1950–1965 Australia

An Unfinished Experiment in Living is the title of a 2018 book describing Australian architect-designed houses over the period 1950–1965, and how they not only reflected what was happening in Australian society but created the grounds for wider changes. It was a time when architecture could make a difference – until it wasn’t anymore. Hence the title. The introductory text is illustrated with a selection of 150 houses that follow in an order approximating the order of completion as best it can, and which is basically the order these houses were published in professional journals and their ideas made available to other professionals.

Technical developments and technological innovations found their way into the general housing market via housebuilders more quickly than did architectural ideas regarding layouts, materials, construction or aesthetics. Labour- and time-intensive suspended floors on hewn sandstone block footings were quickly replaced by concrete slabs and one side effect of this was to bring the floor level closer to ground level. This, combined with the invention of the sliding aluminium-framed door, meant one less difference between indoors and outdoors. People began to use the sliding door next to the dining table to access the rear or side garden, rather than the “back door” from the laundry. People began to eat outside more, and to be outside more. More aluminium sliding doors were sold.

Fewer internal walls were built as plans became more open and “lounge”, kitchen and dining room became one. However, the dissemination of television led to the invention of the “family room” and other new spaces such as “office” and “playroom” as the first impact of a force that continues to bloat Australian houses to this day. While the lounge was becaming the living room, kitchens were becoming more central and filled with a battery of electrical appliances appropriate for its new role as “control centre”. It was also the nerve centre. By 1985, Australian television had established the breakfast bar dividing the kitchen and dining area as the emotional heart of the home.

The period 1950–1065 begins with Harry Seidler, an Austrian emigré who had studied at Harvard and brought with him Gropius’ talent for self-promotion. [c.f. Architecture Myths #25: The Creative Spark] His 1950 first house, the Rose Seidler House (#4), was criticised by some as being “a Harvard house transplanted to Australia” but it was something Australia had never seen before – a classy beach house.

Until I was seven I lived up the road from this next house that was the first two-storey house I ever saw, as well as the first time I ever saw a house with a flat roof. The living rooms on the first floor had a view of the ocean one street away. (Our house was on the other side of the road and we could see the ocean only from the laundry window.) The ground floor has since been filled in with rooms and a double garage but this house would have been built 1961 at the latest.

The Tropical D Type House, designed for the northern town of Darwin in 1953 by the Commonwealth Department of Public Works is of this type, though more for reasons of climate than view.

If Europe was represented by Seidler channelling Gropius then the organic side of America was well represented by both Wrightian and Californian approaches to timber and stone. In the 150 houses it’s possible to see things that might not have happened had it not been for American architects such as Neutra or Schindler, or Lautner or Johnson but also British architects such as Peter & Alison Smithson, and Danish modernism in general. But Australia has rocks and timber too and a room such as the living room in Peter Rickard’s Rickard House is as lovely a room as you’d find anywhere else in the world in 1959.

There are also many examples of pure invention such as Robin Boyd’s 1954 Finlay House. The roof is framed from small-section timber because, just after WWII, it was still more economical to do so. It is this extracting of maximum structural (and aesthetic) performance from a low-cost material that I admire.

The front cover has an image of Bill & Ruth Lucas’ 1954 Lucas House and, though it is easy to say this is “a Case Study House transplanted to Australia”, it would be to less effect since the climate, topography and even the trees just north of Sydney have more in common with Los Angeles than Boston. This house and the Boyd above also have no corridors. Each space is accessed from or via another. They also both orient the main living spaces due north and have mostly blank east and west walls. This was never regarded as clever – it was just something one did. It’s also worth noting that all these houses were single glazed and had neither air conditioning nor heating other than the fireplace. (Electric heaters or kerosene stoves were probably used for spot heating, and electric fans for spot cooling.)

One of the few houses I remember is the house architect Kevin Woolley designed for himself in 1962 but I probably didn’t see it in some magazine until maybe ten years later. I remember liking it, but now have a better appreciation for how it achieves complex effects from a very simple logic.

Douglas Gordon’s 1964 White House is another house I remember liking from around 1970 plus or minus four years. I liked the integrity of plan and volume that arose from the one simple move, I noted how it did the homestead thing, and didn’t mind the chimney. Everything just seemed right.

There must be more than a few houses I must have seen but didn’t appreciate or remember. Tony Moore’s 1961 Moore House might have been one of them. You can think of Moore House as how The Smithson’s 1956 Sugden House would appear in North Sydney rather than Watford. [The Sugden House appeared in the post 100 Ideas seven weeks back.] Even if I had heard of an “aesthetic of the everyday” I probably wouldn’t have understood it. I was vaguely aware of something I can recognise now as a cult of natural materials only because not too long ago I learned some Danish commentators spoke of the Danish 1960s cult of craft. Natural materials and craftsmanship are both good things but they shouldn’t become ends in themselves. Like the Smithson’s Sugden House, Moore House tries to find a balance using lesser levels of both.

I could find many more new favourites but here’s two. The first is Cameron, Chisholm & Nicol’s 1960 Wilkinson House.

Clarke Gazzard Yeomans’ 1961 Herbert House foresaw the introverted modern Australian house that turned away from the street yet has rarely been done so well since.

I notice that five out of the 150 houses I’ve chosen to show here were designed by architects for themselves. In the period 1950–1965 architects were still forbidden to advertise and so building for themselves and the ensuing publishing was, other than word of mouth, the only way a reputation could spread. Kevin Woolley’s Woolley House suggested the architect could do wonderful things with natural materials on tricky sites for similar clients but it was never going to be a prototype for market dissemination. Architects of the time may not have been elitist but they might have been aloof. It was always assumed good ideas would permeate into the greater housing market but this is more true for ideas intended for mass application. This is the contradiction of architecture. Designing for a mass market is to release open-source ideas and to remove oneself as the author and any recognition or reward.

