The BOyd House
It would come as no surprise to architect Robin Gerard Penleigh Boyd (1919-71) that his work is as relevant in 2016 as it was almost 50 years ago, when he designed and constructed a home for his family on a slim strip of subdivided land that was once an elderly lady’s rose garden on Walsh Street in South Yarra. The style he championed was called Modernism afterall, his designs were of the moment, but they also looked to the future.
That Australian Modernism has become so celebrated in the past few years is testament to its transcendence – just look at the preponderance of mid-century architecture and interior forums on Facebook, check out the price of a Parker sideboard on eBay, or watch retro aficionado Tim Ross’s fantastic television show Streets of Your Town. The 20th Century spawned the idea of residential space as so much more than just a red-brick box to house appliances, clothing and practical but imperfect-looking furniture. More than somewhere to just to eat, sleep and sit on a cumbersome sofa. Design became important, and considered. The disciplines of architecture, interior design and landscaping converged to promise home owners an individualised corner of calm and control in an otherwise chaotic life. They created a world, just for you.
Modernism began elsewhere in the world in the early 1900s but it wasn’t until the late ’40s that it truly found its feet in Australian architecture. Architects of the time had become bored of the establishment, and lobbied for a unique Australian design identity, one that didn’t cling to the coat-tails of Mother England, with her overly elaborate wrought-iron curlicues and inappropriately designed homes built to trap heat. Taking their cues instead from the Bauhaus, Modernist Australian architects embraced new materials, technology, building methods and design styles. Their architecture reflected contemporary art. International and intellectual, Modernism turned its back on the home-sick faux-romanticism of earlier Australian architectural styles, such as Victorian, Gothic, Georgian, Federation, Spanish Mission, Old English... even the Californian bungalow seemed to no longer suit.
Perhaps not finding the home-owning public so keen to go off-piste, these architects would often first design homes for their family and friends. Robin Boyd’s first three builds all included the name Boyd, much as in Sydney, where architect Harry Seidler designed his first home for his mother, Rose.
Why Modernism has become so popular again? I believe it’s because we’re only just stepping out of a mindset that began in the 1990s, when kitchens were nothing if not all white, and new builds were made purposefully bare – all the better for imprinting the home-owner’s personality, according to real-estate agents, but these things left many of us cold. You can’t help but think Boyd would have railed against this attitude in much the same way he’d raged against post-war brick veneer. Trends in architecture can’t help but become cookie-cutter, with new homes evolving into a conglomeration of popular, stolen ideas. But Modernist homes were unique. They considered not only the needs of the family, but the requirements of the landscape. The world wasn’t bull-dozed flat to start again, instead spaces moulded themselves to their surrounds.. Yes, they all shared a common language, but each was a custom creation of architect as artist.
So, what of Boyd? Grandson of the celebrated Australian artists, Arthur and Emma Boyd, and son of landscape painter Theodore) Boyd and watercolourist Edith, Robin couldn’t help but have grown up learning how to look and really see. He was part of an artistic dynasty; a world in which the visual was not taken for granted. When Robin was still a boy, his father died in a motorcycle accident, and his mother took her children to live in one of South Yarra’s first apartment blocks. Perhaps it was there that he first started to view buildings in terms of “blot” or “bouquet”. Still a teen, while studying architecture at Melbourne University, he formed the Victorian Architectural Students’ Society and its associated publication, Smudges, where he expounded his Modernist views.
Decades later, in 1960, Boyd wrote a book that caused quite a stir. Called The Australian Ugliness, it had the gall to criticise the unthinking way in which Australia had hodge-podged itself together, without an eye for the aesthetic. Established architects were in uproar. The book has recently been reprinted by Text Classics, and still makes relevant points.
There are things we will always want from a home: stillness, peace, privacy, beauty. We desire space and light, outdoor space, an uncluttered comfort, and we want somewhere to gather and welcome friends. Robin and his wife, Patricia, were entertainers. They loved nothing more than to receive guests into their home’s foyer with cocktails on a tray. Like a savvy playwright, Boyd knew that the key to creating a successful scene (be it living space or soirée) was a good entrance.
