Mid-century modernist design is still popular many years after its emergence. When looking through contemporary design magazines or display homes, you are more likely to see a modernist piece of furniture or artwork than not. The open plan layouts and clean minimal lines of today’s architecture were born out of modernism and the forward thinking of designers such as Robin Boyd and Harry Seidler in Australia in the mid 1900s.
Following the First World War, modernism flourished with the demand for new building programs and social experimentation within residential developments to rebuild Europe. By the 1930s the movement had reached Australia and was embraced by young Australian architects (Aitken 2010, p 159).
In the Australian landscape however, modernism was yet to take hold. Traditional English style and the romantic notions of the Australian pastures and pioneers were maintained by conservative garden owners (Aitken 2010, p 161). It was in the USA that a change in attitudes towards traditional forms of landscape design was really taking place. Landscapes were designed to complement the new art forms and architecture and a stronger relationship developed between the outdoor and indoor space. Dominant features of these new landscapes were low maintenance design and a simpler use of plant materials (Hendry 1997).
An overview of modernist garden design by American garden historian Marc Treib identified six axioms: denial of historical style, concern for space rather than pattern, landscapes for people, destruction of the axis, plants as botanical entities and sculpture, and integration of house and garden (Aitken 2010, p 177).
With new alliances to the USA following World War II and an increase in the influence of American style, it did not take long for these elements of landscape design to be adopted in Australia. This was aided by an increasing professionalism in the landscape industry (with the eventual incorporation of the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects in 1970), the necessity of functional planning to suit changing, modern lifestyles and the commercialism of garden making through new national magazines such as Australian House and Garden, Australian Home Maker, Modern Homes and Australian Home Beautiful (Aitken 2010, p 177).
Australian modernist landscapes did contain something different to those of the USA or Europe, however. Australian native plants. A new wave of bush gardens (with origins in the ‘Wild Garden’ ideals of William Guilfoyle in the late 1800s) complemented the elements of modernist design with the use of local plants, so much so that in 1956 well-known architect Robin Boyd observed that ‘Modern houses and Australian trees have been practically inseparable from the first moment they met’ (Aitken 2010, pp 169-171).
Modernist homes and gardens still exist throughout Australia today and provide glimpses of an exciting time for emerging design styles and modernism.
Aitken, Richard, 2010, The Garden of Ideas, Melbourne
Hendry, Margaret, 1997, The Profession of Landscape Architecture in Australia, Landscape Australia, 3/1997