There’s a rumbling in Melbourne’s suburbs. It’s something that began in earnest over 70 years ago, but today could well prove to be its most significant time. I speak, of course, of Modernist suburban architecture.
Melbourne’s suburbs are recognised as having some of the finest examples of Modernist residential architecture in the world. Modernism’s clean lines, indoor-outdoor connections and open layouts were, in many ways, perfectly suited to the burgeoning relaxed ‘Aussie lifestyle’ of the postwar years. Melbourne in the ‘50s and ‘60s was a city enjoying a peaceful and more-prosperous time, ready to release itself from the shackles of war and colonialism, and forge its own identity. Modernism did away with stuffy, restrictive Federation architecture and ushered in a totally new way of living.
With architectural greats such as Robin Boyd and Roy Grounds calling the city home, Melbourne’s growing suburbs became fertile ground for this exciting new architectural movement.
If you caught the fantastic ABC TV series Streets of Your Town presented by Tim Ross, you’ll have a strong understanding of the historical context of Modernism in Australian suburbs and cities. In the program, Ross charts the rise, demise, and resurrection of the Modernist movement across the country; from Australia’s first modernist project homes through to the groundswell of enthusiasts working to protect our Modernist buildings today.
Interior views of Troedel House, Wheeler’s Hill, 1954, designed by Robin Boyd. Photo: Mark Strizic. Courtesy of the State Library of Victoria
For decades, modernist architecture in Melbourne’s suburbs fell out of favour. Our suburbs sprawled and we began to desire big homes on small blocks — maximum bang for our buck. Still today many modernist masterpieces are being torn down to make way for higher density housing close to the city.
However, there is a resurgent movement of Melbourne residents determined to save so many of these oft-neglected suburban homes. My good friends, Laura and Wilf, bought a piece of Melbourne’s forgotten Modernism in 2013 in the beachside suburb of Beaumaris. As fierce proponents of Modernism, this was a considered purchase.
The pair committed to refurbishing rundown elements and restoring as much of the original architecture as possible. Luckily, Laura and Wilf purchased the property directly from the family of architect Eric Lyon, and the home hadn’t suffered any botched 1980s renovations like so many of its ilk. Laura and Wilf just one of many couples passionately preserving Melbourne’s suburban heritage, despite the fact that the vast majority of Modernist homes are not heritage listed.
This year’s Open House Melbourne is looking to champion this new-found enthusiasm for modernist architecture and design through their Modern Melbourne program of events, talks and interviews — inviting all Melburnians to better understand Modernism’s impact upon our city.
Interior views of Purves House, Kew, 1967 by Robin Boyd. Photo: Mark Strizic. Courtesy of the State Library of Victoria
Opening Modern Melbourne
Open House Melbourne Executive Director, Emma Telfer, and President, Tim Leslie, have interviewed on film living greats of the Australian Modernist movement, Daryl Jackson, Peter McIntyre, Mary Featherston and Graeme Gunn. At a special screening of the interviews at ACMI on 12th July there will also be a Q&A with special guests. It’s an opportunity for those who are curious and passionate to explore how Modernism has shaped Melbourne.
Another pristine example of Beaumaris Modernism will be open to the public during the Open House weekend (Sunday) with pre-booked tours running at The MAD House. These will definitely book out fast as locals and visitors alike clamber to see this beautiful home. Meanwhile a modernist apartment block in St Kilda has been retrofitted with a new green roof community space; visit Westbury Street Green Roof to see how some inner-city residents are re-imagining their homes and communities. Now a staple of the OHM weekend, the Cairo Flats designed by Best Overend will once again be open, exposing a classic example of Modernism in inner-Melbourne.
View of staircase, Purves House, Kew, 1967 by Robin Boyd. Photo: Mark Strizic. Courtesy of the State Library of Victoria.
It is crucial for us all to understand the impact of Modernism on Melbourne’s suburbs, and how we can borrow from its many successes to build better homes, and a better city, in the future. Take the opportunity to engage and explore our Modernist history through this year’s OHM program, or wander around your own suburb to spot the unassuming masterpieces under threat — and maybe spot those gems that have already been saved from the wrecking ball.
Words: Ben Morgan
Photo of Emma Telfer and Mary Featherston: Bart Borghesi
This piece was commissioned as a part of Open Journal’s 2017 partnership with Open House Melbourne. To find out more about the Open House Melbourne program click here.