10 December 2016

Robin Boyd's houses in post-WW2 Australia: small, equitable, world changing

My father was demobilised in Dec 1945 and returned to Melbourne without any savings. Unable to buy a house of their own, my parents postponed having babies, lived with my grandparents and then rented a rent-controlled flat from a cousin.

By 1946 the Department of Information acknowl­ed­g­ed that there was an acute housing shortage in post-WW2 Australia; it was the most pressing problem facing this country. Luckily two important events occurred that changed the home-owning landscape for couples who had married straight after the war. 1] The State Bank offered low-interest housing loans for ex-servicemen and 2] the Small Homes Service started up.

From Jan 1945 until March 1949, 132,000 new houses were built across the country. c600,000 people were living in these new homes of which 65% had been allocated to ex-servicemen and their dependants. My parents were delighted to move into a small, 2 bedroom house, on the outer fringes of the Melbourne suburbs in 1948. The neighbours were in similarly small homes, planning to build a third bedroom and a second toilet whenever finances allowed.

A typical small house had one big living-dining room, 2 bedrooms, a small but functional kitchen and glass sliding doors leading to the outside gardens. 
Sydney Living Museums, 1953.

Robin Boyd (1919–1971) was the most famous Melbourne architect in the post-war era. Boyd was a proponent of an environmentally sensitive and locally specific adaptation of modernist design. Though his design career included a number of larger public works, Boyd’s fame lay in family homes. Working mainly with lower-income families, his plans were the result of an egalitarian commitment to quality homes. In a country previously devoted to housing designs that were poorly suited to local culture and climate, Boyd utilised Australian-suitable designs, simple materials and new prefabrication methods. His houses fitted the natural land­scape and were respectful of their neighbours and the built environment.

The Small Homes Service was Robin Boyd’s brainchild when it was launched in Melbourne in July 1947, with backing from the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects and The Age newspaper. It was a cheap way for Melburnians to build a new home; for just £5 a family could chose from a range of architect's plans, complete with working drawings and specifications. The architects produced standard designs for houses, then each week in The Age, Boyd wrote an explanatory article about each design. A typical small homes article might have described the house as an “economical design for a larger family - only 10.5 squares, saves labour as well as space”. The house would have “grouped plumbing and simple roof”.

As I mentioned, the designs were available for mem­bers of the public to purchase, irres­pective of their wealth or background. Boyd accompanied each submission with articles offering comment on design and lifestyle ideas that resonated with his modernist values. His ideas of Modern­ism con­sisted of open plan layouts, big windows, solar and site-responsive orientation and low-profile roofs. The indoor-outdoor link would be established via large, glass sliding doors leading to a veranda and gardens.

Once the choice was made, the family had merely to find a builder to build it. Each new house would be special since only 50 versions of each plan could be built, 25 in the Melbourne suburbs and 25 in the Victorian countryside. Then the design would no longer be promoted.

Cover of a Small Homes Service booklet, 1948
Plans and advice were published in The Age every Wednesday.

Boyd was the first Director of the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects Small Homes Service from 1947–1953. And from 1948 he was also the editor of this service for The Age, for which he wrote weekly articles. The Small Homes Service provided designs of small houses which a] incorporated modern archit­ect­ural aesth­etics & functional planning and b] were sold to the pub­lic for a small fee. Through this work Boyd became a household name in Melbourne. 

This grand plan for small homes may have been unprecedented in other parts of Australia and the world. Only in the late 1940s did the Sydney Morning Herald and Home Beautiful lobby to establish a Small Homes Service in NSW, similar to that established in Victoria.

Boyd was a creative architect, with 200+ designs completely during his relatively short career, solely or jointly. A number of early commissions (1945–47) were jointly designed with colleagues; later (1953–62) there were others jointly designed with his partners Roy Grounds and Frederick Romberg. After Grounds left the practice in 1962, Romberg continued in partnership with Boyd until Boyd died.

Boyd was equally prolific and influential as a writer, educator and public speaker. He lectured in architecture at the Univ­ersity of Melbourne, and in 1956-57 he took up a teaching posit­ion at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston offered by Walter Gropius, a friend of Boyd’s and a Director at MIT. [It is often said that Boyd’s lecturing posts at his various universities influenced architects and consumers, long after he died in 1971 at 51].

