Margaret Feilman is widely known as a pioneer in architecture and town planning in Western Australia. She had the courage to take risks throughout her life and ultimately achieved great success
The daughter of Herbert Bernard and Ethel Anne Feilman, older sister of Patricia, and younger sister of her brother John (died on 29 September 1922 aged two). Margaret Anne Feilman was born on 22 June 1921 and grew up in the state’s south-west. Her love of the environment stemmed from playing in the forests around Dwellingup and Jarrahdale as a child.
Her drive, perseverance and strength were apparent from a young age. A scholarship student at Perth College, from 1934 until 1937, she became a Prefect and was named Dux in her final year of secondary schooling and finishing a year ahead of schedule, Margaret was too young to attend the University of Western Australia and was therefore articled to the WA Government’s Principal Architect, in 1937 becoming the first female architectural cadet the state had acquired.
Her passion for art and creative work – as well as advice from her father’s colleagues that it would be difficult to forge a career in law in the economic climate of the day – saw Margaret take to this field instead.
During her four-year cadetship – a full-time position – Margaret worked for the State Housing Commission and studied part-time at UWA for an Arts Degree in History and Economics. She completed this in 1943 and took the final examination of the Architects’ Board of Western Australia late in 1945, enabling her to register as an Architect and become an Associate of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects.
After completing her cadetship in the Public Works Department – the first and, at the time, only woman in its workforce – Margaret found she had itchy feet and longed to travel. She accepted a role as an Architect in Queensland, where she also managed to develop a social life while working for the Brisbane City Council, but moved to Melbourne after being told she lacked sufficient experience to apply for a British Council Scholarship to study town planning.
With the bombing of Darwin and much of New Guinea during the war, Margaret was soon employed in the newly-established planning unit within the Head Office of the Commonwealth Department of Works and Housing in 1947 to reconstruct these towns.
This practical work, combined with her qualifications, meant she was now eligible for the British Council Scholarship. Margaret was given a two-year award to study Town and Country Planning at the University of Durham. Her fellow students – all men – were mostly qualified Engineers and Architects from around the world. Margaret gained her post-graduate certificate and diploma in Town and Country Planning with honours and was admitted as an Associate Member of the Town Planning Institute (London). The new British approach to town planning and the reinstatement of cities devastated by war was of particular interest to her.
Margaret returned to Australia in 1950, at first experiencing some difficulty in finding suitable employment. The new Planning Institute of WA invited Margaret to lecture Architects and Engineers on the post-war state of town planning in the United Kingdom. Demand for her services as a guest speaker subsequently grew, allowing Margaret to educate the public on the need for better planning.
It was around this time she took the bold step of opening her own practice, the only one of its kind operating in Western Australia at the time. As the first fully-qualified Town Planning Consultant in the state and, as a qualified Architect as well, she was at the forefront of her profession and set an example for the emergence, post-war, of young women seeking careers in Western Australia’s development.
Through her firm, Margaret provided architectural services to schools, hostels, homes for the aged, local government and institutional buildings, and shopping centres. She also carried out survey work in historic towns.
Additionally, with legal expertise provided by Solicitor Gerald Keall, Margaret introduced the first environmental controls in local government town planning schemes in many areas – including Northam, Albany, Busselton and Chapman Valley.
In 1952, she began a long association with the State Housing Commission, which had approached her for help to improve the use of land in its subdivisions following World War II. Margaret was appointed to lead the planning for the new town of Kwinana, on land south of Perth adjacent to a new port and industrial facility on Cockburn Sound, to support and house 25,000 local workers.
Kwinana embodied not only what she had learned in Britain but also incorporated her strongly-held cultural values through aesthetic, social, and environmental themes.
Working long and hard on the project, and taking into account environmental concerns – such as wind direction and how the potential townsite might be affected by fumes from the refinery – Margaret tackled the job as she did every other project throughout her career – with professionalism and great enthusiasm.
Her understanding of the environment dominated the shaping of the suburb. Margaret walked the bush and ridges of Kwinana before planning began and, following her careful observations, the major natural features were retained, new planning principles were adopted, and she convinced state Cabinet that, if the town was situated further north, it would be affected by fumes carried from the oil refinery by the prevailing winds.
Margaret also identified social needs for housing and community facilities, and received widespread acclaim for the project, the first in WA to apply the ‘new town’ model of including public facilities within walking distance of homes. Her name became synonymous with the development, now an important part of West Australian history.
Assessing the issues in a non-emotive, balanced manner to meet the needs of present and future communities was her goal. She wanted to use her talents, education and experience to make Western Australia a better place to live for all of its residents.
Margaret also gave formal presentations advocating town planning in the post-war review of urban development in Australia and set up an education programme of public lectures for government, developers and the community.
Featured in the Perth College Myola magazine in 1955, Margaret was the first former student to be profiled by the publication in a series recognising Old Girls who had distinguished themselves in their chosen profession.
