Patricia Callan - Modernist Australia

Growing up in a 1969 McGlashan Everist home in Geelong in the 80s left an indelible impression upon Patricia Callan, one that would later manifest as the much-loved mid-century architecture platform - Modernist Australia. A few years ago, after 12 years documenting some of the best Mid Century Modern real estate listings in the country and advocating for their restoration, that venture evolved into the world of print media, filling a book — The New Modernist House — that is a must for MCM aficionado’s.

“If buying a house was like buying clothes, in today’s market it feels like you’re choosing from either Kmart or bespoke tailoring. Anything in between has been totally obliterated,” says Trish from her family’s Ocean Grove home. We’ve been talking about the serious lack of quality, affordable housing in the current crisis. How the need to advocate for existing homes to be seen for more than simply their land value is beyond necessary. Admittedly, we’ve gone off on a little bit of a tangent, although I’d go so far as to say it was inevitable.

The New Modernist House by Patricia Callan.

In her book, Trish’s explanations for her decade long deep dive into Australia’s relationship with MCM housing and the inception of mediate between passion and a low simmer of annoyance. “I celebrated their design attributes and histories. I encouraged retention of these buildings via a lens of potential and did not hold back in deriding those who championed their destruction. At the outset, my intention for the blog was merely as a vehicle to vent my frustration.” As engagement grew, that simmer spread with “design aficionados, real estate agents and even mid-century architects’ families weighing in as converted real estate marketing into an entry point for public discussion on our unfairly maligned architectural heritage.”

The New Modernist House by Patricia Callan.

It begs the question, what is our architectural heritage? Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness is one example of a search for an answer to this question. Ironically, in today’s dire housing/rental/real estate crisis, Mr Boyd’s illustrious background may well warrant a second glance.

The last time Australia faced a housing shortage as critical as today’s was post WWII when Sydney recorded a shortfall of 400,000 houses. One of the pressure relievers back then was a project plan initiative called the Small Homes Service, headed up by The Age who put Robin Boyd at the helm. For £5, young Australians (because just like today, they were the ones in a pickle) could select from a range of full architectural documentation drawings. From there, you’d find a builder, purchase a parcel of land and away you’d go, comfortable in the knowledge that only 49 other homes in the state would look like yours, evenly split between city and country. Given the times, many of the resulting homes demonstrate mid-century design principles and given their architectural legacy, have warranted restoration and renovation right at a time when Australia is experiencing a prolonged and enormous upswing in renovation culture.

Robin Boyd's Small Homes Service

So while there are those who have the means to build the 80s dream of a sprawling family home on a 1/3 of an acre block, there are significantly more looking for more modest housing solutions and, above all else, MCM was borne of pop-culture and a collective desire to untether from the status quo and find solutions.

“What the MCM movement represents is an agility to living patterns and a desire to find solutions,” says Trish. “Compared to what families would have been living in in the 20s and 30s — beach shacks with outhouses — even internal toilets would have felt like a luxury! People didn’t bemoan the fact that they didn’t have butler’s pantries and mud rooms. They just lived in them happily, forever.” Have we moved too far from this sentiment of gratitude? Is the knee-jerk reaction to thinking we have to build a big extension out the back or rip out and rebuild a kitchen adorned in trend ultimately what, when coupled with economic constraints and a lack of housing stock, brought the housing market to its knees from the top down?

‘Morton House’ by Deirdre and Ivor Morton, the for sale listing featured on Modernist Australia's website in 2019.

The modernist era was defined by a loose sense of experimentation, a desire to create music, art, fashion and buildings that resonated with the soul, harnessed a “vibe.” The houses in particular may have been sorely lacking in terms of insulation, environmentally sympathetic materials, wall thicknesses conducive to today’s services or the pragmatic relief of a pitched roofline, but what they do embrace are those intangible design qualities that elicit an emotional response. In trying to articulate the experience of modernist buildings, Trish acknowledges that it is felt as a “ pervading sense of tranquility, the calmness that the careful modulation of light, air and sound can achieve. It allows movement through the spaces that is intuitive and informal. This quality is harmonious yet so subconscious that it often captivates visitors before they know how to name it.”

Featured in The New Modernist House, Fischer House by Alistair Knox and Adrianna Hanna. Photography by Sean Fennessy.

These feelings, the engagement we have with homes above all other building types, are why modernist homes can be so readily — with knowledge, passion, creativity and a not outrageous budget — be adapted for contemporary living and why the era’s design gestures hold significance well beyond the modernist movement.

“It’s always been a philosophical thing,” says Trish. “You design for the pragmatic and end up with a beautiful result. Old school form follows function.”

Special thanks to Patricia Callan. Words by Tiffany Jade. Feature image is Fischer House by Alistair Knox and Adrianna Hanna, with photography by Sean Fennessy and is a project featured in Patricia Callan's new book The New Modernist House. Find Modernist Australia on their website and Instagram.