The 23-minute film, Your House and Mine (1954) sees Robin Boyd and Peter McIntyre – two leading Australian architects of their day, whose work, language and message are still enormously important – adapt their message to a new medium.
McIntyre has enjoyed a long and successful career as an architect and academic. And although Boyd died 40 years ago, his influence has continued into the 21st century, particularly through his two best-known books, Australia’s Home and The Australian Ugliness. Though it was deemed too technically inferior to be screened on ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission) television (it was shown by public broadcasters in the USA), Your House and Mine might also be seen in the context of Boyd’s move into television; Boyd was to create, write and host a series called The Changing Face of Australian Cities for the ABC in 1961 (1).
Your House and Mine is also a record of the humour and resilient optimism amongst young architects of the post-war era in Australia, as evidenced by the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Architecture’s Revues. These were loved by the student body (and others); they were highly satirical not only of conventional architecture per se, but also of the society that created it. Geoffrey Serle, Boyd’s biographer, writes that he was “articulate to a degree unrivalled by any Australian architect” (2). He was also fast and prolific: working on the Revues, “Boyd could turn out satiric verse for McIntyre to perform, sending up North Balwyn or some other target, in a few minutes”. (3)
Boyd’s (and his cohort’s) satire was savage because the belief in international architecture was so strong. McIntyre, a younger man than Boyd but a close friend, has observed that Boyd (and his erstwhile business partner Roy Grounds) believed that international architecture would “save the world”. McIntyre has since written of this time: “Modern architecture was purity, light, progress and goodness of design. It was straightforward, uncomplicated, rational, clean and uncluttered… physical change would overcome all social evil.” (4)
The Architecture Revues began with lunchtime performances. Boyd was a tutor in the Department of Architecture from 1947 and McIntyre began tutoring and lecturing in 1951. During the early 1950s both men published the four-page newsletter Cross-Section, and worked on The Age’s Small Homes Service. McIntyre was the winner, with Kevin Borland and John and Phyllis Murphy, of the Olympic Swimming Stadium competition, which had 210 registered entrants (5). Boyd was also involved in this extremely important enterprise at an early stage, but withdrew when he was appointed a judge for the Competition (6). The Stadium won the 1956 Building of the Year Award.
The Revues first entered into the realm of film when McIntyre and Boyd made Mouldies in 1951. The film was modelled on (and parodied) the short advertising films which typically sat between the two feature films that made a conventional night out at the movies for Melburnians. “Mouldies” itself was a breakfast cereal (!).
Your House and Mine followed. With Eric Kerr (a professional cameraman who also worked on Colin Munro and Barry Humphries’ Le Bain Vorace in the same year), McIntyre as director and Boyd as scriptwriter made a sumptuously colourful and, at turns, humorous, angry and hopeful short film. There was a measure of self-interest involved in the film’s creation and its message: the minds behind it were, after all, up-and-coming architects ready to offer work in the style and with the philosophies advocated in the film. This observation is not to impugn the intention of Boyd and McIntyre – perhaps rather it emphasises their commitment and fervency (as committed professionals, why would they not practice what they preached?). As McIntyre explained in 1992:
The thrust of all our thinking at this time was to attack what we considered was the major flaw in Australian life: Australians’ desire for the individual house with its senseless plan – which always located the lounge and main bedroom facing the street, irrespective of orientation, and the ever-expanding suburb. (7)
The film begins with a statement likely to stick in the craw of the enlightened 21st century audience – that the founding of Melbourne in 1835 spelt the “last days of the Aborigines” (a later return to the “blank slate” theme of the film, using the same footage of emptied, dry bushland, is similarly contentious in describing responsive Australian architecture as “a thin thread of indigenous building”). The only possible defense of this approach seems to be that it was common to contemporary thinking amongst non-indigenous Australians at this point in time.
The scene quickly shifts to some scenes of 1950s Melbourne, notably an open-air art show which may be that famously sponsored by the Herald newspaper, and which for many was an illustration of Melbourne’s lowbrow pretentiousness. McIntyre subtly contrasts this with the funfair of Luna Park, but the social critique here is in the mind of the beholder only.
It is when McIntyre and Boyd begin to ponder the domestic circumstances of Melburnians that a critical tone is established in earnest. Once again, the contemporary viewer must remind her- or himself of the underpinning assumptions in this housing survey section of the film, and accept that in some respects the film’s authors do not always clearly establish their position. “Flats on the city fringe”, for instance, were usually expected to house single professional people; the “mean row houses” – now the gentrified, sought-after inner-city – were seen at this time as an unhygienic relic, at best a necessary evil in a housing shortage but unlikely to survive for many decades more. “Rooms above shops” exemplified an era before the zoning which required separation of retail and housing.
