Book review: Designer Suburbs

April 19, 2013

In ‘Designer Suburbs’, Judith O’Callaghan & Charles Pickett look into the involvement of architects in Australia’s project home industry – Adam Russell reviews.

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This article originally appeared in AR 129: The Price of Building.

In his foreword to Designer Suburbs: Architects and Affordable Homes in Australia, Alec Tzannes describes the book as “the definitive history of the involvement of architects in the project home industry in Australia”. Written by Judith O’Callaghan and Charles Pickett, it chronicles the pioneering work carried out by architects and their clients/collaborators in establishing and propagating what was then an innovative new model for housing. The book emphasises the unique spatial intelligence architects drew on to reconcile new formal, commercial and cultural conditions. While most architects consider the project home to be passé today, Designer Suburbs is a reminder that ‘suburban thinking’ was once a utopic undertaking requiring imagination, innovation and vision.

The book begins its six-chapter timeline around the turn of last century, where society’s reaction to degraded ‘inner-city slums’ (as exemplified by the 1909 Royal Commission for the Improvement of the City of Sydney and its Suburbs) gave rise to cheap land releases and the bungalow typology as a preferred model for urban expansion. Emergent conditions of population and economic growth and material advancements saw the freestanding ‘project’ home flourish as the symbolic ‘Australian dream’ of the rising middle class.

In subsequent chapters the book looks in detail at the growth of companies such as Sunline Homes, Pettit & Sevitt and Merchant Builders in the 1950s and 1960s, which employed architects to design innovative houses. These companies prototyped homes in display villages and sold with the promise of further customisation to the purchaser’s preferences. Beyond the significant assurance this gave the homebuyer, the risk to the project builder was minimal because, as the book describes, it was the clients who bore the cost of replicating the house on land they had purchased themselves. What we also witnessed at this moment in time, at least for architecture, was the successful rollout and repetition of a universal type – as a result, it arguably became the period in Australian history when Modernism was at its most ubiquitous.

As a title for the book Designer Suburbs is somewhat misleading – the book focuses primarily on the architect-designed suburban home in Australia rather than the morphology of the suburb itself. It does cover a little of the role architects have played in the layout of Garden City-styled subdivisions in metropolitan centres (suburbs such as Hamilton South in Newcastle, Roseberry Estate in Sydney and later Port Phillip in Melbourne), but it seems the intent of the book is to chart the involvement of architects in the invention, production, evolution and differentiation of volume suburban housing. It is exhaustive in this undertaking and a pleasure to read.

Exquisite Max Dupain and Eric Sierins photographs and refreshingly spare orthogonal hand drawings by modernist greats such as Michael Dysart, Neville Gruzman, Harry Seidler and Sydney Ancher punctuate the prose from end to end. But Designer Suburbs goes beyond this visual record to provide a deeply researched and comprehensively referenced history of the subject.

The book expands well beyond the discipline of architecture and thus provides a contextualised perspective on the role of architects at this time. This externalised perspective might at first seem generalist and less relevant for an architectural audience. But it is precisely the location of architecture within bigger commercial, legislative and nationalistic realms that makes the book so compelling. Sadly, Designer Suburbs also bears witness to the diminishing agency of architects in Australian suburbs over the last hundred years.

The final chapter of the book, ‘Suburbia on Steroids’, observes a shift in the value structures giving rise to the most recent breed of suburban homes – a shift away from architect-driven efficiency and refinement or the “maximisation of space and liveability” toward a market research-driven model. Home design under the market research model is muddied by the normalising effect of popular opinion. Efficiency and specificity found in architect-designed project homes of the 1950s and 1960s gives way to the accumulation of features and maximisation of floor area.

We see the role of the architect diminish – from the origins of suburbia where architects developed, prototyped, road-tested, fine-tuned and propagated the suburban home or ‘bungalow’ – to the present day where architecturally designed homes make up but a small fraction of new suburban housing.

Designer Suburbs is a great read and, in my view, an essential new history on the influence that architects have had over the development of Australia’s suburbs. It prompts an imagining of a history of the suburbs over the next hundred years, with all their challenges, and wonder whether the spatial innovation and agency of the architect might yet make a comeback.

Designer Suburbs: Architects and Affordable Homes in Australia, Judith O’Callaghan & Charles Pickett, NewSouth in association with the Faculty of the Built Environment, UNSW & Powerhouse Museum, 2012. 272pp RRP AU$49.99

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