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Protect our post-war past – Philip Goad

By November 28, 2021December 25th, 2021No Comments

Protect our post-war past – Philip Goad

On 17 August 2020, the Urban Planning Special Committee (UPSC) of the City of Boroondara voted to recommend two houses of the late 1940s – one in Balwyn, the other in North Balwyn – both designed by architect Robin Boyd, be nominated for protection within a Heritage Overlay (HO).  Amongst concerned community members, many architects, heritage professionals and the Robin Boyd Foundation there was a collective sigh of relief.

But also, beneath it all, there was a simmering anger. Why should it take a Special Council Meeting, an online petition that gained more than 5,000 signatures, and frantically gained media coverage to put the first steps in train to gain some form of protection that the Council should have handled five years ago, as a matter of course, and without any public fuss?

The reasons are simple. In Melbourne’s middle suburbs, land value rather than heritage rules. This means that countless significant single-family houses and their gardens – without any planning protection at a local level – are at risk of demolition, especially when real estate agents and vendors advertise a house solely as a plot of land to be developed, as if no house exists on the site at all. And especially when the house dates from the 1940s and early 1950s, when circumstances – postwar austerity, and building restrictions on house size until 1952 – dictated modestly scaled houses on generous allotments.

That was the case of 12-14 Tannock Street in North Balwyn, built in 1949 and designed by nationally significant architect Robin Boyd (1919-1971). It was recently advertised for sale as two development sites with no mention of the house which currently sits there. The house is in good condition and is in an eminently liveable state. Boyd designed the house in 1948 for local chemist Don Wood and also, a few years later, his pharmacy (1953) at the end of the street in Doncaster Road.

The Wood House was, in many respects, typical of Boyd’s advocacy at the time of sensible modern design in his regular weekly articles in The Age as Director of the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects Small Homes Service. It was a position he’d held since 1947 before entering into partnership with Roy Grounds and Frederick Romberg in 1953. Boyd’s design had the house laid laterally across the block with plenty of glass, oriented to give good sunlight to every room and the house’s special feature was a large fixed pane ‘picture’ window.

Love the house, and the architect

The Woods loved the house, and enjoyed working with their architect so much they commissioned Boyd to undertake successive additions in 1959 and 1971. These were sympathetically made and, remarkably, over the years, despite very minor changes, the house is substantially intact.

It is thus a rare and important example of Boyd’s approach to residential design immediately after commencing sole practice in 1946 and before his career-changing trip to Europe in 1951, after which more daring structural and material experiments began to be included in his residential designs. The Wood House, and also the smaller Dunstan House in Yandilla Road, Balwyn (1948-9), are thus, for similar reasons, important examples of Boyd’s early career, when he was committed to shifting everyday suburban tastes towards a moderate embrace of modernist architecture.

Council ignores Balwyn and Balwyn North Heritage Study

But here’s the nub. It should have been a no-brainer to give protection to these two Boyd-designed houses. While there are six houses designed by Boyd in Balwyn and North Balwyn (a noteworthy phenomenon in its own right), not all of them are worthy of protection. Some have been altered and changed beyond recognition.

The Tannock Street and Yandilla Road houses are, without question, early and substantially intact Boyd houses, and they were correctly identified as such by Simon Reeves of Built Heritage Pty Ltd in his ‘Balwyn and Balwyn North Heritage Study’ of 2015 that was commissioned by the City of Boroondara. Back then, Reeves identified 26 places for recommendation for inclusion as part of a heritage overlay. Of these, 18 were individual houses dating from the late 1940s to the early 1970s – and only 4 of these from the ten-year period 1940-1950.

But in 2015, the Council decided to not act on the recommendations because of community opposition, and then again in 2017 to not consider any building after 1946.

So how old does a building in Boroondara need to be before it’s considered heritage? Older than 74 years? The Robin Boyd Foundation is thrilled that the value of two of Boyd’s houses in Balwyn and North Balwyn has been recognised. But other significant houses identified by Reeves and designed by architects like AK Lines, McFarlane & Marshall, Montgomery King & Trengove, Peter and Dione McIntyre, and émigrés Davis Bité, Grigore Hirsch, Tad Karasinski, and Walter Pollock are also at risk. They also deserve attention and protection. What will their fate be?

Of course, this blindness to mid-century heritage is not a problem exclusive to Boroondara – it also applies to those councils with purview over suburbs like Beaumaris, Blackburn, Box Hill, Caulfield, Essendon, Geelong, East Ivanhoe, Ringwood, Frankston, Mount Eliza, Eltham and Warrandyte, just to name a few. These are locations where the fragile heritage of mid-century modern houses is at a crisis point as land values dominate Melbourne’s rush to expand and consolidate.

But I need to be careful – this fragility can be extended to cover any period. Of course, not all houses are worthy of heritage protection. But it begs the question. What are we building in their stead?

Robin Boyd must be spinning in his grave seeing in the City of Boroondara the countless versions of poor man’s Versailles, pathetic provincial French chateau and ignorant sub-palazzi dominating their blocks with no trees, no shade and miserable, stark gardens that resemble cemeteries. In the same municipality in which he was living when he designed the Tannock Street house! For him it would be a sure sign of a new ‘Australian Ugliness’.

Surely, if the City of Boroondara has some civic pride, it should act responsibly and take heed of the heritage experts it employs regularly to review its heritage. Trust the experts – they know their stuff. Enough is enough. Councils – do the right thing and let’s leave our children something to remember and treasure.

Philip Goad is Professor and Chair of Architecture at the University of Melbourne and a Board Member of the Robin Boyd Foundation.

First published in the September 2020 edition of Eastsider News