Every house designed by Robin Boyd has a signature idea. Some of these ideas are bolder than others. Some are one-off instances but more often than not, Boyd houses are an intriguing combination and iteration of several themes that he’d been exploring in several houses either before or in tandem with others. That’s the way that most architects work – every commission is a work in progress that begets another and then another. With Boyd, the magic lies in the way that he designs so that no one house is really like any other but you can detect a lineage that at every moment speaks of experimentation and opportunity. In 1956, in an article in The Architectural Review titled “The Functional Neurosis,” Boyd wrote of this controlling idea:
What matters in terms of art is whether the idea is developed consistently enough to permeate the entire work. And what matters to the spirit of architecture is the extent to which the development of the idea exploits the qualities of space and enclosure.
The Blott House at Chirnside Park, completed in 1956 and never before published with photographs, is one of those houses. Today, just over sixty years later, it feels as fresh as it proudly was in Melbourne’s Olympic year.
Created for Dr Stanley Blott and his wife, the house was designed to capture a spectacular distant panorama of Victoria’s Yarra Valley. Facing north, the dwelling’s rectangular plan is literally cranked to form a giant block arrow pointing to the view. Adding to the house’s dynamism and accentuating the gesture to the view is the lifting of the roof skyward like the opening of a bird’s beak. Underneath is a giant window wall of timber and glass. It sounds like a simple idea but it’s utterly effective. While the house is modest in scale – with only three bedrooms – it seems monumental from the front; this is a small house made large.
At the time, Boyd had a preoccupation with the concept of the window wall. He invented and patented the Stegbar window wall (developed 1953–55), which was to revolutionize the idea of glazing the everyday suburban home and would be used by project house builders all the way through to the mid-1970s. Boyd was fascinated by the idea of rethinking the traditional stud frame and the old habit of cutting windows out of solid walls. Why not make the frame and window work together? At the Gillison House in North Balwyn (1951), Boyd created a whole facade of glass placed between a lattice of diagonal bracing. At the Edith Boyd House in Blackburn (1955), he faced an entire gridded timber frame in glass. Here at the Blott House, the frame is a repetitive square and rectangular grid where glass or opaque spandrel panels might be inserted but made unique by the necessity of trapezoidal panels where the grid meets the soaring roof. Boyd wasn’t alone in his fascination with the window wall. Roy Grounds had experimented with it at the flats at 24 Hill Street, Toorak (1953); John Hipwell had done the same in Warrandyte with a double-storey window wall in his own house (1953) and in East Ivanhoe (1957); and the living room at Geoffrey Blainey House by Don Hendry Fulton (1957) had a cool full-height gridded wall of timber and glass as its terminating end. It was as if these architects were exploring in timber and glass what their architect-colleagues in the city were doing with office buildings and the newly found language of the glazed curtain wall.
In the Blott House, though, Boyd delivers more. The interior is rich in volumetric complexity. Because he lifts the roof upward and forms an apex in plan and elevation, a double-height interior volume is created. Immediately on entry the living room is snug and intimate, with an open fireplace set into a trapezoidal solid-brick form with quirky dog-tooth details on its corners, a detail that wasn’t forgotten but reappeared in many of Boyd’s buildings of the 1960s. The interior volume recalls Boyd’s now-demolished Troedel House in Wheeler’s Hill (1953), another house with an upstairs mezzanine bedroom and study. At the Blott House, the third bedroom is reached by walking through a cupboard door. Why not?
During the daytime, the living spaces are blessed with sunlight. At night the house appears like a giant lantern. Warmth is given by polished Victorian ash floors below and above, and areas of timber-lined ceiling. Solid balustrades, shelving units and cupboard facings are also in timber. Given a recent refurbishment of white paint everywhere else, this reduced palette reinvigorates the subdued, Scandinavian-inspired colours and textures that originally graced the interior. On the ground floor, there are two modest bedrooms but it’s the open living/dining spaces that give the sense of this house being like an oversized artist’s studio for living in – a theme that Boyd would pursue with so many of his 1950s and 1960s houses. The conventional pattern of formalized living was over. In 1956 this was radical. In 2017, it’s the norm. This is why Boyd’s houses seem so naturally right for today. As Boyd wrote in 1970 in Living in Australia , he had “been fascinated for many years with the conflict between the opposed desires of privacy and freedom, between the cell and the great hall, both of which we all need to be able to experience, on our own terms, at our own timing.” The Blott House holds a glimpse of this fascination.
Away from the view, at the rear of the house, is the expanse of a mature garden. There’s a broad eave to shelter the inside courtyard formed by the arms of the apex plan. It’s low and intimate, almost humble, in direct contrast to the heroic gesture of the glazed facade to the north. There’s a pergola, a series of simple back steps and a wall of weatherboards. It feels like a home. One can find every form of scale here. The Blott House is testament to Boyd’s belief that a lot can be done with very little. It’s a true lesson for today; what is extraordinary is that this house has escaped publication for more than fifty years. Its remarkable intactness is due largely to the robustness of Boyd’s career-long search for strong and simple ideas as a fitting backdrop to living in Australia.
Robin Boyd CBE (1919-1971) was a renowned Victorian architect, author, critic and public educator in the 1950s and 1960s, a leader in Melbourne’s modern architecture movement, a visionary in urban design and outspoken on the “Australian identity.”
The Robin Boyd Foundation continues the work and spirit of Robin Boyd through an active, innovative and ongoing series of public learning programs developed to increase individual and community awareness, understanding and participation in design.
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