Many people seem to have a skewed view of what Heritage actually means. For a start it doesn’t just refer to architecture. But here that is our primary concern and interest. We live in an evolving city and society. Buildings perceived to be of Heritage significance are often grand mansions with the Italianate or greco embellishments of the mid to late 19th Century.
Where it became really interesting was in the mid 20th Century when Architects like Robyn Boyd and Harry Siedler started to visualise a different type of build for the Australian climate, its landscape and population density. Modernism was to define the future direction of residential architecture from the 1950s and ‘60s onwards.
What is Modernism?
Modernism is a more socially informed way of building spaces and items for living according to need and function. It could be best deemed as a cluster of design ideals, beginning at the start of the Twentieth Century, which stemmed from an aversion to the ornate excesses of the recent Victorian style, and a reaction to industrialisation.
It is generally recognised that Modernist design formally established in Europe in 1919, with the opening of the Bauhaus School of Design in Germany. The school incorporated the combination of arts and craft disciplines and innovators such as Walter Gropius, Mies Van Der Rohe and Le Corbusier. Frank Lloyd Wright, an American of this time, who derived much of his inspiration from the open living spaces of Japanese homes, also held huge influence on the following century of architects.
The philosophies and practice of these people and many others, evolved, traveled and in post WW2 became the defining philosophy for many architects and designers, thus this era is loosely dubbed Mid-Century.
Many extraordinary examples of public and domestic Mid-Century Architecture can be seen worldwide, Australia is no exception. Touched by freshness of the Modernist ethos, combined with the post-war boom time economy, suburbs, cities and costal regions became the location of many ‘Modern’ structures and interior design.
Examples of Australian domestic Modernism vary from the heritage listed houses of Harry Seidler and Robin Boyd, to classic 1960s pastel pre-fab tract housing – still sighted in the tea tree scrub of coastal towns to this day.
Modernist public buildings range from university faculties to suburban pools to the premier architectural icon of Australia – The Sydney Opera House.
Attributes that denote Modernist Mid-Century homes and design may be:
- Use of the natural elements to regulate temperature, air-flow and efficiency of the home’s energy use eg: Solar Passive Design.
- Flat or single angled rooflines.
- Floor to ceiling windows.
- Clean lines and open plan spaces.
- Specific attention paid to the site pre-construction and the building’s placement within the block eg: The front of the house does not have to face the street.
- Split-levels and sunken living areas.
- Uninterrupted Indoor/outdoor areas.
- Lack of decorative and ornate styling such as ceiling roses, iron lacework etc.
- The use of new materials and technology from the era eg: laminate, stainless steel, large scale glass panes, plastics, concrete and also natural and textural surfaces of interest such as wood paneling, slate, shag carpets, woven curtains.
In Modernist furniture simple shapes, functionality, mass production, geometric forms, new textile design and the use of ‘modern’ materials such as stainless steel, are at the forefront.
As definitions and design theory within the 20th Century are endlessly debated, we’ll be inclusive and encompassing of all variations which may be titled Mid-century. From the pastel kitsch of 1950s domesticity, to the stark concrete monsters of Brutalist Architecture, the aim is to appreciate and discuss all.
The desire to preserve this unique awakening of Australian architecture has been somewhat of a ‘slowburn’.
The activism became much more urgent in August last year when a number of iconic residences in Beaumaris, Caulfield, Studley Park and the Mornington Peninsula came under real threat of demolition and in two notable cases the properties were demolished.
The matter was canvassed widely in the Fairfax press at the time.
Online advocates fight to save Melbourne’s modernist masterpieces
Architecture enthusiasts are banding together against the wrecker’s ball.
When the Burgess house’s eagle-nest eyrie lit up at night, neighbours dubbed the building “Muckle Flugga”, after the Scottish lighthouse. With its flat roof, cantilevered balconies, extensive interior wood panelling and large fireplace, this 1957 Chancellor and Patrick designed home in bayside Beaumaris is a beacon of mid-century modernity.
Along with Studley Park and the Mornington Peninsula, Beaumaris is one of the “‘epicentres of mid-century modernity”, says Simon Reeves, architectural historian and director of Built Heritage. In the excitement of the post-war housing boom, young couples wanting to start families took to the new subdivisions of Studley Park and Beaumaris. The consequence of this development was a rich trove of mid-century modernist buildings.
