House of Ideas – Robin Boyd

2016 – House of Ideas, Robin Boyd

Most people think of Robin Boyd as a writer on architecture. He was. Many people know of him as an architect of houses. He was that too. But a little discussed aspect of his life and his career as a writer and as an architect was his life-long commitment to the idea and challenge of exhibiting design in all its aspects. Above all, this commitment was one that saw design as a public action with public consequences whether at the level of the everyday house, an expression of national identity, or even as way of selling fish and chips. Boyd’s involvement with the idea of exhibition could be local, national and international and he wrote and designed – brilliantly it has to be said – across all three fields. In Australia, this makes him and his contribution rare, especially as involvement with exhibitions was peculiar within his profession locally. But for Boyd, it formed a distinctive and intrinsic part of his everyday practice – because it was about the projection of ideas.

If the house was a private prize for most Australians, for Robin Boyd it was a public preoccupation. While he designed more than a hundred individual houses for individual clients, he also designed a series of demonstration houses and project houses that were intended for public display and ultimately public education. Authorship was not important for him in these projects. In the tradition of modernist housing exhibitions such as the Weissenhof Siedlung, Stuttgart (1927), it was the series of generic ideas in these houses that could be presented publicly that was paramount – but for Boyd achieved in an Australian way.

The House of Tomorrow (1949), Sunshine House (1951), Peninsula House (1955) and Appletree Hill Estate (1965) were ultimately polemical exercises. Even the Stegbar Windowall (1953-), while clearly intended for mass-consumption and commercial success, had as its aim the goal of shifting perceptions about what constituted normality in terms of house design, daylighting and everyday construction practices. Exhibition

In 1970, Boyd was to write in Living in Australia that “Exhibitions are usually the most uncommunicative of all mediums of communication”. It was a typical Boyd negative that underplayed his own expertise in the field. He became fascinated with international expositions after trips to Interbau, the International Building Exhibition held in Berlin in 1957 and the Brussels World Expo in 1958. He was also involved regularly in writing about and presenting Australia in international forums and professional journals. Expositions had, since the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, been seed beds for new ideas in architecture and technology, as well as contentious venues for national representation. For Boyd, another personal preoccupation of his was Australian identity and its place internationally, and especially the role of design in that discourse. As exhibits designer for Australian pavilions at Expo 67 in Montreal and Expo 70 in Osaka, Boyd was at the very epicentre of a global ‘what’s on’ in contemporary culture. As such, his designs like the ‘Space Tube’ need to be judged alongside not just the well-known expo architects of the day like Frei Otto, Buckminster Fuller, Kenzo Tange and Kisho Kurokawa, but also with those designers intimately involved with curatorial strategies for culture such as Charles and Ray Eames and Bernard Rudofsky. For Boyd, it was the expo experience that would inform his exhibition designs on Australia, witness his plywood cylinders at Australia Square for ‘Australia: The First 200 Years’ (1968) and his acrylic cylinders for the Australian Chancery in Washington DC (1968).


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