Peter McIntyre Modern Melbourne Video
Filmed interview with Peter McInytre
Presenter Emma Telfer
Directed and Produced by Bart Borghesi and Emma TelferContributors
Reproduction of this content must be approved by Open House MelbourneCopyright
Open House Melbourne
Modern Melbourne is a series of interviews that document the extraordinary lives and careers of some of our most important architects and designers. In this interview, we speak with Peter McIntyre.
After completing his education at RMIT and University of Melbourne, Peter went on to design and build one of Melbourne's most iconic houses, River House. In 1952, in partnership with Borland and Murphy, he won the competition to design the Melbourne Olympic Swimming Stadium. Both buildings established his position as Australia's leading experimental modernist.
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[00:00:09.31] Modern Melbourne is a series of interviews that document the extraordinary lives and careers of some of our most important architects and designers. Today, we speak with Peter McIntyre. After completing his education at RMIT and University of Melbourne, Peter went on to design and build one of Melbourne's most iconic houses, River House. In 1952, in partnership with Borland and Murphy, he won the competition to design the Melbourne Olympic Swimming Stadium. Both buildings established his position as Australia's leading experimental modernist.
[00:00:43.77] Let's start at the beginning. You followed in your father's footsteps in architecture. And now, three out of four of your children have followed you. When did you realize the architecture was in your blood?
[00:00:55.92] Well, I didn't realize it was in my blood. I just grew up doing that. I didn't-- I was young enough to not understand what life was about, really. I just started as an office boy when I was seven. The office was just coming out of the depression. And it was all hands to the pump. And it in my school holidays, I would always go to the office, all my life. And when I became 16 and left school, we were in the middle of the Second World War. And I, like a youth, didn't really have much say. I didn't have any say. My father just enrolled me in architecture.
[00:01:39.21] And I had a very bad time at school in the last two years, because of the Army. I was in the Cadets. And I was lumping 303's around and charging rifles with bayonets and all that sort of stuff. And I didn't like that. And so I didn't like the last two years of school. But when I started first year architecture, I absolutely loved it, not the architecture, the fact that there were girls. I'd never seen a girl in my life until after 16. So I very quickly got myself a girlfriend. And my life absolutely blossomed from that moment on.
[00:02:17.41] But I became very serious about architecture after 30. Because that's when I started seeing Boyd and Roy Grounds and people like that. That's when I really start to understand about architecture.
[00:02:30.84] Well, I guess we can't speak about your time at your father's practice without talking about the magical land in which River House sits and where you still live. Can you talk about how you came to find this piece of paradise?
[00:02:45.12] Yes. Well, that is also linked to my father's office. A builder in the office, Bob Scott-- we had a range of builders that worked for the firm. And Bob Scott bought this land nearby here to build a house on for his son. And I was sent out to do the survey. And this was 1947. So I would have been maybe 18, I think. And I did the survey, and then looked down to land, which was sweeping down to the river. And I've always been fascinated with water.
[00:03:24.60] In fact, I used to be like Huckleberry Finn on the Yarra. There was a guy in my class whose father owned the boat sheds at the bottom of Molesworth Street. And in summer, we'd always go down there and swim in the river. So I came down here. It was very steep. There was no access. I slid down my backside down here and walked over the place. And it was absolutely enchanting. I got down to this very bend where we're sitting now. And I could see a mile down one way of the river and a mile up the other way of the river. And I thought this was absolutely magical.
[00:03:55.99] So on the following Saturday morning, I went down to Glenferrie Road. And I went to a real estate agent. His name was Percy. I remember Mr. Percy, sounds like a Dickens novel. Anyhow, he said, oh, look, I think this is probably Crown land there on the river, and all that sort of stuff. And he said, I'll have a look at it for you and see if I can find anything out. So he rang me back about three weeks later. And he said, I found out what this is. And I found the owner. And the owner is prepared to sell it to you. And here's the address and so forth.
[00:04:39.40] So I went to see them. Now, it was a Mr. Bucken. And he explained to me what the whole situation was, that his Victorian homestead was at the top of the hill. And it was called Finn Haven. And it owned all the land there, 12 acres of it. And Mrs. Bucken died during the war in 1941, I think. And she had six children. But they're all in the services and all over the place. And it was decided that the house would be demolished. There was no National Trust. They demolished a beautiful Victorian homestead.
[00:05:19.77] And they subdivided the land. And Tuckson, the surveyor who did the subdivision, said, you can't actually build on this section. It's too steep. It's 45 degrees down here. And the bottom section is subject to flood. So that was just left. And Mr. Bucken, he was in charge of the estate. And he said to me that he would sell it to me. But he said, I have to go through all my brothers and sisters. And they have to approve it. So he said, I won't be able to get back to you for about at least a month.
