I can’t make up my mind if it would be a curse or a compliment to be born into an artistic succession. That is how it was for Robin Boyd, born in 1919 into a family that already had a reputation for painting, sculpture, pottery and ceramics, and his generation would further enhance the family’s creative clout. Robin chose architecture, a career that would see him heavily awarded and recognised for both his residential architecture and his social commentary on Australian identity.
Recently I went to visit the Boyd family home in South Yarra. A house he designed in 1957 and moved into the following year with his wife and children. The house is designed in a modernist style with functionalism at its heart. He wanted a home to share with his wife that had separate quarters for his children.
He designed two pavilions built around a central courtyard. One finds the eye drawn to the central courtyard constantly as though it is difficult to ignore. This outdoor space unifies the home. The side boundaries have glazed glass walls that connect the two pavilions. They are very eye catching and the stippled glass provides a sense of whimsy as one looks through to the sky beyond. A gentle curved covered way following the glass overhead, almost playful. One could imagine a scene from Enid Blyton’s Magic Faraway Tree happening in situ. Time could be suspended in this little private oasis of a courtyard. It feels quite secluded from the outside world. But Robin Boyd Walsh Street house is not a place for hiding and I find myself thinking about privacy a lot during my visit. Boyd ensured the outside world remained at large although those that were inhabitants here would have had very visible lives.
There is a large amount of glass throughout. As one enters into the first floor from the street there is a bathroom on the left and then you are straight into a mezzanine space that was used as both the main bedroom and entertaining area. Rumour has it many cocktail parties took place here and I could easily imagine this would be a cool space for a sixties soiree. I am perplexed as to how this doubled as a bedroom. It is a very open space visible from the second pavilion, the ground floor and the entrance hall. But nevertheless, it is an insanely wonderful example of Robin’s modernist point of view.
Robin was part of an elite club and knew everyone who was anyone. He is spoken of as being sociable, kind, charismatic and in possession of unfailing good manners. There are reports he never lost his sense of modesty. He wrote nine books and completed more than 200 homes. He worked in the post war boomtime era when we were passing through a period of great change in Australian society.
Robin held polemic opinions about Australian suburbia and chastised the locals for their ‘mindless emulation’ of America, coining the term “Austerica”. The belief that everything desirable, luxurious and enviable of the twentieth century is American. A number of his books contain derisive comments on society and the way in which people lived. A social commentator for his time and of his time. Much of his literature utilises the hermeneutics of suspicion to convey an unsophisticated people. He describes a mishmash of architectural styles co existing in any given suburb. He also coined the term ‘featurism’ a practise he sights as the thoughtless ornamentation of buildings. A derogatory word used to malign his peers Art Deco aesthetic, something he considered to be very outdated and an unimaginative import from America. These ideas may be somewhat truthful but as we regard the world through a different lens today we can truly appreciate that this was not the whole story. With suburbs like Beaumaris providing a wonderful example of modernist style on mass and Art Deco Buildings finding a new appreciation for their distinct decoration.
The Robin Boyd Walsh Street house received the Australian Institute of Architects 25 year architecture award in both the Victorian and National chapters during 2006. It has featured in many international publications beginning with Japan International design in 1962. It is an excellent example of modernist architecture and I thoroughly enjoyed my visit. Should you ever have a chance to see the Featherston House in Ivanhoe it is unmissable. It was designed for Grant and Mary Featherston in 1968. A home built around a garden. It won the RAIA Gold Medal in 1969. This home is still inhabited by Mary, but she occasionally allows for visitors.
Sadly, Robin Boyd died in 1971 at fifty-two years of age, this cut short what had been a very interesting and prolific career. Robin Boyd was a great Australian architect. The Boyd family synonymous with painting, sculpture, pottery, ceramics, music, literature, poetry and architecture.
If you would like to learn more about Beaumaris Modern then here is a link https://beaumarismodern.com.au
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