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Visionary Yencken a thinker, entrepreneur and astute politician

In 1943, the children returned to England to resume their education. They may have stayed there but for an unexpected and tragic turn of events. In May 1944, Arthur Yencken was flying from Madrid to Barcelona when the plane went down and he was killed. There were questions, then and later, about the cause of the crash. Recently, David decided to investigate the episode and his father’s wartime achievements. The crash, he concluded, was indeed most likely an accident, not sabotage as some had suggested. The portrait he paints of his father – of his ‘inquiring and very methodical mind’, “his tact and discernment”, his “understanding of the finer shades of action and expression” – is uncannily like David himself.

After boarding school and national service, David followed his father and brother John to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he read history. The years after his father’s death had been unsettled, and at Cambridge he was still finding his feet. After graduation and with no other plan in mind, he decided to follow his brother John and sister Susie back to Australia, working his way across North America where he observed “the wonders of the new world – hamburgers, three-minute car washes and motels”.

He arrived in Australia in 1954. “I immediately felt the pull of a familiar landscape, bringing back many memories of the two-and-half years I had spent as a child living on the western plains of Victoria,” he later wrote. He would recall this moment as the beginning of his love affair with the Australian landscape and of his tireless efforts to conserve it.

In 1956, at the age of 25, with no professional training, no readymade local networks and little money, he decided to make his own modest contribution to the Australian landscape by building a motel, the first in country Victoria. “I set out to build a motel as economically as possible that met my own instincts about taste, design and service,” he recalled. His family were sceptical, and he was obliged to do much of the work himself, casting concrete building blocks and driving trucks overnight to transport building supplies. The Mitchell Valley Motel, designed by John Mockridge, and its successor, the Black Dolphin in Merimbula, designed by Robin Boyd, demonstrated on a small scale a fresh approach to living in the Australian environment. While drawing on American know-how and a shrewd understanding of what ordinary Australians wanted, the motels were also a product of his instinctive grasp of what felt right in the Australian environment.

The key to good design, Yencken believed, was to combine the best talents in contemporary architecture, landscape architecture, interior and graphic design. He was himself a natural collaborator, with the charm and intellectual flair to persuade doubters of their talent and to adopt his ideas as their own. In 1965, in partnership with John Ridge he founded Merchant Builders to apply these principles to the provision of project housing. The cluster housing developed by the company at Elliston and Winter Park encouraged Melburnians to think outside the conventions of the quarter-acre block and won the inaugural Robin Boyd Environmental Award (1972) for “changing the face of residential Melbourne”. Tract Consultants further extended that vision into town and regional planning and landscape architecture. His holiday house, Baronda, designed by Graeme Gunn for a strikingly beautiful 30-acre site on the NSW south coast, was a private pursuit of the same ideal. The house and land were subsequently gifted to the NSW Park and Wildlife Service to create Mimosa Rocks National Park.

In 1973, while still engaged in running his businesses, he joined the committee of inquiry chaired by Justice Robert Hope into the national estate. The committee’s report outlined a great national project: the identification, conservation and presentation of the country’s natural and cultural heritage, both European and Indigenous. To David’s surprise, federal minister Tom Uren invited him to head the interim committee that would morph into the Australian Heritage Commission. After initial hesitation, he accepted. “It was one of the best things I could possibly have done,” he later remarked.

It was an inspired appointment. The survival let alone the success of the Australian Heritage Commission was not guaranteed. It might easily have suffered the fate of other reforms of the Whitlam government. In Yencken, however, the commission found a director with the required combination of diplomatic finesse and political tenacity. Its main task – the creation of the National Estate Register – was a herculean undertaking. In his report, Hope had defined the national estate as “the things we keep”. Only after David and his colleagues had catalogued the 6600 places on the register, did Australians know, in any detailed way, what those things were.

The Heritage Commission was a national cause but with an international dimension. As the first chair of Australia ICOMOS and leader of the first Australian delegations to UNESCO world heritage conferences in 1980 and 1981, Yencken forged close links between Australian and international heritage practice.

David was a restless innovator, more interested in creating new things than in simply keeping things going. He had just turned fifty when he accepted the invitation of his friend Evan Walker, minister for planning in the incoming Cain Labor government in Victoria, to become secretary of the department. He recruited young planners, architects and geographers and encouraged them to think boldly about the city’s future.

Early in their term, he gathered senior staff to discuss a plan to turn the remnant industrial zone on the south bank of the Yarra into the precinct we now know as Southbank. One by one, they described the obstacles: the awkward mix of private and public land, badly placed roads and overlapping jurisdictions. He listened patiently and thanked them courteously before instructing them to come back next week with a definite plan to remove them. Behind his gentle demeanour there was a steely determination.

Planning, in David’s mind, required cultural as well as physical change. One of his most controversial projects, the greening of Swanston Street, invited Melburnians to imagine what their city could be like without the stranglehold of motor traffic.

In 1988, as the reforming impulse began to slow, David took up his last full-time appointment as professor of landscape architecture at the University of Melbourne. At his request, the title of the chair was altered to include environmental planning. He had no formal qualifications, yet no one was more qualified by temperament, deep learning and wide experience for the role, and he thrived in it. He was a born thinker, teacher and writer. He remained active and influential in the wider community, as a member of the prime minister’s design taskforce and chairman of the design committee of the Australia Council.

By the 1990s, Yencken was thinking more and more about the dire challenges to the survival of the planet posed by climate change, species depletion and other human assaults on nature. He became chairman of the Australian Conservation Foundation and in 2000 co-ordinated the writing of a major book Resetting the Compass Australia’s Journey towards Sustainability.

“It is on young people that the future depends,” he wrote. With his wife Helen Sykes, he embarked on new projects to encourage the development of an informed and active citizenry. He brought seven of the nation’s leading community organisations together as the Australian Collaboration, a forum for the exchange of information and ideas, and supported Future Leaders, a program to encourage and educate young leaders from diverse social and ethnic backgrounds.

Many recent trends in the Australian public life dismayed him. He deplored the failure of successive governments to face up to the threats to our environment. But he was never pessimistic, let alone fatalistic. In the last chapter of Valuing Australia’s National Heritage, his recently published history of the Heritage Commission, he pleaded for a new citizen inquiry into the national estate. Heritage, in his mind, was not the residue of the past but a trust for the future.

A patrician by birth, David was a democrat at heart. “I do not see the pursuit of creativity and excellence as in any way at odds with Australia’s democratic temper,” he wrote. Among many honours and distinctions, he was an honorary fellow of the Planning Institute of Australia and the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects, and an Officer in the Order of Australia. He is remembered with admiration and affection for his vision, integrity, courtesy, creativity and commitment to a more democratic Australia and a safer world.

David is survived by his wife Helen and children Andrew, Daniel, Anja, Lars, Jessica and Luke.

Graeme Davison, an emeritus professor of history at Monash University, was a friend of David Yencken. Information was also contributed by Professor Alan Pert and Helen Sykes.

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