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 architect in post-war Melbourne, a proponent of environmentally sensitive and locally specific adaptations 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. 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 supported modernism and attacked 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.

Will the reincarnation of the Small Homes Service as the New Homes Service 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 meantime 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.


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, In the U.S. there was some post-war activity in the kind of small homes built from plans as you describe, but the main force was in developments, the most famous being the huge Levittowns, with thousands of almost identical houses. The area in which I grew up was mostly developed in the 1950's, by smaller companies who worked with a few streets at a time, and with more variety, so the look of mass uniformity was avoided. Still, the houses all tended to be "Colonial" in style, which did give cohesiveness to the neighborhoods. Sometimes you saw ranches or "Cape Cods." The Modern look was rare indeed, but there were a few. The interiors, however, featured modern open floor plans and attached garages.

Today, the trend is towards ever larger houses so people are starting to tear down the older ones and replace them with McMansions that unpleasantly crowd the lots and are out of scale with the neighborhood.

Annie ODyne said...

another great post. the post WW2 housing shortage in Melbourne affected my parents as well. Recently all the wailing by the 'avocado smash'-eating frustrated homeseekers made me think they wouldn't have survived back then. On Copperwitch's blog, cuckoo in the nest R.H. who has no blog of his own says he just got nearly a million dollars for a Newport house he paid 50,000 for years ago, two smashers fighting like cocks over the bids.
My dear friend Flissity worked at the Small Homes with Boyd in the 1950's. It was in Collins Street next to Manchester Lane. Pretty, low building.
Very recently a Boyd house overlooking Lake Wendouree would have been demolished if some people with heart had not caused a fuss [and given the developer a headache]. His Bake House near Bacchus Marsh can be occupied by B&B terms if one likes to.

Dina said...

Love that floor plan. But it is very small for a modern family of two working parents and 2-3 children.

Anonymous said...

I didn't realise that there were restrictions on the number of houses that could be built from each plan. That was a good idea- it probably would have been counterproductive to have street after street looking the same. The cheaper post-war Jennings estates tended to be like that (e.g. in West Heidelberg). I must say, though, that I'm not aware of any houses still standing built from the Small Homes Service. Would I recognize them as such today? I guess that they would have been extended- just as your parents planned to do. Is your parents' house still standing/

Another Student said...

The grand plan for small homes may not have been unprecedented afterall. I was rereading my old lecture notes on Gropius, Breuer etc.

Hels said...


I cannot imagine an American housing development being titled "Small" or "A Workers' Collective", but I do know exactly what you are describing. 10 years ago I remember reading Affordable Housing: Designing an American Asset. This was the first time I had seen the word Levittown, which I thought (in 1947) had been a very appropriate social experiment for the post WW2 world.

Hels said...


It is very telling that a Boyd house overlooking Lake Wendouree would have been thoughtlessly demolished. It tells us either that the locals did not realise the house was a very special and historical design. Or they did indeed know it was a rare Boyd survival, and didn't give a toss.

Hels said...


No-one wants to sound as if they are an overly precious princess who cannot survive in one big living-dining room, 2 bedrooms, a small but functional kitchen and one bathroom. But I remember that my brother and I easily shared the second bedroom until the third baby arrived. Then it became very squishy.

A third bedroom was essential, and at least a second toilet and washbasin.

Hels said...


yes indeed. There are perhaps 150 of Boyd's homes still standing, even though they have been modified a number of times since they were first built in the 1947-53 era. Alas my late parents' home was not saved - the people who destroyed my childhood home also destroyed the beautiful front and back gardens by building right up to the property line :(

If you are interested, get in touch with The Robin Boyd Foundation, operating now in Boyd’s own house in Walsh Street South Yarra. The lectures and open days are well worth attending.

Hels said...


you are spot on. After they left Germany and then Britain, Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer were the architects of some excellent modern, small houses in post-war USA eg Aluminum City Terrace, New Kensington, Pennsylvania, 1948.

I will come back to Breuer's domestic architecture, after he left Europe, in a couple of weeks. Have a great summer!

Parnassus said...

Hi again, There is a sociological study by Herbert Gans called The Levittowners, about the original formation of the Pennsylvania Levittown. The book is mostly about the development of factions controlling schools, politics and religion in the new community. About the houses themselves, or their decor, organization, function, etc., or their effect in forming the community, I recall that he said little or nothing. --Jim

Andrew said...

The style of housing was rather like the family home my father built for us in South Oakleigh in the late fifties. It wasn't large but the plan was excellent and it had very clean and simple lines. Sadly we only lived in it for a few years. It's barely recognisable now, with a second storey piled on top. We once looked at buying a very 'Boyd style' house in Box Hill South. With hindsight, I am pleased we didn't.

Hels said...


I have no problem with the original Levittowner architecture - it met all the needs of modest, affordable family homes with modern materials and building techniques. The contemporary criticisms of the communities seemed to have been political, sociological and religious, not architectural.

For an Australian, it is difficult to understand American politics. I would have wanted every working family and every ex-serviceman to have be able to afford a decent family house.

Joseph said...


The homes that suited working families in the late 1940s until the early 1960s would not suit us now. But the principles (of environmental respect, modern technologies etc) remain today. It will be interesting to see if the New Homes Service revives Boyd's legacy into the future.

WoofWoof said...

I think in the UK, the government played a big part in getting houses built throughout the 1950s. Since the 1980s there has been a much more laissez-faire attitude with the result that we now have a housing crisis (especially in London) and a whole generation that has to rent (which of course has benefited a new landlord class with second and third homes financed by their tenants). We need a huge drive to build 1-2 million houses (a mixtire of 3 bedroom houses and 2 bedroom flats would be ideal). But the politicians do nothing but talk about the crisis at election time.

WoofWoof said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Hels said...


what offends me most about not being able to afford to buy a home is that the alternatives are always awful - 1. living with mum and dad for way too long, 2. sharing in crappy bedsits or 3. renting and therefore enriching wealthy land owners.

And what makes me particularly livid in Australia is Negative Gearing. This is where an investor intentionally bids up the cost of a house/flat beyond normal market value, borrows money to acquire this income-producing investment property and writes off all his costs and financial losses from his next tax return.

Is it going to take another catastrophic war before today's working families are offered low-interest housing loans by the banks and 2] a Small Homes Service or its modern equivalent?