Denis John Wigram Allen – “John” to his family and friends – came from an old family of lawyers, the founders of what is now the international law firm known as the Allens. Of course, it was expected that John would follow in the family’s footsteps, and although he was Accepted into law school at the University of Sydney, he instead followed his passion for art, drawing and building to become an architect and study at what was then Sydney Technical College (now UTS).
A newly minted architect, married and starting a family, John worked at Rudder Littlemore and Rudder before losing his job during the ‘credit crunch’ and housing crisis of 1952. What John did next would define him as a man of courage and vision and perseverance. During an economic downturn, he opened his own small architectural practice in a small apartment next door to his parents’ house in Edgecliff in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.
He quickly outgrew the Edgecliff premises, moving first to a shared studio and then to larger city offices on Margaret Street, where he formed the partnership of Gordon G. King and John Allen. This venture lasted a year before King left to become a stockbroker.
On July 1, 1956, John and a friend from college, Russell Jack, threw their hats in the ring to form the partnership of John Allen and Russell C. Jack, beginning with small house and factory commissions. They were joined in late 1957 by Keith Eric Cottier, a third-year architecture student who was soon to embark on his ‘grand tour’ of Europe, traveling and working for several years. He returned to the practice in 1963 and became a partner in 1965 when he founded the Allen Jack and Cottier practice.
It was a powerful trio that formed the DNA of this practice, which still operates today across sectors and scales. John specialized in educational and industrial projects (particularly Frensham School and Qantas Airways buildings) as well as managing the office and overseeing its projects in all areas, every detail and milestone. Russell pursued his interest in home design and expression of natural materials while Keith took on larger commercial and public buildings.
Allen Jack and Cottier quickly grew in strength and grew into an impressive practice building groundbreaking projects for blue chip clients including Qantas, Westpac, Macquarie Bank, Abbotsleigh School, the Reserve Bank of Australia and Apple. It would not be long before the government architect’s office began commissioning them, confident in the excellence they demanded for projects funded by public funds.
This excellence brought in more commissions and even more awards. By the time John retired in 1993, the practice was on track to become the most awarded practice of its time. These awards include the Grand Slam of Architecture: the Sir John Sulman Medal for Public Architecture, the Leslie Wilkinson Award for Residential Architecture, the Francis Greenway Award for Heritage, the Lloyd Rees Award for Urban Design and the Edmund Blacket Prize for architecture in the regions.1
The practice continued to expand, opening offices across Australia and Southeast Asia with projects from Inner Mongolia to Outer Antarctica also celebrated with architectural awards across Europe (London, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin). Together, the team created a work culture and mentoring environment sought after by promising young architects. Many practitioners have had distinguished careers themselves, including gold medalist Keith Cottier and Pritzker Prize winner Glenn Murcutt.
John was deeply committed to his profession and his practice. Up until the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, he would come to the studio once or twice a year and stop to speak to every member of staff. He treasured those moments and the opportunity to see what we were working on. It meant as much to me as it did to him.
John’s legacy drives us to be the best architects we can, to innovate and critically analyze data and drawings, always testing against specifications. But John is also known for respecting people, maintaining high standards of integrity, supporting young talent and being open to new ideas and lifelong learning.
A few weeks before his death, a diary – bound in leather in 1950 – found its way onto my desk. In it, John had outlined his life, or at least his manifesto, as an architect. As I turned the pages following the news of John’s death, I felt a deep admiration for this meticulous man who had been a platform and guiding hand for so many in our profession. I would like to share a little bit of wisdom from John’s diary that I think sums it up: “The ideal mind for an architect is one with in-depth knowledge and infinite care, one that can visualize the finished work, can be logical and systematic think and have in-depth and in-depth knowledge of construction and the construction industry.”
John wasn’t the office’s showman or star architect; he was his backbone. He was deeply committed to the people who worked for him and the clients he worked with. It’s a testament to John’s steady hand that 70 years later the practice he founded is still thriving and still connected to many of those early clients.
— Michael Heenan is CEO and design director at Allen Jack and Cottier.