Vive the evolution
The face of our suburbs continues to change, but not always for the better argues Tim Ross in his new television show, writes Jennifer Veerhuis
Tim Ross (left) is best known as comedian, but there’s one thing he doesn’t find particularly funny. And that’s what he sees as the loss of Australia’s identity in architecture. In a new two-part series, Streets Of Your Town, on ABC1, Ross looks at the history of Australia’s suburbs, discussing the merits of architect-designed homes by names such as Robin Boyd and Harry Seidler and exploring how big homes became so popular.
Back in style
In the show Tim visits a variety of homes around the country, including the imposing Blues Point Tower by Seidler, built overlooking Sydney Harbour in 1962, when it was Australia’s tallest apartment block.
A stroll around Seidler’s more modest Rose Seidler House — the backdrop for Sydney Living Museum’s Fifties Fair each year — reveals a strikingly modern design in a bush setting that still holds the public’s attention almost 70 years on.
As the post-war years gave way to unprecedented prosperity, our houses grew too large, Tim argues, and responded less and less to the landscape.
“Why don’t the suburbs look more Australian, where’s the sense of who we are?” he says. “You could go to some of the newer suburbs today and you could be in America, you could be in Europe.”
Bigger is not always better in housing, Tim argues, suggesting that sometimes we need to be careful what we wish for.
“I think we’ve been sold it and we were being sold it in the 1960s but back then we just couldn’t afford it,” he says. “Then things became cheaper and we could get that space.
“If someone tells you that you can get the extra room and it’s not going to cost you any more, you say, ‘Yeah, I’ll have it’.”
History repeating itself
We could do a lot worse than look to the past for housing design inspiration, Tim says.
“There was a time when you could buy an architect-designed project home that was modest in size and that was accessible to everyday Australians,” he says. “But people have made the mistake that space is design and they’re two different things.”
A visit to the Rosenburg Hills house in Turramurra, designed by Neville Gruzman and built in 1966 for the owner, an “ardent nudist and vegetarian”, reveals a home bathed in natural light via floor-to-ceiling glass windows which welcomes the bush indoors, while still maintaining privacy.
Similarly, the Godsell House built in 1965 in the Melbourne suburb of Beaumaris is an example of a light-filled home that changes throughout the day while maintaining a strong connection to the outdoors.
However, Tim says, somewhere along the line we lost our way.
“In the late ’80s or early ’90s the term McMansion was coined in America about over-the-top style housing,” he says.
“Especially in the ’90s, they drew from lots
of eras so you could get a little bit of Georgian, a little bit of Edwardian and you’d create this fake modern facade.
“Then it was on to build the biggest house you could on the block and we bought the idea, hook, line and sinker.”
Ask an architect
But while better designed homes might be a solution, he does believe architects seem costly and out of reach for many Australians.
“In the 1950s and ’60s, Modernists believed great design would change the world and so they believed in design being accessible to everyone,” he says. “The perception today is that architecture is expensive. Architects have not done a great job in selling themselves but a good designer will save you every time.”
Back to Basix
The Building Sustainability Index, known as Basix, has achieved some good outcomes in NSW in Tim’s view, particularly with the standard of apartments in Sydney, but that hasn’t necessarily translated to house design. Put simply, we could do better. “They don’t always have to stick out, they don’t have to scream ‘look at me’,” he says.
“Too often we’re building houses that turn our back on the environment and the neighbourhood in a country where we’ve got the best climate in the world.
“You drive in through your garage and you stop interacting with the neighbours.”
The Rosenburg Hills house designed by Neville Gruzman in 1966 balances natural light and privacy.
The original architect returned to extend the house in 1983 at the request of the owners.
Rose Seidler House on Sydney’s upper north shore was a post-war design by architect Harry Seidler for his parents.
Blues Point Tower at McMahons Point was an early 1960s design by architect Harry Seidler, overlooking Sydney Harbour.
Godsell House, designed by 1960 by architect David Godsell for his family home, in Beaumaris, Melbourne, is bathed in natural light all day.
The Torbreck building, designed by architects Job and Froud, was the first high-rise residential development in Queensland.