By: Adrian Batten

Prominent Australian architect Kerry Hill died of cancer last month  26 August at his home in Singapore, where he had set up a practice in 1979. He was 75 and sadly predeceased by his wife Ruth, also of cancer some eight months earlier.  

Over four decades of work Hill received numerous honours, which included the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2001, the Australian Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal in 2006, the President’s Design Award (Singapore) in 2010 and being appointed a member of the Order of Australia in 2012 for distinguished service to architecture and ambassador for Australian design in Southeast Asia.    An educator and mentor he received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Western Australia and his work in this area was recognised and appreciated by many professional organisations.

Along with fellow Australians Peter Muller, Peter Kent and American Ed Tuttle, Kerry Hill was a key member of that architectural fraternity of Westerners who, owing a great debt to that master of tropical design Geoffrey Bawa, came to Asia from the late 1960s onward and whose perceptions were radically expanded as a result at a formative stage in their careers. Each of them, in their own way, were to incorporate sense of place, local culture and materials as an integral  but non-ersatz component of their work. While each of these men might take issue with the much-used and abused term “Bali style”, the label does imperfectly sum up a rather special time and place when these elements combined into a look that by the mid-1970s had spread around the world,  earning if not dignifying the term.

Born in Perth in 1943  where he trained as an architect at Perth Technical College and the University of Western Australia he was to fulfill his civic duties designing  the City of Perth Library and the Western Australia State Theatre, where he was to establish a second studio in 2005.

Upon graduating Hill cut his teeth with Perth architects Howlett & Baily in the prevailing modernist style of the day and gaining a strong grasp of planning in all original design. It was a learning that informed and defined his work through four decades.

Wishing to work overseas Hill was to say in an interview many years later “I left Australia in 1971, at a time when most Australians flew over Asia on their way to Europe. The traditional route for young Australians was to head straight for London”.  Fate however dictated another course when he sought work in the US and happened to see an advertisement in an American architectural journal for an opening in Hong Kong. Within two months he was in Hong Kong and had started work with architects Palmer & Turner.

He had landed on his feet. He could hardly have chosen a better working introduction to his chosen profession, in  what was still termed the Far East in the waning days of Asia’s European imperium.  Founded in 1886 Palmer & Turner (P&T) was the go-to company throughout the China Coast, the Malay States, Singapore and what is now Indonesia, and for well over a century P&T had had the pick  of all the architectural plums on offer. By the time Kerry Hill arrived in Hong Kong, under the able direction of  Primo Riva, Heinz Rust and the addition of James Kinoshita, P&T was embarked on a program of modernist innovation of the city with the introduction of skinny towers on podiums,  the atria hotels and extensive first-floor level covered walkways connecting buildings in densely pedestrian downtown areas.

Although his move to Asia had come by chance it changed his life. He never returned permanently to Australia. In 1971 P&T sent him to Bali to oversee the construction of the Bali Hyatt in Sanur where he stayed as resident architect from 1971 until its completion in 1974.

Bali had an enormous influence on me” he was to recall in 2014. “ There were only 100 foreigners living there and very few roads. I was practically straight out of Perth, and Bali’s singular culture astounded me. It was a very complete culture, where everything in daily life had meaning. So did architecture; it always related back to daily life, whether it was the spatial qualities of a courtyard cluster or the form of the buildings themselves”.

Hill was in good company. For the better part of 4 years he and his wife Ruth stayed in House “B” in the Batujimbar estate adjoining the Hyatt property, one of only three houses of the sixteen originally intended to be faithfully completed according to Geoffrey Bawa’s plans  for the completed estate. This house was next door to the house of artist Donald Friend, who had with his partner Wija Wawo Runto commissioned Geofrey Bawa to design an overall plan for the Batujimbar project. Bawa made three extended visits to Sanur during this period for the purpose. Another friend and frequent visitor was Peter Muller, who had taken his plans for the Matahari Hotel,  drawn up at the behest of Friend and Wawo Runto on what was now the Hyatt site, to Seminyak some 12 miles down the coast, where he created an up-market estate The Kayu Aya, entirely in the local vernacular. Later to become the Bali Oberoi. Muller was to put all he had learned in this process into designing the Amandari hotel opened by Adrian Zecha in 1989.

Following the completion and opening of the Bali Hyatt in Sanur and running the Palmer & Turner Jakarta office from 1974-78,  Hill decided to open his own studio in Singapore in 1979 kicking off  with a commission from Adrian Zecha. This was to cement a long professional collaboration and friendship between the two men, with Hill designing no less than nine of the Aman properties between 1992 and 2017.

The Aman Resort properties that were designed by Kerry Hill include: Amanusa (Bali 1992), Amansara (Siem Rep 2002), Amankora (Bhutan 2004), Amangalla  & Amanwalla (Sri Lanka 2005), Aman Tokyo (2014), Amanemu (Shima, Japan 2016), Amanyangyun (Shanghai, 2017).

Other notable projects other than private houses include: The Sentosa (Singapore), The Sukhothai (Bangkok), The Datai (Langkawi) and the Desert Palm (Dubai).

Kerry Hill has been described as a “soft-spoken man of few words” all of them succint and  possessing “an uncompromising committment to architecture”.  Indeed, when asked about his love of architecture he said of himself “I am like a dog is a dog – that’s my lot in life”.

Commenting on phrases like Singapore or Bali ‘style’ he remarked “I don’t believe in ‘plonk architecture’. I mean a Gehry here,  a Gehry there… architecture at home everywhere and nowhere.   I believe you need to perpetuate the traditions within the culture and material of a place through your architecture… so that it is appropriate.

Kerry Hill was a seminal influence for over 40 years in his chosen field and the body of his work, treading a path between craft, tradition and modernism, stand in eloquent testimony to his career in architecture and a life well lived.

For comprehensive information on the work of Kerry Hill and his approach to architecture in general the best source is the book “Kerry Hill: Crafting Modernism” from Thames & Hudson (2013), which among others contains the essay by Geoffrey London  “The Nature of a Practice”.