ROBIN BOYD: A SHORT BIOGRAPHY
by Conrad Hamann
Robin Boyd, son of the painters Penleigh and Edith Boyd,
was born in Melbourne in 1919.
After his father's early death in a car accident, he moved with his mother and brother John to Malvern, close to Boyd relatives at Murrumbeena. With other relatives, he worked in Kingsley Henderson's office, and attended night classes in architecture at Melbourne Technical College (RMIT).
Before WWII he designed a studio for his cousin Arthur in Murrumbeena (now gone), and designed several small buildings during the war period. He worked as Roy Grounds' assistant in 1940-41, while editing a new student broadsheet of architectural criticism, Smudges (1939-42). As with many other architects, he entered the survey corps and served in New Guinea, before returning to design with Kevin Pethebridge and later Frank Bell his first post-war house for Howard Pettigrew in Kew (1945-6). After qualifying, he worked from a house of his own design in Camberwell (1946-52), leaving Pethebridge and partner Bell in 1948 to work solo.
During the war he had continued to write critical articles on house design. In 1947, with the noted architect Neil Clerehan as his research assistant, he wrote Victorian Modern, the first sizeable history of modern architecture in an Australian state (Victoria).
Appointed director of the Age-RVIA Small Homes service, he ran it with Clerehan and later Kevin Borland as assistants. He travelled overseas in 1950-1 after winning the RVIA's Haddon travelling scholarship, visiting Britain and Europe. Returning, he shifted from his earlier emphasis on a regional 'Australian' modernism to something more International, reflected in his increasing admiration for Harry Seidler as the new hope for Australian architecture.
In 1952, his second book, Australia's Home, was published. A partial compilation of his Age articles, this was much more pessimistic and critical of Australian society, viewed through architecture, than Victorian Modern had been. It arguably reflected Boyd's disappointment in Australia's post-war austerity period and its affect on architecture.
But austerity was on the wane. In 1953, after a brief stint writing for the Melbourne Herald, he joined Roy Grounds and Frederick Romberg in a partnership. He had been teaching with them at the University of Melbourne. His work quickly gathered momentum, and in 1955 alone, he designed twenty or more houses. 1956 saw an equally productive phase of house design, and seminal designs of that period Zelman Cowan, Haughton James, McManamy were followed by his own remarkable 'suspended' house in South Yarra (1957) and the Clemson House in Kew (1958-9), both greatly admired in Australia and overseas.
In Britain he had befriended Nikolaus Pevsner, Reyner Banham and JM Richards, and he wrote regularly for the London Architectural Review from 1951. This work and other writing for Architectural Forum, The Architectural Record and Progressive Architecture, plus a meeting with Walter Gropius when Gropius visited Australia in 1954, led to a semester as visiting professor at MIT in Boston. Here he made further American contacts and formed a growing admiration for the new work of Eero Saarinen, Mies, Louis Kahn and Paul Rudolph. While at MIT he began a book on what he saw as Australia's spiritual malaise in 'featurism' or a dwelling in surfaces and ornamented exteriors. This became The Australian Ugliness (1960), and was developed further in his Boyer Lectures for the ABC, Artificial Australia (1967), and his last book, The Great, Great Australian Dream, published posthumously in 1972.
Boyd's prominence in British and American journals also led to his being asked to write the first English language book on Kenzo Tange, for the New York publisher George Braziller, in 1961. Braziller came to him again for New Directions in Japanese Architecture (1968), part of an important survey series on architectural cultures.
On his own initiative, Boyd wrote The Puzzle of Architecture (1965), which gained him Philip Johnson's favour and showed his increasing leaning towards a renewed monumentality in architectural design. This tendency would show itself as architectural post-modernism, in which Boyd became directly involved through designs such as Jimmy Watson's (1961) and the Fishbowl (1968), and his admiration of Robert Venturi's writing, voiced privately to Peter Corrigan in 1967. In these years he also completed The New Architecture (1963) for Longmans and a crucial article, 'The State of Australian Architecture' (1967) in Architecture in Australia, where he argued the primacy of an emerging 'Sydney School' of Australian regionalism.
The Grounds, Romberg and Boyd partnership split in 1961, following Grounds' commission for the Victorian Arts Centre project and a growing sense that the office, always to a degree three offices in one, was drifting apart. The straitened financial years 1961-3 left a long-term impact on the surviving firm, Romberg and Boyd, and to assist the Melbourne office, Romberg left to become foundation Professor at Newcastle University in 1965, leaving Boyd the partly designed McCaughey Court dormitory at Ormond College, University of Melbourne. Boyd reworked this design, completed in 1968, to fit his new interest in Kahn, Tange and Rudolph's monumental architecture in the US and Japan.
He also completed several houses begun by Grounds and went on to several of his best known designs, including the Grant and Mary Featherston house at Ivanhoe (1967), which reflects his growing affinity for Charles Moore's new US architecture; the Kaye house and Farfor flats on the Mornington Peninsula; and the Purves, Crawford, Lawrence, McNicoll and Hegarty houses in Melbourne's eastern suburbs.
He became known more widely for his interiors for the two Australian Expo Pavilions of 1967 (Montreal) and 1970 (Osaka), both in buildings designed by James McCormick, a former employee and by then the Queensland Government architect. Menzies College at La Trobe University was his last major institutional building.
In 1969-70 office financing became more difficult as several projects fell through. Pressure on Boyd increased as he was by now being heaped with public honours including a CBE and community service. Never very healthy, he became ill after judging a competition for London's new Whitehall offices in 1970. He continued to write and work frantically on projects that might bring in more revenue, and died in hospital during an operation in 1971.
Brenda Niall, The Boyds, Miegunyah, 2002
Geoffrey Serle, Robin Boyd: a life, Mieguyah, Melbourne, 1995
Transition: special Robin Boyd Issue, 38, 1992
Philip Goad, Robin Boyd: the Architect as Critic, La Trobe Library, Melbourne, 1989
Conrad Hamann: 'Against the dying of the light: Robin Boyd and Australian Architecture', Transition, Tenth Anniversary Issue, 1989
Conrad and Chris Hamann, 'Anger and the New Order: some aspects of Robin Boyd's career', Transition, March 1981
David Saunders, 'Retrospective Robin Boyd', Architecture in Australia, January 1972, and AA's lalter symposium with papers by Patrick McCaughey, Zelman Cowan, Daryl Jackson
Neil Clerehan, 'Robin Boyd 1919-1971', Architect, Victoria, March 1972