With design historian Michael Bogle I recently completed a heritage report and a visitors’ guide called Monterey Moderne. Commissioned by Rockdale City Council the report and guide are about a group of 1930s houses in the streamlined Moderne style in the small suburb of Monterey on the western shore of Botany Bay. I can still recall my excitement years back in coming across photos and plans of these houses in a Wunderlich Durabestos catalogue. I quickly headed to Monterey to find that some of them were still standing.
Streamlined Moderne was founded on the idea that modern transport and communications technology – cars, planes, high-speed trains, ocean liners, radios, news reels and movies – could be the basis for a democratic, affluent future. Moderne was most popular in the USA where the designer Norman Bel Geddes and others promoted skyscraper cities linked by freeways to new suburbs as the answer to the Depression’s economic malaise. Bel Geddes’ most famous creation was Futurama, a giant model of the future city displayed at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
In the Moderne world everything had to be streamlined, and not just designs where it actually made sense like Bell Geddes’ designs for cars. From California to Sydney buildings became streamlined as well. Moderne was primarily a commercial style and Sydney still boasts numerous 1930s streamlined hotels, cinemas, apartment building and the like. Moderne houses are less common outside the wealthy suburbs as curved walls are expensive to create in brick and concrete was not a popular domestic material.
As a result most of Sydney’s Moderne houses are built in fibro; Wunderlich and James Hardie jumped on the streamlined trend and produced curved fibro sheets for this purpose. However it is rare to see so many in one suburb. We found that Monterey’s streets – there are only five of them, all with Californian names – were first built on during just four years from 1937. And most of the suburb’s first houses were designed and built by Brighton Constructions using variations of four basic floor plans, hence the unusual consistency of design.
Brighton Constructions was founded by Rupert Francis Gow, a picaresque character who reminded me of the 1930s hucksters immortalised by Lennie Lower’s novel Here’s Luck, always on the prowl for their next plate of steak and eggs, their next racing tip, and their next business opportunity. Rupert Gow had a few careers before opening a real estate office on the Grand Parade at Monterey in 1937. The most notable of these was an attempt in 1931 to form a greyhound racing company at Lismore. The racing of dogs after a tin hare was then a new sport and was proving wildly popular and profitable across New South Wales. Unfortunately Mr Gow was more interested in collecting shareholders’ money than in investing said money in a race track and he ended up a star witness in a Parliamentary enquiry into the shonky dealing surrounding the new sport. Sadly, Gow’s historical record goes cold in the early 1940s when he was in court charged with defrauding some of his customers.
Despite his roguish career we should thank Rupert Gow for his keen observation of contemporary architectural trends. Fibro is not just a building material, it’s not just an asbestos-ridden mistake that condemned thousands of builders, renovators and others to an early and painful death. It’s also one of the really distinctive things about Australia, one of very few countries where fibro was used mainly as domestic cladding material rather than a cladding and roofing material for factories, warehouses and other industrial structures. In Australia it became a means of creating domestic structures and the fibro house is arguably the most distinctive expression of Australian architecture.
Fibro houses were built in all the popular twentieth century architectural styles including Arts and Crafts and Californian bungalows. But the material really came into its own during the 1930s when its machine-made look aligned with contemporary style. Monterey’s fibro houses were economical products of the Moderne moment. Their fibro sheets were installed horizontally rather than vertically, fibro cover strips emphasising this ground-hugging aspect as did corner windows and rounded building corners. Verandas were a thing of the past, replaced by small curved porches and ‘sunrooms’.
Monterey’s houses proved that fibro could be stylish as well as cheap and fibro moved beyond the realm of austerity materials. Monterey’s new suburbanites – chemists, boat builders, clerks, electricians, farm equipment retailers, taxi drivers – were members of the first generation of ‘ordinary’ Australians to become home owners. Their houses are a time capsule from these years of optimism, sandwiched between economic Depression and war. It’s a nice coincidence that Monterey’s streets were named after Californian towns – Pasadena, Hollywood, Monterey and Culver – when the suburb was first laid out back in 1903. California was the epicentre of Moderne design and architecturally the new houses declared themselves part of a promised land of popular affluence, sun worship and progress just like California.
These days of course domestic affluence makes much grander statements than it did in the 1930s, hence there are less than twenty of these little houses still standing. Monterey’s Moderne houses are rare and special, and I hope our little visitors guide helps them survive a bit longer.
This article was originally posted on the Powerhouse Museum blog, Inside the collection.