The legacy of Robin Boyd

robin boyd

Who was he?

The name, Robin Boyd, should be known to every Australian architect. He was a Melbourne architect prominent in the postwar era, but many decades ahead of his time. He was a proponent of an environmentally sensitive and locally specific adaptation of modernism, a teacher, a writer, an ambassador for the profession, and a political agent committed to the advocacy of good design.

Boyd was awarded the Australian Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal in 1969 in recognition of “the many distinguished works of architecture and architectural writing for which he has been responsible.”

Though his design career encompassed a number of larger works, including churches, colleges, some of Australia’s first motels and the Australian Pavilion for the 1967 World Expo, Boyd’s enduring focus was in the residential sphere. Working predominantly with lower income families, his houses were the results of an egalitarian commitment to accessible architecture. In a country staunchly and inexplicably devoted to housing designs poorly suited to its culture, climate and construction technology, Boyd utilised effective design, simple materials and new prefabrication methods to provide cost effective, high quality buildings.

Throughout his two hundred or so completed houses, Boyd’s work was characterised by restrained materiality, a sympathetic engagement with the natural landscape and a warm humanity. They were also polite buildings, as mindful of their neighbours and streetscapes as they were their internal amenity. A half century before the Victorian ResCode planning scheme enshrined in regulation the need to consider a building’s impact on its surrounds, Boyd’s work sought sensitive solutions for both his clients and the built environment.

As indicated in the Gold Medal citation, this approach was reflective of a broader dedication to good architecture and the propagation of its values to all Australians irrespective of wealth or background. In addition to his residential work, Boyd is remembered for The Australian Ugliness (1960), a timeless attack on the fickleness of Australian cities and one of nine books published in his lifetime; the National Trust of Victoria, which he helped establish in 1956; and the Small Homes Service, whose first director he was from 1947 until 1953.

the australian uglinessFirst edition dust jacket of The Australian Ugliness, 1960

What is his legacy?

More than any of his contemporaries, possibly more than any Australian architect since, Boyd’s engagement with architecture and the built environment extended far beyond the confines of his individual projects. The Small Homes Service and associated lifestyle articles in The Age influenced a large part of an otherwise design illiterate public; his lecturing posts at universities here and abroad influenced the next generation of architects; and his publications have continued to influence every generation since. If we were to distil all of these activities, and the values behind them, into a single phrase, it would be to expose the general public to the benefits of good architecture.

robin boyd foundation

Since 2005, this philosophy has taken formal shape in the Robin Boyd Foundation, a not for profit organisation originally established by the AIA and National Trust, and committed to the continuation of Boyd’s legacy. Beginning with the purchase of Boyd’s own house in Walsh Street, South Yarra, the Foundation now runs half a dozen open days a year providing access into modernist and contemporary houses; seminars from contemporary architects and their clients at Walsh Street; annual publications returning Boyd’s writings to print; and, beginning at the start of this year, an intensive workshop session for architecture students not unlike the Ozetecture Summer School in Sydney.

These programmes all share a common DNA intimately tied to the Foundation’s mission statement. The open days are most representative: according to Tony Lee, executive director of the Foundation, typically 50% of the five hundred or so attendees at each open day are not associated with the design industry. Then there are the open houses themselves: otherwise inaccessible to the public, they are either modernist projects by Boyd and his contemporaries or new houses by some of Australia’s best architects. Here is an ongoing opportunity for architects and architecture to engage closely with the general public, and in so doing for the public to learn about the value of both.

There is another initiative the Foundation hopes to undertake, one that perhaps will even better respond to Boyd’s legacy. The reincarnation of the Small Homes Service as the New Homes Service will revive what we suggest was Boyd’s greatest achievement. Originally a canny collaboration between the AIA and The Age, the Service published weekly designs from 1947 into the 1960s for small houses of 100 – 120sqm in the Tuesday Age, available for members of the public to purchase for £5. Boyd accompanied each submission with articles offering comment on design and lifestyle ideas resonating with his modernist values.

The Small Homes Service was born from a simple idea, but achieved a sophisticated array of positive outcomes. Such a coup is almost impossible to imagine these days, addressing many of the aims that Boyd, and indeed the entire profession, holds dear:

  • Boyd’s weekly lifestyle articles were eagerly anticipated, an injection of design culture both desired and valued by the general public.
  • The complete design and documentation packages were available for purchase for what in today’s money would equate to $2,500, a fraction of an architect’s usual fee.
  • The limited run of each design, capped at 50 editions, returned 40% of proceeds to the design architect promising an income similar to one-off projects while also providing a measure of exclusivity for purchasers. Much like a limited edition print of an original artwork, this was an immensely appealing way for homebuilders to achieve high quality design solutions with great cost effectiveness.
  • The houses were built by sections of the public otherwise unable to afford boutique architectural design, thereby expanding the influence of architects rather than competing with their usual client base.
  • And most importantly, the general housing stock was improved through the broader involvement of architects, developing real alternatives to the environmentally insensitive, cookie-cutter offerings of volume builders.

Lee believes the key to the success of the Small Homes Service was its ability to offer houses radically departed from the typical housing stock of the day. Skillion roofs, open plan living, planned extendibility, large expanses of glazing and northern orientation were at the time highly challenging concepts. Neil Clerehan, director of the Service from 1954 to 1961, adds that this success was also in very large part thanks to Boyd’s unique combination of qualities: a talented designer and writer, he was also a respected commentator and enthusiastic ambassador for the profession. The truth is revealed in the numbers: according to Clerehan, as many as 10% of all new homes constructed in Victoria during the Service’s peak were built according to its designs alone.