“While there are some excellent pockets of mid-century housing in Toorak and South Yarra, Studley Park and Beaumaris have that historic cohesion,” Reeves says. “Like Palm Springs in California, it has a similar time frame and cohesion.”
Ironically, their modest simplicity has been one of the factors undermining the preservation of modernist buildings, says Rohan Storey, a heritage consultant who worked for National Trust for 20 years. “While the community accepts Victorian [era architecture as historically significant], the whole community doesn’t yet accept modernism as heritage. Some people still think they’re ugly, plain or ordinary. It’s a function of the types of houses they are and not enough time [having] elapsed.”
Over the past 15 years in Beaumaris, homes by well-known modernist architects such as Robin Boyd, Neil Clerehan and Roy Grounds have succumbed to demolition. But a sea change is occurring. Time is one factor. Mid-century modernism is sufficiently old enough, people are more interested and the internet and social media have raised awareness and celebrated these buildings for their clean lines, elegant detailing and simple indoor-outdoor living.
A new generation of mid-century fans – many of them designers – are coveting the area, according to interior designer Fiona Austin, founder of the website Beaumaris Modern. Other websites, such as Modernist Australia, post real-estate listings as mid-century homes come on the market. Increasingly, such sites and social media groups have become politically activist as well. Nothing galvanises a group more than seeing cherished houses succumb to the wrecking ball.
In Sydney, the Sirius building was saved largely through a campaign by the Save our Sirius website. In July, Modernist Australia raised awareness that emigre architect Anatol Kagan’s Lind house in Caulfield North was to be replaced by eight townhouses. The City of Glen Eira obtained an interim reprieve, and Planning Minister Richard Wynne this week granted an interim protection order.
“There’s no doubt that the advocacy by groups such as Modernist Australia influenced [Glen Eira] Council to show leadership on this issue,” says Felicity Watson, advocacy manager for National Trust of Australia (Victoria). “The rise of online interest groups is a great thing for heritage advocacy.”
Building on this grassroots advocacy, the trust aims to lobby local and state government to invest in heritage assessments and planning scheme amendments specifically targeting significant post-war places.
“We are currently working with a group of experts to develop a Suburban Modern campaign, to be launched in the coming months,” Watson says.
While councils are obliged to regularly do heritage reviews, post-war buildings rarely cross the radar. “The City of Glen Eira has not listed a single place built after 1940,” Storey says. “Unfortunately Beaumaris, in particular, is under siege by developers and from people who want to build McMansions.”
Prospective buyers have to compete with developers’ deep pockets eager to maximise typically large sites. But for how long? “Heritage saves the property forever and doesn’t rely on a good owner to save it until they sell it and it might be under threat again,” Storey says.
It’s in this spirit of raising awareness that Beaumaris Modern was launched.
“If Peter McIntyre’s house in Pasadena Avenue with its curved roof got knocked down there’s not another, it’s experimental,” Austin says. “Once it’s gone it’s gone. That’s the crux as to why they should be saved.”
Historic awareness travels upstream also. Having “ground-up” online resources can uncover new information contributing to the incremental knowledge of architectural and social history.
“There are no obscure architects,” says Reeves, whose website posts a “dictionary of unsung architects”. “These are just individuals whose work hasn’t been researched or written about. No one had heard of Kagan 10 years ago. It’s not that everything they ever designed is notable or worth heritage listing. It’s about putting them in context.”
Alas, the home in Beaumaris, designed by Architects Chancellor and Patrick in 1962, located at Mariemont Avenue, has been demolished.
‘Significant’ Chancellor and Patrick Bayside house demolished
A house in the Melbourne suburb of Beaumaris, designed by architects Chancellor and Patrick in 1962, has been demolished. The demolition took place on Monday 13 August, after a demolition permit was granted by the local council City of Bayside.
The house in Mariemont Avenue was included in a 2008 heritage study of inter- and post-war heritage in the Bayside area commissioned by the council and carried out by Heritage Alliance.
The house is listed as part of a collection of houses on Mariemont Avenue, which is home to eleven houses designed architects including John Baird, Kurt Popper and Brian O’Connor in addition to the now-demolished home by Chancellor and Patrick, which was identified as one of five “significant” houses.
“Although the work of these and other architects is well-represented in Beaumaris,” said the report, “there are very few instances where these houses survive in cohesive rows or in such close proximity.”
