Domain: Modernist architecture and the aficionados from Australia taking it to the rest of the world

Domain published the following article on 14 February 2020 Author: Jenny Brown

The Fenner House, Red Hill, Canberra, 1952. Architect: Robin Boyd. Photo: Robin Boyd Foundation

At the annual international poster event for all things mid-century, a posse of Australian modernism experts and activists has convened in California to do a series of show-and-tell presentations to share with the world our admirable if ever-dwindling collection of home-grown modernist architecture.

Tomorrow, in the middle days of the 10-day Modernism Week in the Palm Springs forum Annie Price describes as “Disneyland for mid-century loving adults”, representatives from Canberra Modern, The Robin Boyd Foundation, Beaumaris Modern and the owner of one of Sydney’s most intact mid-century homes, the Jack House, will give separate talks on the way the optimistic post-war design style shaped up in Australia.

At the festival that attracts some 152,000 participants to 350 events, why would visitors who can hear about John Lautner, visit the late Kirk Douglas’ home among scores of well-preserved mid-century buildings and suburbs, or learn about 1950s fashion, cars and cocktails, want to know about Australia’s variation of modernism?

Price, the vice-president of Beaumaris Modern which is presenting for the first time this year, says “the idea of bringing the story of our little suburb in bayside Melbourne to the mecca of modernism means we are quite literally putting Beaumaris on the map”.

She says her talk by the activist and appreciation group that will include its founder and president Fiona Austin, and famous patron architect Peter Maddison, who fronts the Australian series of Grand Designs, will explain how in just-developing 1950s Beaumaris ”young architects were experimenting with their first builds, trying out new techniques and achieving great things”.

Robin Boyd, who investigated US modernism first-hand, was among the designers who contributed to the stock of clean-boned, sun-oriented and structurally spare open-plan houses in Beaumaris.

And Price’s partner, Jamie Paterson, is giving a lunchtime talk on the still-influential polymath architectural giant.

Paterson is the operations manager of The Boyd Foundation that, since 2005, has been working to preserve and further Boyd’s legacy.

He says he’ll talk on how Boyd’s 1956 trip to the US, which included a teaching stint in Boston, connected him with the exciting new movement and resulted in him becoming “an influential and truly transformational” practitioner.

“Presenting at Modernism Week,” says Paterson, “allows us to talk to a new audience and hopefully, bring international guests to Melbourne.”

Boyd, whose work was mostly restricted to residential, didn’t only work in Beaumaris. Indeed, he is author of the low and linear Fenner House in Red Hill, and was in Roy Ground’s office when Grounds designed Canberra’s most iconic mid-century building, the Shine Dome.

Interior designer and heritage consultant Rachel Jackson is in Palm Springs to talk about the work of the event-based collective Canberra Modern, and to explain that the second wave of the federal capital’s development in the 1950s and ’60s called together a young and moneyed clientele with some of the best young architects from the state capitals.

The roll call that resulted in Canberra evolving as “one of the world’s great 20th century planned cities” included Roy Grounds, Harry Seidler, Enrico Taglietti, Pettit+Sevitt and Alex Jelinek.

“Much like Palm Springs,” Jackson will explain, “Canberra became the place these professionals were experimenting with a sense of optimism and bravery.”

As exciting as it is to address “audiences of mid-century aficionados and enthusiasts, along with regular folk who are passionate fans of the era – people like me!”, Price says there is an urgent subtext to the Australian presentations.

Jackson says some of Canberra’s most significant modernist gems “remain under threat – sadly”.

The Beaumaris group, which since its local council recommended just nine of the district’s modernist homes via a voluntary proposal scheme to heritage list, must remain constantly vigilant to try to preserve the remainder. So they very much appreciate the opportunity to put the work Beaumaris Modern does before such an important and informed gathering.

“Modernism Week gives me hope that we can turn the tide: that we can make council and those that don’t really get it – certain developers and members of the community that have been ill-informed on what heritage protection really means – understand that we have something truly unique in Beaumaris.

“And, that once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.

“We can’t turn back time and a lot of our suburb as been changed. But peer behind the tea-trees and there are gems to be found and treasured. We just have to keep doing what we are doing for as long as these treasures remain.”