Robin Boyd open day

Farfor House (original design), 1968

What is it?

An event run by the Robin Boyd Foundation last Sunday that permitted public entry into four of Boyd’s residential projects from the 1960s. All four of the houses are located on the Mornington Peninsula: Farfor House (Portsea, 1968), Shelmerdine House (Cape Schanck, 1966), McClune House (Frankston South, 1968) and Kaye House (Frankston, 1966).

What did we think?

First and foremost, we must congratulate and thank the Robin Boyd Foundation. Boyd contributed greatly to the development of the Australian architectural identity through both his buildings and his writing, thus the open days run by the Foundation provide rare and invaluable insight into important fragments of our recent architectural heritage. Only via regular contact with today’s architecture-loving public can Boyd’s legacy, along with that of the entire modernist period, endure.

The four houses on offer this time around reveal four unique approaches to the ongoing preservation of modernist architecture that together flesh out the possible strategies we, as contemporary architects, may take in reworking the projects of our predecessors.

Kaye House, 1966

Kaye House has been maintained in close to its original form, with finishes and furnishings still speaking strongly of their 1960s era (right down to green vinyl bathroom tiles).

Shelmerdine House remains similar to its original state, though it lost its lower rumpus level when curiously relocated in 1999 from a sloping site in Portsea to its current flat plot in Cape Schanck. While this shift had the benefit of protecting the house from its proposed demolition, it unfortunately sacrificed the drama and majesty of its former clifftop location.

McClune House has been renovated by architects unknown using a low-impact approach, retaining much of Boyd’s planning, building form and material palette, but modernising services and introducing new landscaping within and around the building. Though respectful of the house’s original character, the renovation has not been executed with great skill – the small rooms have somehow been further cluttered with joinery and furniture, including a new en suite with just 350mm clearance between shower screen and wall, and the once-generous courtyard has been segmented and confused.

Farfor House renovation by Lovell Chen, 2009

Farfor House is the real surprise. Recently reworked by Lovell Chen, it is barely recognisable as a Boyd project. Covering, replacing and infilling the muted, natural palette typical of his work are a riot of materials, from silver-leaf ceilings, to black mirror joinery and gold mosaic floors. The renovation is frankly bewildering, not least of all considering Lovell Chen’s expertise in heritage architecture. We beg to differ with their project citation which asserts that “the structure and spirit of the original dwelling is retained”. In addition to the material transformation, the original breezeway has been covered, the planning has been modified and, most significantly, the first floor addition ignores Boyd’s own belief that an additional level was inappropriate.

One colleague who joined us on the tour summed up the experience of Farfor House this way: “If we were to take this design to Lovell Chen for heritage advice, they would never support us in a million years.”

What did we learn?

In Australia, residential renovations are the bread and butter of many small architecture practices, ourselves included. Most typically, we are asked to rework double-fronted Edwardian houses in the middle suburbs, or Victorian terraces in the inner city. It is rare that we are asked to look at a Boyd, a McGlashan Everist or a Jodell. Yet, we have recently been commissioned to do just that: renovate a 1977 house in Frankston South by Kevin Borland.

Thus we found this most recent Robin Boyd tour particularly poignant. While none of the houses on show gave us real insight into the best way to respect the spirit of a modernist dwelling, each showed approaches to avoid. To remain relevant and useable in our current era, with its own unique living standards and family dynamics, it is clear that plain restoration will not suffice. But just as inappropriate is the total abandonment of the original building’s core qualities. Somewhere in between we will find the sweet spot – the point of equilibrium between spirit and utility, old and new, past and future.

To do this, we will need to educate ourselves about Borland’s opus, from the house we are to modify all the way through to the sublime Harold Hold Swim Centre. We must seek to understand his design philosophy generally as well as the ideas he developed for our house specifically. We must also seek to understand our clients, the new life they bring to the house and their expectations for its use. Only armed with this knowledge can we be confident of finding that equilibrium, of respecting and nurturing the building’s character at the same time as injecting it with new energy to last the next 30 years.

Challenge accepted.

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