The New Homes Service will be established on the same principles as the original, but is likely to neither aim for nor achieve its predecessor’s impressive market saturation. Lee acknowledges that competing with today’s volume builders would be undesirable. Instead of trying in vain to match their prices, he instead sees the revitalised Service as a vehicle to once again test radical housing proposals. Arguing that Australia’s housing stock has remained largely unchanged since the significant leaps of Boyd’s era, perhaps design can once again transform the industry. Lee says he would be satisfied to achieve fewer built projects with the compensatory hope that, much like the car industry whose new technologies trickle down from the most expensive models to their utilitarian counterparts, new ideas achieved in those projects might have a positive impact on the rest of the housing market.

What should we learn?

To be successful, the New Homes Service will have to overcome significant hurdles not yet in existence in the 1950s. A wider array of lot sizes, established building stock in both inner city and middle suburban areas, stringent town planning regulations and more expensive construction costs will all take their toll. However, careful targeting might ameliorate at least some of these complexities. The larger lot sizes, greenfield sites and looser planning controls of the outer suburban growth areas are all conducive to the Service’s offerings, as is a population demographic usually more interested in volume built housing than architectural design. This is the one area of Melbourne where architects have the least involvement and where the New Homes Service stands to have the greatest positive impact.

A further challenge is the Service’s current lack of a media partner, a critical ingredient to the original’s success. Lee’s preference would be to have The Herald Sun on board, though how a newspaper, in today’s media-saturated environment, will help generate community interest and design sales is yet to be determined. Similarly, the absence of an environment in which an individual with Boyd’s complimentary talents in design, writing and construction finance, together with his willingness to act as ambassador for other architects, will further test the benefits of a newspaper mouthpiece for the Service. One thing is for certain; no single media outlet will be able to match the brand prominence Boyd was able to achieve with The Age. Maybe its natural successor is not a newspaper at all, but a television show like Grand Designs or another organisation entirely, unrelated by industry but connected through shared values and worldview.

Perhaps in pre-emptive response to this issue, Lee is taking a different strategy to Boyd’s original practice of anonymity within the Service. Due to what Clerehan explains was the common social practice of frowning upon advertising within the professions, Boyd architecturally edited submitted projects to suit the Service’s needs and then released them for consumption without attribution to their original authors. In poignant reflection of our contemporary attitudes towards advertising, the New Homes Service will conversely utilise established architects with their own cultural capital to attract early interest. For now, Lee is remaining tight lipped about whom he has approached, though we wager that the architects whose work features in various Foundation initiatives will be first on the call sheet.

This strategy indirectly highlights a challenge that is made all too clearly when reading The Australian Ugliness today, 53 years after its publication. The social, regulatory and communications conditions in Australia may have changed significantly since the 1950s, however our built environment is as ever riddled with poor quality housing. Looking back at Boyd’s ideals and considering the legacy he has left behind, it is unsettling to realise how many of the changes experienced by housing in the intervening decades have been negative. We may have planning regulations requiring consideration of neighbourhood character and amenity issues, but that has not stopped the bulk of housing becoming larger, more neglectful of the natural environment, less considerate of climate and less well designed.

This is not to suggest that architects are designing poorer houses, far from it. It is the absence of architectural involvement in what has anecdotally been described as 95% or so of all new houses in Australia that is to blame. If the architecture profession ever wants to shift this percentage in its favour, it needs to undertake a significant paradigm shift. If Boyd has taught us anything, it is that the conscientious architect is not just a designer of expensive beach houses. There is a social dimension to our profession, an important responsibility we have for the built environment. While there are any number of very good organisations engaging with the communities most in need around the world, there are few prepared to deal with the less glamorous, everyday kind of isolation experienced by the significant part of Melbourne’s population living in its outer suburbs.

Should it come into being, the New Homes Service may well respond to this challenge, however house design is only one part of a large, complex problem, nor does it eliminate the responsibility shared by the rest of the profession. What we are suggesting is not necessarily that architects design more houses. Indeed, Boyd himself recognised the paradox of this position, noting that “there are not enough artists to cover the world’s architecture; but if there were it might be too many”. Instead, we need to step beyond our design roles, take on advocacy positions, invest ourselves in political and regulatory change, and most importantly, expose the general public to the benefits of good architecture.

walsh street houseWalsh Street House, home of the Robin Boyd Foundation

This is the full and unedited text of an article by the same name that appeared in the March issue of Architecture Australia. A subsequent release on ArchitecureAU can be viewed here.

Author: Warwick Mihaly

I am an architect, writer, teacher and father.

5 thoughts on “The legacy of Robin Boyd”

  1. Great article! The work and philosophies of Robin Boyd (and especially his house!) have been instrumental in my obsession with mid-century modern design and also a continual inspiration for my own work.

    His influence on Australian design and work with the Homes Service have left such a great legacy and it would be good to see a similar homes service running again.

    I would love to post a link to this article on my blog at Australian Modernist Landscapes, if that is ok?

  2. Thanks for a great read, and I think the New Home Service is a brilliant idea to resurrect! If even a small proportion of people to can have higher-quality/well-designed/more sustainable/more affordable homes instead of more mass-produced McMansions, then that’s a win for the architecture profession/the home-owners/the planet! Individual architect-designed solutions are always SITE-SPECIFIC, and as you noted, this is where the service would have to ensure that the plans bought really do suit the site, unlike many spec-homes do.

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