Interview: Michael Llewellyn-Smith
Welsh-born Michael Llewellyn-Smith was recently appointed Chair of the University of Adelaide Alumni Association. He talks to Lumen's Howard Salkow about his early life, career and future role with the University of Adelaide.
Lumen: You were born in a truly delightful and historically rich part of the world. Do you ever get to re-visit Tintern, Monmouth in South Wales?
Michael Llewellyn-Smith: Yes I do. I often get back to Britain and I always take the opportunity to drive to Wales and up the Wye Valley along the winding road from Chepstow. The house where I was born is just a stone's throw from Tintern Abbey. I find it very relaxing and refreshing to have a drink sitting by the River with the ruins of the Abbey in the background.
Lumen: What was it like growing up in South Wales?
ML-S: My father, and indeed my grandfather, were Welsh Methodist Ministers. This meant moving every three years. I was only 18 months old when we left Tintern and moved to Tenby. Then we spent time in Bridgend, Cardiff and Neath. While I'm an only child, I had many cousins and there were extensive family gatherings. I spent three years at Neath Grammar School, and when my father was invited to a church in London, I was fortunate to win a scholarship to Alleyn's, Dulwich. I certainly have very fond memories of growing up in South Wales, particularly our regular family visits back to Tintern.
Lumen: How did you benefit culturally and otherwise when you won a Rhodes Travel Scholarship to Canada?
ML-S: I had gained a place at Pembroke College, Cambridge to read architecture, but being awarded the travel scholarship enabled me to take time off after school and travel extensively in Canada. It was a great experience to visit all the major Canadian cities in the early 60s. I particularly enjoyed the train journey through the Rockies from Calgary to Vancouver and appreciated the vast distances in Canada compared to Britain. I was fortunate to visit a number of architectural offices and city halls and this experience provided me with a broader base than I would have had otherwise when I started at the Cambridge University School of Architecture.
Lumen: In winning a Commonwealth Fellowship to Sydney University in 1970, was this your first trip down under; and, at the time, did you believe that one day you would settle in Australia?
ML-S: No it wasn't. I spent 1966-67 working as an architect with Sir Roy Grounds in Melbourne on the National Gallery of Victoria. While I enjoyed Melbourne, I really fell in love with Sydney so that when the opportunity arose for me to return to Australia I was thrilled. I was a resident tutor in architecture at Wesley College as well as lecturing and was also studying for a Masters Degree in Town Planning. I fully intended returning to Britain at the end of the two-year fellowship, but met and married an American. My wife Ida and I decided to spend at least one year in Sydney after we got married on the basis of "neutral territory" rather than going to Britain or America. But both of our careers just evolved and we've lived in Australia ever since.
Lumen: Living in the UK it's easy to appreciate the magnificent ancient architecture. Is this what drove you to choose a career in architecture and planning?
ML-S: Living in London I certainly appreciated the heritage of the city as well as the development of new buildings that was occurring in the 1950s. There was an expectation at school that there would be a number of entrants to Oxbridge each year. I ended up doing "A" Levels in Physics, Double Mathematics and Art. This combination of subjects was a really good basis for gaining entrance to an architectural course and I was very fortunate to be accepted at Cambridge. Town Planning was rather different. I was working as the design architect for a new comprehensive school. Our client was the Local Education Authority and I was sent along to the council to get a development approval. It was the first time I'd actually come across the town planning system (which I still consider to be a failing of architectural education) and discovered there was another profession, which could have a significant impact on design outcomes.I was appalled that someone who didn't have a design background but was working in development assessment could influence the decision of the local council. So on the basis that if you can't beat them, join them, I started the part-time town planning course at the University of London. This was taken into account when I completed the Masters Degree in Town Planning at Sydney University.
Lumen: Besides teaching for two years at Sydney University and serving in senior roles in London, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, you have given extensive presentations to academic institutions and professional bodies in the United States, Canada, the UK and Australia. Did you ever consider academia as a full time career?
ML-S: The two years I spent at Sydney University were incredibly busy. As I said earlier, as well as being a lecturer I was a college tutor, completing a Master's Degree in Town Planning and I was also working as an architect with the firm of McConnel, Smith and Johnson. They were part of George Clarke's consulting group preparing the first City of Sydney Strategic Plan. What I really enjoyed was the ability to teach as well as being in practice. This was common in Cambridge where the professor and lecturers had the right of private practice, and were actively involved in the architectural profession and the design of new buildings. But no, I never really considered a full-time academic career.
Lumen: You had a 20-year tenure with the City of Adelaide, from 1974-1994. What were the highlights of your time as the City Planner and then the City Manager (Chief Executive Officer)?
ML-S: I was the Deputy City Planner in Sydney when I was invited to Adelaide to become the City Planner and set up a new Department of City Planning within the Adelaide City Council. The City of Adelaide Planning Study was really at the cutting edge of a new approach to town planning and my main task was to convert the study into a workable system. There was a great deal of cooperation between the City and State in those days.
