In his 1970 book Living in Australia, Melbourne born architect Robin Boyd notes that “Living and architecture enjoy in Australia a curious, close relationship.” Boyd goes on to prompt readers to play a word-association game with friends, using the word architecture as a starting point, predicting that before long someone is bound to say the word home – he promises the same associative response to the word living. Boyd made an assessment in 1970 that still holds true today, at least in our suburbs, that Australia is a nation that holds the concept of a two-generation family residing in a home as a central cornerstone of life, practical and spiritual.
Boyd pinpoints the architectural value of the ‘home’, noting that “the individual house is a unique medium of personal artistic expression.” The rich, Boyd says, blow all their money on lavish mansions – others, people whom Boyd designates as being “with less money than taste”, found it within their power in the 1970s to hire an architect to design a “delightful” bespoke house, one which, through an idealised interface with that architect, could tap in to this opportunity for artistic expression.
In the suburb of Ivanhoe, just beyond Kew and Northcote to Melbourne’s north, the recognisable, externally austere form of Boyd’s 1967 Featherston house, squats at the end of an extended driveway so long that a visitor coming from the southeast must pass the house by a good forty meters before hooking back onto the descent.
Featherston House designed by Robin Boyd, Ivanhoe, Victoria. Photo Mark Strizic.
Boyd designed this house for noted Australian design couple Grant and Mary Featherston, who offered Boyd free reign to fully realise his conception of a house focused primarily around a central, enclosed garden. In Living in Australia Boyd states with some finality that “no matter how basically it [the home] changes shape as new techniques permit or encourage radical rethinking, it will always be that expression, as intimate as a cave if not as a womb”, and if ever there was a stark and poignant illustration of this point it is the house that lies before the visitor, swooping in, on foot or on rubber, down the long drive in Ivanhoe.
Boyd’s preoccupation with the internal family life of home structures, the introspection of his spaces, is broadcast like a drive-in film on the towering faces of brick which greet the outside observer. Much like his Walsh St home, now the site of the Robin Boyd Foundation, a featureless brown brick exterior is the form one is greeted with upon arrival, with a handshake in the form of a semidetached carport, giving little hint for the transcendent space hidden beyond. Attached to the sides of the main building are two secondary structures: on the eastern side a 2-bedroom apartment, built for Mary Featherston’s parents; and a small private extrusion on the opposite side to house a bathroom, kitchen, dressing room and workshop.
Once you penetrate the membrane of brick, you enter one of Boyd’s legendary spaces, and what a space it is. A wonderland setting awaits the visitor: lily pad timber framed platforms extending to the exterior brick walls twist around a central brick chimney, a lush garden encrusts the lower reaches of this intensely vertical experience, the far wall is a gigantic Stegbar framed and structural window (conceived by Boyd himself) and the roof a semitransparent expanse of insulated, corrugated fibreglass, glowing with light in the day, a soft bedding for the comfortably lit space at night.
Featherston House designed by Robin Boyd, 22 The Boulevard, Ivanhoe, Victoria. Photo Mark Strizic.
Visitors enter the house through the carport, the two spaces connected by a communicative row of tall windows built in to the double height brick edifice of the main building, the gap between the two structures bridged by a footpath as well as a greeting garden treatment which foreshadows what is to come. Illustrated best in Boyd’s photograph of the interior, the visitor enters the building on one of four platforms – or “stages” to use Boyd’s own words – namely the Studio platform, which is connected to three other platforms arranged around a central chimney. At the top a bedroom platform, further down and below the level of the studio a living stage, and further down still, situated on the far side of the definitive central column of brick, a dining area, exposed to a towering vertical space above. Nestled comfortably amongst the plants and trees of what is arguably the most striking feature of the house, the internal courtyard is fully landscaped, naturally contoured and lushly planted garden treatment, complete with lagoon pool and moss.
In a recorded interview on Adam Saunders’ “By Design” radio podcast for Radio National, aired in 2009, Mary Featherston discussed her home, and gave a more personal insight into how it came to be. Mary notes that she and her husband loved the natural, that they had admired the Walsh St house, “which was essentially an enclosed courtyard”, and that they asked Boyd for something similar. They had initially desired a heavily industrial house, but were talked out of expensive steel and into wood and brick by their faithful architect. Boyd is famous for his attention to the needs of his clients, for his direct devotion to educating and enriching the lives of his clients, and Mary’s interview confirms this: Boyd was a very good listener, a quiet man, and deeply curious, Mary identifies his design challenge as being the process of translating what he gleaned from his interviews with his clients into a strong architectural idea.
Robin Boyd. Photo courtesy of the Robin Boyd Foundation.
This writer was fortunate enough to live in a Boyd house, at 204 Monaroe Crescent in the Red Hill suburb of Canberra, which also features the same sense of the hand crafted, pacific feeling of a modernist stasis combined with an intuitive, one might say expressionist, grasp for what clients are really hoping to feel – emotionally, physically, intellectually – in their home space.
With less expensive, locally sourced materials, the Featherston house gives the impression of being a delightful mimicry of modernism, womb-like to reference Boyd’s own words, rather than a bunker or glass and steel. Replete with timber, referential to a kind of artificial but highly representative nature, this Boyd house – a Featherston Home – feels, above all else, Australian.
Words: Richard McPhillips