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Modern Australian residential architecture

Rule Street House.

CARP file photo, Rule Street House , by Brackenridge Architects, 2007. Winner of the Royal Australian Institute Association Western Australian Chapter 2006 Awards.

While Australia's iconic structures such as the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge are renowned for their innovative architecture, Australian architects have also produced highly creative residential projects that have changed the way Australians live.

There are a number of projects that have contributed significantly to Australia's architectural history. A key group of architects have developed a range of styles and themes to produce uniquely Australian homes.

Robin Boyd, Roy Grounds and Harry Seidler have contributed significantly to modern Australian architecture by applying modernist-style principles to Australian homes.

Another group of architects, such as Glenn Murcutt, Tina Engelen and Ian Moore, and Troppo Architects, have designed housing that engages with the landscape and works in harmony with the Australian climate.

Australian architects have also been leading the way with housing that addresses social issues. Architects including Sean Godsell have designed housing to address issues such as homelessness and the natural disasters faced by refugees.

Modern movement

Robin Boyd

Robin Boyd (1917–1971) stands as one of the foremost proponents of modern Australian residential architecture. Boyd was born into the prominent Boyd artistic dynasty: he was the son of painter Penleigh Boyd and cousin of painter Arthur Boyd.

Over the course of his career, Robin Boyd became famous for designing houses around central courtyards and creating living spaces arranged in a series of open platforms.

One of the most famous of these creations was the Featherston House which was designed around an internal garden atrium. Boyd designed this house for Grant and Mary Featherston, two well-known industrial designers. A key feature of this building is the translucent roof above the atrium which enhances the feeling of being in a garden.

Other important works by Boyd include the Walsh Street House and the Baker House, where the library was designed by Roy Grounds.

Roy Grounds

Roy Grounds (1905–1981) was educated at Melbourne University, although he was strongly influenced by his travels in Europe and the United States. Grounds is best known for creating the dome-shaped Australian Academy of Science building in Canberra, but is also recognised as one of key architects responsible for introducing modern residential architecture to Australia.

He experimented with platonic forms such as circles, squares and triangles in the organisation of his plans. His most famous designs include The Round House in Frankston which is in the shape of a circle, the Hill Street House in Toorak which is a square plan with a circular courtyard, and the Leyser House in Kew which is triangular.

Harry Seidler

Rose Seidler House by architect Harry Seidler.

Marcell Seidler, Rose Seidler House by architect Harry Seidler, Wahroonga NSW, 1948 - 1950. Photograph courtesy of Penelope Seidler of Harry Seidler and Associates.

Harry Seidler (1923–2006) was born in Austria, studied in the United Kingdom and United States, but set up his practice, Harry Seidler and Associates, in Australia. He is considered to be one of the leading exponents of modernist methodology in Australia and adapted the principles of Bauhaus to Australian homes.

His first commission in Australia was for his mother, Rose Seidler. The Rose Seidler House incorporates the modernist features of open planning, minimal colour scheme and labour saving devices. The original furniture is one of the most important post-war design collections in Australia.

One of the most distinctive features of the Rose Seidler House is the open-plan living area. Seidler created a hollowed-out square plan in the centre of the house and surrounded it with glass walls to open up the living space to the valley views outside. The rectangular structure also has 'tentacles' which reach out and anchor it into the surrounding land.

Some of the most notable pioneers of modernist residential architecture also include Walter Burley Griffin, Neville Gruzman, Iwan Iwanoff and Peter McIntyre.

Environmental focus

Glenn Murcutt

Glenn Murcutt, Marika Alderton House, Yirrkala.

Glenn Murcutt, Marika Alderton House, Yirrkala Community by Glenn Murcutt, 1991-94. Courtesy of the Pritzker Prize Jury Media Office 2002.

Glenn Murcutt (1936– ) is well known for his strong environmental focus in his residential designs and was the 2002 recipient of the Pritzker Prize, the most prestigious international award for architecture. Murcutt's motto is 'touch the earth lightly' and his works are designed to fit into Australian landscape features. Murcutt pays particular attention to the environment such as wind direction, water movement, temperature and the light surrounding his sites before he designs the building itself.

One of Murcutt's most famous projects is the Marika Alderton House in the Northern Territory, which was designed for Aboriginal artist Marmburra Banduk Marika.

