Sitting in Peter McIntyre’s office in Kew – a room with large windows overlooking a canopy of trees – it’s easy to see why the famed modernist is never short of inspiration: this is the perfect spot for an architect developing his next body of work.
Situated on a densely wooded block between a steep incline and a bend in the Yarra River, the land is home to McIntyre’s offices, his famous River House and a couple of other residences for his family, friends and students.
McIntyre first saw the 2.4 hectares in Kew in 1947, while surveying for a potential client on a property nearby. Sliding down on his backside – access was impossible any other way – he was mesmerised, and bought it for £400.
“I was absolutely in love with the river and when I saw this land, which was a complete forest,” he says. “And nobody wanted it. It was too steep and the bottom area was all subject to floods.”
McIntyre, who celebrates his 85th birthday this month, is one of Australia’s greatest architects. In 60 years of practice, he has founded an award-winning firm, coined the term “emotional functionalism” and helped restore credibility to the architecture school at the University of Melbourne.
He has produced winning designs for Parliament Station and Knox City Shopping Centre, and has contributed to the design aesthetic of our suburbs. He has been an adviser to governments, won a slew of awards, including a gold medal from the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, and even made a film, Your House and Mine, with friend Robin Boyd.
Despite this, McIntyre plays down his achievements. And he never gloats.
“Most architects will show you their buildings and tell you why they’re so good. We do this because we’re always searching for work, we can never get enough. Well, I’m so bloody old I’m tired of selling myself, so I’m actually going to talk about why all my buildings have failed.”
For those who know the architect, this kind of opening is characteristically McIntyre – self-deprecating, honest, but above all, funny.
“Peter belongs to that special group of people, in the postwar period who were revolutionary. They were optimistic, very brash, and evangelical,” says architect Corbett Lyon.
“He is very emotional and can turn on tears like nobody I’ve ever known,” says his friend, architect and writer Norman Day.
“Much of the content of McIntyre’s work of the ’50s is connected to his dynamic personality, that of a hyperactive performer whose directorial enthusiasm is infectious and difficult to restrain,” says Professor Philip Goad from Melbourne University.
“Peter lives and breathes architecture, always has. It’s his main life force,” adds architect Karl Fender.
At an age when most people have well and truly retired, McIntyre still possess the enthusiasm and energy of a young gun. He is still designing and educating in the only way he knows: full on.
His mind is sharp and boy, does it go fast. One minute you’re discussing the magic of skiing – McIntyre is an avid skier and sailor – and the next, he is eagerly spreading out the plans of his latest work, Trinity Grammar School’s Centre for Contemporary Learning. It’s a project that has taken up a lot of McIntyre’s time but will push the education revolution into a different direction when it’s finished.
Scheduled to be completed by the end of the year, the centre is close to McIntyre’s heart – he was a student at Trinity, and has been influential in shaping the school’s spaces and philosophy.
“Peter is one of Trinity’s most distinguished old boys,” says principal Richard Tudor. “He is a highly innovative, forward-thinking and creative architect who exemplifies best practice in consultation. He has challenged the school to produce an iconic building that will benefit boys for many years to come.”
McIntyre’s bloodlines indicated he would be an architect. His father, Robert McIntyre was a successful commercial architect who started a practice in 1921 – specialising in hotels – with his brother joining him in 1930.
As a boy, McIntyre worked in the practice, running errands, delivering and collecting prints, buying lunches. Architecture seemed laborious and challenging, and McIntyre was instilled with a determination not to work in the profession.
“I’d seen my father go through the wars and depressions and knew how hard it was for an architect to get work,” he says. “Architecture is a hell of a life. To sustain an office, consistently get work, and always trying to maintain a standard with everything against you … Medicine seemed so straightforward. To help people and nobody questioned to employ you. They were begging you to come help us.”
Unfortunately for McIntyre, he had little say in the matter. When he finished school at 16, his father enrolled him at Melbourne Technical College, before starting the rigorous three-year course at Melbourne University, under Leighton Irwin.
By McIntyre’s second year of university, Brian Lewis took the chair and gathered around him talented young practitioners John Mockridge, Roy Grounds and Robin Boyd. They were joined by Frederick Romberg and Fritz Janeba from Europe. Under the guidance of such pioneers, McIntyre was imbued with a strong sense of modernism and idealism. Instead of having a structured curriculum of hard-earned drawing skills, the new tutors set designs for specific buildings and went from board to board offering advice and guidance.
For McIntyre the student years at the university were an “architectural awakening”. With an air of excitement he initiated, with classmate Kevin Borland, the first Architects’ Revue – a lunchtime vaudeville show.
It’s a tradition that continues today and was heightened during McIntyre’s professorship at Melbourne University in the late 1980s.
“In those days, we were doing architectural comment on the community and on architecture. And then Boyd started writing for them. His writing was absolutely brilliant. It became so successful, I even got Brian Lewis to make it an essential part of the course.”
It was through the revues that McIntyre met his wife Dione – they would become Peter and Dione McIntyre & Associates. Auditioning seven women for a chorus line, McIntyre was taken by one girl: “I picked her out to be my eskimo.”
