Design

Iconic Houses

A conversation with Karen McCartney about Iconic Australian Houses.

Unlike other art forms, examples of beautiful design and architecture are often hidden from the world in that they are private residences. In her latest project, author and design commentator Karen McCartney has curated photography, illustrations and 3D models of 30 of Australia's most important homes built during the past 60 years. The exhibition, Iconic Australian Houses, is essentially an extension of the author's fantastic series of design books, but it brings these houses to life in a much more significant way, and with a series of talks, prizes and tours, it allows viewers to intimately explore, and ultimately understand, great design.

Your background is in publishing - how challenging (or not?) has it been to turn your eye to a curatorial project? Is there a lot of crossover between the two roles?

It is an interesting question as both are about organization of information – both visual and written – and the communication of a story. I worked with creative director Tracy Lines (we had worked together at Inside Out magazine previously) in conjunction with Anne-Louise Falson at Sydney Living Museums, on the design.

What I did learn was to be succinct and direct and sell one idea at a time. The editor and I worked together on the constant refining of the words, which, at first I found daunting, and then really enjoyed.

Was it always in the back of your mind to curate the fabulous homes you've written about into an exhibition?

No it didn’t ever occur to me until suggested by architect Lindsay Johnston, convener of the Architecture Foundation of Australia. I had sold him some of my books for the Glenn Murcutt master classes he organizes and we got talking (he is from Northern Ireland too). He had curated an exhibition on the work of Glenn Murcutt, which had started at the Museum of Sydney, and is now travelling the world and he suggested the idea. I do love the fact, however, that the content of the books is being used in another way, getting a second life and hopefully attracting a new audience. Murdoch Books have reprinted the first book, 50/60/70 Iconic Australian Houses in a soft back which is surprisingly handsome and will, alongside the follow-up 70/80/90 Iconic Australian Houses form something of a catalogue for those that are keen to know more.

When I wrote my book Interiors, the thing that stood out to me about Australian residential design is how important light is. What has been your observation? 

Light is utterly crucial and it was one of the key differentiators between what was happening in architecture in the pre and post- war periods. Walls came down internally and the link between inside and out became significant. Orientation, siting and light were an important part of that consideration.

Is there a distinctly 'Australian' style of design? 

Australian domestic architecture is quite remarkable and adventurous architects are finding clients that support great work. There is a tremendous diversity, and ingenuity at play, which makes us a significant world player in this field.

What is notable about the early houses in the books/exhibition was the degree of experimentation: Melbourne led the way post-war in geometry as triangular houses (Peter McIntyre) or a circular courtyard set inside a square form (Sir Roy Grounds), broke the rules. Links to, and connection with, landscape became important and there was an interest in native planting particularly

What influences Australian residential home? 

When it is well done it is the site, the light and a sensitive tuning in to how the owners what to live. Many of the architects I spoke to are keen to interpret the lives of their clients and deliver something above and beyond their expectations.

For you personally, how important is having a well designed home? 

I have spent all my life (until 14 years ago) living perfectly happily in houses, mainly terraces in London, that have not been designed but the exposure to a living space where light fall, views, connection to nature and internal and external dynamics have all been carefully considered is an eye-opener. Nothing is an accident and the daily pleasure that comes from these considerations is hard to beat.

Back to the exhibition, what do you hope that viewers might take away from it? 

I hope that viewers will feel inspired by the relevance of what they see. That they will appreciate these pioneers who did, and continue to, lead ideas of how a house can be. I also hope that they will feel proud of this recent Australian heritage and understand the importance of the role of architectural thinking in everyday life.

I notice it comprises photography, illustrations, 3D models and interviews - is the exhibition for design-minded and those in the industry, or accessible to a broader audience, too? 

The books are written in approachable language, with no architectural jargon, and so the exhibition very much adopts that tone. It does however widen the avenues of approach, as you say, through use of – video interviews and video house tours and we have an augmented reality app, which turns 2-D plans to 3-D to help give a greater understanding of the spaces. We have also avoided a chronological arrangement of the imagery but rather have pulled houses, across the decades, into themes such as relationship to landscape, sculptural shapes, materials etc.

Is there one home in the exhibition that really stands out as your favourite? 

The one that I have pulled out under the heading ‘The Maverick’ in the exhibition is Hugh Buhrich’s house in Castlecrag. It is an incredible example of handcrafted modern with every aspect of the design made by the architect himself – including fittings and furniture. It has the most incredible waveform ceiling, which emphasizes its organic form. The bathroom is also a knockout: a fire-engine red formed fiberglass interior with integrated bath is a blast of colour in an otherwise naturally toned house. Having said that, while writing the book, I could only focus on one house and one architect at a time to really absorb their philosophy and aesthetic expression and I came to appreciate each and everyone of them.

Lastly, what can you tell me about your new book Superhouse?

This book is international in its scope and takes the idea of the ‘superhouse’ and explores that concept in many manifestations. This includes the small and crafted, the awe-inspiring, the technologically advanced, and the majestically sited. I wanted ‘super’ to be about other things than simply money spent – it had to deliver the notion of beyond ordinary in both its exterior and interior treatment. Hence I have gathered a collection of houses where the reader moves from an exceptional Brutalist house in Sao Paulo by Mendes da Rocha, to a container-style pea green box outside Amsterdam, to a revitalised English castle. Nature is the great connecting factor in terms of context. The book is a very generous format so Richard Powers photographs looks exceptional and the design by Evi Oetomo at Penguin/Lantern is elegant but powerful. I couldn’t be more pleased with the result and as an ex-magazine editor I am a harsh critic. The book will be released in October.

Iconic Australian Houses is on display until 17 August at Museum of Sydney.