MID CENTURY MODERNISM & A LACK OF HERITAGE CONSIDERATION
We are at an impasse, the world is moving forward faster than at any time in the past and the world of architecture is at breaking point. The need locally in Australian cities for infill housing is causing the loss of potentially historic homes on a scale never before seen. While local and state governments grapple with issues in planning, an entire era of architecture continues to be stripped away without support avenues or protection afforded to them by local council or state and federal government.
It seems however, we in Australia are not alone, for preservation issues in architecture look to be the same around the world. As I have delved deeper into the world of architecture it has become clear that more needs to be done in order to protect and preserve work of architects from the past one hundred years, in particular those architects whose work occurred during the mid century modern era throughout the middle period of last century. MCM or Mid Century Modern architecture generally refers to buildings that were designed and built in the period between 1930 and 1970 and the impact on society is one we are still feeling in today’s current forms of architecture.
While we are quick to offer up protection for housing that is now nearing on one hundred years and older, we seem at odds over protecting those homes from the post-war era of mid century modern architecture. There seems to be a clear disconnect towards this period of architecture by not only local council & heritage officers worldwide, but also by local residents who are often ill-informed and lack access to information on the homes and the period of architecture itself. What surprises the most when discussing mid century architecture is the clear impact on society and culture through this era into the modern world.
While the impact locally is felt on an almost daily basis with regards to the loss of quality mid century architecture, it is also one felt along the west coast of the United States of America, and homes designed and built through the Case Study House program, which was a housing design scheme originally conceived by John Entenza, the editor in chief of “Arts & Architecture” magazine, who had originally created the concept around post-war housing using limited materials available and allowing the designs to be low cost in order to publicize the creative abilities of the architects involved, which would then assist with the foreseeable post-war housing boom. Through this avenue some of the greatest architects of the era pushed their architectural creativity to the public with such names as Charles and Ray Eames, Pierre Koenig & Richard Neutra amongst the architects taking part in the program.
“Nearby the Foy House at the corner of Sparkes Street and Beach Road, Beaumaris, a house designed by Mockridge, Stahle & Mitchell in 1954, employs a quite different roof solution. The butterfly roof, a short-lived fashion for a reverse gable was a daring signature of difference. Inspired by the butterfly roofs of Marcel Breuer and Harry Seidler” Phillip Goad – Melbourne Architecture – P167
With such an impact one could assume that the homes constructed throughout this period would have been afforded the sort of protection offered up to older homes of historically less significance than those constructed throughout the Case Study housing period, however it was only recently that 11 of the homes were offered some form of protection from the potential of being demolished or altered, however this protection came too late for three others which were demolished and three others having being altered beyond recognition.
Of the Case Study houses that survived the three that didn’t were outstanding architectural examples of the period prior to demolition and like the homes that remain, their design outcomes were far ahead of the time in which they were constructed.
- CSH#3 – Case Study House 3 – 13187 Chalon Road, Los Angeles (Wurster & Bernardi – 1949)
o Originally designed for a small family and based around the organic life of California. With each bedroom having its own access to the outdoor yard areas with the minor rooms having an outdoor yard for the children to escape into and play. The separation point of the home from living/sleeping areas opens up to create an indoor/outdoor entertainment space & the main living areas work in a well balanced open plan.
- CSH#11 – Case Study House 11 – 540 South Barrington Avenue, West Los Angeles (J.R.Davidson – 1946)
o Importance in the CSH#11 design was focused on orientation, a feature we today use as a major role in ensuring a thermally responsive home. Service areas face the road allowing the living areas to open up into a form of privacy to the blind side of the site. Materials were selected for their simplicity and cost effective nature and vast expanses of glass were applied where practical in the design. Compact in size and efficient in design and layout it is the perfect example of efficient design.
