(An account of a house-visit to a modernist classic, with reflections on the importance of clients who know what they want, and can express it in terms that increasingly make sense 40 years later, and the results of a Melbourne architect working in Sydney.)
A couple of months ago, the Trimbles and I drove down to the south of Sydney to see the Lyons House. Designed by the great Robin Boyd in 1966, it's a wonderful house, and still inhabited by the original owner, Dr. Lyons, some 40 years on.
After Boyd died young, aged only 52 in 1971, Joseph Burke said he was "the artistic conscience of his country, in the future of which he believed passionately." That gives a sense of his importance as an architect - particularly in practice with Roy Grounds and Frederick Romberg - but also as an influential writer and critic (I’ve mentioned his influential ‘The Australian Ugliness’ before, but more influential were his weekly columns for The Age, work for the Small Homes Service and his book 'Australia's House'.) This, however, was the first Boyd house I'd experienced in the flesh.
The Lyons House is essentially unchanged, functioning beautifully and well-cared for. It’s a great example of a form of mid- to late-century modernism, and still stands out in its environment as brave, progressive and thoughtful architecture. The access was arranged by Nic Dowse, organiser of the Boyd Homes Group, and we joined a group of around 10-15 Boyd home owners (lucky devils), fans or folk otherwise interested in Boyd’s work or the architecture of that time. (I've put a full set of photos up on Flickr, though I have to say, it was a difficult building to capture.)
The sprightly Dr. Lyons described the house in intelligent detail, and in particular its commission and relationship with Boyd. This last aspect is particularly fascinating and Lyons himself indicated the value of a client who knew what he wanted in terms of function, and his good fortune in meeting a sympathetic architect at the top of his craft.
Situated on the crest of a hill overlooking Dolans Bay, with Cronulla beyond, the house is an impressive, almost imposing, structure at first sight from the street. The structure is relatively simple, comprising a swimming pool for the base, constructed above-ground, and the floors of the house extending up and outward from this pool 'core'. Thus the house faces inwards, with the pool a form of courtyard - and one side left open with a view through the trees to the blue of the bay beyond. This structure also lifts the house up over the crest of the hill, giving a clear view of the bay from one open side and providing both privacy and shelter for cars underneath.
These last aspects were key details in the brief that Lyons gave to Boyd. Dr. Lyons wanted privacy, and in a spot that already had development all around it. He actually said he didn't care what the house looked like from the outside, as long as it provided an element of quiet seclusion inside. As a family house in the late-'60s, with 4 kids, he knew he'd need space for cars, and so they're tucked under the 'eaves' formed by the overhanging first storey.
The way Dr Lyons talked about the brief was fascinating. While he may have had a concern for aesthetics - he would hardly have been talking to Boyd if he hadn't - he essentially left all that to Boyd, offering no preference at all. What he was more interested in, he said, was the way the building would perform. The functional element to the architecture. "As a machine", he said. (It's slightly ironic to hear the "machine" quote, given how associated that is with Le Corbusier and its interpretation in a certain kind of modernism. Ironic given how intimate, warm and organic this house feels, at least from within. Interesting too, in terms of our contemporary focus on behaviour and performance in design.)
Backtracking slightly, it's worth pausing to tell the story of how he ended up with Boyd. Dr Lyons recalls advice he was given at the time: 'In Sydney it's Harry Seidler. In Melbourne you talk to Robin Boyd.’ Being in Sydney, and of a clearly pragmatic nature, he decided to speak to the former first, and regales us with a great tale revealing Seidler’s character. Invited to the great architect’s office in downtown Sydney, Dr Lyons enters the vast office that Seidler had to himself, a giant space, largely empty save for a desk at the far end, with Seidler sitting behind it. Lyons pads towards the architect, which seems to take an eternity, and settles down to listen. Seidler quickly lays things on the line, stating that he doesn’t want to see or hear from the client at all, after the initial commission - the architecture itself would be entirely up to him. (Oh Harry.) Those who have seen Mad Men recently may be able to visualise the office and the attitude all too well.
Not surprisingly, Dr Lyons switches his attention to Boyd, who could hardly be more different. Although Boyd also had his moments, by reputation, Dr Lyons found him immensely courteous, professional and attentive. There were charming tales of Boyd’s generous and “gentlemanly” approach to the work and his clients. (Lyons shows us a signed copy of the book Boyd sent in thanks, after having dinner with the Lyons's). Boyd’s design was also fairly rapid, with sketches emerging within a couple of weeks that approximately very closely to the final house. The construction was wrapped up in six to twelve months.
The Japanese influence in Boyd’s work - as with many of his colleagues - is well known, and easy to spot here. The upper structure comprises spaces built around post-and-beam construction, and those living spaces themselves are capable of being organised into large, open rooms or small self-contained cells, all through the configuration of screens and sliding doors. See also the use of matchstick blinds on all windows - from the exterior, these provide the privacy Dr Lyons spoke of, but allow light to filter through the interior.
The timber beams are exposed and only lightly treated, as with the Japanese vernacular. Similarly, the steps up from the ground to the first floor entrance, though enclosed within the house, could be seen in the same light. Boyd’s understanding of Japanese architecture was profound - after his biography of Kenzo Tange, a commission after a recommendation from Walter Gropius, Tange commented to Boyd “I could not help admiring you for your deep understanding and correct criticism on Japanese culture as well as my own work.”
Light is cleverly filtered throughout the house, particularly on the perfect Sydney day we visited on. Ripples of reflected sunlight from the pool flicker on the overhanging eaves. The slivers of windows at the top of each wall project sharp rectangles of sunlight that slowly creep up the walls, each cutting a new angle throughout the living space, breaking up the simple rectangles of the rooms. You enter in the middle of the house, ascending the staircase from the darkness under the cantilever up into the light. It’s a very pleasing threshold indeed.