The house itself, the report goes on to say, “although slightly altered by overpainting, is an otherwise interesting example of the work of this important post-war firm.”
The house was sold in May 2017 for $2,315,000, according to realestate.com.au.
Fiona Austin, president of the Beaumaris Modern heritage preservation group, said that the fact that the only heritage citation available for the house was a decade old – and only evaluated the house in the context of the street – stymied attempts to secure intervention from Heritage Victoria.
She told ArchitectureAU that in the future the group would consider attempts to “bypass” the council by commissioning its own heritage studies of threatened properties.
The group is now turning its attention to a house on Beach Road, designed by Arthur Russell of Demaine, Russell, Trundle, Armstrong and Orton.
In April, after just a month, the council discontinued an independent heritage study of Beaumaris and Black Rock, one of Australia’s most dense collections of residential mid-century modernist architecture. The study would have identified properties for possible heritage listing.
The council instead adopted an opt-in system whereby the owners of the relevant properties will be able to self-nominate their properties for heritage controls.
Beaumaris is home to a proportionally large number of houses by some of Melbourne’s most significant modernist architects and practices, including Anatol Kagan, Yuncken Freeman and Chancellor and Patrick.
Rex Patrick of Chancellor and Patrick, lived in a house of his own design in nearby Cheltenham before moving to Beaumaris later in life.
More fortunately, Lind House in North Caulfield has been saved from the wreckers hammer and is now listed on the Victorian Heritage Register.
Located at 450 Dandenong Road, the Heritage Council determined that it is of cultural heritage significance to the State of Victoria and should be included on the Register.
The property’s features include motifs associated with European Modernism, such as a broad-eaved butterfly roof, window walls, feature stone cladding and articulation as an ‘upside down house’ with principal living areas at the upper level, creating the effect of an elevated volume.
The new state heritage controls now replace the local heritage controls which Council received in March 2018.
Glen Eira Mayor Cr Tony Athanasopoulos said in August 2017 Council lodged a nomination with the Executive Director of Heritage Victoria to include Lind House on the Victorian Heritage Register.
“The Executive Director recommended that Lind House was not of Victorian State heritage significance and that Council consider the property for local heritage protection only,” he said.
“Council objected to this recommendation which then escalated the matter to a Heritage Council hearing.”
Cr Tony Athanasopoulos said a hearing was held on 8 March into these submissions where Council argued that the intactness of the property and significance of the architect ─ Anatol Kagan ─ justified Lind House cultural heritage significance and should be included.
“The Committee disagreed with the Executive Director’s recommendation and agreed with Council’s arguments,” he said.
The Committee stated:
- that it was persuaded by Glen Eira’s submissions in relation to the unique European design elements of the place, and its ability to demonstrate “first-hand” Modernist residential architecture;
- that the intactness of the exterior elements are notable to a high degree; and
- that the property is a fine and highly intact example of post-war Modernist residential architecture.
Mr Kagan was renowned for his contribution to mid-century modernist architecture in Melbourne during the post-war period. Council is embarking on an extensive program to review and update the heritage protection in Glen Eira. A Major Heritage Review of Glen Eira will commence in June to undertake a municipal-wide heritage review to identify gaps and protect significant heritage properties currently not identified within the Glen Eira Planning Scheme.
For the cynics, it’s good to be aware that these homes were designed for living in and not to be museum pieces. Large, open and expansive, it allowed for a style and comfort unknown in Australia prior to their construction.
Developers are attracted to these properties as they usually sit upon very large blocks in superb locations. The property demolished recently in Beaumaris had sold in May 2017 for $2,315,000. Consider that depending upon the redevelopment proposed the developer is aiming to triple or quadruple this initial investment.
The Victorian Heritage Register is in fact your passport to our history, our culture and dare we say it – our future. In this case Glen Eira Council were pro-active and saved a beautiful building from destruction. Yet in Beaumaris, Bayside Council is simply not supportive of preserving this valuable heritage.
As is demonstrated in both cases, it is only with citizen action that the case for Heritage preservation can effectively be put. The choice is yours. Stand by and watch – or get involved.
Heritage – it belongs to all of us.
Balance Architecture recognises the importance of the preservation of Historical Architecture. We specialise in the renovation and restoration of Heritage Buildings. For further information on Balance Architecture’s services or to make an appointment for a free consultation, please click here or call 0418 341 443.