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Housing

Nov 15, 2016

Does ABC-TV's Streets of Your Town get it wrong?

Part one of ABC-TV's Streets of Your Town is an enjoyable look at 60s and 70s modernist domestic architecture but it's not as relevant to today as it claims

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Multi-unit housing is more typical of today’s market than McMansions. This development by Spaceagency architects won the Frederick Romberg gong for multiple housing at the 2016 national architecture awards earlier this month

I enjoyed the first part of Tim Ross’s two-part doco, Streets of Your Town, screened on ABC TV last week. It helps a lot that Mr Ross is an engaging and enthusiastic host and a self-styled architectural tragic. The main appeal for me though was getting to see inside those fantastic modernist houses from the past, like Robin Boyd’s wonderful 1967 Featherston house in the Melbourne inner suburb of Ivanhoe. It reinforces my view that great things could be done with an Australian museum of architecture using 3-D computing and film.

But the way Mr Ross sets up the show is misleading. Here’s his intro, spoken over numerous images of very large outer-suburban detached houses:

Take a birds-eye view of Australia’s suburbs today. We’re building the biggest homes in the world, McMansions; they’re super-sized and we’re loving them…What does that say about the way we live today? Back in the fifties and sixties, and even the seventies when I was a kid, we had small homes with big backyards, the Australian quarter-acre dream. It was modernism. It was the golden age of experimental design. And we built some of the best homes in the world. But somewhere along the way we got lost; we’ve gone from modernism to McMansionism. We’ve retreated into inferior builds whose dominant feature is their size.

There are a few things wrong with this set-up. It’s doubtful if the assertion “we’re building the biggest homes in the world” was ever true but it’s especially questionable today (see Are new outer suburban homes getting smaller?). The claim surfaced in 2009 despite following a period when the prominence of first-home buyers skewed fringe construction to relatively small housing. Since it emerged from the GFC the US has gone back to building large detached houses, with the average size climbing from a low of 2,100 sq ft in 2009 to 2,500 in 2015. Some fringe detached housing in Australia is super-sized but most isn’t.

The quarter acre block (1,000 sq m) is also largely a myth. Of the 1,800,000 residential lots in Melbourne, just 78,000 are 1,000 sq m or larger i.e. 3.8%. Doubtless some old 1,000 lots have been sub-divided and some 60s suburbs had plenty of very large lots, but the average block in 1960/70s suburban Australia wasn’t a quarter of an acre (see Is the suburban quarter-acre lot a myth?).

Maybe these claims can be excused as hyperbole; after all this is television. The big problem though is the show compares a very select and very small sample of excellent houses from the past with contemporary mass produced housing on the suburban fringe. Most of the latter aren’t super-sized and most 1960s housing wasn’t designed by architects, let alone bleeding-edge modernists. Mr Ross not only compares yesterday’s bespoke houses with today’s mass-produced houses, he selects the very best examples of the earlier era. He’s essentially comparing yesterday’s elite housing with today’s average fringe housing and is disappointed that the latter lacks in design quality.

The relevant comparison with something like the 1967 Featherston house should be with the sort of housing architects are producing today. That includes bespoke inner city renovations, inner-suburban infill dwellings, mansions in places like Portsea and Apollo Bay, and multi-unit housing. Detached houses on the (then) urban fringe were the dominant form of new housing in the 1960s, but not today. Most new dwellings constructed in Sydney and Melbourne now are town houses and apartments. Many more of these units are designed by architects than was ever the case for detached dwellings in the 60s.

Indeed, I’d argue that many more dwellings are designed by architects today than in the past and the average standard of design they’re able to provide to clients – by which I mean the sort of aesthetic characteristics highlighted by Mr Ross – is light years ahead of what households bought or rented in the past. As should be expected with rising incomes and education, the demand for “design” at the domestic level is higher today than it was in the 60s and 70s. The key difference is architects’ housing commissions are now either in the inner city/suburbs and in upmarket holiday towns, or are in the form of multi-unit dwellings.

Despite the title, Mr Ross isn’t looking at the streets of today’s towns. If he were he’d compare the dominant housing form of the past – ‘spec’/project detached houses – with the dominant housing form of today i.e. multi-unit housing and mass produced houses on the fringe. Of course that probably wouldn’t attract the audience that a show taking us inside the best architect-designed houses of the past does. Maybe part two tonight will be different, but viewers should be skeptical of what part one has to say about housing issues today.

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