Curator Fleur Watson, co-exhibitor (with Tom Kovac) of 100YR City at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale, reviews an exhibition of Robin Boyd houses.
Expressing the Human Spirit – Boyd’s Peninsula Houses was produced in collaboration with the Robin Boyd Foundation as part of the organization’s tribute to Boyd on the fortieth anniversary of his death. The survey captures Boyd’s body of work within the region and illustrates the contribution of his architecture within the rich traditions of coastal architecture on the peninsula.
The exhibition deviates from a simply monographic survey arranged in chronological order by framing the project through the relationships that Boyd developed with his clients. It’s a strategy that responds directly to one of the central themes of Boyd’s seminal publication Living in Australia – the use of materials, spatial forms and structural systems along with an expression of the personality of the clients to create a “vision for living.” As Tony Lee, executive director of the Robin Boyd Foundation, explained in a recent interview with The Age, “The intent is not [just] to show people ‘Boyd Buildings,’ but to show how simply designed buildings that are responsive to their sites and clients’ characters and aspirations can be comforting and inspiring places to live.’’
With this agenda in mind, the exhibition presents nineteen built and unbuilt works. Six of the housing projects are looked at in detail, with the intention of revealing the intimacy and influence exchange between architect and client. Examples include the “Pelican” Myer House, which was built for the influential Myer family in Davey’s Bay; the Marriott House in Flinders, for a third-generation industrial designer from the white goods manufacturing company Hecia; the Kaye House, Kahala, at Oliver’s Hill on an “unbuildable” site; and the recently rediscovered McClune House in Frankston South, with its distinctive parasol roof and courtyard plan.
Sited within the foyer space of the gallery rather than within a conventional gallery space, the exhibition includes text, images, drawings, publications, correspondence and objects. Working drawings are hung on perimeter walls alongside large Mark Strizic black-and-white photographs reproduced predominantly from Living in Australia. Viewing this rather disparate collection of material, one can’t help wondering what the profiled houses – or those that remain intact, at least – look like now through the patina of age. Why couldn’t they have been re-photographed in their current condition to provide a contemporary view – perhaps as with the celebrated Aalto houses in London’s Barbican Gallery’s insightful 2007 exhibition, Alvar Aalto Through the Eyes of Shigeru Ban.
Instead it is left to a series of lengthy and rather didactic texts to “explain” the influence of this collection of clients and projects, when you feel that a simple interview with a surviving family member might have been a far more intimate and engaging strategy.
This view seems to be supported when visiting the gallery’s website and downloading a clip of a recent ABC news story about the exhibition. It contains a short interview with Colin Kaye, son of American enthusiast Norman Kaye, the commissioning client for Kahala in Oliver’s Hill. The interview captures his childhood delight at the “spaceship” house and witnessing celebrated parties on the house’s distinctively angled balcony. This short grab arguably paints a far more engaging picture of life within a Boyd-designed house for a general public audience than a lengthy panel of text ever could.
However, there are moments when the material transcends the conservatism of the display and speaks of relationships that have inspired great creative moments. Most resonant in this respect is the correspondence and design sketches for the Harold Holt Memorial Swim Centre (unbuilt). Boyd had met Holt in the 1930s and had forged a strong friendship with the future prime minister and his wife. Although simply consisting of correspondence and pencil drawings of the proposed memorial, the material on display in the exhibition reveals the emotion behind Boyd’s powerful design to mark the tragic loss of a nation’s leader and a personal friend.
Perhaps the lack of a strong body of archival narrative materials to draw upon points to the reality that individual materials are disparately collected or, worse, simply lost over time. If so, it seems to reflect our lack of an appropriate body or policy in Australia for the collection of materials that relate to our architectural heritage. Moreover, it’s concerning to extend that trajectory from Robin Boyd’s relatively small, yet highly significant, oeuvre to the collection of works by lesser-known but equally important practitioners. In this respect, organizations such as the Robin Boyd Foundation are absolutely vital for highlighting the importance of capturing and disseminating content that is integral to the value of quality architecture. This sentiment is echoed in Boyd’s own passionate belief that good design has the power to enrich lives.
Expressing the Human Spirit – Boyd’s Peninsula Houses was at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery 17 August – 2 October 2011.