Imagine a house where you can wake up to the sight of rolling hills, stay warm with a central fireplace and have plenty of space for everyone, all within a modest footprint.
Four generations have been able to enjoy such a family home that continues to pick up accolades more than 65 years after it was built.
The Walkley Residence, built in 1956, commissioned by Gavin Walkley and designed by internationally renowned architect Robin Boyd, received the Jack Cheesman Award - Enduring Architecture - at the Australian Institute of Architects 2022 South Australian Architecture Awards in June.
Today, the residence is home to Gavin's granddaughter, Raphaela, her partner Simon and their first-born, Eleanor. The previous occupant was Raphaela's mother, Jane.
The house, in Palmer Place, North Adelaide, is designed in the International Style, which was newly emerging in Australia at the time. From the street, it has a mushroom-like stance; the top level overhangs the ground floor in three directions and there are full-width and height glass 'walls' that take in views of the Adelaide Hills. There are no decorative elements around windows and doors, or columns or gables, unlike surrounding properties.
The judges commented: "The compact design, reminiscent of post war austerity, still functions well today. It stands as an excellent example of the exploration of modern housing design occurring in Australia and internationally at the time. Its influence on current housing is also evident."
The house replaced the family's run-down cottage on the site. It was designed to accommodate a housekeeper, plus separate bedrooms for Jane and her brother Giles, after their mother Barbara had died.
Jane was nine and Giles was six when the house was finished. She recalled the building process in an article for The Friends of the State Library, published in December 2021.
"We three would visit the site every weekend; Giles and I helped by holding one end of the measuring tape while Gavin made his calculations," she said.
While it is a private residence, the family has opened it from time to time for events, tours and architecture students.
Jane and Raphaela like being able to continue the house's legacy.
"It is such an important part of our family story so being able to live here now with my own family is incredibly special," Raphaela said. "It is for this reason that we open the house to the public, to share the story - Gavin left many legacies in his long and rich life, and this house epitomises his approach to life and design."
The house has State Heritage and National Trust listings. According to Britannica, the 'International Style started to develop in the early 20th century as a response to architects being tired of adding decorative elements that had little function; the rise of buildings serving an industrialised society; and the development of new building technologies centring on the use of iron and steel, reinforced concrete and glass.
"Technology was a crucial factor; the new availability of cheap, mass-produced iron and steel and the discovery in the 1890s of those materials' effectiveness as primary structural members effectively rendered the old traditions of masonry (brick and stone) construction obsolete," it said.
The characteristics of International Style buildings include rectilinear forms, planar surfaces and a "visually weightless" quality from cantilever construction.
The Australian-born architect and critic, Robin Boyd, was an advocate for the modern movement. Coming to prominence in the 1940s, he was the first director of the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects Small Homes Service, which provided plans for inexpensive homes incorporating modern design.
Gavin Walkley was Head of the School of Architecture at the South Australian School of Mines (later the South Australian Institute of Technology) for 25 years from 1951 and served many design and planning committees in South Australia and federally, including the Architects' Board of South Australia and Architects' Accreditation Council of Australia.
Design and building phase
Gavin bought the block in 1947 from the estate of Elsie Marion Cornish, a landscape gardener. It had previously been owned by Adelaide architects Henry Stuckey and Edmund Wright. The property had an 1840s-build "Adelaide version of Colonial Georgian" limestone house on it, but it had a leaky slate roof, the cellar filled with water, and an earthquake in 1954 very likely damaged the foundations.
In the April 1973 edition of Architecture in Australia, Gavin wrote that Robin stayed with his family briefly in the early 1950s as part of his travels to deliver a lecture. Gavin shared his intentions to rebuild and Robin expressed enthusiasm about the idea of designing it himself. A few years later, that came to be, and Gavin extended an invitation to Robin to complete the task.
The house was designed in 1955 and was built in 1956. The "mushroom" shape, where the upper floor was cantilevered over three faces of the house and is supported by a structural steel frame, was to help achieve a home with 2000 square feet (185 square metres) of floor space, on a relatively small block (6360 sq ft, or 591 square metres). The upper floor is about 50 per cent greater in area than the ground floor.
