For­mer ra­dio star Tim Ross takes a witty and wise look at the de­signs that de­fine the way we live

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Streets of Your Town,

‘Solemn Aus­tralians think that an in­ter­est in de­sign is a su­per­fi­cial and triv­ial in­ter­est,” the great Mel­bourne ar­chi­tect Robin Boyd fa­mously said. “This is ac­tu­ally an im­prove­ment; they used to think it ef­fem­i­nate and vaguely im­moral.”

Boyd’s view is cer­tainly a lit­tle dated th­ese days. When he died in 1971, Boyd was Aus­tralia’s best-known ar­chi­tect. A lover of modernist clean lines, he was con­stantly af­fronted by the hodge­podge de­signs of our sub­urbs. To him, a man of some el­e­gance, they seemed like “a dress­maker’s floor strewn with snip­pings of style”.

He also sug­gested that own­er­ship of a small house on a fenced al­lot­ment was “as in­evitable and un­ques­tion­able a goal of the av­er­age Aus­tralian as mar­riage” — though it’s ful­fil­ment for many re­mains scan­dalously dis­tant (as is mar­riage, for some).

But in­ter­est in de­sign, at least to judge from the pop­u­lar­ity of home ren­o­va­tion se­ries, is at its height. And while trends fluc­tu­ate, we are a long way from sat­u­ra­tion point. It’s not just de­sign, of course, but the sto­ries of those who em­bark on their jour­neys of change, with de­sign TV con­tin­u­ing to re­spond to the in­sa­tiable de­mand for sto­ries of trans­for­ma­tion.

Co­me­dian and broad­caster Tim Ross has been on his own quest in the past few years. For­merly one half — with the mer­cu­rial Mer­rick Watts — of the top-rat­ing na­tional break­fast ra­dio show on Nova 96.9, he has re-in­vented him­self as a kind of de­sign com­men­ta­tor, driven by a long­stand­ing pas­sion for ar­chi­tec­ture.

In the past four years, he has per­formed his show Man About the House ex­clu­sively in ar­chi­tec­turally sig­nif­i­cant build­ings, which he turns into tem­po­rary the­atres in a per­for­mance that’s part sto­ry­telling, part stand-up and a lit­tle mu­sic. He has played to sell­out crowds across the coun­try in build­ings de­signed by a who’s who of Aus­tralian ar­chi­tec­ture, in­clud­ing Harry Sei­dler, Robin Boyd, Glenn Mur­cutt and Roy Grounds.

The show has also toured over­seas, with sea­sons in the US and New Zea­land, and most re­cently at the Lon­don Fes­ti­val of Ar­chi­tec­ture, where it was named a must-see event by The New York Times.

It’s a long way from the some­times an­ar­chic Mer­rick & Rosso Show, in which the duo cre­ated up to 15 hours of orig­i­nal ma­te­rial a week. He and Watts were a re­mark­able pair: clever writ­ers and im­pro­vis­ers vo­ra­ciously feed­ing off pop­u­lar cul­ture. Watts was the self-de­scribed air traf­fic con­troller, ma­nip­u­lat­ing the show’s many el­e­ments — the pro­mos, an­nounce­ments, in­ter­views, talk­back and comic set pieces — and re­fus­ing to be in­tim­i­dated by the sheer bru­tal­ity of his part­ner’s hy­per­ac­tive at­tack.

He’s still Mr Cool in his new two-part se­ries Streets of Your Town: hip­ster-bearded, hair coiffed, and el­e­gantly dressed in suit and tie, a scarf ca­su­ally tossed about his shoul­ders. He is our lo­qua­cious tour guide on a per­sonal odyssey that ex­plores how and why our sub­urbs look the way they do.

His di­rec­tor is the multi-award-win­ning Sally Aitken, who some years ago gave us the su­perb Get­ting Frank Gehry, which fol­lowed the cre­ative process of ar­guably the world’s great­est liv­ing ar­chi­tect as he cre­ated his first build­ing in Aus­tralia: Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy Syd­ney’s new busi­ness school. Her di­rec­tion is as hip, svelte and dap­per as her co-writer and pre­sen­ter. Aitken’s work is char­ac­terised by el­e­gant un­der­state­ment and wit.

It’s a pacy trawl through so­cial his­tory look­ing at the way de­sign de­ci­sions since the end of World War II have re­flected their time and the so­cial as­pi­ra­tions of those who have lived in the re­sult­ing build­ings. “Take a bird’s-eye view of Aus­tralia’s sub­urbs to­day: We’re build­ing the big­gest houses in the world, McMan­sions that are su­per­sized, and we’re lov­ing them,” Ross tells us at the start, as a drone cam­era hov­ers over a sub­urb of mon­u­men­tal bound­ary-hug­ging de­signs. “What does that say about the way we live to­day?” But in the 1950s, 60s and even the 70s, when Ross was a kid, peo­ple lived in small homes with big back­yards, the Aus­tralian quar­ter-acre dream: “It was mod­ernism, it was the golden age of ex­per­i­men­tal de­sign and we built some of the best houses in the world, but some­where along the way we got lost.”

