Inside the Collection

Collecting Buildings

Fibro house wall
Collection, Powerhouse Museum.

Framing our private and public worlds, the designed environment is too big a subject to ignore.

The Powerhouse collection has plenty of of design drawings, models and photographs, but it also has many of parts of buildings. In contrast to most of the structures documented in our collections, this one comes from the humble end of the built environment. It’s the front wall of a fibro house, built in 1926 at Caringbah in Sydney’s southern suburbs.

Fibro house
Photography by Penny Clay, © Powerhouse Museum, all rights reserved.

The house was built for Harry Waring, a poultry and vegetable farmer, and family when the Sutherland district was composed of small farms and holiday shacks rather than suburbs. For a couple of decades the house was home to six people despite consisting of just one bedroom, kitchen, living room and an enclosed veranda. Mr Waring’s son Reg, a council worker, lived in the house until his death in 1991.

Interior of fibro house
Photography by Penny Clay, © Powerhouse Museum, all rights reserved.

About to be demolished for a set of townhouses, its survival into the 1990s was slightly miraculous in a street of two-car garages and (no doubt) en suites. Especially as the house retained its extreme minimalism: the basic timber frame was clad only on one side, not uncommon in the 1920s. This type of timber frame is the basic element of Australian cottage architecture, economical and uncomplicated compared to its international equivalents.

Timber framed construction dispensed with the expensive skills of masons or bricklayers. Using nailed joints, the Australian ‘stud’ frame didn’t require the carpentry skills needed for a heavier mortise and tenon frame, nor the labour required to lift heavy beams into place. Timber frames are adaptable to a range of cladding materials. These days they are generally disguised by a single layer of bricks, hence ‘brick veneer’, a type of cladding rare outside of Australia. It was satisfying to have the staple element of Australian domestic architecture embodied in the collection, rather than solely represented via photos and drawings.

I spent some years researching the cheap end of housing design and production for the book The Fibro frontier. In many respects this project was a work of finding photographic and oral records from home builders and owners. But it also scooped up a literal piece of the book’s subject matter.

When The Fibro frontier was launched in 1997, the house wall was erected for a few weeks in the Powerhouse Museum foyer. The photo shows the wall with Tim Morris, Dave Rockell and Carey Ward of the PHM Preservation department, who removed it from the Caringbah house while it was being demolished.

Wall with Tim Morris, Dave Rockell and Carey Ward of the PHM Preservation department
Photography by Sue Stafford, © Powerhouse Museum, all rights reserved.

The Powerhouse holds a great variety of architectural collections. They give a range of viewpoints of the design genre that shapes our lives more than any other: design drawings require a trained or intuitive eye, while photographs, models and moving image are more accessible but also create a different experience, valuable in itself. Somewhat removed from the structures they document, they are distinct art forms with their own histories and appeal. Lucien Henry’s architectural designs, featured in the PHM’s Visions of a republic exhibition and book, are a great example.

Some of the world’s most-visited museums – the Museum of Modern Art, the Victoria and Albert, the Centre Pompidou – feature high-profile architecture galleries. Of course they have the advantage of collections documenting well-loved buildings and a constituency with little doubt that environmental design deserves its place alongside masterpieces of the other arts.

Of the PHM collections, perhaps only the Sydney Opera House photographs and models carry this sort of appeal, despite the fact that the collection holds work by some of our leading contemporary and modern architects including Glenn Murcutt, Harry Seidler, Phillip Cox and John Andrews.

However the most distinctive PHM collections are perhaps those that document the design of domestic spaces, the most familiar and comfortable genre. Australia’s formidable investment in domestic life is embodied in these collections, which include Ken Woolley’s Petit & Sevitt archive and JA ‘Jack’ Ray’s archive of the work of a suburban building contractor. The fibro house wall comes from the same world.

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