Robin Boyd

Back in Australia, Boyd vigorously supporting modernism and attacking visual pollution in his book The Australian Ugliness (1960). His work was documented and promoted by photographers Mark Strizic  and Wolfgang Sievers, to the mutual benefit of both architecture and art photography.


The Robin Boyd Foundation, originally established by the Institute and the National Trust, has run as a not-for-profit organisation since 2005. Beginning with the purchase of Boyd’s own house in Walsh Street South Yarra, the Foundation is still committed to the contin­uation of Boyd’s legacy. It now runs open days each year, providing access into mod­ern­ist houses, and runs seminars for architects and their clients at Walsh Street. The Foundation’s executive director, Tony Lee, also produces annual publications, republishing Boyd’s writings and architectural treasures.

The Boyds' first family home in Camberwell, 1947
Note the internal space is divided according to usage, but not by walls.
And note the garden continues right up to ceiling-to-floor windows.

Perhaps the reincarnation of the Small Homes Service as the New Homes Service will reinvigorate Boyd’s original success. Considering the legacy he has left behind, it is disconcerting to realise how many of the changes experienced by housing in the intervening decades have been negative. We may have planning regulations requiring consid­er­at­ion of neighbourhood character and amenity issues, but that has not stopped the bulk of housing becoming larger, neglectful of the nat­ural environment, less climate-appropriate and less well designed.

06 December 2016

The People vs Fritz Bauer - an excellent film

I saw the wonderful film Der Staat Gegen Fritz Bauer/The People vs. Fritz Bauer at the 2016 Jewish International Film Festival in Melbourne. The festival programme gave the following synopsis:

“Germany, 1957. Attorney General Fritz Bauer receives crucial evid­ence on the whereabouts of the so-called Architect of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann. Bauer, himself Jewish, has been trying to take crimes from the Third Reich to court ever since his return from exile, but has been stymied by an unforgiving German government. Bauer covertly el­icits the help of the Israeli secret service to bring Eichmann to justice and, in doing so, commits treason against Germany.

With fast-paced direction from Lars Kraume, The People vs. Fritz Bauer is a historical thriller that exposes the elusiveness of evil while celebrating the tenacious heroism of Bauer. Audience Award winner at the Locarno International Film Festival, and winner of six 2016 Lolas (German Oscars), including Best Film, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Best Screenplay”.

English film poster for the film
The People vs Fritz Bauer (German, English subtitles)
starring Burghart Klaußner who closely resembles Fritz Bauer.

But who was the real Fritz Bauer (1903-68)? Born in Stuttgart in a well educated Jewish family, he studied law at the Univ­er­s­ities of Heidelberg and Munich. After receiving his Doct­orate of Laws deg­ree, Bauer became an assessor judge in the Stuttgart local district court. After WW1 he joined the Social Democratic Party and became politic­ally active. In May 1933, a plan to organise a General Strike in the Stuttgart region against the Nazis failed, and Bauer and his colleagues were arrested and taken to Heuberg concentration camp in Baden-Württemberg.

Bauer’s own imprisonment in a Nazi camp before WW2 was very clear in the film, but the impact on his later life was vague. Somehow he was rel­eased, dismissed from his vital civil service position and escaped to Denmark in 1935. When Germany invaded Denmark in Ap 1940 and the Danish government surrendered, Bauer moved to Sweden in 1943 and created The Socialist Tribune alongside Willy Brandt.

The film did not discuss why Bauer wanted to return to Germany after the war! I can understand that in 1949 he might have felt at home back in the German justice system, but he should have considered how the new post war Federal Republic was emerging. Wouldn’t the old anti-Semitism and anti-socialism be simmering just under the surface, waiting for the right wing to rise again? Clearly he must have had a very fine legal mind - in 1956, Bauer was given the District Attorney job in Hessen, based in Frankfurt.

The film stated that Bauer was not seeking revenge for Holocaust victims. Yet every lawyer, judge and politician in the film feared revenge and seemed to block Bauer’s attempts to expose Nazi injustices. He was the one District Attorney who, despite terrible threats, tracked down Nazi commanders from Auschwitz, investigated and indicted them, and succeeded in 1958 in getting a class action lawsuit certif­ied for the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials. Even then, the proceedings did not open until 1963. No wonder Bauer’s wife lived separately, in Denmark. If Fritz was very cavalier about being killed in Germany, she didn’t want it to happen to her. [Did she also think he may have been gay?]