After graduating, McIntyre and Borland set up an office in the basement of a Victorian terrace in Carlton. His first commission, The Castle Stargazer House, has a triangular upper bedroom storey cross-section that seemed to face the stars – as opposed to the terracotta roofs of North Balwyn. Its design is emblematic of a lot McIntyre’s work in the ’50s – an overriding idea inspired by the site-induced geometry.
“What separates the work of Peter and Dione McIntyre from their peers is their untiring experimentation,” said Professor Goad in an essay in Architecture Australia. “Virtually every single new building designed before 1960 is a brave attempt to usurp the normal. There is no compromise and almost no ‘moderate modern’ to be found amongst the oeuvre.”
"To actually control the emotions of what you’re trying to do is the real secret of great architecture. It takes years and years. I’ve been struggling to do it and I haven’t always got it right.”
In 1954, McIntyre, Borland, John and Phyllis Murphy and engineer Bill Irwin won the most prestigious commissions in Melbourne at the time – to design the Olympic Swimming Stadium for the 1956 Games. Their winning design, which McIntyre says epitomised the thinking in Australia about modernism, incorporated high-tensile steel and glass, and provided a structural solution. Boyd, one of the judges, described it as “the first fairy story of Australian building”. It was able to meet the brief while significantly reducing the tonnage of steel required in a time of material shortages.
While the significant commission put McIntyre on the front page of the newspapers and kickstarted his career, it also provided him with the funds to build River House.
Constructed in 1955, the house, which was described by American Vogue as “a brilliantly coloured Klee butterfly”, uses the same counterbalancing forces as the pool – where the stadium used the grandstands on either side of the pool to balance each other and take the roof load, the house has an A-frame double-cantilevered truss with wings off each side, pitting one force against the other.
McIntyre explains how work began to tail off by the ’60s. He says: “All came to a crashing end when I was sued by the owners of the McCarthy House for inadequate supervision.”
After the legal wrangling, and a loss of confidence, McIntyre sold his car, left Dione in charge of the practice and travelled overseas.
“I realised while I was over there what a bloody small fish in a big sea I was, and it took all the hubris right out of me. I really felt inadequate and small and worried financially. I had four children and a mortgage, and I knew the only way I was going to survive was doing this commercial stuff. And compared to what I was doing, it would be a walkover.”
When McIntyre returned, he changed direction and learnt about the building trade and the commercial world: his first commission, a complete refit for the Grosser Building, brought his largest fee to that point. McIntyre & Associates quickly grew to more than 100 employees, and won major projects and awards. Norman Day believes one of its most significant contributions was the 1973 Melbourne Strategy Plan.
“This will probably be Peter’s legacy. He will be renowned for this plan,” says Day. “And maybe if the plan had been stuck to, then we wouldn’t have all these problems we have today.”
During this time Karl Fender was working as a young draftsman for Robin Boyd’s office. Fender, whose first taste of McIntyre’s architecture was through sneaking into his girlfriend’s – she is now his wife – house in Ivanhoe, remembers the kindness he showed to Boyd.
“Peter admired Boyd’s design work so much that he trusted him with his clients’ work. This is just remarkable to me. That extraordinary generosity of spirit between two people who like and respect each other. It’s just magnificent.”
Despite the successful commercial work, McIntyre never gave up designing houses. And in 1979, he created what he describes as his “perfect house”. Based on his design philosophy of “emotional functionalism”, the Sea House is a building designed to evoke positive feelings.
“I trained in the function school of design, and we used to have this famous saying, form follows function … Never once was it about how you felt in the space you were in. How do you feel about a kitchen? Does it make you feel alive? Does it wake you up? Or does it make you feel down and the coffee is going to try and lift you?”
On the coast of Mornington, the house ties visually into the hillside – a far cry from the big contemporary houses, all concrete and glass, harsh and unsympathetic. Inside is all soft surfaces – timber, stones, shutters, and large windows placing you at the water’s edge.
“I tried to create a design where the emotional content was controlled,” McIntyre says. “To do this, you have to try and ascertain what mood, what feeling you are trying to create. But moods change all the time. Take a living room. If you’re in it at night-time and there is an incredible storm, you want a room that protects you. Whereas if it’s a beautiful sunny morning you want to embrace the outside. To actually control the emotions of what you’re trying to do is the real secret of great architecture. It takes years and years. I’ve been struggling to do it and I haven’t always got it right.”
The designs of the Dinner Plain houses owe their spirit to the lessons learnt on Sea House. Developing the highest piece of freehold land in Australia, McIntyre drew up a master plan where the buildings, infrastructure and commercial developments had to be built to tough aesthetic standards:
land could only be bought with the design of the house attached to the title. Taking into account the topography, light and weather conditions, the houses are painted in snow gum-friendly colours – eucalypt greens, blue-greys.
They have sharply pitched rooflines, timber beams, rock walls, and sun decks. Whether McIntyre is remembered as the enigmatic professor who allows his students to camp on his lawn or the great visionary who challenged the “Australian ugliness”, he has left an indelible stamp on the history of Australian architecture.
“There are a great lot of contradictions to Peter McIntyre,” says Day. “While some people who have worked for him have found him terrifying, most have found him the sweetest person of all time. He is nothing less then generous, open, and always willing to help. He is a good adviser, a good thinker, and very happy to have a giggle at his own misfortunes.”