Recently ‘Houses’ magazine published some renovations to a house of my design in Broderick Street Balmain under the headline ‘The SRG House’ (alluding to Sir Roy Grounds). Unfortunately, the print version contains misinformation which needs correction, and hopefully this background will give more depth to the story.
After I graduated from the architecture course at the University of Sydney in 1969, I was engaged as a tutor in both design and art. I was looking forward to the art part as my ‘boss’ would be Lloyd Rees and I loved teaching first year students the basics of freehand drawing. Design tutoring promised to be a mystery because there was a new head of first year design, someone called Marr Grounds.
Marr exploded into the faculty and in his usual way managed to alienate half of the academic staff in his first weeks. It was just as the whole course was being restructured so there seemed to be pretty high level of tolerance for fresh ideas from our Dean, Peter Johnston. Students were excited and challenged by Marr, and the vast majority could see that he was a great teacher.
Marr employed a broad range of people as design tutors. We had a sociologist and radical feminist (Liz Fell), artists (Peter Kingston and Emanuel Raft) as well as the usual designers and architects. For some reason Marr and I got on well, and I went with him on three visits to a property on the Far South Coast known as ‘Penders’. This was a very large coastal property owned by Marr’s father Sir Roy Grounds, and Ken Myer (of the Myer department stores).
We had an exciting time on these visits, installing primary coloured steel sculptures by Emanuel Raft in the heathland, building a geodesic dome, hanging out in Roy’s ‘Barn’ and making environmental art installations. The property is now Mimosa Rocks National Park.
In 1970, Marr told me about a wonderful property that he had found in Balmain. It was the garden of an old house owned by two sisters and it was subdivided into two long and narrow blocks, each with deep waterfrontage onto Iron Cove. Marr asked me to join with him to buy the properties.
I had almost zero assets, and after asking my parents to see what was possible, I could see that there was no chance that I could buy it. I mentioned the property purchase in passing to my future father-in-law, Ted Boxall, who expressed an interest. Ted had his own advertising agency in North Sydney, and was part of a small group of investors called Advertising Holdings Pty Ltd.
The properties were going to auction, and Marr was super anxious because he and his then wife, the artist Joan Grounds, had only a relatively small and fixed amount of cash. Ted was an old hand at real estate and knew how to handle auctions. He met Marr on the day of the auction and handled the whole bidding process. They secured the blocks at auction, and I became an architect for my future father-in-law and my boss. This was potentially complicated as the intent was that the whole building be a cohesive design.
I had some experience in getting projects built, having designed a factory for my uncle on Parramatta Road, and a house for my parents on a spectacular escarpment at Dural. I loved the whole building process and learned so much from the terrific builders and tradies on these jobs.
The budget was a key constraint. Marr and Joan had managed to get a loan from the University Credit Union for their build. The amount was just enough for an average project house. The group of property investors in Advertising Holdings (most of whom I never met) were mainly interested in getting a return on investment. It was clear to me that the building needed to be more compact and tightly planned if it was to be affordable.
Marr had very strong ideas about what a building should be and had a very raw aesthetic, and he took us down several blind alleys. Marr was a sculptor and environmental artist (a new term in those days) and admitted to no interest or knowledge in current building techniques. Marr and I both really liked the idea of a grid for the building.
There were a number of immovable site constraints that we all agreed on. These blocks had some of the last remaining ‘natural’ landscapes in Balmain. Beautiful sandstone outcrops, an ancient Sydney fig tree, mature garden trees, and an untouched foreshore complete with small stretch of sand, a cave and a jetty. There was also a set back line from the high-water mark that compressed the available building area. We wanted to have as little impact on the street frontage as possible, and to make the houses work with the garden with no loss of trees.
The first sketches I did were using a grid following the central boundary line. Some of the important trees were very close to or right on the common boundary which made the buildings into a series of pavilions with linked covered ways.
I can still remember that moment when I moved a piece of tracing paper, with the 3 metre grid drawn on it, over the site survey plan. When I rotated it 45 degrees, I had a volume that fitted around all of the trees. From this starting point the design started to evolve quickly.
]This idea meant that the western sides of both houses could enjoy more expansive views of Iron Cove, and they also respected the privacy of the adjoining historic property. Marr liked the rough concept and so did Ted Boxall so I pushed on. I did floor plans, one elevation and two perspectives.
I showed the design to Ted Boxall first, who loved it despite the inherent problems of re-subdivision (see later). I then gave Marr a set of prints so that we could have a proper design session. He loved the design and the perspectives, especially the one from the entry ramp. ‘Wow, Sammy! You are a real artist!’ (For obscure reasons I was known as Sammy in the architecture faculty). Marr was going to Penders the next day, so he decided he would look at the drawings in detail while he was there.
Marr came back after about a week and rang me to set up a meeting. We met in his office at the back of the old art rooms behind the faculty building. Marr was pretty agitated and I could see that something was up.
Roy had seen the drawings while Marr was looking at them in the houseboat at Penders. Marr said that Roy loved the concept and wanted to buy the other block from Advertising Holdings. Roy and Betty had a place in Darling Point, but as Roy was working on some Sydney projects at the time, he thought ‘if you are in Sydney then of course you should live on the harbour’ (even if it was only Balmain).
I knew about Marr and Roy’s difficult relationship and that Marr wanted to keep a good distance between himself and Roy. I couldn’t believe he was considering Roy becoming his neighbour. Marr said that he and Joan had talked about it and that ‘better the devil you know’ was the outcome. They also thought that Roy would only be there for a few weeks every year.
