The Melbourne homes of Beaumaris are a reminder that suburbia delivered hope and modernity to a postwar generation.
The 1950s represented a golden time for the design of Australia’s suburbs. A demand for housing stock in its state capitals opened the floodgates to experimental ideas about housing and urbanism with the city fringes becoming a creative playground for the nation’s best architects.
When residential development along Port Phillip Bay, south of Melbourne, took off in the 1950s, innovators such as Robin Boyd, David Chancellor and William Patrick all made their mark on this low-lying patch of coastal turf. And over time this suburb, known as Beaumaris, came to be seen as a place where the principles of modernist building met a distinctly Australian context.
Decades on, Beaumaris has grown into the definition of a highly functional Australian suburb. A brief stroll through the leafy streets reveals an abundance of well-considered homes along with flourishing parkland and charming shops. The residents, many of whom are designers and architects, form a tight-knit community, and, on weekends, the air is filled with the sound of kids playing Australian rules football, while their parents slip off to Beaumaris’ cafés for their flat whites. Melbourne’s skyline, 20km away, shimmers on the horizon but feels almost irrelevant.
Retired magistrate Kevin Burgess and his wife Margaret have witnessed Beaumaris change a lot since they moved to the suburb. In the beginning the roads were unpaved and there were only a few other buildings on their street. “Our friends thought we were bloody mad when we first made the leap,” says Kevin. “They thought we were moving to the bush.”
Time ultimately vindicated Kevin and Margaret’s relocation, however. Over the past 61 years they’ve lived comfortably in an idiosyncratic home designed by renowned architectural firm Chancellor and Patrick. Built out of brick, the two-storey structure sits atop a small hill just a few hundred metres from the coast. At night, lights from the windows illuminate the trees, which is why the house is named after a Scottish lighthouse, Muckle Flugga.
Kevin originally commissioned the building after spending hours at the library poring over books about Frank Lloyd Wright. It makes sense then that large portions of the Burgess’s house take cues from American modernism. An imposing brick fireplace in the sitting room, for example, pays homage to Wright’s maxim that “the hearth is the psychological centre of the home”. An expansive open-plan kitchen also sets the house apart from others of the period. “Kevin felt it wasn’t fair to feel left out while cooking,” says Margaret. “So we opened the whole thing up, which was ahead of the times.”
Perhaps Muckle Flugga’s most impressive quality, though, is its adaptability and enduring build quality. The Burgesses have been able to tweak the house’s design to suit a wide variety of life circumstances, including young adulthood, childbirth and retirement. “Houses seem almost like motor cars now – people just use them and sell them on,” says Kevin. “This home, on the other hand, has always been somewhere you could pull up the draw bridge and settle in for the long haul.”
Vibrant colours are everywhere in the house of Annie Price and Jamie Paterson; vintage yellow tiles line the kitchen, bright red glassware glimmers in the lounge room and an electric blue rug surrounds the dining table. The combined result is a house that feels as upbeat and optimistic as its owners. “I couldn’t live in a house that doesn’t excite me,” says Price, a creative director at an advertising agency. “I want to be inspired by my surroundings.”
Price and Paterson bought their two-storey house in 2011. From the beginning the potential was obvious: the property represented an era when architects were pushing to make high-quality design accessible to the masses, rather than just the rich. As a result the place had a plethora of appealing features: timber floors and exposed roof beams offered an immediate sense of warmth, while the building’s elevated profile made it seem at one with the surrounding tree canopies. The open-plan layout also felt far more inviting than similarly priced Victorian-era properties.
Over the following two years, Price and Paterson embarked on a large-scale renovation that involved replacing the roof and enlarging the living area. They also added decking to the front of the property and built a wooden access ramp at the back, inspired by the Rose Seidler House in Sydney.
All the hard work has paid off. Since completing their renovations, Paterson and Price have been able to indulge their passion for collecting furniture and fittings. “Some people like to watch TV or relax on the weekends,” says Price. “We go to garage sales.” What has been their proudest acquisition so far? According to Price, it’s probably an original Hans-Agne Jakobsson pendant light, which was found at a church fete for au$4 (€2.50).
Former photo stylist Alison Alexander has a deep emotional connection to the house she lives in with her husband Edward; her father’s architecture firm, Mockridge, Stahle & Mitchell, designed it in the late 1950s when Beaumaris was just hitting its stride as a residential hub. A few yellowing sketches of the practice’s most notable commissions adorn the walls and it’s clear that Alison views them with pride. “Dad’s company did a huge amount of work across Melbourne, particularly institutional buildings,” she says. “Sadly, if you mention the name now, hardly anyone recognises it, which makes me a little cranky sometimes.”
Alison and Edward’s house was originally designed for a young couple with a tight budget. Still, it is full of high-quality finishes. Honey-coloured timber lines many of the walls, large windows provide ample light and, at the centre of the house, is a handsome circular staircase that links to a lower level. A high-slanted ceiling creates a feeling of airiness in the dining area, while an exposed redbrick floor adds warmth. “It’s not the largest house, but it works beautifully,” says Alison. “I’ve never understood the people nowadays who think bigger homes are automatically better.”
Although Alison’s father, Ross Stahle, wasn’t the principal architect of the structure, his presence can be felt throughout. A good deal of the furniture was inherited from him, including two pristine Florence Knoll sofas and a George Nelson chair. Near the front door sits a Bertoia bench with ring stains from where he used to rest his whiskey. “Dad always loved clean lines and things that were unfussy,” says Alison. “I definitely share his taste. Looking back, he really had a huge impact on me.”
Standing near the entrance of his living room, former sommelier Matt Skinner runs his hand along a cedar-panelled wall and smiles. “You just don’t see this type of craftsmanship too often these days,” he says. “The place is almost like a good bottle of wine, getting better with age.”
Skinner and his wife Carly, who also works in hospitality, occupy the former home of Melbourne architect David Godsell. Built in 1960, the building embodies the trailblazing spirit that fuelled Beaumaris’s early years. Its C-shaped floor plan contrasts starkly with the boxy dwellings that sprang up around other parts of Melbourne after the Second World War. A central courtyard anchors the layout, which allows sunlight to permeate throughout and encourages social interaction. Meanwhile, floor-to-ceiling windows, along with skylights, connect the interior to the surrounding flora. “One of the things that attracted us to the house was how it is harmonious with the land,” says Matt. “At the same time David always intended it to be a very functional family home and, after all these years, it still is.”
Inside, the house feels surprisingly modest in scale. Matt and Carly’s friends have nicknamed the living room “the womb” because of its intimate atmosphere, while in each of the four bedrooms there’s hardly an inch of space that’s wasted. “There seems to be a feeling at the moment that bigger is better,” says Carly, gesturing towards a neighbouring plot of land that will soon be developed into large modern dwellings. “When you live in spaces like ours though, you learn that it’s not about how big a home is but rather how you live in it.”