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Dirk Bolt, Torrens Neighborhood Centre. Photo: Archives ACT, 2011/2231 - Land Development - Planning - National Capital Commission Commercial Centres M-Z
Dirk Bolt, Torrens Neighborhood Centre. Photo: Archives ACT, 2011/2231 - Land Development - Planning - National Capital Commission Commercial Centres M-Z

Dirk Bolt Modernist Architect and Town Planner

Dirk Bolt was a modernist architect and town planner who, in six short years in Canberra, left us with an astonishing collection of buildings, houses, neighbourhood shopping centres, student accommodation and medium density housing.

Dirk Bolt was born in Groningen in The Netherlands in 1930 and studied architecture at the Delft University of Technology. He moved to Hobart in 1951 and completed his architecture and town planning qualifications at Hobart Technical College. While working at the firm Hartley, Wilson and (later) Bolt, he designed a number of innovative buildings in Hobart, most notably Christ College, at the University of Tasmania (1961-62) and the Murray Street State Offices in Hobart (1966-69).

Like a number of other architects at that time, Bolt was lured to Canberra in 1964 by the prospect of contributing to Canberra’s planning as a consultant to the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC). For 6 years he ran a private practice and worked as a planning consultant, playing an important role in Canberra’s development during that crazy period in the late 1960s where growth rates were  10% and the city resembled a large building site.

Bolt’s work for the NCDC included the planning of neighbourhood centres, group centres and the town centre of Belconnen. Some of the neighbourhood centres also included adjacent higher density housing. By the end of 1969 Dirk Bolt and Associates had planned or provided advice on 15 suburban centres in Canberra, the planning of the Belconnen Town Centre and preliminary work on the Tuggeranong Town Centre. These projects were primarily planning commissions, with Bolt involved in basic spatial planning and preparation of control drawings.

Bolt’s detached houses in Canberra were founded on proportions based on the golden mean, the flow of space between inside and out, the use of natural materials and careful detailing. His approach was to use low cost, basic materials for structural elements (concrete block work, metal deck roofing) and higher quality materials and fittings for things people touched: joinery, doors, windows and associated fittings. Bolt often used recessed, fluorescent pelmet lighting along areas of glazing. Many of his houses have been altered over the years, with concrete blockwork in particular falling victim to render and paint.

In his group housing schemes, Bolt explored an interest in the urban as well as the built form. Bolt’s central planning themes in group housing were to provide a range of housing types and access to outdoor private space for inhabitants. His rationale was that in each development, providing a mix in the numbers of bedrooms, and hence of family structures and lifestyles, would help promote interaction between people of different ages and social groups. The other key principle was that each dwelling should offer the opportunity to move easily from living areas into private open space. Where gardens were not possible people had access to courtyards or broad terraces. Where these were not feasible, there were balconies.

Bolt’s best multi-unit housing schemes in Canberra were also among the first of their type in Australia. The courtyard housing at Hackett pre-dates similar, more publicised schemes at Swinger Hill and Urambi Village in Kambah. The townhouses at Torrens were the first stepped, three storey developments in Canberra and were designed around the same time as The Penthouses at Darling Point, Sydney (Ken Woolley, 1968).

Bolt’s ideas about urban planning didn’t gel with the NCDC and in the early 1970s, he left Canberra to work for international development organisations in Africa and Asia, including the UN Office of Technical Cooperation.

written by Martin Miles.

There are still tickets available to the Dirk Bolt Architecture Bus Tour on Saturday 23 Nov.