This house has been ingeniously designed to adapt to the hot, tropical climate of the Northern Territory because it does not have glass windows. Instead, Murcutt used plywood walls, tallow-wood shutters, and corrugated iron roofing to keep the house open to fresh air, but insulated from intense heat and protected from strong cyclone winds. Wide eaves shelter the house from the sun, and tubes along the roof expel hot air and vertical fins direct cooling breezes into the living spaces. Because the house rests on stilts, air circulates underneath and helps cool the floor.

Troppo Architects

Troppo Architects is a Darwin-based firm that is best known for developing regionally responsive architecture for tropical climates. Troppo significantly shapes the way Territorians live by creating housing that integrates indoor living with the outdoors.

Troppo's first house, nicknamed the Green Can because of its resemblance to the green Victoria Bitter beer can, was essentially a roofed outdoor room. The house used lightweight material such as corrugated iron and was elevated to maximise cross-ventilation, making air-conditioning unnecessary. This was a radical departure from the standard Northern Territory architecture which relied on concrete structures to protect against cyclonic weather, and air-conditioning to make the heat bearable.

Troppo has attracted a number of national architecture awards. In 2002, it won the Australian Institute of Architects National Sustainable Architecture Award for the Rozak House.

Engelen Moore

Tina Engelen and Ian Moore, former partners in Sydney-based firm Engelen Moore Architects, have made a significant contribution to modern environmental design and are best known for designing environmentally sound high-rise apartments. A feature of their high-rise apartments is that they do not include air-conditioning. They believe that you do not need to air-condition any building in Australia if it is designed properly.

At the 2002 World Architecture awards they won three awards for their Altair Apartments in Kings Cross, including Building of the Year for Australasia, Oceania and the Pacific Rim.

The Altair Apartments in Kings Cross garnered much praise because of the high levels of cross-ventilation and space in the small apartments. The apartment building has been designed so that residents can change the temperature by adjusting the blinds and windows, and as a result air-conditioning is not necessary, saving costs to the residents and environment.

There are a number of architectural firms currently operating in Australia that also create regionally-responsive architecture. Merrima is an Aboriginal design collective that create buildings that relate to the cultural identity of the regional communities they are in, and Kerstin Thompson Architects base their practice on integrating the landscape, architecture and infrastructure.

Social justice housing

Sean Godsell

Future Shack.

Earl Carter, Future Shack, 2001. Image courtesy of Museum of Finnish Architecture and Sean Godsell Architects.

Sean Godsell (1960– ) is a Melbourne-based architect whose architecture firm, Sean Godsell Architects, is at the forefront of architecture that addresses social needs.

Godsell became famous for creating the Park Bench House, a prototype designed to provide sleeping options for homeless people. The park bench is an inconspicuous steel bench that can be lifted up to provide shelter at night. Godsell argues that the homeless are excluded from general architectural discussion and his design is an attempt to redress this imbalance. The design is currently being considered by a number of Australian city councils.

Godsell has also attracted international acclaim for his Future Shack, a prototype for relocatable emergency relief housing that can be erected easily around the world following natural disasters and other crises. A key feature of the shack is that it is made out of a recycled 20-foot shipping container, a universal module that is mass-produced, inexpensive and durable, and can be erected swiftly after natural disasters. The container can be stockpiled for use as required by aid coordination agencies and is easily transportable around the world. Godsell is currently in discussions with the Red Cross about producing the Future Shack on a large scale.

The architectural firm Ashton Raggatt McDougall has also incorporated social justice themes into some of their designs. The McKenzie House in Melbourne was conceived around the idea of homes for the homeless and incorporates the practice of using industrial remnants as shelter.

Protecting Australian residential architecture

The residential properties featured in this article form a critical part of Australia's rich architectural heritage. However, a number of influential Australian people believe that not enough is being done to protect and restore these properties as classic residential properties, such as Walter Burley Griffin's Salter House, which are wasting away because maintenance costs are too high for individual owners to manage.

Fleur Watson, editor of Monument Magazine, feels there are few documents that record and evaluate Australia's architectural heritage and she calls for a clear research program to classify individual buildings in the context of the entire body of an architect's work.

Organisations such as Sydney's Historic Houses Trust, the Heritage Council of Victoria and Docomomo are discussing ways to formalise documentation to help inform decisions by the National Trust of Australia, with the ultimate goal to provide a collective memory and insight into Australia's unique architectural legacy.

Useful links

Modernist architects

Environment-focused architectural firms

Social justice and architecture

Protecting Australian residential architecture

Contemporary Australian architecture

Architecture departments

Last updated: 10 January 2008