Modernist Streets of your Town


After much anticipation the moment has finally arrived when we can all sit down and enjoy the new 2 part series Streets Of Your Town featuring Australian comedian and lover of all things modernist Tim ‘Rosso’ Ross.
It’s not often that you get to visit so many iconic Aussie modernist homes, let alone have a chat with important architects such as Peter McIntyre who designed the small but incredible River House nestled in bushland and floating above the Yarra river in the leafy suburb of Kew, Melbourne.

The River House , Kew (1955), designed by Peter McIntyre.

The Australian love affair with modernism can be seen in the design of homes, public buildings and of course, our furniture. The great thing about this series is that it provides an Australian perspective on modernist design. Tim not only travels from state to state, including modernist treasure trove Canberra, he also looks at the ways our relationship with design has changed since the post-war era up until the present day. From iconic homes designed by Robin Boyd through to more obscure delights such as homes by Pettit + Sevitt or Merchant Builders.

The McMansions that are populating new and existing suburbs are a far cry from the 12 square homes of the post-war era when building restrictions required that Australian homemakers did more with less.

The Marriott House, Flinders (1954), designed by Robin Boyd

What also emerges in this series is a real sense of how Australian designers re-imagined international design trends to create unique designs that respond to our environment. Established and run by Melbourne architect Robin Boyd in 1947, then later directed by architect Neil Clerehan in the 1950’s, The Age Small Homes Service offered house plans by top architects for the reasonable sum of 5 quid. The idea behind this clever scheme was to make good design available to the masses. For those on a budget but adventure in their hearts, such as my parents, these plans provided a real opportunity to build a modern home and live the Australian dream.


In the case of my Mum and Dad, they built their small home (see above) in 2 stages over 3 years. The house was designed to accomodate their growing family, with a separate dining room that would later be converted into another bedroom. Dad built his own window wall that wrapped around the lounge room, flooding the home in glorious light and blurring the distinction between indoors and outdoors.

Flash forward to 2016 and you’ll see that what  Robin Boyd called the ‘Australian Ugliness’ is still very much part of the Australian landscape. Whereas once builders may have worked towards meeting the needs of their clients, it now seems that many home buyers choices are driven by the needs of large building firms who arguably put profit margins ahead of the needs of the client or our environment. Or is it simply that the Australian obsession with enormous homes outweighs the need for good design?

At a time when Australia is in the grip of a housing affordability crisis and untamed urban sprawl, Streets Of Your Town raises important issues about the ways that good design can enhance everyday life. I think that’s a very worthwhile premise for a documentary and an important discussion we need to have now. Perhaps we can learn much from the lessons of the past. Good design can change your relationship with space, it can also enhance your life.

You can watch episode 1 of Streets Of Your Town on ABC iView or check out episode 2 next Tuesday at 8:30pm on our ABC or pre-order the DVD and watch it whenever you feel like it.

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.

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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.

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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.