In 1958, Hugh O’Neill was a young architect, recently graduated from the University of Melbourne. His older brother was part of a small group of Australians who had set up the Volunteer Graduate Scheme to Indonesia, and Hugh was one of the first to take part in it.
As he later recalled, ‘When I decided to seek employment in Jakarta in the public service, friends and mentors said ‘professional suicide’’. But in this, as in all things, Hugh was his own man, and for the next two years he designed public housing and taught in Jakarta and Bandung, later spending two more years in Yogyakarta. These experiences were to define the course of his life.
Hugh’s work in Indonesia led him next to London. There he worked with the ‘champions of tropical architecture’, as he put it, Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew. Their concrete shade screens and louvred windows came to define the architecture of Southeast Asia for decades.
By the time Hugh returned to Melbourne in the early ‘sixties, his path was clear: to teach Australians about Asia, and as he put it, ‘help many from our region to turn their vision back to their places of origin’. By ‘our region’ he meant Asia, of course, reflecting his belief that Australia was firmly part of it, an idea he promoted with almost missionary zeal throughout his life.
For most of the next five decades Hugh worked in the University of Melbourne's Faculty of Architecture, pioneering the study of Asian architecture in Australia and mentoring generations of students from Asia – especially Southeast Asia, India, China, and Sri Lanka. As the Australian Institute of Architects said, he was ‘a seminal figure … The lessons learned during the intense first-year design studio influenced and informed the careers of more architects than Hugh, in his humble manner, would have ever imagined or would acknowledge’.
But Hugh’s contribution to Australia’s understanding of Asia went much further than his work at the university. Charles Coppel has said that ‘In his very self-effacing way Hugh was an important figure in the history of person-to-person relations between Australia and Indonesia’. Hugh achieved this not just through teaching but in myriad other ways as well. He kept working for, and chaired the Volunteer Graduate Scheme for Indonesia, and its successor organisation the Overseas Service Bureau (now Australian Volunteers International), and was a leader of the Australian Indonesian Association of Victoria
In 1974, Hugh helped set up the Indonesian Arts Society, which became a bridge for many to the vibrant world of the arts in Indonesia. With the Society, Hugh curated exhibitions on Indonesian textiles, musical instruments, masks, and contemporary art at a range of galleries including the National Gallery of Victoria and Australian Centre for Contemporary Art. He also edited beautiful books to accompany them, which the Society published.
Milton Hall, Hugh’s rambling Victorian house in Dryburgh Street, North Melbourne, was famous for the immense purple bougainvillea he had planted and that strangled half the building, climbing through the lacework verandas and into the roof. Milton Hall was also famous for the magnificent old ballroom on the top floor, where the Society regularly held its meetings. No one who sat on Hugh’s ikat cushions in that room, eating a plate of Indonesian food he had spent the day preparing, watching Indonesian dance and music performances or listening to artists and writers that Hugh had cajoled to Melbourne, can ever forget the experience.
In 1992, Hugh was appointed Senior Fellow at the University of Melbourne and, in 2000, Adjunct Professor in the Cultural Heritage Centre for Asia and the Pacific at Deakin University. Hugh’s passion for Islamic architecture, and his encyclopaedic and probably unrivalled knowledge of mosque design in Indonesia, also led to a visiting fellowship in 1988 and 1990 at the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard–MIT in Massachusetts. This resulted in an important chapter in Martin Frishman and Hasan Uddin Khan’s seminal book, The Mosque: History, Architectural Development and Regional Diversity (1994). In 2017, Hugh also co-authored the book The Life and Work of Thomas Karsten, a visionary Dutch architect and town planner of the late colonial period whom Hugh greatly admired and felt had not been properly recognised.
Hugh was a naturally modest person, who wore his learning very lightly. But the deep respect so many Indonesians had for his profound knowledge of their arts and cultures became very obvious to me when I travelled with him in Indonesia. Word would quickly spread that Hugh was back in town. We would turn up for ‘a quick coffee with an old friend’ in Jakarta to find the café full to bursting with Hugh’s fans, ranging from Indonesia’s most senior architects, to poets, renegade activist artists, and the latest batch of newly-returned Melbourne graduates. Likewise, it was almost impossible to get further than half a block walking with Hugh down Jalan Malioboro in Yogya. Friends and admirers would materialise from the crowd and drag Hugh off to their gallery, workshop, favourite restaurant, or home, to meet the family.
Even when Hugh was finally alone at a remote temple site or forgotten mosque, a close eye had to be kept on him; he was liable to wander off without warning, muttering about another site he remembered that was ‘nearby’. By lunchtime most days, the plans fixed for that morning would have disintegrated into something entirely unpredictable but always wonderful. A day in Hugh’s company in Indonesia was enlightening, a month left you painfully aware of how much you had to learn.
Hugh was a giant of architectural education in Australia and the study of Indonesian arts and cultures, as well as a pioneering champion of Australia’s engagement with Asia. He put into practice his deep belief that not only did we belong to Asia, but we had responsibilities to it. These life-long contributions were recognised in 2013, when the University of Melbourne conferred an honorary doctorate on him and he was made an Officer of the Order of Australia, and again in 2014, when he was made a life fellow of the Australian Institute of Architects.
Soon after, the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning set up the Hugh O’Neill Scholarship Fund to support the work of a student who has excelled in design or architectural heritage. It was a fitting way to remember this gentle and generous man - a devoted father to his five children, a great teacher and mentor and a friend to generations of students here, in Indonesia, and around the world
Tim Lindsey is Malcolm Smith Professor of Asian Law and Director of the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society at the University of Melbourne.