The joint body, the City of Adelaide Development Committee, consisted of John Roche, Jim Bowen and John Chappel from the Council and Bob Bakewell (Head of the Premier's Department), Hugh Stretton (the highly respected author and at the time Reader in History at this University) and Newell Platten (the then Chief Architect of the South Australian Housing Trust) from the State. The Lord Mayor of the day was Chairman. The City of Adelaide Development Control Act came into effect on 1 March 1977 and put in place a highly sophisticated planning system. The results of some of the policy initiatives can be seen today, such as a significant increase in the residential population. The Council took a proactive role with the removal of the Halifax Street works depot and improvements to the public realm with an attractive streetscaping program. Becoming the Town Clerk (subsequently being known as the City Manager/Chief Executive Officer) was certainly a significant change for me. But my planning background was very useful in terms of Strategic Planning and a corporate approach to Council activities. There were initiatives in developing and improving the Park Lands, the introduction of a Heritage Incentive Scheme, involvement in the Grand Prix, new Sister City relationships, the introduction of Urban Design Guidelines as well as the five-yearly reviews of the City of Adelaide Plan. Personally, I became the National President of Local Government Managers Australia, and the Vice-President of the International City Management Association.
Lumen: In 1994 you established Llewellyns International and became its Managing Director. How has your considerable international experience assisted you in this role?
ML-S: Through my company, I have been fortunate to be Policy Adviser in Poland (Kracow) for USAid, in Sri Lanka (Colombo) for the Asian Development Bank and in South Africa (Bloemfontein) for AusAID. Consulting internationally is very rewarding and I have got to know some outstanding colleagues in these countries. The company has had clients throughout Australia, both public and private, and it has associated offices in the United States, Britain and New Zealand.
Lumen: Has anyone had a major influence on your career?
ML-S: My father was undoubtedly the major influence on my life and career. He imbued the value of family relationships, hard work, concern for others, utilising your talents to the best of your ability, the importance of thinking analytically, the value of education and learning from your mistakes. When he realised I wasn't going to follow in the footsteps of the Methodist Ministry, he organised the move from Wales to London so that I would have the opportunity of a broader education, culture and experience.
He encouraged my artistic abilities and the choice of architecture as an initial career.
Lumen: What has been the driving force behind your success from the time you first entered Cambridge University to your most recent achievement: a Master of Arts (ad eundem gradum) from the University of Adelaide?
ML-S: I suppose the values I've just referred to above. It's too simplistic to say the 'Protestant Work Ethic', but this was certainly an ever-present factor. My wife is an Associate Professor at Flinders University, my son graduated with First Class Honours in Engineering at this University, and my daughter is currently a student at UniSA. So as the only one in the family not to be involved with a South Australian university, I was particularly honoured to be awarded the Master of Arts degree.
Lumen: As the new Chair, what is your vision for the future of the Alumni Association and what do you hope to achieve?
ML-S: It's important to recognise that the University isn't only about research and teaching, it's also about its people, the alumni. I have a personal view that the Alumni Association needs to have an identifiable focus and high profile on the North Terrace campus. From their first day at the University students would then be aware of the role of the association in developing relationships and creating new opportunities. I believe that the association has a key role to play, in close cooperation with the faculties and the University's management, to ensure that the University of Adelaide is one of the great universities of the world.
Lumen: Is it realistic to expect interstate or overseas alumni to maintain interest in a distant University, no matter how fond their memories of it may be?
ML-S: I have just returned from graduation ceremonies in Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and Singapore. I had the opportunity of meeting with four of our five overseas Chapters. The warmth of feeling from our overseas alumni to their alma mater is immense and there is a commitment to maintaining effective communication. We live in an increasingly electronic age, making it much easier for our graduates to stay in contact and for the Association to expand its data base.
Lumen: How do you see the Association working with the alumni to increase participation and engagement?
ML-S: The Chapters play a key role and we rely heavily on the goodwill, time and efforts of the many volunteers who maintain and expand the networks. As students are exposed to the Alumni Association from their earliest days rather than waiting until they graduate, I believe the participation and engagement will increase.
Lumen: What is the role of the Board?
ML-S: The Board has a major role to play through the development and updating of the strategic plan. This has to be done in close cooperation with the Chapters to ensure that it continues to be relevant. But it also ties in with the University's future directions so that the objectives and actions are aligned. The Board also has a key governance role and needs to provide the frameworks and protocols within which the individual Chapters can operate, having regard to their particular circumstances.
Lumen: Finally, how would you characterise the current relationship between the University, its alumni and the wider community and what does the future hold?
ML-S: There has recently been a major review of the Alumni, Community Relations & Development Office and it has been renamed Development & Alumni. With its new Director (Anne Gribbin) and its energetic and committed staff, and with the goodwill of all our alumni volunteers, both internationally and locally, I am very confident about the future of the University and I look forward to playing a part as Chair of the Alumni Association. ■