The same old story

My suburb is undergoing an explosion of growth. Due to a change in local planning law, it is now possible to demolish a single house on a smallish block and erect two adjoining houses in its place. In the UK they’re called semi-detached, here they’re called duplexes. Where a 3 bedroom/ 1 bathroom house once stood there is now a building likely to contain 8 bedrooms and 6 bathrooms (i.e. two x 4 bed/ 3 bath homes). That’s quite an increase and rather frightening to think of the impact on services like the sewerage system. It’s part of the drive to increase the housing stock across Sydney and that’s a good thing if it is also accompanied by increased infrastructure such as public transport. Sadly this isn’t.

My suburb is popular because it has great beaches and is a place people come to unwind.  The Royal National Park is a ferry-ride away and the centre of Sydney within easy reach. It’s one of the many suburbs that expanded massively in the 1950s and 1960s as new immigrants settled here, from Britain mostly. The buildings were a bit suss but never mind, it was all about freedom and sunshine and new beginnings. Now there’s a new shift, as the suburb becomes denser and busier and more urbanised. When I first arrived 20 years ago, it was hard to find wholemeal bread: now there are numerous good restaurants, organic shops and endless cafes serving single origin coffee. I admit that I love that.

different but the same

different but the same

But it’s the architecture that irks me. Ever since I moved here, I’ve been dismayed by the houses. A visiting friend remarked how lovely it was that they’re different from each other. It’s true, but they’re all different in exactly the same bland way. Only a very few stand out as addressing the site and being environmentally responsible or architecturally adventurous. And it’s the same with these new duplexes springing up in every street. Most have a beachy vibe, usually white mixed with other textures, which is very now. Some are designed by architects, others are project homes from building companies that promise space and ‘luxury inclusions’ for a reasonable price. Look a bit closer and you realise that they aren’t always tailored to make the best use of natural light, that some face entirely away from the sun, and that they all have the same open-plan living space that puts kitchen, dining and living together in the same noisy, busy, difficult-to-furnish, difficult-to-heat-or-cool room. Gradually the whole area is going to look the same, in the different-but-same mould, just as before.

And so I was interested to watch a new 2-part TV series from the ABC called ‘Streets of your town.’ It’s been put together by Tim Ross, a comedian who is also a Modernist architecture nut. His programme gives an overview of domestic architecture in Australia’s suburbs since the 1950s, while also checking out the Modernist haven of Palm Springs in the USA and chatting to Kevin McCloud in London. I love that there’s a television programme about architecture that doesn’t focus on instant makeovers or gets all breathless looking at the luxury homes of people who often have more money than taste. I think Ross overstates the case for modernism in Australia, showing ordinary project homes of the 1950s that look flimsy and, frankly, shack-like, and says that these are better than the bloated McMansions of today. I’m not sure they are. While there’s an undoubted charm to their humbleness and simplicity, the early houses were pretty generic. But he goes on to show a number of good, architect-designed houses of the period that are classics because they stand head-and-shoulders above everything else (like Harry Seidler’s house for his parents and even the well thought-out Pettit & Sevitt project homes).

A reviewer in the Sydney Morning Herald liked much of the programme but found Ross’s dislike of the huge McMansion-style house condescending, and insulting to those who live in them:

‘People work their butts off for their dream homes, whatever the style. What exactly is wrong with wanting a four-bedroom, modern, spacious home that’s safe, has a nice kitchen and enough room for the kids to play?’ she complained. ‘Not everyone wants original design features.’

It’s a response that I’ve come across often in Australia. It’s as though ‘design’ is a bit fancy and something ordinary people can’t afford, rather than simply something that makes things work better and which everyone should demand. I think of Le Corbusier’s magnificent apartments in his Unité d’habitation in Marseille which are filled with great examples of thoughtful design. Like the hinged wooden step to the covered balcony which is made wide enough to sit on (and warmed by the radiator running beneath it). There’s a length of timber along the bottom of the window, too, that is exactly where you would want to rest your elbow when perched on the step. It’s a small touch that makes living there more comfortable. That’s good design, and not at all expensive.

the hinged step in Marseille with the elbow bar in sight

the hinged step in Marseille with the elbow bar in sight

Just as cars in the past decade have become safer, better to drive and more comfortable to sit in, so too are our houses improving. The problem is that architectural change takes a while to trickle down. I’m sure some people think that we should just be grateful for what we have, that good design is a first-world-problem so we shouldn’t grumble if we don’t have it, but as more of us travel and see how others live, then gradually we become educated to what is normal and what is possible. If we’re encouraged to be more mindful in our daily life then shouldn’t we expect to live in more mindfully designed homes?

I came across this quotation from architect Denys Lasdun in Barnabas Calder’s excellent book on Brutalism, “Raw Concrete.”

‘Our job is to give the client, on time and on cost, not what he wants but what he never dreamed he wanted and, when he gets it, he recognizes it as something he wanted all the time.’

Lasdun said this in 1965 but it still strikes a chord. As I stroll down to the beach today, past new duplexes like those in the photos below, I fear that the new residents will have got exactly what they wanted. But nothing more.

Categories: Architecture, Australia, DesignTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. a very good point. I love Rose Siedler House but the same can’t be said for his apartment blocks and other towers.

