Revisited Reid House by Bruce Rickard
In 1961, Bruce Rickard distilled the ideas of Frank Lloyd Wright for the Australian context in the design of this Sydney house.
This remarkable Sydney residence was designed by Bruce Rickard in 1961 for clients who were captivated by a fictional house in an Alfred Hitchcock thriller. Its design reveals how the organic modernism of Frank Lloyd Wright influenced Rickard’s own ideas for living in the landscape.
A spy movie may be an unlikely foundation on which to base your “forever home,” but that’s exactly how it was for John and Judy Reid in 1961. They would go to extraordinary lengths to re-create the rusticated stonework of a house seen in the 1959 Alfred Hitchcock thriller North by Northwest.
The film’s Vandamm House was set on Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills region of South Dakota. But the residence was a work of fiction: its interiors were built on a soundstage at the MGM studios in Culver City, California, and its exteriors – including thick stone buttresses and a cantilevered terrace – were a photomontage. It was all brought convincingly to life through the magic of cinema.
Determined to find its designer, the Reids contacted Hitchcock, who was in Sydney promoting the film. Hitchcock was also an architecture enthusiast and suggested they write to MGM, who obligingly sent photographs of the studio set. Then a family member suggested they meet a friend – a young architect, Bruce Rickard, who’d recently returned to Sydney from an extended trip to the United States.
In the US, Rickard had been deeply inspired by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, widely considered America’s most influential architect. Wright’s aesthetic of organic modernism, combining natural timber and hand-cut stone, ran counter to the machined minimalism of European modernist architects.
In designing the Reid House, Rickard distilled this influence and localized it in response to the commanding hilltop position and John Reid’s perfectionist tendencies, as well as the Reids’ pioneering spirit. Judy had been one of the first Australian female university graduates in science;
John was involved in innovative structural solutions and became an agent for the reinforced earth construction system invented by French engineer Henri Vidal in 1963.
This robust architect/client collaboration produced a house that could sit just as comfortably in the Hollywood Hills as it does in the Hills District of north-west Sydney – once a prime agricultural area with long views east to the city, west to the Blue Mountains. The clients called the house Mirrabooka, an Indigenous term for the Southern Cross constellation – perhaps a reference to its commanding views.
The Reids’ two-hectare property is entered from a busy road, with the house and garden stepping down the ridge. Stairs from the carport lead to a Japanese-style garden and koi pond, where giant carp guard the entry to the house. This court garden is sheltered from westerly sun by the long bedroom wing. Craned into position decades ago, stepping stones through the water invite (or dare) the visitor to cross.
Inside, landscape and light are present in every moment, at every turn, framed and distilled to capture the essence of place and subtly distinguish the private and public areas of the home. A cloistered vestibule leads left into a wing of five east-facing bedrooms via a timber-lined corridor where clerestory windows channel afternoon sun. To the right of the entry are the north-facing public rooms.
The living room is embraced by walls of Sydney sandstone, roughly corbelled and stacked irregularly – just
Mirrabooka is today one of the best intact early works of a great Australian architect credited with bringing the North American influence to Australia.
as in the Vandamm House. Its low ceilings are outlined with clerestory windows and a skylight above the fireplace.
Its deep-red polished concrete flooring flows through into the dining room, study and kitchen, all of which are lined with Tasmanian oak.
Built-in furniture in each intimately scaled public room declares its purpose, including a 5-metre-long sofa with overhead bookshelves facing the living room hearth and the kitchen’s 4.5-metre stainless steel benchtop. All are in excellent condition six decades on, as are the built-in robes and desks in the children’s bedrooms and the main ensuite’s original tiling and vanity.
The Reids entertained often, so the public rooms open to a broad outdoor terrace, a swimming pool (added in the 1980s) and a cantilevered balcony that is braced between hillside and house. This balcony, constructed using post-tensioned concrete, was an innovation in its day, as were the living room’s clear acrylic skylight framelessly melding into the stone chimney, the polished concrete floors and the irregular pattern of the stone walls (the walls were demolished and rebuilt before the Reids were satisfied).
It was not just the house that they laboured over. The Reids had bought the site with cultivation in mind, planning to establish an arboretum. Over the years they would plant a canopy of pines, redwoods, maples and other rare trees across the contours of their acreage, earning them membership of the International Dendrology Society.
Mirrabooka is today one of the best intact early works of a great Australian architect credited with bringing the North American influence to Australia. Its horizontal banded rooflines and stacked stone walls invite comparison to Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Fallingwater, a house built in 1935 beside a waterfall in Laurel Highlands, Pennsylvania.
After the death of John and Judy Reid, their surviving children had the house and one-third of its two-hectare estate listed on the New South Wales State Heritage Register,
ahead of its sale (in early 2021) to a Sydney family. Finding the right buyer to appreciate the property was important to preserving their parents’ legacy. The family has cherished memories of childhood here – of helping their father build stonework in the garden, of climbing and planting trees and of exploring the wilds beyond their boundaries.
His fascination with Mirraboooka’s details led second son Jason Reid into architecture. “I really admire the wonderful 3D light-filled spaces, thanks to the layer of clerestory windows that offer intriguing glimpses of sky, cloud, trees and distant mountains,” explains Jason. “I think this house is similar, in a way, to that house from the movie which inspired my parents. It’s dramatically set on a hilltop, with extensive views and [for its day] an avant-garde aesthetic and open relationship between inside and outside. That was only just beginning to happen here.”
Jason’s sister, Jane, who was married at Mirrabooka, reflects on the house with similar affection. “Its aesthetic worked magic on all of us from a very young age,” she says. “It’s influenced the way we all feel about light and space, form and function, views and aspect. I remember, as a seven-yearold, I was given the job of puttying the nail holes in my bedroom’s [timber] walls. That made me feel very important.”