Powerhouse curator Charles Pickett and former curator Judith O’Callaghan preview their new book about Australian architects’ attempts to make suburban houses cheap, liveable and appealing.
The ‘Australian dream’ of suburban living is under threat, assailed from all sides by crises of affordability, environmental sustainability and urban infrastructure. A family home on a block of semi-rural land remains a powerful ideal, but it’s less and less likely that families, society or the environment will be able to afford this dream for much longer. Meanwhile, more and more people are turning their backs on the suburbs, crowding into the inner areas of our major cities.
A central element of today’s urban malaise is the widely perceived failings of Australian project homes, on average the largest new homes in the world. In contrast, during the 1950s, 60s and 70s some of Australia’s best-known architects – including Robin Boyd, Harry Seidler, Graeme Gunn and Ken Woolley – applied their talents to small project homes. The result was a rare marriage between high design and popular taste, producing some ofAustralia’s most distinctive and sought-after homes. Midcentury project homes built bySydney’s Pettit & Sevitt andMelbourne’s Merchant Builders enjoy a kind of legendary status, setting the standard against which more recent project homes – and suburban architecture in general – are measured.
Designer Suburbs traces the changing relationship between architects and affordable housing over the past century. The background to the book goes back two decades. Judith’s Powerhouse exhibition and book The Australian Dream: Design of the Fifties (1993) placed architecture and interior design within the context of the Australian suburbs. Charles contributed to The Australian Dream and also published The Fibro Frontier: A Different History of Australian Architecture (1997). These projects examined the role of architects and designers within everyday Australian life.
Designer Suburbs’ main focus is the decades from the 1950s to the 1970s, when the struggle to beat the postwar housing shortage produced a unique wave of design consciousness and turned architects into celebrities. As well as Pettit & Sevitt and Merchant Builders, architects designed houses for Civic Constructions, Program, Habitat, Lend Lease and others. Their houses were petite marriages of modernist chic and Australian building industry practice. Brick veneer construction, Gyprock interior wall cladding, Monier concrete tiles, Stegbar windows and other components and methods typical of 1960s cottage building were successfully adapted to stateof-the-art domestic architecture.
Similar marriages of modernism and the suburbs were consummated in the United States, notably the Los Angeles Case Study houses, but these were rarities. Australian builders created thousands of houses from this template. For a couple of decades these small, deceptively simple houses transformed the look of suburbia. They were not designed to appear impressive from the street, but to complement and enhance their setting, to reduce barriers between indoor and outdoor living, and to maximise the visual and social pleasures of home.
Thanks to their architectural significance, these homes were documented by Max Dupain, Wolfgang Seivers, Kerry Dundas, David Moore and other leading lights of an outstanding generation of photographers. Designer Suburbs features more than 150 images by these and other photographers and designers. It draws on the Museum’s extensive collection of photos, drawings and other documentation of designer project homes, much of it donated by Ron Sevitt and Ken Woolley.
The designer project home faded during the 1980s, victim of the exhaustion of near-city land and the new popularity of inner-city living in terrace houses or apartments. Since then the burgeoning size, embellishment and excess of new houses has given the term project home a pejorative ring, encouraging the architectural profession to again engage with mainstream housing. Several high-profile architects including Tone Wheeler and Gabriel Poole have created new designs for the project home market. Others have developed the potential of modular design and prefabrication as well as proposing high-density suburban alternatives. The potential exists for a new era of designer suburbs. Designer Suburbs aims to be a background and resource for today’s debate about suburban design, lifestyle and environment.
Designer Suburbs is co-published by the Faculty of Built Environment, UNSW and New South Books in association with Powerhouse Publishing and can be ordered on-line.
This article was first published in Powerline, the magazine of the Powerhouse Museum (Spring 2012)