Groundbreaking work


The answer, town planner Dr Margaret Feilman realised while casting an eye across a coastal plain 60 years ago, was blowing in the wind. An oil refinery would surely be an asset to what would one day become Kwinana. However, if 25,000 workers and their families were eventually going to live in what was virgin scrub south of Perth, it was their welfare, she proposed, that was the prime consideration. Politicians, whose priority was to industrialise and therefore boost WA’s postwar economy, were going to have to be persuaded.

Margaret, just starting her planning career, was some forceful persuader. Appointed to lead the team establishing the town, she convinced the State Government that residents should not only be housed apart from the refinery, they should also live away from fumes blown by prevailing winds. She even burnt old tyres to illustrate how noxious material could spread.

Kwinana came to be built in her recommended location. The name itself, drawn from a steamer wrecked nearby in 1922, was also her proposal. This was an early example of the Feilman approach to town planning: environmentally aware, humanitarian and fully cognisant of aesthetics.

Over the following decades she would break new ground and demonstrate expertise in many areas, including (as architect) designing schools, hostels and shopping centres. As the State’s first fully qualified town planner, Margaret introduced innovative environmental controls into local government in such places as Northam, Albany and Busselton. “Green sensitivity” is common today but she was a pioneer. A feel for the sanctity of the bush probably came from a childhood in which she enjoyed playing with her younger sister Patricia in forests around Dwellingup and Jarrahdale.

Margaret Anne Feilman was born in Perth on June 22, 1921, to Herbert, a schoolteacher, and Ethel Feilman (nee Turner). Margaret was dux of Perth College in her final year, 1937, but finishing a year ahead of schedule meant she was too young to enrol at the University of WA. She chose an option that proved fruitful: becoming WA’s first female cadet attached to the Government’s principal architect. Four years working for the State Housing Commission and qualifying as an architect, as well as completing a part-time degree in history and economics at UWA, was enough to dispel any query on whether a young woman could work in the male-dominated area of designing places to live.

Working for Brisbane City Council was her launch pad, and on moving to Canberra she joined the Commonwealth Department of Works, helping reconstruct parts of Darwin damaged during World War II. When a two-year British Council scholarship took her to north-east England, even more vivid examples of bomb devastation gave her the chance to spread her wings professionally. She also gained a postgraduate certificate and diploma in town planning.

The Kwinana project in 1952 could hardly have been put in more capable hands. Margaret was 31, experienced, energetic and as outspoken as necessary for the job in hand. She opened her own practice. As a public speaker for WA’s new Planning Institute she addressed architects, engineers and others with authority and clarity.

Before the 1950s were out she played major roles in establishing the State’s first formal environment group, the Tree Society, and the WA National Trust, serving on its Council and finishing as chairman in 1990. Commitment to these two seminal organisations showed her capacity to tell which way the wind was blowing in society at large. The importance of both the natural and built environments were in her mind long before they entered general public consciousness. The Old Perth Observatory and the York Courthouse were among the buildings given protection largely due to her efforts.

Tom Perrigo, chief executive of National Trust WA, recalls that Margaret was “passionate about ensuring my approach to heritage was holistic. That is, ensuring the relationship between the natural and the built environment overlapped with the Aboriginal environment”.

In 1976 Margaret became a member of the new Australian Heritage Commission and helped set up the Register of the National Estate. That year was also significant for the launch, together with her sister Patricia, of the Feilman Foundation.

Colin Peacock, who chairs the body’s governing board, says a range of individuals and groups have benefited from this philanthropy. “Medical research, education of deaf children, St George’s College chapel and a heritage farm . . . these are just some examples in both WA and Victoria.”

Accolades for Margaret included an Order of the British Empire in 1981, for community services in conservation, an honorary doctorate in architecture from UWA in 1989, and in 2005 the City of Perth’s inaugural William Bold Medal for Town Planning Excellence, commemorating the man seen as the founding father of urban planning in WA.

Her aesthetic side emerged in the love of art that prompted membership of the Art Gallery Society of WA committee for 10 years. Her friend Cherry Lewis, owner of Lister Gallery in Subiaco, recalls the preference for modernists such as Juniper and Nolan. “Margaret liked to collect work by her peers,” she recalls. “A love of dogs was another thing we shared. I will miss, too, the Good Friday picnics with our friend Penny Buxton. A steadfast friend, was Margaret. Good sense of humour.”

For a person with such a broad legacy, Kwinana remains a singular monument to Margaret’s vision and perseverance. The local authority has just named a building after her. It stands near the spot where she once stood, surveyed the possibilities and insisted that people mattered more than productivity.

Margaret Feilman died at home in Crawley, on September 24. Sister Patricia died in 2008.

© Patrick Cornish