“Modernism may have had its birth in Europe and its glamour in America but I think it found its egalitarian purpose, unrivalled anywhere else in the world, in Australia’s suburbs.”

Tim Ross, Australian comedian, radio host, design enthusiast and television presenter.

 

River House (1955) Designed by Peter McIntyre. Modern Design. Leonard Joel Auctions
River House (1955) Designed by Peter McIntyre

Australia’s mid-century architecture started evolving rapidly around the late 1940s, a time when an increasing number of European families were migrating to escape the war. Young, talented architects were experimenting with interiors that incorporated suburban Australia and its climate.

Australian post war architecture embraced new ideals around the home, minimalist exterior design, and functional interior spaces complimentary to nature. More attention was paid to how rooms were located and connected throughout the space. Interiors were defined by open floor plans, often split levels with floor to ceiling windows, and sliding doors designed to bring the outdoors in.

Rose Seidler House. Modern Design. Leonard Joel Auctions
Rose Seidler House, Wahroonga, Australia (1948-50). Rose Seidler House is a heritage-listed former residence and now house museum located in Wahroonga, Sydney, NSW, Australia by Harry Seidler.
/ Alamy

Significant mid-century Australian architecture can be seen in the Rose Seidler House, Wahroonga NSW, designed by architect Harry Seidler in 1950 for his parents. The now famous suburban bush home appears to float within the environment, with its spindly legs and floor to ceiling glass. Seidler created a sense of openness that is now essential to contemporary living.

Another important mid-century home sits high on a hill overlooking the Yarra, in the leafy Melbourne suburb of Kew. The River House was designed by Peter McIntyre for his family in 1955. McIntyre was only 19 when he purchased the land, costing him a humble £200 for the 9 acres. The house is visible only in winter because of the dense foliage. The three-storey A-frame was built using exposed steel. The structure cantilevers 12 meters out and almost three meters above the ground. The June 1956 issue of US Vogue commented that the house was like “some exotic bird of paradise perched high on the densely wooded bank”.

Rose Seidler House. Modern Design. Leonard Joel Auctions
Rose Seidler House, Wahroonga, Australia (1948-50). Rose Seidler House is a heritage-listed former residence and now house museum located in Wahroonga, Sydney, NSW, Australia by Harry Seidler.
/ Alamy

Architect Peter McIntyre is a true crusader, in his own words he wanted to change the world: “We were trying to influence people that design was something that was terribly important to Australia, and to respond to the particular conditions that we had here. We couldn’t just repeat what was going on in Europe.” Today, he describes modernism’s sometimes crazy approach as a necessary stage in Australia’s architectural maturity, but one from which he and others moved on. “I would encourage young people to take on architecture because I think we can have a positive influence on society,” he says. “I think that’s terribly important.”

Almost 70 years on from the initial movement, more than ever before buyers are on the look-out for mid-century homes. Unfortunately, with the help of Modernist Australia websites, social media enthusiasts, and even real estate agents dedicated to selling such homes, you’re not getting any bargains, with properties selling in the low to high millions. The upside of course is the preservation of the buildings

themselves, their original designs, and most importantly, the architects brave enough to achieve the once ‘new world’ ideals.

ANNA GRASSHAM / Head of Modern Design

Banner Image: Rose Seidler House, Wahroonga, Australia (1948-50). Rose Seidler House is a heritage-listed former residence and now house museum located in Wahroonga, Sydney, NSW, Australia by Harry Seidler / Alamy

February 2022