I can’t decide 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 with a reputation for painting, sculpture, pottery and ceramics. 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.
I recently visited 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 main square 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 gives a sense of whimsy as one looks through 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 pretty secluded from the outside world. But Robin Boyd Walsh Street house is not a hiding place, and I think about privacy often during my visit. Boyd ensured the outside world remained at large, although those inhabitants here would have had apparent lives.
There is a large amount of glass throughout. As one enters the first floor from the street, there is a bathroom on the left, and then you are straight into a mezzanine space used as the main bedroom and entertaining area. Rumour has it many cocktail parties took place here, and I could easily imagine this would be an ideal 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. Nevertheless, it is an insanely excellent example of Robin’s modernist point of view.
Robin was part of an elite club and knew everyone who was anyone. He is described as friendly, kind, charismatic, and possessing 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 passed through a significant change in Australian society.
Robin held controversial opinions about Australian suburbia and chastised the locals for their ‘mindless emulation’ of America, coining the term “America”. The belief is that everything desirable, luxurious and enviable in the twentieth century is American. Several of his books contain derisive comments on society and how people lived. He was a social commentator for his time and of his time. Much of his literature utilises the hermeneutics of suspicion to convey unsophisticated people. He describes a mishmash of architectural styles co-existing in any given suburb. He also coined the term ‘featurism’, a practice he sees as the thoughtless ornamentation of buildings. A derogatory word used to tarnish his peer’s Art Deco aesthetic, which he considered very outdated and an unimaginative import from America. These ideas may be somewhat true, but as we regard the world through a different lens today, we can truly appreciate that this was not the whole story. Suburbs like Beaumaris provide an excellent example of modernist style on mass, and Art Deco Buildings are 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 in 2006. It has been 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. It is unmissable if you ever have a chance to see the Featherston House in Ivanhoe. It was designed for Grant and Mary Featherston in 1968. A home built around a garden won the RAIA Gold Medal in 1969, and Mary still inhabits this home, but she occasionally allows visitors.
Sadly, Robin Boyd died in 1971 at fifty-two years of age; this cut short what had been an exciting and prolific career. Robin Boyd was a great Australian architect; the Boyd family was 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