Bauer had acted in the face of huge blockages: the statutes of limitations, the German public’s forgiveness of Nazi criminals and the German bureau­cracy’s ap­athy. In the 1950s & 60s, German history books did not mention the Holocaust as a subject at all. If there had been Nazi excesses during the war, most German citizens in the 1950s and 60s thought the excesses could only due to obeying seniors’ orders, submitting to long term anti-Semitic propaganda and thoughtlessness.

The film showed frustrating meetings for Bauer in Israel, trying to convince the Israelis that Adolf Eichmann was indeed alive in Argentina, living a pleasant family life under fake names. Only decades later did Ofer Aderet (Oct 18, 2013 Haaretz) give far more information about Bauer’s role in helping Mossad than the film did. In 1960, Mossad agent Michael Maor was assigned to capture Adolf Eichmann capture and bring him to trial in Israel. Maor was to break into Bauer’s law building in Frankfurt, find and photograph the German prosecution’s files on Eichmann and quietly escape. Maor was given a plan of the Frankfurt building, a front door key and access to the files – all by Fritz Bauer. A few weeks later Eichmann was abducted to Israel from Buenos Aires.

Find a discussion of the Eichmann Trial of 1961 in an early post.
Ronen Steinke's book
Fritz Bauer: oder Auschwitz vor Gericht, 2013
German edition

The author of Bauer's biography (2013), German journalist Ronen Steinke found that in the healing climate under Konrad Adenauer (1949-63), it was Bauer who made German post-war society talk openly about the Holocaust. But Bauer paid a great personal price. Steinke discussed the rumours about Bauer’s private life: he was a Jew, a social democrat and a homosexual. For Bauer, these key aspects of his identity were crucial. He held senior posts in the post-war judicial system as a general prosecutor, at a time when homosexuality was a criminal offence that terminated careers. And when Jews kept their mouths shut.

Bauer displayed admirable courage by ignoring the rumours in the 1960s. His Jewishness, albeit from an assimilated family, was also discussed extensively in the book. So why did Bauer disavow his Jewish­ness post WW2? He wanted to enter politics, to represent German institutions. He was stunned to see that anti-Semitism flourished and was concerned that his rivals would say that he was merely a vengeful Jew.

Bauer was the most important Jew in postwar German politics yet he was found dead in the bathtub at his home in 1968, from a sleeping-pills induced heart attack. Did he commit suic­ide because he could no longer cope with the many threats to his life from Germans who were opposed to his anti-Nazi politics? Apparently so. Only in 1995 was The Fritz Bauer Institute finally established as a foundation under German civil law in Frankfurt, affiliated to Frankfurt’s Johann Wolfgang Goethe-University. Only in 2014 was a major exhibition about his life at last held at the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt.

03 December 2016

The Radetzky March, Johann Strauss I and the Austrian army

I know the Radetzky March and can hum along with the best of Strauss fans. See it performed by the Vienna Philharmonic in 2011.

The composer Johann Strauss I had left Vienna in 1833 on the first of his many European tours in 1838. In spite of all the revolutionary sentiments then, the German-speaking Austrians were not prepared to yield national sovereignty to the other peoples of the Hapsburg Empire. In fact there was great rejoicing in Vienna when news of Field Marshall Radetzky’s victory in Italy arrived. In August 1848 there took was a “…victory celebration in honour of our brave army in Italy and in support of our wounded soldiers”; it was then that Strauss’s Radetzky March was heard for the first time.

Despite 1848 being the year of revolutions across Europe, or because of it, The Radetzky March became popular. During his final tour in 1849 across Central Europe and Britain, Strauss sensed that many people regarded the Radetzky March as an affirmation of political power [although some sympathised with the Italians and Hungarians’ quest for freedom]. The tradition among officers was to start clapping and stomping their feet whenever the chorus was played. And this tradition carried on.
Emperor Franz Josef and Archduke Franz Ferdinand parading 
while the brass band played The Radetzky March.

The main thing I did not know was: who the individual called Johann Josef Wenzel Anton Franz Karl Graf/Count Radetzky von Radetz (1766–1858)? Thanks to Graham Darby and the Mad Monarchist Blog for the history.

Radetzky was born in Trebnice Bohemia (Czech Republic now) to a noble family. His parents died when he was young and he was raised by his grandfather until he became a student in Vienna’s Theresa Academy. In 1786 he became an officer-cadet in the Imperial Army, received his commission as an officer and was posted to a heavy cavalry regiment. His first battle was in the Turkish War and then he served in the Austrian Netherlands in the 1790s.

