Many know that my favourite book on Australian architecture is Walter Bunning’s Homes in the Sun, which I’ve referenced in talks and columns (see the Third Wave and the Future after Covid). So why, some correspondents asked, wasn’t it in my list of books for students? Good question. Answer here.
It comes from a time when architects and authors were interested in the average house, mass and social housing, suburbia and urban planning. A golden era of innovation in the 30 or so years after WW2 when Australia’s population doubled.
The books of that time included Robin Boyd’s Australia’s Home (1952), Hugh Stretton’s Ideas for Australian Cities (1970), Living and Partly Living by Robin Boyd, John Mant et al (1971), and David Yenken and Graeme Gunn’s Mansion or No House (1976). The interest in suburbia and the design of the house was at its height. Now, not so much.
But before all those was Homes in the Sun by Walter Bunning. A seminal book in Australian architectural history, but sadly nowhere near as influential as it should have been, its impact limited to those interested the rhetoric, not the reality. But really worth a look.Born in 1912, Bunning was already a well-credentialed architect who had studied town planning in Europe before becoming an expert in camouflage during the war. He was executive officer for the Commonwealth Housing Commission (imagine one of those now!) for two years and wrote much of its 1944 report. He then ranged further in the 1945 book that is our focus here.
The idea that during a war you would prepare for the peace seems quite apposite now, given we are on a ‘war footing’ over the virus. With the rise of the digital revolution, and changes working from home, we have the opportunity to rethink the way in which the vast areas of suburbia could be redeveloped in the future. It foretells a different future for our cities, with hubs and share-work buildings rather than CBDs as a focus for the city.
The polemical way Bunning approached his task can give us two pointers in looking to an improved future: use first principles and emphasise the possibilities for the mass: it’s about being special, not spectacular (which so obsesses the Instagram generations).
Homes in the Sun first documents the history of housing in Australia, and here’s some of the dozen or so pages that Robin Boyd said established Bunning as 'the best-known architectural publicist in the country', (and Boyd appears to pay homage as much of this history appears in his Australia’s Home).
Bunning then looked at the needs for housing. And what typologies might be needed. He identifies different households and identifies a series of built forms that may match those households. Singles or couples need smaller housing, different from families with children or an extended family needing a larger house.
The diagram is a fascinating insight the ideas at that time (words like invalid and elevator flats) and Bunning’s thoughts (a ‘bachelor couple’ are both women). Bunning is well ahead of the social curve at that time.
Bunning designs three ‘Suntrap Homes’. Each one shows a way for a house to be oriented for sunlight to the living room, and adjacent patio or outdoor area, irrespective of the street position. Rather than backyards there are external living ‘rooms’, separate from service courts for clothes drying and storing cars. They would pass muster as Case Study houses in Los Angeles in the following years.
Given the book’s name it is unsurprising that there is considerable attention to how houses relate to their site, adjacent houses and the potential for passive solar. Although born in Queensland, trained in Sydney, he was now in Melbourne and he viewed passive solar as critically important to overcoming cold winters. The one lacuna in the book is an attention to cooling, very top-of-mind now with global warming.
The book then looks at the ‘house and garden’, kitchens and bathrooms, heating, lighting, furniture and storage, all with very a very contemporary eye.
In a change of scale, the book has commentary on apartments (walk-up and elevator flats), and various aspects of town planning, forming communities, and in an extremely prescient move, ‘children in the community’. At this point it looks like a manual for modern Scandinavia.
The book ends with a call to arms, for citizens to involve themselves in the civic and urban design process; an echo to the ending of Elizabeth Farrelly’s just published Killing Sydney. I wouldn’t hold out much chance of change though, if the failure of Walter Bunning’s sweeping vision is anything to go by. We could do far worse than follow his blueprint.When the Dwell Conference in Los Angeles ran a competition for a revival modernist house in 2012 my studio prepared a Lego model of Suntrap House One and sent it to off, to a little acclaim. Now, seventy-five years later, it still seems fresh, but maybe that’s because we seem to have heeded so little of Bunning’s advice, and we are stuck in the pre-War suburbia Bunning decried.
Bunning designed a small number of individual homes but is better known for his larger civic buildings. His best, now demolished, was Anzac House in College Street, opposite the Anzac War Memorial. It had all the themes of Homes in the Sun with its modernist frame, rooftop terraces and deep verandas addressing the issue of Western sun.
Now you want to read this book. Sadly, if you could find a copy it will cost $200+. But there are no copies. So, it’s off to your library, who can request an inter-library loan of one of two copies held in the
the National Library in Canberra, a beautifully proportioned interpretation of neoclassicism in the Washingtonian mould in Canberra. Designed by, you guessed it - Bunning and Madden.
I am currently trying to secure the rights to the book to undertake a re-print, and if you have any insights to W.B.’s estate I would be glad to hear from you.
Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to [email protected]