Denis John Wigram Allen – “John” to his family and friends – comes from an ancient family of jurists, the founders of today’s practice of international law known as the Allens. Naturally, John was expected to follow in the family footsteps, and although he has been Accepted into the University of Sydney Law School, he instead followed his passion for art, design and construction to become an architect, studying at what was then Sydney Technical College (now UTS).
As a fledgling architect, married and raising a family, John worked at Rudder Littlemore and Rudder, before his job was lost in the ‘credit squeeze’ and building crisis of 1952. What John did then would define him as a man of courage, of vision. and perseverance. During an economic downturn, in a small apartment next to his parents’ house in Edgecliff in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, he opened his own small architectural practice.
He soon outgrew the Edgecliff premises, moving first to a shared studio, then to larger offices in the town of Margaret Street, where he established the partnership of Gordon G. King and John Allen. This business lasted a year before King left to become a stockbroker.
On July 1, 1956, John and college friend Russell Jack threw their hats into the ring to form the partnership of John Allen and Russell C. Jack, beginning with commissions for small homes and factories. At the end of 1957, they were joined by third-year architecture student Keith Eric Cottier, who quickly began his “grand tour” of Europe, traveling and working for several years. He returned to practice in 1963 and was a partner in 1965, establishing the Allen Jack and Cottier practice.
It is a powerful trio that forged the DNA of this practice, which still works today in different sectors and scales. John specialized in educational and industrial projects (particularly the Frensham School and Qantas Airways buildings), as well as managing the office and overseeing his projects every detail and every step. Russell pursued his interest in home design and the expression of natural materials, while Keith tackled larger scale commercial and public buildings.
Allen Jack and Cottier quickly went from strength to strength, becoming a formidable practice through groundbreaking projects for blue chip clients including Qantas, Westpac, Macquarie Bank, Abbotsleigh School, Reserve Bank of Australia and Apple. It wouldn’t be long before the government architect’s office began ordering them, assured of the excellence they demand for publicly funded projects.
This excellence has earned more commissions and even more rewards. By the time John retired in 1993, the firm was well on its way to becoming the most awarded firm of its time. These awards include the Grand Slam of Architecture: the Sir John Sulman Medal for Public Architecture, the Leslie Wilkinson Prize for Residential Architecture, the Francis Greenway Prize for Heritage, the Lloyd Rees Prize for Urban Design and the Edmund Blacket for regional architecture.1
The practice continued to grow, opening offices across Australia and Southeast Asia, with projects from Inner Mongolia to Outer Antarctica also going to be celebrated in architecture awards across the world. Europe (London, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin). Together, the team created a work culture and mentoring environment sought after by promising young architects. Many members of the practice have had stellar careers in their own right, including gold medalist Keith Cottier and Pritzker Prize winner Glenn Murcutt.
John was deeply committed to his profession and practice. Until the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, he came to the studio once or twice a year, stopping to talk to every member of staff. He cherished those moments and the opportunity to see what we were working on. It meant as much to me as it did to him.
John’s heritage inspires us to be the best architects possible, to innovate and critically analyze data and drawings, always testing against the brief. But John is also remembered for his respect for people, his high level of integrity, his support for young talent and his openness to new ideas and lifelong learning.
A few weeks before his death, a diary – bound in leather in 1950 – ended up on my desk. In it, John had traced his life, or at least his manifesto as an architect. As I flipped through the pages following news of John’s passing, I felt a deep admiration for this meticulous man who had been a platform and guide for so many in our profession. I’d like to share a little pearl of wisdom from John’s journal, which I think sums it up perfectly: “The ideal mind for an architect is one of sound knowledge and infinite care, able to visualize the completed work, to be able to think logically and systematically, and to have a solid and in-depth knowledge of the construction and building industry.”
John was not the showman or the architect of the office; he was its backbone. He was deeply committed to the people who worked for him and the clients he worked with. It’s a testament to John’s steady hand that 70 years later, the firm he founded is still thriving and still connected to many of those early clients.
— Michael Heenan is CEO and Design Director at Allen Jack and Cottier.