He first really distinguished himself in the wars against Revol­ut­ion­ary and Napoleonic France. He led a successful infiltration of the enemy lines in 1794, fought along the Rhine in 1795 and in 1796 led a troop of hussars into northern Italy.

Radetzky served in the siege of Mantua against Napoleon, was promoted within the military ranks while still in Italy and received the pres­tigious Military Order of Maria Theresa. As a hands-on staff colonel, he was constantly advocating improve­ments in the Austrian Army.

In 1798 he somehow managed to find time to go home and marry Countess Francisca von Strassoldo Grafenberg with whom he had eight children.

In 1805 he was promoted to major general and assigned in Italy under the command of Archduke Charles of Austria, but this time it did not lead to success. Soon Radetzky was back in the field leading a brig­ade in battle in 1809 and became a field marshal. Then he became colonel-in-chief of the Fifth Radetzky Hussars. However in what was a major problem for the Aust­rian armed forces, the government refused to allocate the funds nec­essary to implement Radetzky’s recommended changes. Eventually the colonel re­signed in disgust and returned to the field. In 1813 he served as chief of staff to Field Marshal the Prince of Schwarzenberg.

Portrait of Fieldmarshal Radetzky, in 1850
painted by Georg Decker
Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, Vienna

Graf Radetzky helped plan the operation that led to the allied victory at Leipzig. He marched in triumph through Paris in 1814 when Napoleon was defeated and played a part in the Congress of Vienna, helping Austria-Russia ties. Unfortunately the ensuing peace only brought about a greater disinterest on the part of the Austrian government for Radetzky's plans for a more efficient organisation, improved tactics and overall a stronger commitment to national defence.

To get him out the way, Radetzky’s seniors promoted him to General of the Cavalry and placed him in command of a fortress. But when the fear of revolution rose again, Graf Radetzky was called on to save the monarchy. When rebellion broke out in the Papal States, his part of the Austrian army suppressed it and in 1834 he was placed in command of the Austrian Imperial troops in Italy.

At 70, he was promoted to Field Marshal. He ensured that his troops were the best trained and most disciplined force in Austria. But it was a dang­erous mistake not to do the same across the Empire, as was proven when the Revolutions of 1848 erupted. Radetzky struggled against large-scale rebellions in the Austrian-ruled territories of Italy and in the war being waged by the king of Piedmont-Sardinia.

Yet he succeeded in holding off the Italian forces until reinforcements arrived, ending in his great victory at the Battle of Novara in March 1849. Radetzky crushed the Italian nation­alists and reconquered Venice, bringing it firmly back under Austrian control. This was the pinnacle of his military career; he was awarded the a] Order of the Golden Fleece for his victories against the Hapsburg monarchy’s enemies and b] Viceroyship of the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia.

The Austrians troops certainly adored Radetzky because he always tried to get them better weapons and equipment, and his victories meant that fewer Austrian lads lost their lives. In fact his men referred to him as Father Radetzky. I imagine being idol­ised by his troops was an uncommon event amongst Austrian generals. He was a rock solid defender of his Emperor and of his men, until his death at the grand old age of 91 in 1858.

Radetzky was one of the most significant Austrian military figures of the late 18th (against the Turks in the 1780s) and first half of the C19th (against Napol­eon in 1813 and in the 1848 risings in Italy). His successful career spanned 70+ years! By the 1850s the old soldier was becoming frail, but that does not explain why we largely know his name only via the Strauss March. Perhaps it was because the soldiers clearly liked Strauss’s music, but the liberal critics believed it encouraged unthinking Habsburg nationalism. 

Radetzky March score, 1848

Wait a moment! Now everyone knows his name! Radetzkyplatz is a well known square in the Weißgerber­viertel in the 3rd district of Vienna, near the Danube Canal. It was named after our man in 1876.

Radetzky Mem­orial was built in Central Prague in the 1890s.

Hotel Radetzky is a traditional Austrian hotel facing the water in Sankt Gilgen, Salzburg.

There is an important chapter in the book Military Culture and Popular Pat­riot­ism in Late Imperial Austria by Laurence Cole called “Embodying Patriotism: Field Marshall Radetzky as Military Hero”.

And there are Café Radetzskys in Prague, Vienna, Turin and everywhere else.