She granted a request for an interview on the back of her planning work for Kwinana and told the Myola writers that despite her success, she would hesitate to recommend her career path to other girls.
She explained it was a demanding job in terms of both hours and energy, and she thought there were most likely other careers which were just as satisfying and worthwhile that would leave time for a personal and social life. Long days restricted her pursuit of hiking, surfing, the visual arts, reading, gardening and travelling, although she was able to serve on the committee of the Art Gallery Society of WA and did so for 10 years.
Margaret did say she preferred town planning to architecture and the design of individual houses as it enabled her to take a wider focus and consider the social and economic needs of a community in addition to the physical requirements for space.
At the time, she was working on planning schemes for Waroona, Bunbury, Busselton, Augusta-Margaret River, Esperance, and Mount Barker, and had just completed a development project at Myaree.
In the mid-1950s, Margaret assisted in the foundation of the first natural environment organisation in WA, the Tree Society.
In 1959, she helped set up the state branch of the National Trust of Australia and served on its Council and finishing as Chairman in 1990. Without her efforts, places such as the old Perth Observatory, the York Courthouse and Warden Finnerty’s residence in Coolgardie would not have been acquired by the Trust.
She continued to consult to the State Housing Commission and other local authorities about the use of land to meet increasing demand for housing. Margaret was appointed Town Planning Commissioner for Western Australia and held this position for 18 months.
In 1976, she became an inaugural Commissioner with the Australian Heritage Commission, serving for five years. She played a role in setting up the Register of the National Estate and supported the introduction of Heritage Conservation Studies in Australian universities. An advocate for identifying and protecting built heritage, Margaret was also involved in public comment about changes to heritage legislation.
She established the Feilman Foundation, with her sister, Patricia, to provide grants for charitable purposes in the areas of the environment, children and youth, culture and education as well as general community benefit and medical and scientific research. Many people and organisations have been helped through the work of the Foundation and the Feilman sisters.
Margaret firmly believed in the importance of philanthropy. In an interview with The West Australian Magazine, she said the community’s attitude towards philanthropy mirrored attitudes towards material values. “During the last half century we’ve been a very selfish society,” she was quoted as saying. “The essence of giving is not to just put your hand in your pocket and hand over – it’s a whole attitude to make a richer life not only in terms of money.” Margaret served on boards and committees of charitable organisations for aged care, education, and the Art Gallery Society of Western Australia.
It was a measure of her impact on WA and her services to architecture and conservation that Margaret was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1981 and was also made an honorary fellow of the Royal Australian Planning Institute.
Continuing her interest in visual art, Margaret joined with her sister in 1982 to commission a tapestry, ‘The Prodigal Son’, by noted Australian artist, Guy Boyd, in memory of their mother, Ethel, who died in 1976. This work was presented to the Art Gallery of Western Australia. A founding member of the Art Gallery Society, which was established in 1950s, Margaret believed a public appreciation of the visual arts should be an automatic part of the education of all children.
With her retirement in 1984, Margaret was able to devote a substantial amount of time to the Feilman Foundation and was also invited to become Chairman of the Town Planning Board of WA, a position she served in for more than two years. She was recognised for her philanthropic commitments in 1984 when the Perth College Old Girls’ Association named her Old Girl of the Year and more recently with a Scholarship being named after the Feilman sisters to assist students who may otherwise not be able to attend Perth College.
In 1989, UWA bestowed on her an honorary doctorate in Architecture for service to the community in heritage and environment. The Royal Australia Institute of Architects conferred on Margaret the honour of Life Fellow and she was also made a Paul Harris Fellow of Rotary International.
The State Government recognised Margaret’s contribution to the conservation of WA’s heritage in 1995 with a Heritage Council of Western Australia award. Minister Richard Lewis said Margaret was a pioneer of heritage preservation and had the ability to look at issues on a broad scale. Many of the ideas she had put forward in the 1950s and 1960s had been successfully implemented.
Monuments to her work feature around WA – suburban developments such as Kwinana, Edgewater Estate and Mirrabooka, country towns including Merredin and Narrogin, St Mary’s Anglican Girls’ School, Anglican Church retirement centres, low-cost state housing projects, and conservation projects in historic towns such as York and Greenough. All monuments in her honour and just this week we have heard that Kwinana Council has recognised her contribution by naming a building after her. A truly extraordinary person!
In her later years, Margaret spent much of her time at the home she had designed and built in Crawley, enjoying her love of visual art, history, theatre and ballet. Her garden was always tended with love and care with each plant carefully placed to fit with the environment and the landscape which could be seen from each window in the house. An enjoyment of classical music always made the house such a serene and peaceful environment for Margaret and her visitors to enjoy.
Margaret Feilman was a trailblazer in her professional life and, coupled with her passion for the environment, the arts and making a difference for future generations, her contribution to Western Australia has been truly enormous. A truly remarkable Woman! May she rest in peace.