By Martin Miles
The past decade has seen a surge in interest for mid-century design and architecture, with countless books, documentaries, exhibitions and column inches devoted to various aspects of modernism from this period. It’s great, but why – and why now?
I think it’s due in part to our personal connection to mid-century material culture: after all, many of us born in the period from 1950 to 1965 grew up with mid-century design, or had some awareness of it happening around us. The simplicity and openness of mid-century design is timeless. It’s not merely nostalgia; mid-century architecture connects us with the outdoors and there’s an optimism about the best of it that still feels fresh and compelling today.
It wasn’t until the late 1950s that modernist ideas in architecture and design received broader acceptance. That’s important for Canberra, which is essentially a mid-century city, with most of our growth coinciding with the period of the National Capital Development Commission, from 1957 to the 1980s. That happy coincidence has left us with a remarkable variety of interesting mid-century houses and buildings — from the significant and iconic, to those houses we may often see and admire without necessarily knowing their background — that are part of the fabric of our city.
In week one of our Design Canberra mid-century house tours, we’ll look at the work of two Melbourne architects — one pretty much a household name, the other less well-known. Both have left an important legacy for Canberra.
Sir Roy Grounds is recognised as one of Australia’s leading architects of the modern movement and a key practitioner of the post-war Melbourne regional style of architecture. The Academy of Science building is Grounds’ most well-known Canberra building, and one of Australia’s most important from the twentieth century. The dome-shaped, geometric structuralist style building became an icon of modern Canberra, and its reinforced concrete dome was a remarkable technical achievement.
For Canberrans, Grounds’ legacy lies also in a series of finely crafted, beautifully proportioned houses that blended sensitively with their sites, and a number whose commissions came from scientists associated with the Academy project. Grounds opened a Canberra office in his Forrest Townhouses (1959), which he partly financed.
There’s a nice connection between Grounds and Theo Bischoff, a student of Grounds’ at the University of Melbourne. In the late 1950s Bischoff decided that his best opportunities for work would be found in the rapidly developing national capital, and by 1960 he had set up his own practice here. He began to assist Grounds, Romberg & Boyd with various projects, including the Forrest Townhouses, and the houses at Vasey Crescent. In a career that spanned thirty years, Bischoff designed, supervised and documented a many exceptional private homes and public buildings. Bischoff’s houses were refined, thoughtful and well-detailed. Some of his signature touches are a rectangular footprint, orientation to the north and a limited palette of materials.
If you’d like to experience three of these remarkable houses firsthand, book a ticket on our mid-century houses bus tour.