- CSH#16 – Case Study House 16 – 9945 Beverly Grove Drive, Beverly HIlls (Rodney Walker – 1947)
o Views were of paramount importance in this home with its siting being of major importance as well as it being constructed mainly of lightweight low cost materials. Once again an open plan design allows the living areas to open up with vast amounts of glazing to the outside rear yard areas creating a sense of indoor & outdoor living.
The notes on the designs of these lost homes show the impact they have on current design principles all of which are still used today however with more thermally efficient materials. Even the homes designed outside of the Case Study House program by Richard Neutra have not been able to escape the wrath of demolition and alteration with the lack of respect towards mid century architecture causing one of the Neutra designed homes to be demolished under the darkness of night. The Maslon residence designed by Neutra in 1962 which was perhaps one of Neutras best works architecturally, was purchased in 2001 by a new owner and in April of 2002 was overnight demolished and eventually many years later replaced with a poor example of contemporary architecture. The loss of this home sparked Richard Neutra's son, Dion, to begin working with current and future owners of Neutra homes on what he termed conservation agreements in order to attempt to protect what homes of Richard Neutra remain.
“An attorney appeared and readily accepted the price of well over $3m, promising to take good care and be a faithful steward. Everyone left happy until a few weeks later on the 4th of April 2002, without notice, the house was razed” Dion Neutra – The Neutras Then and Later, Pg103
Once again, however, America is a step ahead of Australia and perhaps the rest of the world with the Los Angeles City council recently passing laws that prevent covert demolition of any building greater than 45 years in age without prior written consent from council after having publicly advertised the request for a period of 30 days. This change in law offers up some form of protection to mid century modern homes in the Los Angeles area and allows residents and heritage groups an opportunity to publicly voice their concerns and potentially oppose and prevent demolition of these homes. While this is only a small gesture it is a step in the right direction and one that could be adopted in Australia in our local councils.
While the impact of mid century modern architecture on the American way of life is abundantly clear, what is not so clear is the impact locally on Australian culture and life from the post war era through to now. The impact of this era in architecture on Australian culture is more relevant than some might realize with mid century modern architecture playing a major role in defining our culture and a generation of architects that dedicated themselves to a style we look back on today with fondness and admiration but little knowledge of. Looking at the post-war era of the United States and Australia it is clear that with limited resources after the ending of World War Two, the idea of the home had to shift. An influx of returning soldiers meant the new Great Australian Dream needed to be quickly constructed and use materials that were generally readily available and low cost. With housing affordability and a push for the new world post-war, the industry began to boom and over the coming decades architects produced what can and should be referred to as some of the most significant architecture and growth of identity for Australia since white settlement.
In post-war Australia the “Home Plans Service Bureau” in Melbourne and the “Small Homes Service” established by the RAIA in conjunction with the Melbourne Age, seemed to flourish and open up architecture to low income earners and open up housing to architects in a way never before imagined. In fact some architects argued against this open plan policy stating that it would be detrimental to offer up stock plans to consumers while Robin Boyd stood firm in his support of the process which he felt allowed not only the affluent access to architect designed homes but also those on the lower income levels. Thus enabling a better lifestyle to be created from more responsive homes that had prior to the war not been available to the greater public.
“Those 15 years from the end of the war to 1960 can be seen as an era when many of Australia’s architects fervently challenged conventional attitudes. Wars have an awesome power to change ordinary lives as well as national community directions” Peter Cuffley – Australian Houses of the Forties and Fifties, Pg91
With the housing programs in full swing and mid century architecture being created by a new breed of inspired architects, housing in Australian was going through major change for the first time in quite some time. Our identity as a nation was changing and we were growing in ways we had not grown prior to the war. It can be said that the impact of the architecture from this period on Australian Society has not since or prior to the Mid Century Modern era been so great. Yet as a country we seem headstrong in ignoring the impact it has had as one of the most important periods in our short architectural history and we are oddly comfortable in demolishing these homes without thought.
