August 10, 2016

Architect in Focus: Graeme Gunn.

It was the middle of the 1960's and the world was expanding at a rapid rate. You've heard of all the stories of the post-war boom in Europe and America, a rise in world housing, culture, and media that had never been seen before. Modern cities were expanding, bursting out from their centers and into the suburbs with new ideas and developments.

In Melbourne, it meant that we had to find a new architectural identity for a growing city. Some thought the future of Melbourne's outer suburbs - which are now ironically, Melbourne's inner city suburbs - was a quarter acre block. You'd get your lot of land, clear all of the trees and pave it with cement, without a thought for the natural landscape. Your house would look just like your next-door neighbours, and with mass market housing on the rise, it would look like it could be anywhere. After all, that's what they were doing in housing developments in America.

But then something incredibly lucky happened in Melbourne in 1965. Two young entrepreneurs, David Yencken and John Ridge, founded Merchant Builders, one of the countries most renowned and enduring project-house building companies. It was a time of great change throughout the building industry, and Merchant Builders were, perhaps, the first developer in Australia to offer architect-designed homes to the mass market. If they hadn't shown the appropriate care, Melbourne would have looked a very different city today. But over the course of 26 years from 1965, Merchant Builders changed the way Australian suburbs looked forever. We think for the better.

How did they do it?

They did it with the help of architect Graeme Gunn, who had a vision for new housing. Gunn was concerned that with new developments, there was a 'start again' mentality, where the design of a home took no reference from the environment that surrounded it. So together with landscape architect Ellis Stones, they began to hero the Australian landscape in their designs, and placed the environment around them. To this day, the work of Graeme Gunn and Ellis Stones is credited as truly iconic Australian architecture.

In an article for the University of Melbourne, Rees Quilford, the Engineering and Marketing Manager for the Melbourne School of Design, says that "Yencken and the firm's consultant landscape architect Ellis Stones were also deeply interested in how to increase density in Melbourne's inner and outer suburbs without losing the amenity of connection with landscape, and especially indigenous trees and plants. They were committed to a suburban landscape that was uniquely Australian."

"It was a house builder dedicated to the protection of the natural environment;" Guilford continues. "It promoted the merits of 'cluster' developments as an alternative to conventional approaches to suburban planning; and it offered 'kit homes' comprised of factory made components to minimise costs and embodied energy."

There's also a great article on Merchant Builders by Urbis Magazine, with photographs from Brooke Holm. You can read it here.

In 2011, Gunn was recognised for a lifetime of work in architecture, with the Australian Institute of Architects Gold Medal. The highest honour from the Australian Institute of Architects.

Over the course of the next six months, we're writing a series of stories on Australia's most influential architects on the S&A blog.

Photography

Top Left - Fiona Lynch renovates and restores a classic Merchant Builders' home in Melbourne's inner east. Photo by Brooke Holm.

Top Right - Converted Merchant Builders garage in Melbourne.

Middle Left - The Beaumaris home of Matt & Cindy Skinner and family. Photo by Annette O'Brien. Production by Lucy Feagins - The Design Files.

Middle Right - A home designed by Graeme Gunn and built in 1967 for John Ridge, one of the founding directors of Merchant Builders.