Marr told me that he was very concerned that Roy would try to take over the project, and that he had given Roy an ultimatum that I was to remain the sole project architect. He was also concerned for me and he realised what a big ask it was to design for a father and son who had a difficult relationship, both of whom were architects, one was my boss and the other one of Australia’s most eminent architects.
I had no illusions about how big a project this would be, but somehow Marr’s faith in my abilities made me feel that I would be letting him down if I didn’t continue. I was 24, and a one-man band operating from a drawing board in the spare bedroom in my girlfriend’s house.
The documentation was a big project. Roy had some particular requirements for the fittings and the ensuite. Marr insisted on being informed of all changes that Roy wanted, to make sure I wasn’t being coerced. I asked my best friend and fellow recent graduate Frank Walsh to bring his drawing board over and help with developing the design and doing the working drawings. Frank made many great contributions to the design, in particular the joinery and cast-in reglets that allow the glass to connect with the concrete columns.
We managed to find a sympathetic engineer to help us with the final design, Hilton Brown also a one-man band. He had a great grasp of structures in three dimensions. He was also excited by the design, but found a major flaw in the concept. In order to fit the building around the site constraints, I had cantilevered the corners of the square balconies over the foreshore set back line. He showed me that a reinforced concrete cantilever would eventually creep and sag. Substantial edge beams were a solution, but the whole look of the building was of lightness and being supported on concrete columns above the garden.
Another solution was needed.
After a few weeks Hilton came back with the idea of a ‘top hat’ structure, where the projecting parts of the building would be suspended on steel rods from a very stiff concrete roof structure balanced on the concrete columns. This allowed the floor slabs to be an even thickness throughout with very simple formwork, but also would require extensive propping until the roof was complete.
The other complication that the surveyor raised was the issue of title as the blocks needed a boundary adjustment to achieve a ‘zig zag’ in the common boundary. Marr and Joan were borrowing from the Credit Union using their block of land as security, and the surveyor was recommending that the new survey should only happen once the strip footings were poured and the first course of brickwork in the common wall was laid.
Somehow, Marr managed to convince the Credit Union that this was all OK and essential to the realisation of the project. Marr could be very convincing.
As the documentation progressed, it was obvious to Roy that my specification writing left something to be desired. I must admit that detailed specifications had always seemed a waste of time to me, but for this project I could see that they would be essential.
Roy suggested that I visit his Melbourne office and spend the day with his chief Spec writer who would show me how to specify the correct door hardware, plumbing fittings, and wardrobe lights.
I got the overnight train to Melbourne (the cheapest option) and spent the next day lost in numbering systems and 400-page specifications. It was about this time that I began to understand what a very deep hole I had dug.
Going to tender was very fraught, as the budgets for the two houses were wildly different. Marr’s house was bare concrete floors and ceilings and minimal and industrial style fittings. Roy and Betty’s house was pretty well fitted out with plush carpets and drapes and an ensuite with WC and bidet!
We were asking a lot from the builder as the whole thing depended on a very accurate set out and precise building for all the intersections between glass and concrete columns to be in the right place. The builder was up to the job and the concrete slabs and columns went up as designed.
Roy had one simple request before the first-floor slab was poured. He wanted a steel sleeve cast into the dining area floor so that the central support for a dining table that he would design, and build could be slipped into the floor. It was a very clever idea, even if the 1200mm diameter vinyl covered particle board table was not what I was expecting.
The brick common wall had some artworks built in as it went up. Aleks Danko, a young artist and good friend of Marr and Joan, made terra cotta ‘tricks’, the same dimensions as a common brick, that were incorporated.
During this time, Roy and Betty came around for the occasional site meeting. Things seemed fairly calm between Marr and Roy and I thought that Marr was treating Roy a bit unfairly with regard to the design of the house. He had stayed pretty hands off as promised.
All that changed at the next site meeting when Roy announced that he and Betty wanted full ducted air conditioning installed through the 3 floors of the house and had appointed Bassets, the Sydney mechanical engineering consultants to do the work. Now it was my turn to spit the dummy as I regarded air conditioning as a complete waste of resources and energy.
Roy announced that he also wanted a fully circulating hot water system so that whenever a hot tap was turned on, there would be instant hot water. He seemed uninterested in the energy wastage, and I had my first taste of the condescending ‘great architect’ figure. “Don’t you worry about how to do the air-conditioning, my chaps in Melbourne will sort it out. Bassets know how to design a decent hot water system”.
When it was finished, you could see that the efforts to retain the important elements of the site had been worth it. Entering through a sliding timber gate from Broderick Street, the cars were simply parked on top of the sandstone outcrop. In front was a timber bridge that ran along the central boundary line before splitting at the coral tree to the two entries.
Successive owners have done some dreadful things to the landscape that we tried so hard to preserve. The sandstone outcrops have been excavated; the fig tree removed. It is such a shame to see much of what made the house ‘make sense’ no longer there.
Over the decades I visited the building a few times. After it became Heritage listed the owners of Number 6 called Leichardt Council circa 2011 to find out about getting a design for a new kitchen. They were told that they needed to get an architect who was in sympathy with the design aesthetic of the building. When they tracked me down, they rang the Council to let them know I was still alive.
The phone conversation that ensued was the basis for the information on the heritage register. It is gratifying to see that I am listed as the designer/maker.
Marr Grounds’ influence is there in the very stripped back aesthetic of number 6 and quite a few of the design elements (spiral stair, and handrails). Roy’s influence is in some of the fit out of number 8 (the wood weave ceiling panels for example), and in the alterations to the foreshore cave which became a boat equipment store.
24th March 2021
(All drawings by Stuart Whitelaw, historic photo from Marr Grounds Website, contemporary photo by Tone Wheeler).