Set back from the street-front, Walsh St. sits against a wall of ivy-covered painted brick, a striped scoop of fabric forms a portico that shelters a wide-slatted rib-cage of dark-stained wooden stairs up to a Japanese-style tri-panelled door. Between the open-backed stair treads you glimpse a window, an unexpected thing. You think: why put a window under there? For light, of course, you answer yourself, but what room is that below? Details like that prompt you into an unwitting dialogue with the architecture, why and what it means, before you’ve even entered the house.
It’s not presumptuous to think that Boyd would get a kick out of the fact that this house still welcomes visitors. He was a philosopher as much as an architect, and loved to get people talking. When he died in 1971, he was Australia’s best-known architect, not just because he designed a home for Australia’s most famous historian, Manning Clarke, but because he was a public educator, author and entertainer. At parties he was the politest of hosts, while in print he could be caustic.
The Walsh Street House, is now head office to the Robin Boyd Foundation, a not-for-profit that, with the help of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects and three Melbourne universities, hosts public events and runs projects to expose the community to all aspects of good design. The Foundation encourages creative collaboration, such as this year’s Craft catalogue, and so the house still rightly holds its place as an icon to innovation.
Unfairly, perhaps, modernist residential architecture often finds itself compared to an art gallery. But the comparison summons images of blank white boxes, rooms Boyd could never have been accused of creating. The geometry of Australian Modernism far surpasses the square. A backdrop the structure may be, but there is interest everywhere you look – cubiform nooks and protrusions that create steps or benches or shelves in what would otherwise be simply a wall; a sharply sloped ceiling, which juts from one room into the next, and onward, through the glass, to end as an awning outside.
The warmth of the Boyd House’s interior does not come from its mathematical angles, or even thanks to its full-length windows, which draw in both the sunshine and the tumbling, leafy movements of nature. It comes from contrasts, like colour and texture, the ingredients of art and craft. There’s the rich brown knotted timber cladding. Burnished, reflective copper. Exposed brick painted black. A crazily paved courtyard, like a flattened slate mosaic. Thick red-pink carpet in a post-war matte lipstick shade. Tautly twisted steel cables strung along the ceiling to keep the structure up.
The materials used are hard-wearing and long-lasting, as has been proven with time. Its sustainability is more than theoretical, and more than a buzzword. This was a house built to last in an era otherwise known for plastics and pre-fabrication.
Organic shapes were Modernism’s sugar on top. Rarely seen in the shell of the building itself, freeform silhouettes were introduced like punctuation marks with fixtures, fittings, furniture and artworks (the Boyds were avid collectors, and the off-centre monochrome abstraction of the Asher Bilu painting “Solstar” looks like it couldn’t possibly hang anywhere else). Then there are the contours of a shapely Featherston armchair, for example, or the twin orbs of space-aged overhead lighting, which create further counterpoints to the home’s hard edges. The Boyd House may not be a gallery, but it sure makes one heck of a display case.
Enter Craft Victoria. Pairing the works of contemporary Australian craftspeople with one of the major works of a Modernist Australian architect is inspired. The marriage fits, as if it were meant to be. As if no time has passed at all. The colours of the newly created objects: muted pastels, dull metallics, browns and coppers. The shapes: imperfect circles, hourglass vases. The textures: ribbed ceramics, twisting snakes of cantilevered paper, mottled pottery reminiscent of concrete. None of the artists knew their works would end up here when they created them, and yet here they are, as at home as that painting.
There are people out there who give a lot of thought to the objects they create – be it a home, a dinner plate or a set of earrings. They spend years perfecting and practising their craft and they can spend many hours making just one thing. Something that can change your mood for the better, simply by taking pleasure in the fact that it exists. If there has ever been a decent argument for the value of art in any of its varied forms, that’s it.
Placed inside the Boyd House, Craft Victoria’s pieces form a diorama of a chic Australian life. Sustainable and sexy, covetable heirlooms-to-be, they’re an antidote to Ikea and not to be thrown away. Like the house, half a century from now, they will still be cherished.
‘The basis of the Australian ugliness,’ Boyd once wrote, ‘is an unwillingness to be committed on the level of ideas. In all the arts of living, in the shaping of all her artefacts ... Australia shuffles about vigorously in the middle – as she estimates the middle – of the road, picking up disconnected ideas wherever she finds them.’
He’d be pleased that is no longer the case. At least not now, and not here, in his own home.