Walsh Street House (Boyd House II), South Yarra, Melbourne

Rejuvenation

In the early post-war years, many innovative housing solutions were developed, and while many mass-produced solutions were never deployed in the numbers originally envisaged, the modernist principles of open plan living, natural light, and connection to landscape were established in this period. They were to have a lasting impact on mid-century housing across Australia.

Former Robin Boyd Foundation Director Tony Lee talks about the design of Robin Boyd’s Walsh Street House for the Iconic Australian Houses exhibition by Sydney Living Museums, 2014.

Following World War II, Australia faced a major housing shortage. The impact of the Great Depression had already had a huge impact on housing, resulting in a shortage of 120,000 homes. However, by 1945 this deficit was as high as 350,000. This was compounded further by a nation-wide materials and labour shortage, existing poor-quality housing stock, and a direct government initiative for increasing population growth. The government sought a decentralised housing model that would increase Australia’s population and its dispersion across the land to provide future protection against invasion. It was critical for government that peace be associated with a better standard of living and that these conditions would encourage migration and population growth.

The government looked to architects and to industry to produce inexpensive family-centric houses that used low-skilled labour, quick construction methods, minimal materials, and were no larger than 12 squares (112m squared). These restrictions, in tandem with a desire for a new world order following the tragedy of World War II, provided the perfect environment for the wide-spread establishment of modernism in Australia and, significantly, the suburban character that now defines the nation.

Many of Victoria’s most notable modernist architects had roles in World War II that would profoundly influence their post-war careers. These included Sir Osborn McCutcheon, Arthur Baldwinson, Otto (Rob) Yuncken, Roy Simpson, and Robin Boyd, among many others. Prior to the war, these architects were already experimenting with modernist ideas, which had been emerging in Europe and the US from the 1920s to 1940s.

A monotone architectural drawing of four houses. Each house includes a floorplan and rendering of the building. The drawing has the words individually styled modern permanent homes written across the top and Beaufort Division Development of Aircraft Production written at the bottom. Beaufort Homes catalogue, c1946. Source: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

In 1946, Arthur Baldwinson led the design of prefabricated steel houses known as Beaufort Homes for the Department of Aircraft Production. During World War II, Baldwinson was the Chief Architect of Beaufort Division of the Commonwealth Department of Aircraft Production. The government sought to utilise the existing aircraft manufacturing capacity and skills established during the war to alleviate the housing shortages. Baldwinson drew on his wartime experience to design and develop one of the first factory prefabricated steel houses in Australia. It was anticipated that 3,000 houses per year could be produced, but due to steel shortages and a change in government, only 58 houses were ever built in Victoria, a number of which still exist in the Melbourne suburb of Pascoe Vale South.

A black and white photograph of a single storey house with a gabled roof. The words Beaufort Home are written above the house. The words Prototype, erected in the Treasury Gardens, Melbourne 04 06 1946 are written on the bottom. Prototype of Arthur Baldwinson’s Beaufort Home, Treasury Gardens, Melbourne, 1946. Source: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

Another post-war initiative to solve Australia’s labour and housing shortage was Operation Snail. Initiated in 1948, the project was led by Melbourne architectural firms Yuncken, Freeman Brothers, Griffiths & Simpson (YFA), and Baxter-Cox & Associates. Following the war, urgent upgrades were needed to regional infrastructure, however Australia lacked both the skilled workers to undertake these projects, and homes in those regions in which to house them. A solution was devised to import the workers from Britain, who would also bring their homes with them—gaining the name Operation Snail.

A colour photograph of a model of a single storey house with a gabled roof. Part of the house is shown exposing the timber frame. Architectural model from Operation Snail. Source: Museums Victoria.

During World War II, Rob Yuncken (director, YFA 1933) and Roy Simpson (director, YFA 1945) provided planning and design services to the US Army Engineers Corps, gaining significant experience in pre-cut timber buildings, a skill which they would then apply to post-war housing. They designed the Snail Houses in Melbourne, which were then mass-produced as pre-cut kits in Britain and shipped to Australia as flat pack units. The designs provided 44 types of two, three, and four bedroomed houses which could be speedily erected by a small and largely unskilled labour force. British timber was also cheaper than local Australian timber, which also reduced demands for local materials, which were in short supply.

A black and white photograph of a single storey house in a modern design. There is a line of people waiting to enter the house. Age Dream Home, Union Road, Balwyn, 1955, by Wolfgang Sievers. Designed by Neil Clerehan for the RVIA Small Homes Service in conjunction with The Age, 1955. It was reported that 40,000 Melburnians visited on the first weekend. Source: State Library of Victoria.

In 1947, The Royal Victorian Institute of Architects (RVIA) and The Age newspaper established the RVIA Small Homes Service, and its first director was architect Robin Boyd. Boyd’s experiences during World War II in Papua and New Guinea of pragmatic architectural solutions had a lasting impact on his reductive approach to architectural elements in his designs. The Small Homes Service offered a range of architectural house plans which could be purchased for a modest £5, from a broad range of architectural practices, aiming to improve access to quality home designs across a diversity of site conditions to everyday Australians. These new house designs were innovative and introduced open plan living, modern materials, and construction methods, within a small footprint. Boyd wrote accompanying articles in The Age that provided insight into the virtues of the designs, and made him a household name.

A black and white photograph of the loungeroom of a mid century home. The room includes a couch, several chairs, a coffee table, lamps and selves, all of a modern design. Sitting room of the Age Dream Home by Neil Clerehan, by Wolfgang Sievers, 1955. Furniture designed by Grant Featherstone. Source: State Library of Victoria.

Following the removal of the 12 squares house restrictions in 1952, and the general improvement of access to building materials, modernism in Australia began to take full flight. The Walsh Street House in South Yarra, designed by Boyd in 1957 as his family home, is illustrative of the progression of modernist ideas from the mass-produced into a bespoke home. The design embodies open plan living, harnesses natural light, celebrates materials, utilises innovative structural solutions, and builds a connection with the natural environment. It is now considered one of Australia’s most significant houses.

A colour photograph of the courtyard of a modern style building at night. The interior can be seen through glass windows and is illuminated by interior lighting. Robin Boyd’s Walsh Street House c1960-1970, by Mark Strizic. This image shows the central courtyard, which separates the adults’ and childrens’ living spaces, and provides a connection to the landscape. Source: State Library of Victoria.

Boyd’s blend of design advocacy, innovative thinking, and contextual response was to have a profound and lasting impact on Victorian and Australian architecture. In the building boom decades that followed, the modernist design principles embodied in Boyd’s work would transform Australia into a true suburban nation. Since 2005, Boyd’s Walsh Street House has been the home of the Robin Boyd Foundation, which continues to further Boyd's legacy of advocacy for how good design can improve our lives and address societal needs.

Take a virtual tour of the Walsh Street House thanks to Open House Melbourne, the Robin Boyd Foundation, ARUP, and PHORIA.

A colour photograph of the living room of a modernist house. There is a wooden dining table in the foreground and colourful couches and chairs next to a fireplace in the background. One wall of the room is a glass window and natural lights fills the space. Robin Boyd’s Walsh Street House, by John Gollings. Courtesy of John Gollings Photography. Located on traditionally owned Aboriginal lands.