There were a few examples of collaborations between architects and volume housebuilders. Kevin Woolley and Michael Dyasart 1964 Lowline house designed for builders Petitt & Sevitt was one, and notable for being offered with offering several plan variations within its simple system.

Another example is the houses architects Cameron, Chisholm & Nicols designed for the athlete’s village for the 1961 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Perth, with variations responding to different site orientations. The houses were sold on the market after the games but the rectangular plan (with the living room relocated within it) and the roof gable to the street elevation were widely imitated across town for years after. The look was marketed as “Contemporary” and the long narrow houses suited the now smaller residential blocks.

These weren’t the only collaborations between architects and housebuilders but they were the most fruitful. In Perth, the architect Peter Overman produced successful designs for the house builder (Syd) Corser [1]. In my fourth year, our yearmaster took the class to visit one of them but I didn’t realise at the time what an exception this way of working was. Although these houses were called “architect-designed” the recent revival of the catalogue house suggests there is still much to offer from such collaborations. [c.f. The Catalogue House]

The website https://sydneylivingmuseums.com.au/post-war-sydney-home-plans-1945-1959 tells me that In the 1950s the scale of architectural advice available to home builders grew enormously, as architects, department stores, home magazines and the Sunday newspapers formed a series of partnerships to provide home-plan services. These services commonly offered a complete set of house plans and specifications, prepared by an architect, at a fraction of the normal cost. Some partnerships were short-lived – the Sunday Telegraph’s plan service, offered with architect John P Ley in November 1953, lasted only a few months – but the Small Homes Service initiated by the NSW chapter of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, and the plan bureaus established by Grace Brothers and The Australian Women’s Weekly, endured into the 1960s.

Architects were thus in competition with other purveyors of designs but the point is that all these houses existed once and that there was a time that made them happen. Many no longer exist and a quick google around shows that not many photographs do either. I remember seeing better photographs of Douglas Gordon’s White House but you cannot find this house on the internet.

The Lucas House is now a heritage building and images have been reproduced in various publications but, going by the few images available, it has little presence in the perception of Australian modernism, and the perception of there ever having been an Australian modernism is not that strong to begin with. Perhaps this is one reason the experiment remains unfinished. Here’s some more.

1965 also marks the end of the so-called golden age of Danish architecture. It was the end of Brutalism and so the end of Modernism as an aspiration. The post-modern era officially began one year later with Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. Perhaps governments worldwide had decided that the post-war era was now definitely over and, in response, architecture no longer needed to concern itself with efficiencies or honesties of materials, construction, or enclosure. Although we didn’t yet know it, politics was moving away from modernism that facilitated extracting maximum value from the population as producers and towards post-modernism inasmuch as it cared about extracting maximum value from the population as consumers. Architecture simply followed suit.

Or maybe it didn’t, but the market did, and followed the agenda of suppliers out to meet “market needs” either real or imagined. In other words, the entire system was left to its own devices and architects weren’t needed to sustain it. Perhaps as a consequence of this, the houses themselves faded into the background as all they needed to be was carriers for meaning on the outside and receptacles for consumer goods on the inside.

Putting that another way, perhaps architects didn’t do enough to let producers and consumers know more about the many ways they could add value to property. House 148 is the 1965 Sawaday House in Goosberry Hill, Western Australia. It was designed by John White, as was house #124 the Stone House. I never knew about either of these houses despite John White being my third-year yearmaster in 1976. I’d like to think I would have appreciated them but I would have appreciated the chance to know about them as there’s a lot to like about both. Perhaps I might have been less interested in modern Japanese houses. Perhaps Australian architects should have promoted themselves as intensely as Japanese ones did.

Perhaps I’m overthinking it and honesty of materials and construction and all that exposed brick and timber were simply too expensive for volume housebuilders to reproduce. Face brickwork requires better quality bricks and workmanship and it was no doubt easier and cheaper to build walls using second-grade bricks or concrete block and to make good the surface afterwards with plaster and paint. Stylistically, Brutalism was the last time architecture concerned itself with materiality. Post-modernism, with its emphasis on surface, marked its death and, along with it, devalued the meaning of craftsmanship and, by association, the labour that went into the production of buildings.

Finally, any experiment requires an anticipated outcome. Individual houses have their own constraints and expectations that produce those individual conclusions called buildings but, collectively, there was never an explicit goal. Architects may have respectively assumed that their isolated innovations would find traction and implementation in wider society but there seems to have been little awareness or articulation of this as a collective goal as it was in, say, Denmark. I suspect this is why we can speak of a Golden Age of Danish Architecture but not a Golden Age of Australian Architecture despite there being more than enough evidence to justify it, as this book shows.

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  1. Thanks to Jonathan for sending me this link showing how strong the connection was between Peter Overman the architect and (Syd) Corser the builder.

2 thoughts on “1950–1965 Australia

  1. DG

    Thank you for this post! It’s timely as I am currently reading up on Boyd and some of his residential work from the era. I think I am going to have to source this book to add to my collection and for future reference.

    1. Graham McKay Post author

      I recommend it. Boyd was undoubtedly a major future and did a lot to champion better houses for all but I liked more the ingenuity of that little house than the one he designed for himself. Back in 2015 I wrote a post about Boyd’s one-time partner Sir Roy Grounds. It’s a fascinating period in Australian architecture and I’m genuinely curious as to why the experiment ended in the hope that if we understand why we can perhaps kick start it again.

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