Peter McIntyre 'Revered Riverside Modernist'
From his 'Birdwatch' eyrie we mingle with the Owls, Cockatoos, Lorikeets and Wattlebirds.
We meet on the tranquil riverside slopes of the McIntyre private estate in Kew, five
miles from Melbourne's CBD. With its steep river escarpments, open woodlands and a natural habitat for many native species of mammals and birds Kew is arguably
Melbourne's most spectacular suburb and I'm here to meet long-term inhabitant and
distinguished architect, Peter McIntyre.
For seventy years McIntyre and his wife Dionne have occupied this six-acre plot. Today the entire family occupies a cluster of treetop dwellings: steel, timber and glass structures with panoramic views of the river and the city skyline. Cloistered in the lush green foliage of mature oaks that provide pools of shade McIntyre still beavers away, the definitive architect at work. A true modernist he has availed himself of the latest technologies - stem cell and laser treatments to keep physically agile and there is no evidence of slowing down.
It was the mid 20th century. Melbourne was regarded as Australia's cultural capital and for good reason. Upstream from McIntyre's enclave the Heide School of Modernist painters - Tucker, Nolan, Hester, Arthur Boyd and Vassilieff had emerged and they were gaining recognition in London, Europe and New York. Further upstream at Eltham,McIntyre fraternized with younger artists Cliff Pugh and Matcham Skipper at the bohemian colony of Monsalvat. The furnishings and textile designers - Grant Featherstone, Clement Meadmore, Frances Burke and others - had developed a new modernist design language. At the University of Melbourne Professor Brian Lewisheaded the architecture school with a team of modernist architects: Robin Boyd, Roy Grounds, Frederick Romberg, Fritz Janeba and Zdenko Strizic. They were fresh from Europe and the USA and they fostered a new generation of architects that would experiment with design, abstraction and new technologies. McIntyre was part of this new post war generation. He brought a distinct sensibility to Australian modernist architecture and celebrated architect and cultural critic Robin Boyd recognized his precocious talent.Boyd's aim was to instill a sense of good design into the fabric of Australian suburban culture. It was an ideology that was to make design accessible to the average home-builder and introduce inexpensive solutions and materials to the construction of new homes.
As he leans towards ninety his memories focus on childhood, his parents, his life-long mentor Robin Boyd and significant career milestones. He has lived to see his work celebrated by a new generation of young designers and architects who have rediscovered Australian modernism and are keen to understand its underlying principles."I'm a romantic," he insists. It's his way of explaining the art and individuality of his architectural style. He defines it as 'emotional functionalism'..."the feel of a building by night and day, from season to season."
The idea, he says, is "to focus on the emotional experience of the occupant."
It's an individual design philosophy that emerged from his early work in the post war Melbourne environment. Today McIntyre expresses a degree of frustration that his expressive style of modernism has never been fully understood. Like Boyd in the 1950s, he laments the lack of appreciation for the potential role of the architect in Australian culture. Nevertheless, he has lived to see his early designs achieve iconic status as beacons of regional modernism.
The son of a successful architect he was expected to excel.
McIntyre is a child of the Great Depression. As an only child he worked in his father's architectural practice from the age of seven and witnessed its interim collapse during those dark years of struggle. It forced them to sell their home and rely on his mother's hairdressing business. Robert McIntyre specialized in designing hotels including the Prince of Wales Hotel in St Kilda and the Olinda Hotel in the Dandenong Ranges. The young boy's first job was to fetch sandwiches and he remembers "running out into the sun to make the blueprints." As he grew up, he assisted with surveying, drawing and drafting.
By the post war era when McIntyre entered architecture school the technical skills were fully embedded.
In 1947 at nineteen years of age he slid down this riverside embankment on his
'backside' into a disused wild and bushy flood plain.
The disused land sparked his imagination and his ambition to acquire it. Two-months later after intricate negotiations with agents, lawyers and neighbours and without a penny to his name, he signed the contract of sale. He purchased the property for 200 pounds. It was a sign of the optimism and entrepreneurship to come.
