Australia is a massive landmass. The truth is we occupy very little of it. What happens when you put a visionary English Mathematician, somewhat eccentric, together with an Architect acclaimed by many as Australia’s most important mid century architect (of the 20th Century) Robyn Boyd. Dr Michael Baker, the mathematician, demanded very particular mathematical and geometric rules. He and Boyd were both visionaries, and the resulting property Boyd Baker House ‘has been called one of Australia’s most important Post War buildings by Melbourne University’s Professor of Architecture – Mr Phillip Goad.
Dr Baker had made a very simple observation. With the then population of Australia being 12 million people and the Continent had an area determined to be three million square miles, then the land mass to be attributed to each person would be a quarter of a square mile. By constructing a perpendicular bi-sector between Pt Cook and Melbourne University (his places of employment), he measured his maximum commuting distance and travelled out. Long Forest near Bacchus Marsh was the first ‘bit of bush’ he came to.
The bush was wild and untouched with the only stand of ‘Bulmally’ located south of the Great Dividing Range. The topsoil was barely 1/2 an inch of alkaline soils. As such it was worthless for agriculture and had remained untouched.
Baker paid $4000 for it around 1964-65 after viewing an advertisement in the Age Newspaper.
Dr Baker was somewhat before his time in that he demanded an Architect to provide the plan for his new house. It was on the recommendation of a colleague, Alex Craig, that Baker selected Boyd. Craig had indicated that in his opinion Boyd was the right choice when building in or near Melbourne.
Robyn Boyd, along with Harry Seidler, stood (still does) as one of the foremost proponents of the ‘International Modern Movement’ in Australian Architecture. He wrote the book ‘The Australian Ugliness’ (1960), a critique on Australian Architecture, focusing particularly on Australian Suburbia and its lack of a uniform architectural goal. He was a member of the illustrious Boyd artistic dynasty in Australia, the younger son of painter Penleigh Boyd and first cousin of the renowned Australian painter Arthur Boyd.
Boyd Baker House was constructed in 1966.
Originally the house was designed to be built of concrete and have plastered ceilings. This was changed with locally quarried Bacchus Marsh stone used for the internal and external walls, polished concrete floors and a thatched ceiling. The polished concrete was given a jade tinge by the addition of copper sulphate in its mix.
Originally the Bakers wanted a large English garden but after enjoying the bush for a while decided that they would resist the temptation of pulling down the local scrubland and would limit their English style garden to the internal courtyard.
Michael Baker says “The flora and fauna of the bush are tied up together, they cannot be separated and each relies upon the other. The koalas, possums, bull ants species, many small birds and the wallabies all rely on the delicate, struggling foliage of the mally trees and their under story for survival. The relationship is age old, delicate and all too important to upset.” The trees obstructing the views were never cleared.
Robin Boyd describes the house in his book living in Australia as follows:- As well as the usual accommodation for the family the,house was to contain a schoolroom where the children could be taught at home. No public services were available when the building started, although electricity came soon after. Rainwater had to be caught and stored and it seemed necessary to supplement the thin shade from the profuse of gums. A strong brown slate that split into thick chunks was available locally. Somehow it was like designing a building for Robinson Crusoe. This would be the only manmade thing to disturb the calm of the bush. So despite the romantic materials, a classical closed formality seemed called for in the form of the structure. The roof became a low pyramid, 27.5 metres square over symmetrically curved stone walls linked by straight window walls. The tanks became stone cylinders supporting the edge of the roof. Service rooms and children’s sleeping cubicles formed an inner ring around the court.
Dr Baker has said that “For Robin Boyd it was not just another project. He treated it as a masterpiece”.
In 1968 Rosemary and Michael Baker decided that they needed an additional house. Their family had grown to 5 children and all of them were being home schooled. The respective inlaws would come months at a time from England to stay with them at the Boyd Baker House. They therefore commissioned Robin Boyd to build another house, now called the Boyd Dower House.
This was commissioned in 1967 and completed in 1968. By then the local quarry in Bacchus Marsh had closed down. Dr Baker as resourceful a Geologist as he was a mathematician and Botanist, Poet, Artist, Musician and everything else known to mankind, had started quarrying some sandstone on site. He found a quarry and he and his family quarried the stone by hand themselves for the Boyd Dower House.