[00:05:49.43] And that's how it all started. The story goes on there. I could talk for about two days about what happened from there on. But I eventually got it. And it’s extraordinarily that I got it. Because I was 18. And I didn't have any money at all. And I've always remembered, he looked across at me when it was agreed I'd pay him-- I think it was 200 pounds. He said, would you like time to pay. And I said, yes. And he said, well, what about six months. And I said, that would be fine. So that's where I set about to raise the money. And I didn't raise it all.
[00:06:27.39] When I showed my father the land, he actually refused me, wouldn't allow me to buy it. He didn't know that I'd already signed the contract. But so I went ahead and tried to raise the money. And when he found out the contract was signed, and I got sick halfway through and only raised half of it, he then paid the balance of the contract. But he made me go back to his office and work off that money. He's a dour Scotchman, my father.
[00:06:58.32] That's very good. And this is the time where Robin Boyd steps in.
[00:07:02.10] Yes, that's when I went to Robin. Robin was already my tutor at the university. But I went to Robin and asked him if I could do work in The Age Small Home Service. Because I could earn much more money there by doing little perspectives, and alterations, tensions to houses, and amendments to making drawings, and things. So yes, I worked there.
[00:07:23.66] And so and then, that helped pay for the property, but only to a point.
[00:07:28.05] Only to a point, yes. Then, it was a long road way back. I then had to build a road in. There was no access to it, you see. This is what my father why against it.
[00:07:39.58] So Robin stepped in is a saviour. But did he also influence your early career?
[00:07:44.83] Yes, Robin was the greatest-- Robin and Roy Grounds were the greatest influences of my life. They just turned it all around. Robin was an inspirational person. And he was dedicated to spreading the word of how important design was. And he loved Australia. And he was just so sad that we weren't responding to developing Australia as we should have been, responding to the climate, understanding how cities were going to grow and why they where they should grow in certain ways.
[00:08:18.13] And he did everything. He lectured and wrote articles, anything at all to actually spread the word. After 56 when television came in, he spent a great deal of time on television. But his articles in the Age Small Home Service-- Age was published every Monday morning-- were inspirational. Melbourne actually just waited for his Monday morning article. It was so beautiful. But he wasn't without critics.
[00:08:48.34] He would draw sketches of modern houses and say how they work and so forth. And I do remember the occasion when somebody wrote in and said, that house that you published, it's not really fit to be a house. It's more like a hen's house. The following week, he wrote the most critical article. And the heading was A Hen's House is Not Always a Fowl House. He was so witty. He was absolutely, unbelievably witty. And so he could convey the message very brilliantly.
[00:09:23.10] Well, you both did in 1957, I think, with the short film, Your House and Mine.
[00:09:29.26] That came much later. That was made in-- because the period we're talking about now with Robin is in, say, 1947. But that film was made-- well, I can tell you the story about how we came to make Your House and Mine. One of the passions I had was doing reviews at the University. And every faculty had a review. But architects didn't have a review. There was the big review, which was the SRC review.
[00:09:57.61] So I wanted to get an architecture review going. So the first review, I think, we did was 1948, I think it might have been. And it had to be a lunchtime review. Because we were in a minor way. We didn't have a great deal of acting talent. But what we had is we had a great design sense. So we could make brilliant sets. And I was directing these reviews. And I just used speed. I'd use very simple, short sketches. And no one had seen before the speed with which we did-- the set would come on. There'd be a sketch, and then another set would come on. And so it was almost like a moving film it came so fast.
[00:10:40.82] And that developed into-- it became incredibly popular. And we almost got to the stage in the evening reviews, where it almost as big as the SRC review. And one review, we started having-- what would happen in movies in those days is that there would always be a main movie-- we would call them pictures, I think-- the main picture, and then there'd be a preliminary picture, and then there'd be an interval. And in the interval, there would be advertising pictures. So our night previews were in two halves. And we decided to do a skit on the advertising.
[00:11:21.32] And the first skit we did was based on Mauldie's Breakfast Food. And Robin wrote the most brilliant script. And I did the making of the film about Mauldie's Food. And we developed from there making bigger and better films. And Your House and Mine came right back, I think, in '57 we made Your House and Mine. And so that was the background for Your House and Mine. That was all part of what I was saying about Robert wanting to spread the word and so forth, yeah.
[00:11:53.58] Now, much is written about River House. But you could say that your first built project, Castle House, is a first prototype in opposing forces, which the River House's built on. Can you tell me about that project?