His father at first considered it a 'foolhardy' acquisition. He turned to his mentor Robin Boyd who was head of the Victorian Small Homes Service. Boyd gave him some additional drafting work to help meet his mortgage payments. Finally, after working round the clock seven days per week he reached breaking point and his father came to his rescue.
The Kew riverside property has been the bedrock of his work and his life since.
In 1953 he and his new wife, Dionne, moved out of the caravan by the river and into the iconic geometric A frame structure hovering on the steep embankment, a radical spectacle of modernist design and color. The house was eloquently described at the time as "uplifting and full of musicality...like some exotic Bird of Paradise perched high on the densely wooded bank." (New York Vogue 1956)
McIntyre brought a bold design quality to this task. Both externally and in his crisp
interiors he fully exploits the dramatic elements; strong steel structures, floor to ceiling glass, mirrors, primary colors and stripes, trusses, stairs and cross beams. They envelop the occupant in theatrical and rhythmic flowing spaces that merge into the exterior foliage and skies. He is concerned with every nuance of the architectural experience. It results in a demonstrative sense of ease and serenity.
These days his daughter occupies the house but McIntyre retains rooms in the stone foundations quarried from the site. He stokes the solid fireplace in winter and bunkers himself in the deep cool of the room in summer. He is clearly at ease in the stone, leather and wooded room surrounded by his books and trophies.
There is warmth and charisma in the aging McIntyre but he feels the solitariness of a man who has outlived his peers. As he looks back on a career that has spanned urban planning, design, architecture and academia he recalls friends, colleagues and colorful clients. There is a sense that he knows Melbourne inside out - its history, personalities and its institutions.
There have been many prestigious awards and critical milestones.He is particularly proud of his James Barrett Memorial Medal (1974) for his leadership in convening an international working party to develop the Melbourne Strategy Plan for the Melbourne City Council. It paved the way for more intelligent and flexible landuse and development. Similarly, the Sir Zelman Cowen Medal (1986) recognized his ground-breaking design of the Dinner Plain Alpine Village, a milestone that set new planning standards for all Australian alpine developments.He has gained critical acclaim for architectural design throughout his career including the Sir Zelman Cowen Medal for his Parliament Station in Melbourne's underground and his treasured Robin Boyd Medal in 1983 for the family holiday home 'Sea House' on the Mornington Peninsula which he claims as his best residential design. In 2013 the Institute of Architects awarded his Tudor Centre Library at his beloved alma mater Trinity Grammar School.
His contribution to the University of Melbourne Department of Architecture as
Associate Professor and then Chair, is regarded as pivotal to its revival in the 1990's
and his contribution to competition juries, committees and boards attest to a man
completely dedicated to his profession. To this day he still pays homage to his life long mentor by actively supporting the Robin Boyd Foundation.
His tranquil riverside sanctuary in Kew is never far away.
Sitting in his 'Birdwatch' eyrie perched high in the treetops we take in the panoramic
views that span the river, the city and beyond. His crisp white interiors are designed
with the precision of a wooden-boat cabin and open onto a wide balcony where we
can mingle with the owls, cockatoos, lorikeets and wattlebirds.
There is a sense of floating in an elevated tree house with as much or as little space as one needs.
At ground level we can hear and view the signs of normal family life. There are squeals of delight as grandchildren play in the pool, an orchard and vegetable patch spread into the sunnier reaches of the garden, a shaded BBQ area is set into the rocks and a 'cubby-house' swings in the trees.
There is art and romance in the tale of Peter McIntyre and his idyllic riverside plot.
From the visionary foresight of the young architect, his audacious purchase of the land,the idealism of the mid-century designer couple raising their offspring on the magical woodland setting, this idyllic place has been the making of the architect.
Its steep escarpment, the ebb and flow of the river, the majestic trees and thriving bird-life create a fluctuating natural studio environment in which to live and breathe design and experimentation.
It has evolved into a living architectural settlement in which generations of architects work together. It may surpass the mere DNA code and leave an epigenetic inheritance, the experience and acquired wisdom of this unique setting, to future generations of architects work together.
Peter McIntyre, a survivor of Melbourne's great modernist era, continues to work and thrive in his riverside dominion.
Story: Jo Moulton
Photos: Lisa Roberts