Designer Suburbs – architects and affordable homes in Australia

Pettit & Sevitt brochure 1964. Powerhouse Museum collection, gift of Ken Woolley.
Pettit & Sevitt brochure 1964. Powerhouse Museum collection, gift of Ken Woolley.

My new book Designer Suburbs: Architects and affordable homes in Australia is back from the printers and will be launched soon.

Designer Suburbs began a couple of years back when our former curatorial colleague Judith O’Callaghan asked me if I’d like to co-author a book about the architect-designed project homes of the 1960s and 1970s.

We were struck by the fact that the houses built by Pettit & Sevitt in Sydney and Merchant Builders in Melbourne are still regularly featured in the popular media as examples of the best of suburban architecture, thirty years or more after the demise of these building companies.

There was clearly a need to tell the story of these and the several other successful designer project builders of the 60s and 70s. This was a rare period in which young architects like Robin Boyd, Harry Seidler and Graeme Gunn became media personalities and gained wide influence in the building industry. There was also the fact that these architect-designed mass production houses seem to be unique to Australia with no international equivalents.

I had contributed to Judith’s Powerhouse exhibition and book The Australian Dream during the 1990s. Australian Dream was about suburban design during the uniquely home-focused 1950s. Now teaching at the Faculty of the Built Environment, UNSW, Judith had successfully completed a doctoral thesis about the relationship between the architectural profession in NSW and the project home industry. This provided a core for the book but we needed to broaden the focus to include other states and to cover the relationship between professional designers and affordable housing throughout the twentieth century.

This meant revisiting the world that I had worked on for the Fibro frontier during the 90s, and it took me a while to find ways of refocusing that story. In the end I went back and began with the Californian bungalow, the first designer home to become popular in Australia. Covering the Melbourne end of the story was also a challenge, similar to that I experienced when writing Homes in the Sky a few years back. A lot of Australian stories are state or city-centric, and the Melbourne design and building world involved different people and different approaches; Brisbane was another story again. Part of our research was two cold and wet days spent driving Melbourne’s eastern suburbs looking at 60s housing estates, project homes and what was left of 60s display home villages. For me the eye-opener of this trip was not the 60s and 70s houses but AV Jennings’ first housing estate at Beauville. Now a heritage zone, this early 1930s estate is a fascinating example of architecture put to popular use, a slice of 30s California transported to Melbourne.

At this time we were thinking about commissioning new photography of some of these houses, and I used our Marinco Kojdanovsky to shoot some contemporary project homes. However for most of the book we feature photography from the 50, 60s and 70s, showcasing an exceptional era of architectural photography by Max Dupain, Kerry Dundas, David Moore, Wolfgang Sievers and others. The photographs evoke styles and streetscapes that are disappearing but which have more than a nostalgic appeal. It’s timely that the book focuses on the Mad Men era so it is well-placed to take advantage of the current popularity the style and design of mid-century Modern.

Split Level Mark 2 designed by Ken Woolley and Michael Dysart
Split Level Mark 2 designed by Ken Woolley and Michael Dysart for Pettit & Sevitt. Photo by Max Dupain 1964, courtesy of Max Dupain & Associates.

Many of the photos came via Eric Sierins’ research through the Max Dupain & Associates archive; Eric has been tremendously helpful to me in this way on several projects now. He has recently sold the Dupain commercial and architectural archive to the State Library of NSW, so it will be widely available soon. I hope a lot of people will enjoy the 150 + photos and the other graphic content.

Designer Suburbs cover
Designer Suburbs cover.

The downside of an extensively illustrated book is the expense, so in the first year of the project less time was spent on writing and research than on finding finance. In the end thanks to Professor Alec Tzannes most of the budget came from the Faculty of the Built Environment, UNSW; Designer Suburbs is published as part of its Content series. However the PHM gave crucial support in kind, most importantly Iwona Hetherington’s fantastic job of copyright finding and approval. Finding a publisher was easier; NewSouth was enthusiastic from the start.

Obviously part of the background to the book are debates about the exceptional size of contemporary project homes and the unaffordability of housing in much of Sydney and other cities. There is wide concern about the aesthetics, economics and sustainability of suburban houses today. We thought that it was time to look again at the story of architects and affordable housing in Australia and see what was relevant to today. Designer Suburbs shows the potential of design in suburban architecture, and makes it clear that affordability and quality can be compatible in this field.

Post by Charles Pickett, Curatorial

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5 responses to “Designer Suburbs – architects and affordable homes in Australia

  • So wonderful to find our house Civic x2 listed in here. Now knowing that Max Dupain photographed inside of this lovely home fills us with even more pride. Whilst we are renting this property, we have always been fond of the design and era. The poor house has seen better days, however our MCM furniture is giving it a lift. Now if only Lotto would come knocking on our door…

  • Thanks Paul. We love that photo of the Civic interior – spent some time looking for a colour version without success – and I’m glad you like it too.

    Charles

  • So wonderful to find our house, Concept Constructions Oriental, featured in your beautiful book. We love the house as much as when we purchased it in 1981.

    • Hello Anne, I’m pleased you found your house in Designer Suburbs, and that the house is still giving you pleasure.

      I’m sorry we couldn’t find better photos of the Concept houses.

      Charles

  • Such a lovely record of the architecture of this period, thank you. We have a Civic X5 house that is in great condition but in need of a little restoration here and there. I’m on the search for some interior shots of one of these, I haven’t been able to turn up much so far….any ideas?!

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