The House Talks Back – Fooks

In 2016 Critical and Curatorial Practices was centred around the work and home of émigré architect Dr Ernst Fooks (1906-1985).

Professor Alan Pert and his family moved into the former residence of Ernst Fuchs in 2013. The only residents to occupy the home, following the passing of Ernst’s wife Noemi. Pert’s intimate acquaintance with this house, and with its library, initiated a period of research activity that culminated in the MSD exhibition and catalogue “X-Ray the City” at the 2016 Venice Biennale (that borrowed the title of Fooks’ 1946 publication), and the exhibition, “The House Talks Back”, which was the outcome of the 2016 Critical & Curatorial Practices in Design. The subject was led by Pert alongside Professor Philip Goad and Catherine Townsend, who had previously published on Fooks’ career. The subject was supported through the library staff at MSD, The Pictures Collection and Manuscripts at the State Library of Victoria, The archives at the Holocaust Museum and Jewish Museum as well as staff at RMIT Design Archives. The research uncovered as part of this subject has been ongoing, and ties into a wider body of work of émigré architects in Australia between 1930 and 1970, the work completed here represents the first attempt to comprehensively understand and document the life and work of Fooks. 


A house Fooks conceived of as being “the focal point of a way of life rather than being simply a retreat from the pressure of daily living”, and Pert has described as “a form of domestic theatre.” Czech-born and Austrian-trained, Fooks was one of a number of European architects who lived and practiced in Victoria in the post-war period.

Taking his residence at 32 Howitt Road (1966) as an artefact – a lens through which to scrutinise the architect’s larger body of civic and domestic work as well as the rituals of his daily life – the project presented herein draws together archival sources from the various institutions. Much of the work undertaken by the students has included mapping the extensive portfolio of Fooks’ projects in Australia, as well as cataloguing the disparate archival material spread out across the five institutions. The University of Melbourne’s own “Fooks collection” was gifted to the Architecture Building and Planning Library in the 1990s by the architect’s widow, Noemi Fooks, which included over 150 books which were distributed throughout the University library.

For the first time, this collection has been brought together again as part of the exhibition. To date, the exhibition catalogue “Ernest Fooks: Architect” prepared by Professor Harriet Edquist (RMIT) offers the most extensive coverage of Fooks’ life and career. Created to accompany a small exhibition staged at the Jewish Museum in 2001, Edquist confirms this was never intended to be an exhaustive study of Fooks, rather to draw attention to his body of work and to provide a framework for further investigation. The booklet included a list of known works by Fooks identified from a collection of his architectural drawings and memorabilia now held by the RMIT Design Archives; it did not include the work held by the State Library of Victoria. Edquist’s essay “The Jewish Contribution: A Missing Chapter” in Ronan Goren’s exhibition catalogue “45 Storeys. A Retrospective of Works by Melbourne Jewish architects from 1945” (1993) should also be acknowledged, alongside Townsend’s conference paper, “Architects, exiles, new Australian” (SAHANZ Conference, 1997) as the only other sources to document Fooks’ work in Melbourne.

“The Fooks collection”, which includes countless travel slides, hand written lecture notes, letters to key figures, and numerous other documents yet to be examined, presents a poignant window into the life of an exemplary architect, designer, theorist and artist. The ultimate goal of this research is the formal creation of “The Ernest Fooks Collection”, a consolidated archive and repository of Fooks’ material. With the exile of so many Europeans from countries like Austria during the Second World War, the influx of new professionals brought with them new teachings, new ideas, new theories and new skills that would highly influence planning, design, architecture and culture in the development of modernist Australia. These contributions present undiscovered narratives into the social and cultural capital of Europe and Australia, and offer new understandings of design trends during the interwar years, the war years and importantly, the post- WWII era. In turn, the Fooks collection manifests as a potential exemplar into the investigation of émigré professionals, providing insights into key areas of professional activity such as domestic houses, public housing and flatted developments, and, to key institutions such as the Housing Commission, Victoria. Furthermore, as universities and professionals around the world engage in new forms of urbanism, design and practice theory, it is imperative we reflect upon, understand, and explore the significant contribution and influence that émigré architects, like Fooks, brought to the development of Melbourne and indeed, Australia’s design culture and thinking during his time.


Behind the work that comprises this exhibition is an evolving body of knowledge that is being pieced together slowly in our attempts to understand Fooks, his contribution to the city, the profession, the Jewish community, and, ultimately, the legacy of that contribution. In a similar vein to Edquist’s exhibition catalogue of 2001, we do not lay claim here to providing an exhaustive document. What we intend here is to reflect on the research carried out so far, and on the process of making the work included within this exhibition, relative to the aspirations set down by Pert at the commencement of this semester. What new knowledge has been stumbled upon and what is the value of this knowledge in a greater historical context, of architecture, of modernism, of the history of Melbourne, both as a city and as the adopted home of a vibrant Jewish community? Perhaps more importantly, what are the new questions this work leaves with us; those that will drive us forward in our attempts to understand the life and work of a man who contributed to the shape of the cities physical and social fabric, as an architect, town planner, furniture designer, artist, writer and educator?


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