THE PLACE WE CALL HOME
Former radio star Tim Ross takes a witty and wise look at the designs that define the way we live
‘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.
WE BUILT SOME OF THE BEST HOUSES IN THE WORLD BUT SOMEWHERE ALONG THE WAY WE GOT LOST
Tuesday, 8.30pm, ABC.
Tim Ross is passionate about architecture