Dr Baker tells a story that he and his family and friends would busily quarry the stone by hand and cart it up the huge hill towards the Dower House ready for the builders to turn up on Monday. By this time he used a local builder who was a stonemason.
The house is a piece of art as is the Boyd Baker House.
Changes and Developments
Eventually the only change made to the Boyd Dower House was that the original kitchen was moved to a carport area and the kitchen became a bar area. Once again a water tank was included on the site.
Michael and Rosemary Baker were prolific readers. The library area in the Boyd Baker House was insufficient. The original library was moved to the bedroom next to the kitchen.
Still Dr Baker ran out of space for his books. So he proceeded to commission the design of a library. He contacted Sir Roy Grounds. Sir Roy Grounds is famous for design in the National Gallery of Victoria in St. Kilda Road. In coming into the Boyd Baker House Sir Roy asked Michael Baker “what mistakes did Robin make” Dr Baker simply replied “none” .
The library has visions and geometrical images of his NGV in St. Kilda Road. Once again Dr Baker, family and friends quarried the local stone themselves for the construction. No electricity was supplied to the library.
During the 1980’s Dr Baker became very concerned about the Urban Sprawl. He was worried about the reduction of the wilderness and a number of ranch style homes with tidied landscape increasing in the area. He was also concerned about the poor co-ordination between State Government Departments and thought how magnificent it would be if a national park could be established for the recreation of millions of people who lived in the Western suburbs otherwise the western suburbs would just catch up with and devour Long Forest. Accordingly, he donated approximately 200 acres to the State Government to start what is now known as the Long Forest Conservation Reserve.
By 2006 Michael Baker had remarried and the only visible changes to the house he made upon remarrying were that he replaced the main bedroom with a library, removed the scullery converting it into a kitchen and converted the kitchen into a dining area. His children had all grown up by 2006 ranging in age from 47 down to 18 years of age. Finally, he wanted to relocate to inner Melbourne and now lives in Fitzroy. Some of his children live in England and some live in Melbourne.
Is this property an Architectural Folly? Possibly. Or perhaps it is a design for the future, a perfect melding of the Australian landscape with wonderful, serviceable and liveable buildings with purpose designed spaces and rooms.
The first sight of the property reveals a mortared stone exterior shaded by eucalypts and ringed with what look like mini Martello towers; these are, in fact, cleverly disguised rain tanks to harvest the home’s water supply. Honeyeaters and magpies serenade from the treetops.
Unlike other landmark Australian homes that are privately owned or museums, Boyd Baker House is a holiday rental where guests can indulge their Architectural Digest fantasies. Peter and Mary Mitrakas bought the 14ha property from Baker in late 2006, had it heritage listed shortly afterwards and then furnished its austere spaces with 1960s design statements, such as Eames rosewood lounge chairs and an original Featherstone sofa.
Mary also brought a decorator’s touch to the process; each of the three bedrooms’ colour themes is dictated by a signature piece of furniture. There’s an orange Arne Jacobsen swan chair, for example, the geometric white-on-black of a Ronnie Tjampitjinpa painting and a Hans Wegner sofa. Peter installed retro luxuries, including original Bang & Olufsen turntables (BYO vinyl), and added contemporary amusements such as DVD players and disc collections in the bedrooms.
And here is the most interesting aspect of the property. You can stay there! It’s not cheap – $2300 for 3 nights, but what a delightful opportunity to enjoy the magnificent, eccentric, yet practical vision of two visionaries – Robyn Boyd and Dr Michael Baker.
The property was sold to Melbourne lawyer Mr Peter Mitrakas in 2006. Since then he has opened the doors to over 15,000 visitors including film crews and interest groups.
The Mitrakases’ art collection – a mix of indigenous and contemporary works – brightens walls throughout the home. The smaller Boyd Dower House was built 200m away to accommodate visiting relatives. It sleeps another four adults. In 1977, a Roy Grounds-designed library completed this trinity of bush originals. Those looking for adventure can go horseriding, hiking or wine-tasting, but there is much to be said for staying put. In the evenings, light the fires, cook up a storm and dine with friends at the Hans Wegner table and Danish wishbone chairs. A thoroughly modernist house party.
The property was Heritage listed 6 months after it was purchased by Peter Mitrakas.