[00:12:10.04] About the project or about opposing forces? They go together, I suppose. Well, in my final year, we were introduced, by an engineer called Norman Masson, to pre-stressed and post-tension reinforced concrete. And these are fancy titles. But they're really about inducing forces into a structure that opposes the forces that are going to come onto them when the structure's built.
[00:12:37.28] For example, you can take a beam and you can bend it so it's up like this. And then when the forces come onto it, it comes back to the neutral axis. So and it was taught to us in a time when materials just after the war were very short. So there's a tremendous emphasis in the profession about saving materials, doing them in more economical ways. So I found that absolutely fascinating.
[00:13:06.08] And I was working on the design, back in just after graduation, on the design of this River house. Because I'd bought the land in '47 when I was a student. So it was always in my mind about doing it. So this house was River House was designed around '51. But in '51 also was when I designed the Castle House. But then, I couldn't build this house. Because I didn't have the money. But the Castle House was erected. And it's just a question of a simple thing about opposing.
[00:13:41.51] Why the design is like it is because the owner had inherited the piece of land. And he didn't like North Balwyn. He didn't like suburbia. And he said to me, can you build me a house or design me a house that I'm not looking at suburbia. So we built a house that was looking up to the stars. So it was known as the Stargazer House.
[00:14:05.15] And I had terrific trouble with getting the permit with Campbell Council in those days. It wasn't Boroondara – Camberwell. And I had to go and do a presentation to the full council to finally get the permit. And Robin wrote a lot about that in The Age article for the small homes. So that was the River House. And that was the two houses together.
[00:14:31.31] And did you have problems with the River House, and the council, and getting planning?
[00:14:35.10] No. Extraordinarily, no, that is the most extraordinary story. When I tell people about that, they just can't believe it. In Kew, when I took the permit out, this was before there was a Melbourne plan, which came in '54. So well before that, I applied to the Kew Council for a permit. Now, I took along a drawing, which, described in architectural terms, it was a drawing of plans and elevations in eighth scale. That's a term about scales that we'd use in our drawings. And I went to the Building Surveyor, whose name was Chipperfield. And what I didn't know about Mr. Chipperfield is that he himself lived on the river over now in Kew, where were the Boulevard is.
[00:15:29.76] So I went in at about 2:30 in the afternoon. And he looked at the drawings. And he stamped them on the spot. And I walked out about 20 minutes later with the permit. And the only thing he said to me is make sure you're above flood level. But what I didn't understand is that I think he was sympathetic. Because he lived on the river himself. But I wasn't asked for any structural computations. I wasn't asked for anything at all.
[00:15:56.53] And yes, there was one conversation I had with him about permits. And it was the fact that, in Kew you weren't allowed to build a timber house. You had to build a brick house. There were areas which were dedicated as brick areas. And you had to build brick. But they had a regulation which said, if you build more-- and this is in imperial dimensions-- if you build more than 50 or 60 feet back from the front boundary, then you can build in timber. And that was meant for sheds, and garden sheds, and things like that.
[00:16:31.37] Well, we were building hundreds of feet back from the front boundary. So I pointed at that. And I said, look, it isn't a brick house. But I said, we are well back from the boundary. So that clause will still apply. He said, oh yes, that's right. And that's how it got through. That's about the only regulation we discussed. And now, people don't believe it. But that's exactly what happened, yeah.
[00:16:52.26] And no discuss about the experimental nature of the structure?
[00:16:55.14] No, nothing, no. And I had to get a mortgage to build it with the AMP society. And I didn't think they would be very happy about giving me a mortgage to build something like this. But they did. I don't know why that happened. But I didn't have any trouble to get the mortgage from the AMP society either. So compared to actually building something today, it is just extraordinary. Because the amount of regulations and procedures that we have to go through today to get a building erected-- it would be impossible to compare the two. And yet, there's only some 50 or 60 years difference in the timing.
[00:17:41.96] Now, I really enjoyed reading that you thought the only reason you won the Olympic Park Swimming Pool competition was because you were the only young architect left in town, due to your large mortgage on the land in Kew.
[00:17:54.80] Now, I've been misquoted there. Well, what used to happen in-- that competition was in 1952. What used to happen is that architects, when they graduated, immediately went on a tour. They would get on a boat and sail to London and get a job in London, and then tour around Europe. And then, when they'd finished that, they would travel across to Canada, get a job there. And then, they would illegally come down to New York and hopefully get a job down there. And then, they'd come back over to the west coast, and then sail back to Melbourne.
