Inside Story

The shock of the old

Books | Australia’s experimental domestic architecture of the 1950s and 60s still challenges mainstream design

Joe Rollo 27 March 2018 727 words

Groundbreaking: the Robin Boyd–designed Baker House today. Boyd Baker House

An Unfinished Experiment in Living: Australian Houses 1950–65
By Geoffrey London, Philip Goad and Conrad Hamann | UWA Press | $65.00 | 450 pages

My earliest firsthand experience of a house designed by Robin Boyd was in 2006, when I (along with several hundred other Boyd fans) made the trek out to Long Forest, between Bacchus Marsh and Melton, about fifty kilometres west of Melbourne, for the auction of his Baker House from 1965. Opportunities to visit houses designed by Boyd (or other known architects, for that matter) don’t present themselves very often, because private homes are, well, private, and so it is that when a house by Boyd comes on the market, especially one as important as the Baker House, it attracts disproportionate interest among genuine buyers and onlookers alike.

Designed in 1964 by the partnership of Romberg and Boyd for mathematician Michael Baker and his family, the house stands in Mallee scrub, surrounded by the Long Forest Nature Conservation Reserve. The bonus on my 2006 visit was a smaller Boyd-designed house, the Dower House, built for Dr Baker’s mother-in-law, and a library designed by Sir Roy Grounds, which were also to be auctioned on the same day.

Made of blocks of stone collected from the site, the Baker House takes the form of a square enclosing an internal court beneath a low pyramid roof raised on twelve stone cylinders over symmetrically curved stone walls at its corners. The cylinders conceal water tanks as well as a cubby house and storage for garden tools and firewood. Sleeping cubicles and service rooms are ranged around the inner perimeter of the court. Living, library, studio, master and guest bedrooms, as well as a schoolroom for home schooling, cling to the edges of the square, looking out across the scraggy landscape.

Baker House, along with several other houses designed by Boyd, including his own Walsh Street House in South Yarra, features prominently in An Unfinished Experiment in Living. The book’s authors, Geoffrey London, Philip Goad and Conrad Hamann, argue that Boyd was just one of a group of Australian architects who responded innovatively to the social, economic and climatic circumstances of postwar Australia, embracing the aesthetic, technological and egalitarian aspirations of the modern residential architecture of the period.

The book’s central argument is that the most significant houses of the period represent an unfinished and undervalued experiment in modern living. Recognising the changing nature of households and using advances in building technology, Boyd, Harry Seidler, Esmond Dorney, Iwan Iwanoff and others explored open-plan living and used courtyards and building orientation to capture sun and preserve privacy. In the aftermath of the second world war, with building materials still in short supply and clients’ means limited, this was an exciting time for Australian architects who were prepared to experiment, test house types, adopt different building materials, investigate new forms of construction, push restrictive regulations and give validity to economical small architectural projects.

The seventy-seven designers of the 150 houses featured in this book had learned from the experiments in residential architecture in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, the Los Angeles Case Study Houses on the US west coast, and other developments in the 1940s and 1950s.

As architect Glenn Murcutt writes in his introduction, “much of the excitement of Australian architect-designed houses came from their limited means, their lack of pretentiousness, and the fact that they were simple, direct and optimistic in outlook. Architects were prepared to experiment and with not much. This made them groundbreaking.”

In lengthy and well-researched essays, London, Goad and Hamann propose that the houses in the book “are evidence of a period when house design was a way of researching new ways of living.” “The unique architectural experiments in Australian housing from 1950 to 1965 remain unassimilated, not yet translated into mainstream housing,” they write. “Until now there has been no appropriate analytical framework that would allow such assimilation nor allow it to be understood as an important development of postwar Australian society and culture.”

The book is heavily illustrated with black and white photographs by Max Dupain, Fritz Kos, Wolfgang Sievers, Richard Stringer and other master photographers of the period, as well as by architects themselves. Each house is accompanied by a brief description and architectural plans redrawn at a uniform scale and style.

At a time when American Modernism and its variations are the subject of book after book, An Unfinished Experiment in Living is a valuable reference for anyone interested in the Australian residential architecture of the period. ●