Me and my McMansion: Australians and their homes

There’s more to a house than four walls and a door - the history of home ownership in Australia reveals a lot about our nation. Flickr/Orderinchaos

Next time you drive through a suburban street or any country town shut your eyes for a moment and try to imagine the dreams of the people who built that house. Houses are envelopes for our desires and hopes and change with every generation.

Every time I read a story about the horrible waste of space and resources consumed by the ever-expanding Australian house on the large suburban block we should remember our past. Have people forgotten that the single-family dwelling, separate from the neighbours, was established as the basis of white, middle-class living before World War I?

The loan schemes that enabled the purchase of homes in all Australian states by the 1920s have their roots in the Workers’ Housing Acts enacted in most states before the Great War. In 1913 the ideal home was projected by architects and taste-makers as a modest but charming one, on a freestanding lot, with a garden ready for planting.

Terrace housing was introduced to Australian cities to solve a Gold Boom housing crisis. nicksarebi

The bungalow was presented as the ideal housing type, something that suited Australian lifestyle and leisure, climate and conditions. Many Australians could not afford such modern and detached dwellings at this time; most people lived in homes of earlier building stock, much of which was constructed in the boom of the 1860s to 1880s, including the small and poorly built speculative terraces of Sydney and Melbourne. They wanted to get out of them as fast as possible.

Flats were virulently opposed by state politics and the building industry in the formative years of Australia after Federation in 1901. Florence Taylor, owner of Building magazine and the first registered woman architect in NSW, was a vocal opponent to such flats. She wrote in 1915: “the flat is the enemy of home life”. White middle-class Australians were expected to have something better – race was often invoked in the argument.

John Fitzgerald, first chair of the NSW Housing Trust, noted in 1912 that “human nature is in favour of the freehold”. Flat-living was not considered socially useful as a long-term ideal. We must remember today that flats were always rented in 1913 and that the residents moved on, for many workers, either to further precarity, but for others, to possible home-ownership if they qualified for the new loan schemes.

The style in which a house is built goes much deeper than surface style. In a country with historically one of the highest levels of home ownership in the world, the appearance and design of individual dwellings meant a great deal.

Was the appearance of homes about various “isms” or simply a matter of aspiration? What can we expect the home of the future to resemble? Will we ever learn to add value by employing architects, or will we remain a country of developer-led homes that nonetheless seem to embody Australian democratic ideals?

Australia has long exhibited a high level of home ownership; by 1890 almost half of the population were home-owners. By the 1920s all states had loan schemes in place actively encouraging Australians to mortgage themselves and purchase a home.

Home-owners cared less about styles or isms imported from abroad than they did about appearances. A Mediterranean villa suited the harbour in Sydney, so long as it had good plumbing. The mock-Tudor with mass-produced half timbering popped up everywhere.

Although all of these inter-war homes appear very different, they were considered very new in terms of internal planning, the size of windows and management of light. The famous 1920s house “Greenway” which still stands in Vaucluse was famous for being sited on the plot to face the view, and not the street, no gum trees were destroyed, and the house had open sleeping porches for hot summer nights.

Such homes were meant to rationalise domestic labour, reduce household clutter and apply soothing effects of colour to the domestic environment. Built-ins only became really common in Bauhaus-inspired dwellings and were not at all common until the 1950s. They were considered both modern and hygienic.

The fitted kitchen was one of the novelties of that era and promised the housewife large unbroken surfaces on which to wave her magic culinary skills. The notion we see today of white goods as marking our status and distinction is hardly new. What has changed is that a 1950s housewife wished her fridge to stand out like a masterpiece; many now desire minimal cabinetry in which everything seems to miraculously disappear.

The DIY culture of post World War II life in which thrifty family men spruced up the environment connected people very closely to their homes, parts of which they often had made themselves. Home meant everything.

The 1930s saw the introduction of apartments to Sydney, changing the inner city landscape forever. S Baker

The modern flat, the subject of considerable energy from the international avant-garde, gained increasing attention in Australia between the wars, but it was always controversial. Sydney, unlike Melbourne, had experienced an explosion of flat-building in inner-city areas following the depression of 1929, due to relaxation of zoning laws.

Despite opposition to such housing from political parties on the grounds of social disruption and familial breakdown, over 500 blocks were built in Sydney annually between 1935-41. From 6.8% of Sydney’s building stock in 1921, they rose to become 12.8% in 1933. Flats did not cater for most workers due to the relatively high rents, and there was little discussion of economical working-class interior design until the 1939 Erskineville Rehousing Scheme.

Acres of identical and cheaply built flats, the type that former Premier Bob Carr attacked in NSW, spread everywhere after the Second World War. Although often very ugly, they are frequently very well planned and practical inside, and permit enormous light and ventilation. Many a home renovator has learned this of late.

The more space the better. The idea of being a good modern citizen living in a society of inevitable progress was employed to fuel consumer desire and spending. The consumer today is quite different, as consumption is linked to the idea of self-fashioning; we are what we spend.

So what will make the 21st century home?

The first issue is what the great architect-writer Robin Boyd called featurism, which he detested. When we pretend we live in Bali or the south of France, are we really engaging with where we live and how we live? Life style shows encourage these thematic gestures because they make people feel exotic and different and they are easy to understand.

If we are going to be a mature nation of home-owners we should reflect more on how we live and also where we live. There are now regional schools such as the Brisbane sub tropical style, which produce wonderful indoor-outdoor hybrid dwellings that if they are well handled, do not fall into kitsch.

Apart from warehouse conversions and architect-designed homes, many Australian dwellings are McMansions that do not relate to the scale of the houses around them or have anything to do with their environment. It is possible that as in North America, we are retreating into our homes more and more, meeting lovers online, watching our video on home entertainment systems, cooking on industrial quality ovens and holding parties with enormous BBQs that would once have provided a catering company. Perhaps we need to think a bit more about whether we are part of communities and networks or if we are heading towards an atomized existence? Or are such homes now firmly ensconced in the Australian psyche?