[00:18:37.67] And I don't know what-- this was because none of us had been to Europe. And none of us had been to the United States. But we'd studied it so much, and just the desire after the war to travel. And everybody did that in my year. My year was made up of about 10% or 15% of ex-serviceman. And they didn't want to travel. Because they'd been traveling. So they stayed here. So one of my closest friends was John Murphy. And the other one was Kevin Borland. And they were both-- one was in the Army. And the other was in the Navy. And they didn't want to travel. So they were my friends. And we all grouped together to do that competition.
[00:19:22.91] You've talked about the fact that you actually won due to the economy of the structure.
[00:19:28.46] Oh yes, I can explain that. Because it wasn't very popular to have the Olympic games in Melbourne. There's a tremendous shortage of infrastructure. Houses were being built in areas out on the outskirts of Melbourne with unmade roads and without proper servicing, no sewage, and all sorts of things like this. And so many people in Melbourne felt, well, why are we spending money on the Olympic games when we are so in need of our own infrastructure to be developed. So there was a great difficulty about that. But it was considered a great honour. So it did go ahead with the games.
[00:20:05.94] But in the competition conditions, they specifically said, that there had to be the economy of means, that the building had to be built as economically as possible. This was emphasized again and again in the competition. And this obviously is because of the conditions in Melbourne, the shortage of materials, shortage of labour. Things weren't getting done for a lot of people. So the whole idea is using counter-balancing of forces would enable us to reduce the tonnage of steel in the building.
[00:20:43.66] There was a conventional way of building the building, possibly arching across in steel and having steel columns. But we came up with this idea of the counter-balancing of the forces. And this reduced the tonnage. And we worked with a guy that was in an engineering office where we were. He was joining us. And we used to have lunch together. And we explained this idea to him. And he confirmed, yes, we were going to be able to reduce the steel quite dramatically.
[00:21:14.37] So that's what we submitted. And luckily enough, on the panel of judges was Professor Francis, who was professor of engineering. So because we actually submitted our computations and said that we'd reduce the steel tonnage, but most of the jury weren't capable of assessing whether that was true. But they turned to Professor Francis and they said, have a look at this. Is this true? And he came back and said, yes. He said, this is a brilliant design. This does reduce the steel tonnage. That's how we won.
[00:21:45.88] So when you did get to travel, which is a little bit later in your career, you've talked about how it profoundly changed the way that you practiced architecture.
[00:21:54.97] Yes. Yes, it did. My first trip to Europe was in 1960. And I went there on this trip solo, by myself. My wife, Dione, only stayed back to look after whatever practice we had left. Because by that stage, I'd been working in such avant garde buildings that I didn't have many clients left. And I could see other architects from my era around me being very successful and making a great fist of their career.
[00:22:30.91] So I went overseas to try to get another perspective on life. And I realized what a small fish I was in a big pond. Because I think, after winning the pool, my head must have been a bit smaller than I think. And anyhow, I came down to Earth very clearly after that trip. And I came back with a decision that I was going to really establish a commercial practice. And that's quite a different direction than I'd been going on. And I started getting clients doing commercial buildings and changing everything. So the trip overseas was a culmination of that avant garde period of my life in the 1950s, and then what I did in 1960.
[00:23:18.00] And with 70 years of practice, and with no signs of slowing down, what are you most proud of?
[00:23:24.36] In the way of buildings and things? Well, I don't really have a single building. I haven't-- for example, the building I really achieved what I wanted to more than anything else was my own house down at Mornington. It's called the Sea House. And I think, like a building that I've done more recently, like the Library at Trinity Grammar School, has the same sort of quality. And that is that it responds emotionally to how the building is to be used.
[00:23:58.17] That's been what I've learnt. Look, architects in my era were all trained in what we call the functional school. And function meant that, if you were in a kitchen, you'd be close to where-- you were making coffee. You could get the refrigerator. You could get to the coffee machine. You could get to the sink without walking too far. It would all be functional. And it was physical function. And buildings had to express themselves functionally. And if a building required a certain shape to be functional, then that had to be expressed when you did the building. This was a functional school.
[00:24:33.48] But never ever in my training were people talking about how people feel in the building. I mean, yes, you can make the cup of coffee easily. But how do you feel in the kitchen? How do you feel? Now, I started developing halfway through my career trying to establish how people-- I studied how people felt. I built up a vocabulary of people's reaction to spaces.
[00:24:59.49] I'd watch where they would sit when they walk into a cafe, when the chairs were all open and they could select a table. And I would say to myself, well, why have they selected that table? And they might repeatedly select that table, other people. And I would say, because they feel better there. Why do they feel better there? I'd learn things like this. And I built up a vocabulary of how people feel in spaces, and colours, and textures. And I developed a career out of that. And I achieved that in my Mornington House, better than any other way I've done it. And I also just recently in the Trinity Grammar School Library.
