When architects Mat Hinds and Poppy Taylor were asked to design an extension to their friend’s 1950s Hobart home, something struck them.
“When we first looked at it, we were like, ‘Well, it feels like there was someone involved,’ like there was… an architect involved,” says Poppy.
“So we asked them and they said, ‘Yes, we actually have plans from the previous owner,’ and then they pulled out these drawings and we took a closer look and then it became clear that there was really exceptional work done here.”
The 1958 plans were signed by Edith Emery – someone neither Poppy nor Mat had ever heard of before, prompting them to investigate the mysterious designer.
“The drawings were a really powerful indicator for us that there was something here that needed to be understood, and when you read drawings as an architect you can see a lot of intelligence in a drawing,” said Mat Tim Ross for ABC TV’s Legacy design.
But as Mat and Poppy later found out, the story is how, in 1950s Australia, Edith came to design houses that fill the pages of a Hollywood screenplay.
Escape from the Nazi regime
Edith Emery, born Edith Wellspacher in Austria in 1909, spent her teenage years studying at an art school under the direction of the painter Franz Cižek.
The classes offered young Edith not only an exploration of a wide range of art techniques and an introduction to socialism, but also her first opportunity to try courses in architecture and theater.
However, a career in art was not in sight. Instead, she set out to become a doctor and was accepted to study medicine at the University of Vienna in 1928. She unleashed her creativity in life drawing courses and made costumes for dancers she met through her then-boyfriend.
In 1934 she received her medical degree, specializing in gynecology. However, her medical career was short-lived as she was forced to resign after the occupation of Vienna in 1938 after refusing to support the Nazi Party and Hitler.
Edith had fallen in love with a colleague named Max.
However, the couple became separated when he was arrested and later taken to Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps.
Coincidentally at about this time a school in Hobart was looking for a Cižek-trained art teacher and, having secured the position, Emery left Europe and traveled to Tasmania in August 1938.
“Of course I would have gone anywhere to escape the Nazis – and as an avid traveler I would have found things of interest; But the fact of the matter was, Australia had never crossed my mind,” she wrote in her autobiography.
However, her trip to Australia introduced her to her future husband and would ultimately delay her life in Australia, bringing her once again into the hands of Hitler and World War II.
A Return to the “Lion’s Den”
After meeting on board the ship that took Edith to Tasmania, she and Englishman John Emery, sailing from Marseille back to his post in Sudan, exchanged letters and maintained a long-distance romance for months.
Less than a year into her time in Hobart, John proposed to her. Edith was wracked with guilt after promising to marry her Austrian love Max if he survived his time in Buchenwald.
After a period of emotional turmoil, particularly after finding out that Max had indeed survived, she agreed to marry John.
He sailed to Tasmania and the couple married, with plans for both to return to Sudan.
“It was there that I found out I was pregnant less than a month after my marriage,” she writes in her autobiography.
But Edith’s first stay in Africa was short-lived and, on the advice of medical staff in Sudan, she traveled to Paris in 1940 to have her first son, Michael, less than two years after leaving Vienna.
As she herself put it, she had “returned to the lion’s den” and while the war in Tasmania seemed a world away to her, Hitler’s troops were now closing in on Paris.
Due to her marriage to an Englishman, Edith and her baby Michael were boxed up and taken to a camp in the town of Besançon in eastern France.
Rather than being interned at the main camp, Edith and her young son were held at the town’s hospital, where “the French nuns were nice and the food was easier to digest.”
There, any idea of creative pursuits was put on hold while she acted as a translator, often using her medical training to help other women and children with various ailments.
Edith and Michael spent two months in Besançon before being allowed to return to Paris, still under the watchful eyes of the Gestapo.
It was not until 1942 that Edith was able to leave Europe as part of a kind of human swap and return to her husband in Sudan: as an Englishwoman, she was exchanged for German nationals held in Palestine.
A new life, a new career
Edith and John welcomed their second son Peter in 1944 and decided in 1948 to permanently relocate the family to Tasmania.
But like so many migrants, her medical qualifications were not recognized in Australia, so she decided to change careers and pursue one of her former creative passions.
As Mat Hinds and Poppy Taylor found out, she applied to study architecture against her husband’s wishes in 1952 – an expression of her fiercely independent spirit.
“She studied [the] “I went to the School of Architecture here, became an architect, and became the first qualified freelance woman in the state,” says Poppy.
dr Stuart King of the University of Melbourne School of Design said he, like Mat and Poppy, was surprised to learn about Edith Emery and her work many decades later.
“Her education, her entry into the profession and her commitment in the 1950s make for a compelling career as an architect,” he said.
dr King believes there are likely a number of reasons why her work slipped through the cracks, including a lack of research into 20th-century Tasmanian architecture, very little record of her work, and time with renowned architect Esmond Dorney (read on more later) and that their designs were not about flashy or flashy buildings that would attract attention.
“And honestly, our history is very male dominated and I think we need to open it up to acknowledge other people in these industries and I think that’s a really interesting example of that,” he said.
Edith was breaking new ground as a sole practitioner but, as she herself noted in her book, faced discrimination and hard struggles.
Many of Edith’s plans were for modest buildings, mostly houses, for herself or friends or those on her social networks, but like Dr. King says they show the deeper reflections she had as a designer.
“Definitely her own house…she pays careful attention to the relationships between inside and outside, she thinks about the structure and the materials that make up the building,” he said.
“There’s a pretty clear logic to how the building is going to be built and how it’s going to give it an expression.
“You see certain devices like the butterfly roof, which you see in other buildings at the time, so obviously she’s looking at what else was being designed around her.”
dr King also pointed to elements of her other designs that show they “underlie a strong set of social ideas,” particularly for other women in their social circle, such as the floor plans and eventual cost of the buildings.
In her autobiography, Edith notes that she “didn’t build very many houses and most of the people I built for didn’t have much money,” and this allowed her to combine a number of her passions.
“Architecture was then and has always been an exciting mixture of the creative and the practical, of fantasy and science for me,” wrote Emery.
Working with a great Tasmanian
When Mat and Poppy searched for information about Edith, they made an interesting discovery that she had worked with the renowned architect Esmond Dorney for several years during her studies.
“I thought it would be a short time. Turns out it’s been a decade and it coincides with a number of groundbreaking houses and raises questions of sole authorship,” says Mat.
“There is clear evidence that Edith drew some of the houses. That is a fact in the archives.”
“Your contribution is extremely significant as Tasmanian architecture at this time was just breaking away from earlier colonial precariousness and the work was beginning to mature.
“I think what ended up happening with Edith’s work is that it caused a crack, but anonymously.”
But how big that leap was, and exactly how much of Edith’s input went into Dorney’s work, may always remain a mystery, given that even in her own autobiography, there is little to no information about this period.
What is clear, however, is that her core values and beliefs of equality and social progress, which led to her sacrificing her medical career rather than supporting Nazism, remained a constant for the rest of her life – be it in Sudan, France or … Hobart.
The back cover of her autobiography aptly states:
“That’s as much as you can fit into a single lifetime.”
Edith Emery died in 2004 at the age of 94.
Watch Designing A Legacy tonight at 7:30 p.m. on ABC TV or on ABC iview.