Jennifer Taylor
12 April 1935 – 7 December 2015

On 5 February 2016, the Australian Institute of Architects hosted an evening of music, drinks, finger food and tributes at the Sydney Opera House to celebrate the life of beloved Australian architect, professor, critic and author Jennifer Taylor. Sydney architect, former student and friend Rachel Neeson spoke of their strong connection and the qualities that Jennifer brought to her work, friendships and life.

Jennifer Taylor image 1

Jennifer Taylor. Photograph Anthony Browell.

Both of my children were baptised in our garden by an old family friend, a Jesuit priest.

It is at the beginning of a life that we, as parents, project the kind of future we hope for our children, how we hope they might be in, and relate to, the world.

There were two qualities that resonated back then, for me and my partner Nick Murcutt: curiosity and empathy.

Empathy lies at the very heart of our human-ness – it almost defines what it means to be human.

Stephen Neille recently told me that it was Aristotle who said that philosophy begins in ‘wonderment’… or curiosity. I think Stephen shares these values, too.

And so I come to Jennifer, who, at the end of a life, has moved through the world propelled by exactly these qualities of curiosity/wonderment, and an empathy for the human spirit.

Like so many other students, I was introduced to Jennifer in my third year at the University of Sydney via her course ‘The Modern Movement in Architecture’. (Dammit, I didn’t take the second year ‘20th Century Australian Architecture’ elective – which, of course, was reportedly ‘amazing’!)

Jennifer taught with clarity – it was such a relief! She built a fundamental framework that started to make sense of the various fragments of knowledge that formed my understanding of architecture at the time, and that allowed me to order and reorder over time as my knowledge and experience grew.

Jennifer was one of the best academics and best teachers at the University of Sydney. Highly respected. And she was a woman. The significance of this, at a time when female enrolments had just started to pip male enrolments, cannot be overstated.

Jennifer was always interested in the here and now, and what we, her students, all thought about it. She was like Nick in this sense – an active listener, open-minded, interested in you and your opinions. It was less a traditional teacher–student relationship, more a genuine exchange.

As Lawrence Nield so eloquently wrote in his beautiful and befitting obituary, Jennifer saw her students as her friends.

I think back to my final year in 1993, and an elective with Jennifer looking at young Sydney architects. My friend Charlie Wright and I interviewed Ian Moore and Peter Stutchbury – how is that for a little bit of compare and contrast! At the end of term, the whole group of 12 students would visit projects by each of the 12 young local practices.

Jennifer was a great advocate for learning at the source, and look at the places it took her!

Jennifer and Jim at the 2010 Brisbane Regional Architecture Awards. Photo courtesy of the Queensland Chapter, Australian Institute of Architects.

Jennifer and Jim at the 2010 Brisbane Regional Architecture Awards. Photo courtesy of the Queensland Chapter, Australian Institute of Architects.

Jennifer and Jim have a travel log that I both envy and aspire to. Oh, how I would love to visit the mud city of Sana’a in Yemen. These are some of the things that we would talk about – a shared wonderment – together with Jim.

The conversations with Jennifer started one on one in final year. I was privileged to have Jennifer as supervisor for my Advanced Study Report, along with Philip Thalis, a dear friend ever since.

It was also in my final year that I first experienced the hospitality of Jennifer in hosting students at her house in Palm Beach. We felt so lucky!

Jennifer showed great interest in the practice that Nick and I created, and made the effort to attend every talk we gave in Brisbane.

And her support continued after Nick died.

On occasion I would email her drawings of a current project, for her comment.

In recent times there were lunches in Sydney with Jennifer, Jim, Paul Pholeros and me. Like all of us, Jennifer was in awe of PP.

We would hear about Jennifer and Jim’s adventures, of incredible insights and true stories from Paul, while I shared the trials and tribulations of my practice.

The last time we met for lunch was at a favourite place of Paul’s. We were joined by my new partner Stephen, whom Jennifer also taught. It was a heartfelt endorsement of a new future for me – a warm welcome to Stephen.

I already miss these ‘family’ gatherings.

I think Jennifer Taylor was a very fortunate woman – she lived a most worthwhile life, one of curiosity and empathy, and did so with her spirit buddy – and that’s Jim.

Rachel Neeson is a Director of Neeson Murcutt Architects and Adjunct Professor at the University of Sydney.