The exterior walls echo the pale grey of the gums in the garden. The exterior boxiness is broken up by the slender, upright curves of the trees. (Boyd used grey brick for the interior in his Walsh Street house; here the interior is all wood, so it’s almost a reversal.)
The interior frames and walls are built in the original cedar wood. Dr Lyons tells us that he’s had to clean them properly - and you know this would be properly - twice in the 40 years, which he said was a bit of a bugger. Involved a toothbrush, I seem to recall. Marcus thinks to ask how the house smelt when the cedar wood was still freshly installed. Wonderful, apparently, and the smell lingered for quite a while. The kitchen features cork tiles, as with the house of Boyd’s old oppo, Roy Grounds.
As well as the Japanese influence, it’s also easy to correlate this space with the promise of modernism as Boyd envisioned it: “make great open spaces without visible means of support, to throw out parts in cantilever and to open up entire walls to the outdoors through sheets of glass”. The expression of structural elements - primarily post-and-beam - is clear throughout the space. Writer Peter Blake commented that Boyd’s houses were often “almost invisible from the outside. It was the quality of the inside space that counted not some heroic architectural gestures towards an impressionable world.” Again, this is clear with the Lyons house, even more so than his Walsh Street House, in turning its back on the street and looking inward.
This aspect - withdrawing into the house and not worrying about the immediate context - produced an involuntary cringe from me. I’m used to thinking about the relationship between the building and the city, more than within the building itself, and would look to balance the privacy required of a family dwelling with a permeable, civic relationship with its context. The isolationist suburban plot has done more harm than good. However it must be said, even with its back turned on the audience like Miles Davis, this house still gives more back to this street than any of the other houses surrounding it. Indeed, it’s clear that, good as it is, the house has had little effect on the surrounding suburb, which has bloated houses on all side that are entirely without distinction. The architect Neil Clerehan, also quoted in 50/60/70, said "we never imagined there would be a trend for Neo-Historicism. We thought we were forging a brand new way forward." Sadly, Port Hacking Road indicates that the ‘brand new way forward’ occurs only in fits and starts, and simultaneously with many old ways backwards and sideways.
The original builder of the house, Bob Ellis, was also present for the day, and also sprightly, bright and informative.
Ellis recalled Boyd’s meticulous eye for detail, pointing out minor adjustments that Boyd had made during the build. It turned out that Bob the builder had constructed pretty much everything another great Australian architect, Russell Jack, designed and it was a particular joy to hear about the craft involved in this work. The base of the house was finished in clinker brick, which Ellis recalls was relatively innovative - and not so cheap - at the time.
Both Dr. Lyons - who built a small scale model of Boyd’s design for the house and placed it on the blank site to see how the sun moved across it - and Ellis seemed to be examples of those everyday craftsmen of an earlier age, when the ability to design, build and repair physical material seemed widespread, useful and valued. Quite inspiring really. They now build boats together.
The house is also intriguing as it’s the only Sydney work by an architect primarily associated with Melbourne. The so-called Sydney school was quite different to Melbourne’s architectural scene, and this house sits almost half-way between (a kind of Canberra perhaps). It actually works beautifully in the sun-drenched, temperate context of southern Sydney, yet the climactic differences are essentially the house’s primary flaw. Melbourne has more rainy days than Sydney but its average annual rainfall is about 40-50% less. Basically in Sydney when it rains, it rains. And Boyd apparently underestimated the torrential nature of Sydney’s rain, and the house had been damaged in several storms over the years. Thus the only major modifications to the house are a reworking of the roof, including extending it out over the windows to the south.
The art in the house a pretty eclectic mix, as were the furnishings. The original interior design would’ve been interesting to see, but over the years any coherence has faded. It’s not all in keeping with the house, but personal choices rarely can be. As noted, this would keep the house out of source-books like 50/60/70, which needed its featured architecture and furnishings to be in perfect harmony. But the odd bum note shouldn’t, and doesn’t, detract from the quality of the architecture one iota. This is Dr. Lyons's house, not Robin Boyd's, after all.
The bedrooms are small by contemporary standards, but probably all the better for it. The kids apparently enjoyed the fact they could bolt themselves in. The slightly larger master bedroom was bathed in sunlight filtered through trees and the matchstick blinds. It was both instructive and pleasurable to see a house with such economy of personal space, carefully arranged to open into the freer communal spaces.
One of the final delights of the tour was the discovery of a model railway in the basement. At the instruction of Dr. Lyons, Marcus and I clambered down there to take in the sight of a very sizeable diorama. Half-covered with a sheet, the immediate temptation was to lift it reveal the extent of the terrain. You hope that the landscape might be spotted with tiny replicas of Boyd-designed houses, perhaps even with a replica Lyons House sitting atop of hill, with its own tiny basement containing a miniature model railway too, and that that might be spotted with tiny replicas of Boyd-designed houses …
The house was open to a tour organised by Nic Dowse, founder of the Boyd Homes Group, to whom we are all extremely grateful. The tour was carrying on to Canberra to see several other Boyd-designed houses, and Nic deserves a lot of credit for organis enthusiastic and diplomatic stewardship of the group, the cause, and his open approach to architectural appreciation in Australia.
Full set of photos of Lyons House [Flickr]
Excellent write-up by Marcus Trimble [SuperColossal]
Lyons House [Sydney Architecture]
Nic Dowse on the Sydney/Canberra weekend [Boyd Homes Group]
Download of the Lyons House fact-sheet [Canberra Homes]
The architecture of Robin Boyd [Flickr]
In Every Dream Home A Heartache: The Great Australian Dream and its architecture