[00:25:41.85] The buildings that, when people go into them they come out and they say-- they talk about the way they feel. So I can see that those are the sort of buildings that I've really been trying to achieve. And it's very hard to achieve it, very hard. I'm very dissatisfied with a lot buildings that I've built. And so I don't always achieve it. But I felt I achieved it in at least those two. But I suppose they don't really relate to the most significant thing I've done in life, from the point of view of other people.
[00:26:19.05] I think I introduced strategic planning to Australia. And that came out of working with Robin Boyd. Robin and I and Reg Grouse on the Architectural Convention at Sunbury. We got Dick Hamer to agree that we would make a working thing at Sunbury. This is because we thought we weren't achieving enough with designing buildings. We wanted to get on a broader scale. So we got into the idea of designing a whole town, developing the design for the Sunbury Town. And the convention opened on the Saturday morning. And Robin died on the Friday night. And so this was terrible.
[00:27:04.78] And I then tried to carry on about planning. And then, I discovered by reading and studying that Otto Königsberger had developed a method of strategic planning. He was University College London. And it was about understanding that cities are three dimensional things and that they are living things, living organisms. And they're not just zoning plans. Melbourne's plan was houses here, factories here, commercial buildings here.
[00:27:35.73] That was considered a plan. But it wasn't like that. A city is different. And Königsberger had developed this process of strategic planning. And we got Dick Hamer to insist that the Melbourne City Council advertise for planners to produce a strategic plan for Melbourne. And we won it. And I think that was possibly one of the most significant things I've ever done. But probably also building a whole town like Dinner Plain that was awesome.
[00:28:03.58] Well, and that leads me to my final question about the changing face of Melbourne and what you think, over the last 70 years of your career, from your professional perspective, but also from your perspective here in Kew. What do you think of Melbourne now and the future direction of the city?
[00:28:21.13] Well, I wish I could be very happy about that. But I'm not. Because you can't actually increase density of a city and not bring infrastructure with it. They go together, the things. On the other hand, you can't actually just put infrastructure in and not understand what that will do. And if you build a major highway, as they did out towards Gisborne, and not understand what would happen with the land around the highway, because it will encourage people to go out there, they go hand in hand. Increasing density and infrastructure have to go together. And infrastructure can't be done by itself without understanding what happens around it.
[00:29:03.16] So unfortunately, Melbourne has allowed places like Docklands to develop without giving it overall concept of what goes with it and increasing density. I mean, why have we allowed so much increased density in the city? We actually proposed increasing density in the city in our strategic plan. But we emphasized the infrastructure that had to go with it, for example a rail system. A rail system is one that-- in the '50s, we had more rail per head of population than almost any other city in the world. That was done in the 1890s, because of the gold rush-- no, I'm sorry, land speculation, gold rush, land speculation.
[00:29:48.31] Land speculation, we'd build railway lines out to Digger's Rest. And we'd subdivide the land out there, and put up a tent, and have an auction. And so it extended this rail network. There was a marvellous rail network. But we didn't work on it. We didn't improve it. And back in the '50s, the signalling system was going down. But we emphasized in that strategic plan the importance of the transport system and how the city would come to a grinding halt unless you allowed this to happen.
[00:30:15.63] But of course, cars are so popular. Cars are everything to everybody. They'd drive them into their bedroom if they could. It's unbelievable, the power of cars. And when we built the underground stations, this was a marvellous thing we did. Because we doubled the capacity of the rail system in doing that. People thought it just meant to be distributed around the city. But what it meant is the trains were coming in to fill in the street, unloading, and going back over the same rail. So building the underground rail, we allowed the trains to come in, unload, and then go out to the west. So there wasn't that delay in the trains. So it doubled the capacity building that system. And we praised that. And we the recommended all sorts of other things about public transport. But of course, it didn't happen. And it didn't happen because, in a democracy, politicians have to relate to what people want. But if people are wanting the wrong thing, then you need a politician who becomes a statesman, who can actually change people's opinion and explain to them what will happen if they just do what they wanted to do. So people wanted to use cars. So the politicians allowed more and more freeways, more and more cars. We knew that in America, if you build a freeway, it'll just attract more cars. It'll just block up. And then, you have to do another freeway. And there's no end to that. There has to be other ways of doing it. So unfortunately, Melbourne has been affected by that.
[00:31:51.68] Well, thank you, Peter. It has been an absolute pleasure speaking to you.
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