Modernism enjoyed purely as an aesthetic output is often as far as most home magazines, some vintage traders and even appreciators like to travel. But as we at MA traverse the range, narratives and practitioners of the Mid-Century Australian experience, we continually found ourselves drawn far deeper. Beyond mere colours choices and construction techniques into the history, geography and ideologies of the Twentieth Century entire and it is with ever increasing wonder we realise that it truly was the most revolutionary century so far lived in the story of humanity. The global impact of war, religion, politics, medicine, technology, manufacturing and consumption all intersected in unexpected conjunctions to produce the design and architecture we call Australian Modernism, a true product of it’s times, burst forth from the minds of those who lived it with their individual lives so affected.
Just one of thousands of stories which illustrates this point succinctly is that of the life of Anatol Kagan.
Kagan (1913 -2009) was born in the final years of Tsarist Russia in 1913. A child of wealthy Jewish academics he witnessed first-hand the 1917 revolution from his home near Znamenskaya Square, St Petersburg. By 1922 Stalin and Lenin had had enough of Kagan’s parents and other members of the prominent Russian intelligentsia and, having already jailed Kagan’s father previously, they were expelled on the infamous ‘Intellectuals Ship’ with first class tickets out of Russia to Germany. Kagan’s parents then proceeded to set up a publishing house, printing manuscripts of their friends and associates including; Jung, Nabokov and Trotsky. Kagan hoped to study architecture at the Bauhaus under Walter Gropius, however the school was shut down by the National Socialists in 1933 and Kagan instead received his degree in architecture at Berlin Technical University in 1936. Two years later, with Hitler ascending into legendry power, the Kagans – leftist, Jewish, intellectual publishers were tipped off they were about to be swept up by the Gestapo and deported back to Russia. Faced with the prospects of certain death in the Gulags or otherwise at the mercy of Nazis, the family fled, with Anatol first heading to England and then to Australia
Then began his Architecture career.
After initially working for architecture firms such as Seabrook & Fies and Geelong based Buchan, Laird & Buchan, Kagan founded Blumin & Kagan in 1942, through this eventually wound down due to war shortages. Kagan went on to work for the Department of Works & Housing and contributed to designs for a pre-fabricated answer to the Australian post-war housing shortage – the Beaufort House project. Starting up his own firm once more in 1948, Kagan & Associates spent much of the 1950’s and 1960’s designing homes for the wealthy European émigré of Melbourne, culminating in the design for Mount Scopus Memorial College in Burwood.
With his eyes looking north, Kagan entered the competition to design the Sydney Opera House. Not attaining this and not impressed by the winning submission by Jørn Utzon, he nonetheless led a walk out from the Government Architect’s Office when years later Utzon fell out of the Government’s graces and (depending on who you talk to) was sacked.
Kalgan eventually moved his family and practice Sydney where he continued to take on many projects of a public and domestic nature.
Always the activist, Kagan was a member of the Australian Labor Party for over 40 years, and awarded life membership in 1995. He was also a long-standing member of the Greens and up to his death had been concerned about the growing need for genuine action on climate change.
Passing away peacefully, at age 95, Anatol Kagan was farewelled by family, including his wife of over 50 years, 4 children, and numerous grandchildren and sent off at his funeral with letters from Paul Keating and Bob Hawk among others.
The many fruits of Anatol Kagan’s prolific architecture practice are, with greater publicity, gaining a wider public recognition for their vision whilst continuing their purpose as cherished family homes and public buildings.
All the while these buildings stand as a lasting achievement of Modernist design philosophies, the Australian man who envisaged them and the dynamic century that shaped the man.