It was the private, freestanding suburban homes in their gardens which were of chief concern, however. McIntyre and Boyd point out (as do many critics today) that Melbourne was double the area of some other cities with only half their population. The history lesson is then resumed with the 1850s gold rush and the subsequent boom: Boyd’s poem speaks of mansions with “feet in the clay and an urn in the sky” and is accompanied in large part by footage of grand 19th century houses in various stages of decay and demolition. Connections between such demolitions and the rationalisation of space for denser population is not directly drawn, though there is mention of subdivision as estates are “whittled and sliced”.
Conrad Hamann and Chris Hamann have written that the “sealed suburban system, and its complacency” inspired Boyd to “turn and fight” (8). The satirical tone of the Your House and Mine is thus heightened, using of a range of accents: a working class man sneers at inner-city houses deemed “still fit for ’uman ’abitation”. One of these, advertised as a “Timber Villa”, is held up for ridicule, its vendor’s name clearly visible. A “migrant” is then represented, heard over vision of the Nissen huts provided for European arrivals, followed by an upper-class voice suggesting that the Housing Commission of Victoria was providing homes for the “temporarily underprivileged”. This is followed by a series of images of small homes, many apparently from same estate.
From here, the film delves into criticism of the “inherent good taste and lively imagination” of housewives, and then to a scene of a woman arbitrarily arranging cut-out figures over a picture of a home. The random gathering of picturesque elements with no regard to the whole was anathema to Boyd, who was almost certainly the writer railing against the “Architectural dingo” of the speculatively built villa in the pages of Cross-Section (9). Seemingly, the housewife’s assumption of the designer’s duty is the last straw for Your House and Mine, and the film descends into madness – from which another “clean sheet” emerges. Now, McIntyre and Boyd present a brief array of locally responsive architecture, from interwar contemporaries Harold Desbrowe-Annear and Walter Burley Griffin through to their own contemporary, Roy Grounds. Boyd and McIntyre’s ideal Australian homes are shown from a variety of angles, described as adhering to a “Port Phillip idiom” and built “with logic for comfort”. The visual impact of this final sequence is strong; its failing is perhaps in the use of stock music, which while suited to the feel and colour of this section of the film, is too reminiscent of the sarcastic use of a similarly up-tempo track in the earlier slum sequence.
At a recent showing of Your House and Mine at the University of Melbourne, McIntyre mused that he and a number of his cohort had cause to wonder whether filmmaking, rather than architecture, might be their calling. In 1954, Architecture and Arts produced a short profile of McIntyre:
The production and direction of a University Revue calls for inspiration, then the slow task of bringing various units of varying abilities and qualities together to make a successful entity. In his architecture, Mr. McIntyre has roughly followed this procedure, and seems to be achieving the same degree of success with this second type of production. (10)
It might be true that McIntyre could have chosen either path as Your House and Mine is, if uneven in tone, nonetheless an engaging and stimulating overview.
Your House and Mine is of its time. This is, of course, one of the main reasons to value it. If its underpinning exploration – the nexus between social critique and advocacy for a new architecture – seems naïve and overly blunt to a present-day viewer, it also provides valuable historical documentation and a still powerful polemic, as well as a reminder of an optimism and belief in the power of the built environment that eludes many in the present day.
The author wishes to thank Philip Goad and Andrew Middleton for assistance with research for this piece.
- See transcript in Transition no. 38, 1992 p. 135 passim.
- Geoffrey Serle, “Foreword”, Transition no. 38, 1992, p. 15.
- Geoffrey Serle, Robin Boyd: A Life, Miegunyah Press, Carlton, 1995, p. 136.
- McIntyre quoted in Serle, Robin Boyd: A Life, p. 105.
- Cross-Section no. 2, December 1952, p. 1.
- Serle, Robin Boyd: A Life, p. 149.
- Peter McIntyre, “Your House and Mine”, Transition no. 38, 1992, p. 157.
- Conrad and Chris Hamann, “Anger and the New Order: Some Aspects of Robin Boyd’s Career”, Transition no. 38, 1992, p. 17.
- Cross-Section no. 21, July 1954, p. 1.
- “People: Peter McIntyre”, Architecture and Arts no. 16, November 1954, p. 15.
Your House and Mine (1954 Australia 23 mins)
Prod Co: Melbourne University Architectural Graduates Society Dir: Peter McIntyre Scr: Robin Boyd Phot: Eric Kerr