Melbourne Modern: Home of the Brave

The leafy suburb of Kew, and in particular the Studley Park area, is home
to some of the most interesting post-war architecture in Melbourne.
As homes designed by iconic architects such as McIntyre, Clerehan, Kagan,
Fooks, Boyd, Grounds and Romberg sit nestled amongst the trees; they are
reminders of a post-war Australia fuelled by a creative spirit that sought
to design a better way to live. Modernist homes such as the much loved
‘River House’ by Peter McIntyre Illustrate the possibilities that can result
from experimentation, a playful imagination and a desire to examine the
ways in which architecture can inform our relationship with people, space
and the environment.

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Architect Peter McIntyre, 85, at his 1955 River House.
Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones.

Experimentation paved the way for innovation, as a new breed of architects
influenced by the international style sought to challenge conventional
wisdom about construction techniques, materials and architecture. In hindsight
it all sounds quite romantic, but for a nation emerging from the shadows of
World War ll and all its associated rationing and restrictions, perhaps moderism
offered the hope of a more optimistic future. Looking back on the post-war
modernist boom, McIntyre notes:

“the early modernists felt that they were making a break – it
was like a revolution – from the past, it didn’t matter that our buildings
were very different from other buildings. In fact we revelled in that.
The fact that the building looked different from other buildings being
built, was marvellous and expressed the new idea. It was Huxley’s
brave new world. We were really striking out there to make a world
that’s going to be at peace, and going to have happiness everywhere
“.

McIntyre even made a short film with Robyn Boyd ‘Your House and Mine’
(1958) to educate others on the value of contemporary architecture.

When you take a look at the home magazines of the period (Home Beautiful,
House and Garden, etc), you soon become aware that Australia was indeed
caught up in a wave of post-war optimism. No longer a cave to protect oneself
from the elements, the contemporary home had emerged as a symbol of a better
world, a place which rejected the ways of the past in favour of light, space and
innovation.

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House plans and interiors were regularly featured and initiatives such
as The Age Small Homes Service provided progressive minded individuals with
access to inexpensive modern house plans designed by our best contemporary
architects. The modernist design boom had something for everyone, and demand
for the new look combined with import tariffs helped foster a market for
Australian designed and manufactured furniture and objects.
Meeting these demands were designers such as Clement Meadmore,
Grant Featherston, Fred Lowen, George Korody, Dario Zoureff and many
more.
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A strong DIY culture also emerged, driven by budget and/or necessity.
Flat pack furniture offered many an opportunity to have the latest look
without the high price tag. Patterncraft offered a wide range of furniture
patterns and flat pack furniture which could be assembled at home.
Many of the patterns were created by Fred Ward and required only
basic skills and tools, therefore appealing to many on a budget.

A revolution was taking place and many people from across the social
spectrum were keen to be a part of the new design frontier and its promises
of a better lifestyle. Amongst those wanting to forge a better life were my parents,
who after finding a block of land in the bayside suburb of Aspendale, built
themselves an L-shaped timber home complete with primary colour accents,
window-walls and flat roof. My father, who was a carpenter and joiner, had
worked at Stegbar in Melbourne and had obviously been influenced by the radical
design of the company’s iconic window-wall.

20130405-095623
My grandmother with her dog Danny outside my parents house in Aspendale.

I am told by my Mother that their home when first built was a popular destination
for sightseers, attracting many who were curious about the new look in
contemporary design. My mother found comfort in her sparsely furnished open
plan lounge/dining area, preferring a collection of casually arranged butterfly chairs
and Fler lounge chairs instead of a more formal lounge suite. Other features of
the home included a breakfast booth, polished floorboards, high ceilings and
large open plan spaces.

20130405-100317
My father with my older siblings in the 1960’s.

The word bespoke conjures up images of ‘grand designs’ but
the reality is that my parents, like many other young self-builders, were
constrained by their budget and therefore had little choice but to construct
their own home and all of its built-in furniture if they wanted to take part
in the modernist adventure.

I sometimes wonder what happened to the enthusiasm and experimentation so
often associated with post-war architecture. I have no desire to live in the past,
but after an extended housing boom and an increase in television programs
covering almost every aspect of buying, selling and renovating a home, it’s a
rare occasion when I hear somebody talking about the ways in which a home
can add value to your well being rather than your bank account. With this in mind,
I tip my hat to all those indivuals working on the margins, the people who are
engaged in designing and constructing truly contemporary homes which
acknowledge the vital role that design can play in building a healthier and
more sustainable lifestyle.

A well designed home shouldn’t impose on its occupants a way of living,
rather it should compliment the ways in which occupants choose to live.
Perhaps there are still a few lessons we can learn from the relatively
brief exploration in modernist architecture in post-war Australia.

For more information on modernist homes in Kew check out the following
article on Melbourne Post-war Architecture in the online
edition of The Age newspaper.

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