Ross makes no se­cret of his pas­sion for the 50s “in­ter­na­tional style” in ar­chi­tec­ture, which val­ued sim­plic­ity and min­i­mal­ism, a metaphor he sug­gests for “the hope of a na­tion when small was beau­ti­ful”. He starts his jour­ney in Palm Springs, Cal­i­for­nia, where mod­ernism flour­ished at a time when jet­set­ters Steve McQueen, Greta Garbo and Frank Si­na­tra all par­tied around the singer’s pool. Ross points out the clean lines, low-slung de­signs and but­ter­fly roofs that echoed the wing-topped au­to­mo­biles. The footage is ir­re­sistible, and ar­chiv­ist Miriam Kerter should take a big bow cen­tre stage.

Our spruiker then swaps Hol­ly­wood for Can­berra, trad­ing in the Buick con­vert­ible — he drives many lovely cars in this show — for a trusty Holden as he re­veals Grounds’s Aus­tralian Academy of Sci­ence, com­pleted in 1959, as the build­ing that more than any other cap­tured an Aus­tralian cre­ativ­ity full of “when we built with con­vic­tion”.

Ross presents Can­berra as “one big sub­urb” where mod­ernism took hold and “the free­stand­ing sub­ur­ban home on the quar­ter-acre block be­came the Aus­tralian home-own­er­ship dream”.

We’re in­tro­duced to the work of the great pi­o­neers Boyd, Sei­dler and Peter McIn­tyre (the last named a man of self-ef­fac­ing charm who is still prac­tis­ing in Mel­bourne), and taken in­side their dis­tinc­tive homes — some of which have hosted Ross and his trav­el­ling troupe. We learn how the best and bright­est ar­chi­tects in the mid-cen­tury were en­gaged not only in de­sign­ing houses for wealthy clients but also pro­ject homes across the na­tion. They were houses that sat lightly on the land, brought the bush in­side and spoke of egal­i­tar­ian as­pi­ra­tion.

There was Boyd’s unique Small Homes Ser­vice — for five quid you could buy ar­chi­tec­tural plans off the shelf and build it your­self — and Ross leads us into the ex­pan­sion of modernist show-home dis­play vil­lages. His favourite house is fa­mil­iar to this old film ac­tor: the Westleigh villa that pro­vided the set­ting for the rau­cous movie Don’s Party. I re­mem­ber it well for the weeks of night shoot­ing and the de­light on con­fi­dence, set when the kook­abur­ras started up, as it meant we had al­most fin­ished for the evening.

Then Ross brings us into the present, and he and Aitken be­gin to de­velop a th­e­sis that par­al­lels the high-minded so­ci­etal as­pi­ra­tions of the 60s and, con­versely, a cul­ture of con­sump­tion, fear and re­treat in the 90s that con­tin­ues to­day.

It’s a sur­pris­ing show, as Aitken sug­gests in her di­rec­tor’s notes, “a kind of ar­chi­tec­tural ed­u­ca­tion on the hoof” — for her as well as the viewer. One of the rev­e­la­tions is how the great houses of Boyd, Sei­dler, Grounds and oth­ers were not cre­ated in a vac­uum, and they were de­ter­mined to share their de­signs with the masses.

Ross’s only re­gret about the se­ries is that he couldn’t fea­ture more houses: “Our ar­chi­tec­tural his­tory in this coun­try is strong and some­thing we need to value more.” And he’s right.

Once, ar­chi­tects were part of the na­tional con­ver­sa­tion, par­tic­i­pat­ing in the de­bate about the nar­row­ness and steril­ity of Aus­tralian life. Now, only de­vel­op­ers and their po­lit­i­cal mates rule — de­light­ing in de­stroy­ing the past, cut­ting trees down, de­stroy­ing houses for un­wanted free­ways — and with them what that fine writer Craig Mc­Gre­gor called “the sub­tle and com­plex cor­rup­tions of af­flu­ence”. Ross’s show might in­spire them to con­sider dif­fer­ent pri­or­i­ties and give us ar­chi­tec­ture that Mc­Gre­gor called “clean, straight­for­ward and just slightly tinged with the ro­man­tic”.

As Aitken says, we’re still ob­sessed with prices and re­turns on prop­erty in­vest­ment, as well we might be when houses have be­come im­pos­si­ble to buy. “Per­haps now the con­ver­sa­tion will also veer to­wards how our houses ac­tu­ally work for us as much as what they look like, so that we will ask bet­ter ques­tions of our liv­ing spa­ces — and de­mand more from the de­vel­op­ers, coun­cils and de­sign­ers who make our homes pos­si­ble,” she says.

Maybe. Don’t hold your breath.



Tues­day, 8.30pm, ABC.

Tim Ross is pas­sion­ate about ar­chi­tec­ture

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