The issue of neglect surrounding mid century modern architecture is not exclusive to Australia however it seems here we have no intent on offering up any form of protection to these homes that defined an era and multiple generations, locally the loss of homes ranges from mainstream architect designed homes for developer/builders through to the more architecturally inspiring homes designed for clients specifically by architects of the era. Australian Architects of significance produced some of the homes we have lost to demolition that could have and perhaps should have been saved and protected for the period. Homes such as;
- Myer House (Pelican), Davey's Bay, Frankston South (Grounds, Romberg & Boyd, 1955-56)
o Designed by three of the most pre-eminent architects of the era. Orientated for northern exposure, with sleeping areas spread over two separate blocks separated by the main living areas, which open up onto the outdoor areas. It was awarded house of the year in 1959 from “Architecture & Arts” magazine.
- Raymond House (Blue Peter), 21 Gulls Way, Frankston South (Rae Featherstone, 1956)
o A holiday home designed to take in the views it was a design that consisted of interlocking squares to the rear of the centrally locked kitchen were the sleeping quarters allowing the living areas to make full use of the views out from the block. Given heritage protection on all levels it was demolished in the early 90s
- Samuel House, 65 Bay Street, Brighton (Geoffrey Woodfall, 1957)
o Another home that focused the living areas to the rear of the site and into the privacy of the rear yard. Large expanses of glass and deep eave protection offer it up to the open areas outside while giving it protection from the weather.
- House, 15 Riversdale Court, Hawthorn (Winston Hall, 1956)
o With a south-facing site causing issues initially, the response of the architect in this home shows an appropriate response by splitting the home along the east/west axis allowing northern orientation into the important areas of the home. Once again vast amounts of correctly positioned glazing allows the home to speak to the outside areas at the architects direction.
- 9 Grieve Street, Balwyn North (Geoffrey Woodfall, 1967)
o With clear influences from Frank Lloyd Wright, this modest home was well appointed and the layout similar to those of the era with the living areas allowing views out into the private rear yard areas. Simple in design and elegantly finished and designed by one of the eras most respected architects.
- 40 Canadian Bay Road, Mount Eliza (Mockridge, Stahle & Mitchell, 1951-53)
o Designed in a U-shape plan as a single level home built of weatherboards with a low-slung gable end roof to the street. Simplistic in design and minimalist in nature yet another home with open plan living oriented towards the rear yard area. Considered locally significant architects to the area yet still the home was allowed to be significantly altered beyond recognition.
The architectural significance of these homes is clear and undeniable with a vast majority of those listed being homes that were detailed in the book “Best Australian Houses” written by architect Neil Clerehan for the Royal Australian Institute Of Architects which was published in 1961. While it was clear to the head body of Architecture in Australia back in the 1960s that the homes from the mid century modern period formed a major part of our growing architectural identity it seems over time this direction has been lost along with a vast majority of these houses. Clerehan states in his introduction that “In a world which tends to measure success and happiness and political enlightenment in material terms, Australia is particularly lucky. To own a house – the largest, most expensive and most visible of all possessions – is and always has been, to the average Australian, a necessity” Neil Clerehan – Best Australian Houses pg.4. As much true then as it is today and a paragraph that embodies the desire of the Mid Century period where home owners wanted something unique and individual.
While it is understandable that over time we evolve and industries change, what cannot be forgotten any longer is the greatest era in Australian Architecture that has been to this date. More must be done by our local councils and state governments in order to protect what remains of the homes from this era of architecture before it is too late and an entire era is lost to the sands of time. Protection, which is currently afforded to homes of the pre-war periods, should also be afforded to those homes of the Mid Century Modern period, which are now nearing on and passing 50 years since construction of the more recent examples, and closing in on 80 years for the older examples of the era. It seems however despite this need to protect those homes of significance from the Mid Century Modern era, that we are likely to see more and more of these homes demolished in the coming years unless local councils planning & heritage departments as well as state government planning departments begin to understand the importance of these homes and more importantly the entire Mid Century Modern era and its impact on the shaping of our nation over the past 50 to 80 years.