Nov 25, 2016

Living in a Modernist House

I recently caught up with a great two-episode series on the ABC called Streets of Your Town, about suburban architecture in Australia. It's worth a look - you can catch it here until 30 November.

This is something I didn't know: post World War Two all the way into the early 1970s, there was a program in Australia where great architects worked with housing projects and building companies to create beautiful, innovative modernist houses at affordable prices for the suburbs.  The Small Homes Service headed by Robin Boyd provided modernist architect-designed plans which were sold to the public at cheap prices, creating a bounty of beautiful, distinctive and affordable two and three bedroom homes throughout the suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne.

The Seidler House - Matt Adams Flickr CC

Watching this, I suddenly recognised the first home I remember living in. It was a brick box with sloping roof, exposed beams and bricks, floor to ceiling windows, a split level ground floor and an open staircase, all nestled in a native garden and surrounded with a ti-tree fence. Tick tick tick - all of these are features beloved of the modernist architects of the time.

We have always remembered this house as an oddity - weirdly designed, a menace to small children, plagued with hunstman spiders thanks to being nestled in that native garden. But now I realise it was actually a modernist masterpiece!

When I moved with my own family to the suburb we live now, I drove to that house to take a look, as it's only a couple of suburbs over. The ti-tree fence is gone, and it seems so is much of the native garden, at least at the front, but otherwise it looks exactly the same. I was surprised at how small it looks from the street, but that's deceptive, as the tall brick box you can see is just the front part of the house, and it has another box with the whole back part of the house attached behind it.

Here are the features of that house, all of which are classic modernist design:

  • simple rectangle shape
  • single roof line
  • very open plan
  • exposed brick walls in the family room and living room
  • open staircase
  • split level - two steps from the entrance area took you to the lounge room
  • sloping ceiling with exposed beams and track lighting
  • floor to ceiling windows in most of the rooms 'bringing the external inside'
  • glass doors and glass walls to the back yard
  • native garden
  • in the back yard, a big garden mound covered in tan bark with a ti-tree and native shrubbery

Most of these features were pretty avant-garde to our 1970s selves, and throughout our childhood my sister and I always remembered this house as bonkers. It was also not kid-friendly - we were constantly scraping our elbows on the exposed brick walls and burning the soles of our feet on the heating grates in the floor (again, not a common feature in houses at the time), and one time my little sister tumbled through the open staircase.  Our Labrador also had a mishap on the staircase at some stage and for some time our dad had to carry him up and down the stairs every night and morning.

There was a timber deck out the back, one side of which overlooked some bricks down below - which my little sister fell onto and cut her head one time. The room we played in was carpeted with grey nobbled industrial carpet squares on which we regularly burned our knees and ankles.

The master bedroom was on a mezzanine floor, the only privacy a waist-high wall that overlooked the rest of the house.

When I describe the house now, it sounds kind of awesome - but it actually wasn't.

My mother hated the house because it was not great for small kids, it was dark and kind of ugly, and it was plagued with huntsman spiders. My mother is a proper arachnophobe, which she successfully masked to us throughout our childhood to avoid passing on the same fear. She always remained calm and did what needed to be done when a huntsman invaded the house, which was empty a can of fly-spray on it and yell for the dog who would then gobble it up, fly spray and all.

I did love a few things about this house. I loved playing under the stairs or on the landing halfway up them, and I loved sitting under the tree on the native garden mound. I thought of it as a willow tree, and in my memory it was every bit as magnificent. (It was actually a ti-tree and a few shrubs, but it was still my magical fairy garden).

Looking back now, I am struck by a few things about this house:
  • it was big! There were two living areas, and the master bedroom upstairs had a walk-in robe and an ensuite. My sister and I each had our own bedroom, and we had a playroom 
  • it was packed with modern features that we probably should have appreciated, but didn't
  • much of the 'weird' stuff is standard now - like the open plan, and the flow between the kitchen and living area 
  • it was pretty luxurious in its way - a mezzanine floor, ensuite, ducted heating and track lighting - not things a young family in a rental house would usually expect at the time
  • in hindsight, this was obviously a very cool, designer house - and yet it was also somehow an affordable rental for a single-income family with little money. 

This style of house is often praised for its style and liveability, but we didn't find our house very functional. 

But just as I was wondering if we had in fact been suburban philistines who did not appreciate good architecture, I was amused to come across this article from 2015, when a Seidler house was for sale: "Owners of Seidler house: "it's hideous to live in". Here's an excerpt from the for-sale ad:

"Looking for serious design heads, architecture nuts and modernism fans with serious money....Perfect if you are Don Draper on his third marriage. But for conventional living, no."

When my sister and I asked our mother years later, why the hell did you guys choose that house?? her response was that they never liked it but there was not a lot of choice at the time.

Something that still remains true with rental houses today.

Some years ago, the house was updated with new bathrooms and kitchen, the open plan was reduced with the addition of a couple of walls, and and the exposed brick walls were painted over. Its estimated value is now over one million dollars, and the suburb it sits in is no longer affordable.

We could never have foreseen any of this in 1976.


  1. Sometimes a fine design just doesn't fit every family. Sounds interesting for sure.

    I grew up with nice hardwood floors with oriental carpets and antique furniture...I thought it was horrible and always admired my friends with their wall to wall carpet and heavy Ethen Allen clunky furniture. I think the best stuff growing up is always what someone else has.

    1. Yes, when you have little kids you need a single level, lots of soft carpet, and a few doors in the place.
      When I was a kid I was jealous of a friend's house which had shag carpet and Lazy Boy recliners.

  2. We once looked at a similar house in Box Hill South to buy. Rather glad we didn't, really. It was certainly interesting, but not so practical.

    1. It would probably be worth a bit now! Or has been knocked down and replaced.

  3. I wish that affordable houses were being built now.
    The home we grew up in was small, and barely functional. One bathroom, inadequate heating. And after my mother's death sold for well over half a million. It has now been replaced with a McMansion and I wonder whether it is more liveable? It ought to be, but I wonder...

    1. There are articles from 2011 online that say the government was bringing back the Small Homes Service - that obviously never happened which is a shame. There is nothing wrong with a small basic house with a backyard. Having said that, I have visited a few McMansions and I have felt jealous. It's fashionable to mock, and some of them do look terrible from outside, but the ones I have been in have all seemed great. Big spaces, plenty of storage, lots of light, fantastic kitchens and more than one toilet - what's not to like?

  4. Replies
    1. Unique is right! And even though this one we lived in was not the best of its kind, it is pretty great that such houses were being designed and made available for the public at that time. That is pretty cool.

  5. Modernist design is definitely not my style. I grew up in an Eichler home; kind of a Frank Lloyd Wright wanna-be. Super modern lines, lots and lots of glass except at front of house. Flat roof, which was great until it snowed!

    At least we didn't have any Huntsman spiders!

    1. I just had to google Eichler home, but once I saw it I definitely recognise it. Quite a few of those here in Melbourne as well. I recently listened to a great podcast on 99% Invisible about Frank Lloyd Wright's "Usonian" homes and realised it was probably the inspiration to the small homes project here in Australia. Obviously captured the imagination of architects for a good many years!



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