practice of Arcop Associates. There he took charge of the Life Sciences building at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia and components of the Place Bonaventure complex in Montreal.

After returning to Adelaide in 1969, he worked briefly with John Morphett of Hassell & McConnell on the design of the Adelaide Festival Theatre before moving to Sydney. The controversial departure of Jorn Utzon from Sydney led to an opportunity for John to be appointed to the team established by Peter Hall to redesign and complete the Podium area of the Sydney Opera House. John & Suzie settled into a beautiful old terrace house in Balmain.

When the Opera House was completed in 1973, John turned to an academic career as a tutor in the Faculty of Architecture at the University of NSW (UNSW). Environmental and energy issues were of increasing concern. Ever practical, John launched into the design and construction of solar houses.

He became a pioneer in Australia.

Subsequently appointed as Professor and Head of the School of Architecture at the UNSW he served in this position from 1980s until 1997. He was well regarded by the UNSW administration.

John established the National Solar Architecture Research Unit (Solarch) at UNSW which he ran successfully for 15 years. Its projects included the first experimental solar house in Australia and the first Solar Village in Australia, both in NSW. Also, through Solarch, and in collaboration with industry, he established the Australasian Windows Council which in turn initiated the Window Energy Rating Scheme (WERS) to complement Australia’s Nationwide House Energy Rating Scheme (NatHERS) which John had also nurtured. John served as chair of the Technical Advisory Committee to the Five Star Design Rating Scheme of the 1980s – NatHERS forerunner.

The NatHERS venture was politically challenging with the building industry reluctant to take on this sort of environmental constraint during design.

John served on many government and industry committees, such as the National Energy Research Development and Demonstration Council (Federal Government), UNSW, ERDIC and a number of Standards Australia Technical Committees.

His successful securing of major engineering research grants (especially from the CSIRO) for his practical research and development drew some envy from the engineering sciences since architects were not generally considered equipped for this sort of work.

John was also the inaugural Chairperson of the Australian and New Zealand Solar Energy Society (ANZSES) in 1985 and, after almost a year chairing the interim management committee, served for two subsequent full year terms as Chairman, having been elected unopposed on both occasions. He subsequently served as the Society’s Treasurer for a three year term ending in 1996.

With over 50 solar efficient buildings and 150 publications to his name, John Ballinger supervised some 20 PhD candidates to completion, most of them now working in senior positions across the world.

To him, “over-qualification” was a potential impediment. This was a gentle practical man who, facing the reality of the future, got on with designing and building effective solutions for imminent environmental needs without fuss.

John was awarded the Order of Australia in 2000.

He is survived by his wife, Dr Susan Ballinger, two children: Mary Alice and Richard and grandchildren Mirei, Nora, Molly and Emma.

Vale John Albyn Ballinger.

Written by Rob Cheesman AM (WDK 1959)
30th October 2021


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