  2. A friend from the Shire lived until recently in a lovely architect-designed 1960s home. Then he got married and, with a blended family of four teenagers, had to sell up and buy a bigger home. While not calling his new bland house a “McMansion” he expressed his sadness at having to make such a move. I wanted to point out that the Brady Bunch’s house seemed stylish and if they could do it, why couldn’t he, but I didn’t. I felt his pain though … would have made a good case history for Tim Ross.

    • Interesting. I think it’s often easier to buy more space rather than think about redesigning the existing space more cleverly. When you see the Tiny House movement and what gets fitted into a tiny footprint, you’ve got to wonder…

  3. I always wondered what a Duplex was (imagining it more of a complex), I have never heard of Single Origin Coffee and what is a McMansion?!
    I think you make a very good point about design. It is a must, not a luxury. And surely not just a first world luxury. How about igloos and mud huts – I am sure their design is excellent. A good design makes the most of all the natural features on offer.
    A most interesting post.

    • Yes, it’s a total no-brainer, so far as I’m concerned. And you’re exactly right with igloos and mud huts – design grows from experience, and it is the wisdom of the designer/ architect to use that experience (and the wisdom of the buyer/ resident to understand that one size does not fit all). Maybe McMansion isn’t very current in the UK but it’s in common use in the US and here where we have bloated homes of littele architectural integrity – it’s all about fulfilling a quick need that then leaves you feeling dissatisfied. Just like a burger. And as for Single Origin, the little cafes love to promote coffee beans from single plantations, from around the world, claiming a superior taste. I’m sure you’ll come across it in some of the hipster caffs in the UK. The genius of marketing, some might say…

  4. In London you get used to people doing appalling things all the time. It’s simply a question of how many people can we cram into this space. It was entertaining watching the development of the block across the road from us. Withing two months it was running off a generator because all the electrics had gone phut and something that looked like a tarpaulin was flapping from the new roof. You could tell they were cowboys doing it but all the same …

  5. I wouldn’t be too worried about the pressure on the sewer if our part of Sydney is anything to go by where replacement houses have been doubled in size while accommodating half as many people as the demolished houses had done. I would not have thought demolishing habitable houses and replacing each with two new ones is economically viable given all the costs involved especially Councils’ penchant for revenue raising and their creativity when it comes to finding new fees to levy. It seems wishful thinking on the part of the planners if they are hoping to significantly solve the pressures on housing while pretending nothing much is happening in your neighbourhood.

    Is it unAustralian to suggest the Rose Seidler house, constrained by postwar budgets and limited material choices gets more attention than it deserves in the 21st century beyond where it stands in our domestic housing history? The house reminds me of an aircraft whose passengers have departed in haste. The interest may stem from the fact there is public access unlike the superior, in my view, house Harry designed in collaboration with Penelope as their own home.

    • Good point about the people:space ratio re sewers. After all, how many loos can a person use at the same time!I think the issue with the sudden burst of duplex-making, at least in my area, is that these new half-houses are often sold for more than the single house cost. Tricked up with Miele kitchens and luxury bathrooms, they appear to offer luxury but actually offer the same low-cost wood-framing, plasterboard walls and low ceilings as any cheap house built anywhere else in Australia. It’s all a question of location.I noticed the other day that a house on my street, a project home built only 9 years old which replaced an old timber cottage, is now to be demolished to make way for a duplex.
      Re the Seidler House, I agree their own house is much more appealing but I guess the Rose Seidler wins because it was first in the canon.

  6. How is it that what appears to be good design (award winning even) is not or is rarely replicated, while rubbish sprouts in profusion?

    • A lovely development, and so thoughtfully created. Far too much open landscape, though, for modern developers who would cram as many buildings in as possible and put parking underground so that the topsoil was thin and couldn’t support trees.

      • Is or would that be the fault of developers or of dozy councils who let them? And therefore indirectly us to whom councilors account? When we get democratically elected councils back I mean.

        In the meantime, my anger is concentrating on the planners at the state level The anger swells as I dwell on the thought that you can cut traffic more by zoning land near a station for commercial use with very limited parking, than by zoning it for apartments in the hope residents will commute by rail to workplaces already provisioned with parking. Experience shows that often does not happen as is evidenced by the 59,000 cars that pass Epping station every work day whose occupants don’t stop and catch a train.The NSW government’s response two days ago is to announce more apartments at more Sydney stations.

      • I’m all for apartments close to public transport but the public transport has to be good. I think how good London’s underground is now, a train coming every minute or so all day long. The idea of using a car in London is insane. It’ll take a while to change that mindset in Sydney, or Australia, really.

  7. Public transport to be good needs to go where you want rather more than its frequency. You pick a train or bus that goes where you want when you want and aim for it each day. Frequency is more important if your journey involves changes. Macquarie Park, and more particularly its environs, are a disaster because it was planned with large car parks before the railway arrived. But the railway is there now and most of the car parks are too so it is still a disaster to go near it in the peak.

    Even now with three stations, it is too spread out and the next push is for a tram! Optus has a bus which takes people to Epping station which is one stop from Macquarie University which is closer. Why does the bus run? Is the Optus head office too far from two of the three stations intended to service the industrial park? Norwest industrial park is only going to have 1 station. Most Sydney CBD workers go by public transport for the simple reason there is effectively nowhere to park.

    This is the only way to get people out of their cars no matter how bad the congestion.

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