Wally Abraham - a distinguished planner for Sydney and Macquarie Universities

15 November 2006


W.V. (WALLY) ABRAHAM had a long and fulfilling career as a town planner. Abraham, who has died aged 82, also had the satisfaction of guiding the planning and development of Macquarie University from its inception for almost 20 years, to make it what it is today.

Abraham was born in Kobe, Japan, in 1923. His paternal grandfather, who came from a prosperous Jewish family of London merchants, went to Japan in 1868, married a Japanese woman and set up an export-import business in Kobe. His father, also born in Japan, was educated at Dulwich College in London and, after returning to join the family business in Kobe, married a young German woman from Hamburg. Abraham completed part of his education at Dulwich College before his parents moved to Sydney in 1941, where he completed his schooling at Sydney Boys High.

After leaving school he joined the air force and was seconded to a select intelligence unit that became known as AIRIND and was made up of five Australians who spoke and read Japanese. They collected engine and airframe plates from crashed Japanese aircraft and worked out when and where they had been made.

In the later part of the war this intelligence guided long-range bombing raids to hamper the Japanese war effort. In mid-1944 the unit was transferred to the Pentagon and subsumed into the US war effort.

On his return from the war Abraham studied architecture and town planning at Sydney University, worked at Cumberland County Council, and then lectured in town planning for five years. He assisted with planning Sydney University's postwar expansion until 1965.

In 1964 a committee appointed to advise the state government on the establishment of a new university at North Ryde nominated Abraham as the architect-planner. The fledgling Macquarie University council decided that planning for the campus would be done within the university, rather than by consultants, and this led to the establishment of the architect-planners office.

Under Abraham's leadership, this office became the nerve centre for the selection and briefing of the architects, the design of buildings, the planning and design of roads and parking areas, and the landscaping of the 135 hectares of old market gardens that had been acquired for the university.

A new university on a greenfield site built to strict budgets in a short time posed modern management and design problems. Abraham was one of the first three staff members chosen for the university, and he was given professorial status so that he could hold his own with the academics in negotiating the university's development. The task was formidable. In October 1964 it was decided that teaching would begin at the university in early 1967, with a growth of 1000 students each year for the next decade.

Abraham's achievement can be appreciated by walking down Wally's Way, the pedestrian spine running through the campus. He established a grid comprising lots of 300 square feet running north-south, with the aim of creating a compact academic core. The measure of 300 feet (almost 100 metres) was seen as one minute's walk, and grid design reflected the aim of having a maximum walk of 10 minutes between any two parts of the university.

A traffic and parking zone was established to keep vehicles on the periphery and well out of the academic area. A valley looking towards the Lane Cove National Park was landscaped and kept free of buildings and a lake was formed.

In 1968, while he was still at Macquarie, Abraham was appointed to report on the controversial proposal to widen Jersey Road in Paddington (he agreed with the residents and the proposal was scrapped).

He wrote a report for UNESCO in 1974 on physical planning at the University of the Philippines, which led to the university receiving loans from the World Bank.

He and his wife, Felicity, retired to Kiama in 1982, where he designed their house, sensitively sited on the eastern side of Saddleback Mountain. He became a well-loved identity in the Illawarra, someone once dubbing him the Sage of Saddleback.

Abraham also became a local history buff, uncovering an unknown part of Hoddles Track. He often gave advice to the local authorities and was a constructive critic of the planning policies of Kiama Council.

Abraham could be opinionated, argumentative, passionate, sometimes even abrasive, but he had a subtle intelligence and was in the best sense a seeker after the best solution. We need more people like him to irritate the body politic and show the way forward. His was a good and productive life.

Walk through his university and honour his contribution to the civilised, community life of Sydney.

Abraham is survived by his son, Philip, daughter, Michaela, her husband, Terry Russell, and two grandsons, Nick and Ben. Felicity died in 1994.