Out of the square, a new exhibition at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, drops in on local beach house architecture – past, present and future. Michael Green brushes off the sand and tours five of the best.
From its genesis as a humble shack to the cantilevered glass showcase of today, the beach house has long been an important part of Victoria’s architectural vernacular. Many fine examples are dotted around our coastal fringes but it is along the Mornington Peninsula – from the western foreshore to Port Phillip Bay – that our beach-house identity has been defined. By the 1950s, “nearly every architect of note who worked in Melbourne build a house there at some time,” wrote architect Robin Boyd in 1952 in Australia’s Home. “And in most cases they allowed themselves to experiment, to be freer and easier than was their custom in the city.” A new exhibition, opening Thursday at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, will track the journey from conception to creation of 35 of the most exciting projects, including the following.
Ranelagh (Ship House)
If a good beach house should evoke the sea, then Ranelagh is safely moored to success. The ‘Ship House’ boasts ground floor porthole-windows and an elegant steel spiral staircase leading to a sunroom and roped-off viewing decks.
Built in 1935 and still standing today, the Mt Eliza home is one of the oldest featured in the MPRG exhibition.
In May 1936, it graced the cover of The Australian Home Beautiful. The magazine praised its designer, “that very modern architect, Mr Roy Grounds”, and judged that the Ship House was “one of the most intriguing seaside houses Melbourne has ever seen”.
Grounds, best known for the National Gallery of Victoria on St Kilda Road, built the two-bedroom cottage for his family. It was an innovative structure for its time, built with pre-fabricated cement and steel panels. The ship shape and stark materials stood out against the open landscape, and the upper deck commanded a spectacular view of the bay.
As Home Beautiful declared, the Ship House, “is definitely a ship aground, but no wreck.”
Tucked behind a sand dune, this Somers hideaway was both eye-catching and unassuming. Designed by architect Peter Burns and built in 1963, the modest, elliptical Ryan House rested comfortably in a grove of tea-trees and banksias.
Unfortunately, like a number of buildings in the exhibition, the home has since been demolished. Doug Evans, former associate professor of architecture at RMIT, says the shack didn’t “attempt to swallow the view”. Instead, it was “an introverted little thing, a bit like a rowboat turned upside down.”
It had sloping cedar walls, with both bubble and vertical slit windows. Bedrooms curved along one wall. “In the centre”, Burns wrote in 1963, “a concrete volcano of a fireplace springs from a warm brick floor and is capped by a curving copper canopy and flue.”
“It’s certainly got that hippy look about it,” Evans admits. But it wasn’t a slapdash counterculture hut. Burns was interested in caves as an analogy for home. He wanted to create places of refuge and belonging away from the wars and economic upheavals of the twentieth century.
“It was all about enclosure,’ Evans says. “He hit on something that was interesting other architects around the world in the fifties and sixties – the insecurity of the modern condition.”
Sorrento House 1982
“Beach houses should be fun to be in,” says architect Col Bandy. And his early eighties getaway is just that. The Sorrento House is an informal, low maintenance escape from city life.
The three-bedroom wooden home has an unusual design. “It’s basically a pitched-roof house but it has pieces chopped out and bits added on that change it quite dramatically,” Bandy says. The weatherboards are set at opposing angles. “At that stage of my career I liked the idea of manipulating traditional forms.”
The home was built on a block thick with tea-tree and Bandy decided to keep as much as possible. He tried to create “a more natural object in a natural environment.”
Exhibition curator Rodney James describes a relaxed, playful holiday home. “It’s the classic weekender. It has flowing open spaces inside, so when extra people come you can find room for them. It’s about bringing people together rather than sending them to the outskirts of the house.”
St Andrews Beach House
Sean Godsell’s creation rises above the scrub and dunes in a standoff with the Southern Ocean. The striking 2005 retreat has caught a wave of prestigious awards, including the Australian Institute of Architects Robin Boyd Award in 2006.
The long, rectangular structure with a gaping mouth looks, strangely, like a beautiful shipping container. The building both protects from the elements and adapts to them. Its rusting steel skin shelters a three-bedroom home, with the living and sleeping areas separated by a weather-exposed deck.
Set on stilts, the St Andrews Beach House also reinterprets the older-style buildings of the area. In years gone by, there were many fibro-cement shacks on sticks along the peninsula back beach.
Despite it’s intimidating exterior, the interior is neither too formal nor too precious. “The purpose of going to the beach for the weekend is to relax,” Godsell says. “When you’ve just spent a day surfing, there’s nothing more boring than not going inside because you might destroy the flooring.”
Unlike beach houses further north, Victorian weekenders must be comfortable throughout very different seasons. Godsell says the winter wind at St Andrews Beach is furious and bitterly cold. “When a storm brews at sea it comes straight across that coast. [In the house] there’s a giant picture window and deck where you can sit and watch – it’s some of the best free theatre you’ll ever get.”
Platforms for pleasure
So far, peninsula architecture has been more progressive and experimental than its suburban cousin – that’s the inspiration for the MPRG exhibition. But what comes next? To find out, curator Rodney James commissioned the Platforms for Living project. Five firms each designed a speculative house for a different coastal region.
For their part, WSH Architects fashioned Platforms for Pleasure, an action-packed, tongue-in-cheek getaway for the bay beach at Sorrento. It’s a re-imagined shack for the 21st century, radically different from a city home.
“Beach houses are becoming like normal houses,” says WSH director Andrew Simpson, disapprovingly. Instead, his team pictures a seaside springboard for leisure and pleasure. The outdoor space is designed for activities as varied as rock climbing and astronomy, while the indoor living area is simple and compact. It could be only 50 square meters – five times smaller than the current average home.
Simpson says the concept is meant to be both entertaining and radical, but also reflect the firm’s approach to sustainability. “We’re trying to come up with designs that respond to contemporary lifestyles but do so over a much smaller floor area.”