Gavin noted that the steel frame and other parts of the house were new techniques, particularly in South Australia.
"The builder had a rather worrying time coping with unfamiliar construction, but he did a very good job in the end," he wrote.
Four bedrooms, a study and three bathrooms occupy the upper floor, which "floats" over the open plan living/dining area, and the separate kitchen/laundry on the ground floor level.
Inside, all walls are brick, glass or meranti wood, while floor coverings are cork downstairs and carpets upstairs.
Robin designed the beautiful copper fireplace. Its flue runs up through the second storey and meets a skylight, creating a soft, warm temperature upstairs when the fire is lit.
Marion Hall Best was the interior design consultant, producing the colours for the painted brick walls inside and the timber fittings. She wrote letters to Gavin, providing colour swatches of her concepts, working on the whole house including ceilings, brick wall colours and curtains. Gavin wanted the colours of the new house to work with the colours of his existing furniture.
In her article for The Friends of the State Library, Jane discussed the various colours used: ceilings, walls and doors were painted in dark Indian red, turquoise, ochre, orange, olive green, pink, pale blue and chartreuse (lime green).
"The unusual colours quickly became normal and enjoyable for us," Jane wrote.
Evolution of perception
Comments about attitudes towards the house have changed over time. In his Architecture in Australia article, Gavin wrote: "The neighbours all disapproved of it; they had never seen a house that looked like that before."
Jane recalled some comments by passers-by; people said it looked like a drive-in bottle shop or labelled it a "glorified chook shed".
"It must have been shocking to see this house arise, in what was then a quiet heritage precinct," she wrote. But such ignorance was replaced by other qualities - the sounds of cathedral bells, and the calls of lions and apes from the nearby zoo.
Raphaela and her brother share a strong affinity with the house but did not necessarily appreciate its significance when they were growing up.
"Known as the 'mushroom house' amongst our friends, it was just where we lived; it was all very normal without an appreciation for the story of its design," she said.
Changing of the guard
Jane had moved out of the house to live overseas in 1968 and moved back in with her own brood when her father wanted to downsize.
"I wanted to make sure it was liveable and not a museum, and had to take some time to see how liveable it was," Jane told The Senior.
A sympathetic architect designed the heritage compliant split-system air-conditioning - a relatively recent addition - in a way that did not detract from the design.
Raphaela and Simon installed drawers inside the kitchen cupboards to maximise use of the extensive storage space. These were designed to be removable and not visible behind the original cabinetry.
"We have made the space liveable to suit our lifestyle, but really the design speaks for itself," Raphaela said. "We don't need a lot of furniture and we make use of the light as a way to add character to the living spaces.
"Modernist design is very much back in fashion these days but it really does lend itself to modern living."
Jane's favourite room is the master bedroom.
"You feel like you're up in the sky with a lovely view; it gives you nice evenings and mornings to wake up to," she said.
Raphaela likes the fireplace in winter and the extensive downstairs glass in spring.
"The staircase is a beautiful statement feature, as is the cork flooring which complements the meranti ceilings and copper," she said.
"You can't go past the location and eastern-facing views over North Adelaide and the Adelaide Hills."
A living legacy
It's clear Jane and Raphaela appreciate the history and the design; Jane framed the original plans to put on display.
"They are often used to show guests the floor plan, demonstrating the simplicity and practicality of the design that isn't always obvious at first," Raphaela said.
Both are proud the house received the enduring architecture award.
"It deserves it, it's brilliant," Jane said.
Raphaela added: "I know my grandfather and Boyd would be chuffed with the award, not wanting to bask in the limelight but wanting to highlight that considered and bold design can stand the test of time. It is important to our family that the house is livable and maintains its life and legacy through each generation - not standing as a snippet in time as a museum or showpiece.
"It is livable, it is our home and it has a wonderfully rich family history."
Find the house on Instagram here.
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