Agents at Leisure:
In Conversation with Peter McIntyre
Marshall White Director James Redfern, had the pleasure of sitting down with iconic Australian architect, Peter McIntyre, to talk in depth about his incredible career, influences and broad portfolio of work.
The impressive collection of works produced by the women of the Australian art scene in the early twentieth century expressed a creative and positive response to our changing society. Exploring new ideas about what art could be and what it could portray, these artists brought new movements back from Europe and their influence on art in our country was profound. The four women I have selected to spotlight for this article are superb examples of outstanding Post Impressionist and Modernist artists I admire.
At 92 years of age, Peter is as passionate as ever about architecture and was incredibly open with me about his experiences. We talked extensively about his iconic A-frame house in Kew, which I’ve always had a particular interest in. ‘River House’ is situated on a densely forested allotment between a steep incline and a bend in the Yarra River. He bought the land in 1947, as an architectural student at Melbourne University. It was in his final year of studies under the tutelage of engineer Norman Day that he thought of the idea for the A-frame house which still stands proudly on the block today.
‘Norman Day influenced me greatly. He introduced us to post-tensioned concrete and pre-stressed concrete. These were about creating concrete buildings with reduced materials. This was in 1949 and it was a very important subject at the time, it was just post-war. There was a tremendous demand for building and a great shortage of materials, so there was an emphasis on reducing materials. It was a principle of counterbalancing forces and you can apply this principle in many ways.’
Peter described to me how architectural students often go through a period in their fourth year in which they despise the urban environment around them. He explained how they are so inspired by what they’re going to do that they detest what’s been done and see all the mistakes that have been made. For him, the block in Kew was his escape. He had no idea what he was going to build on the land, but it allowed him to romanticise about what could be done.
‘When I came to build this house, I wanted to build it in that spot because it was on the bend of the river so you could see it from both ways. But the river was rising 40 feet and it was up to where the base of the house is and it was on a slope. The piece of land was 45 degrees. I knew I was having to build a platform 40 feet above the river and I knew it would be out in space. I immediately thought of the idea of counter balancing and designed the house using that principle. The house is 80 feet long, so I had two 40 foot cantilevers and to get it up in the air like that, we designed it as a steel truss. We made it in nine foot sections, laid it on the hillside, welded it together and then stood it up. It was essentially a structural solution to a problem of building on a 40 degree slope.’
Peter said it was the river that he used to swim in as a boy that lured him to the site. When he came across the land for sale, he thought it was marvellous, despite everything it had going against it.
‘I bought it very cheaply, for a couple hundred dollars. They had been building The Boulevard during the Great Depression and had gone as far as Walmer Street in the 1930’s. They had the working drawings to continue right through this allotment, so no one wanted it. I bought it because I was born here in Kew and had grown up on the river, like a Huckleberry Finn sort of existence. When I saw this land, I stood and looked down the river and thought it was fantastic. My father didn’t agree, he thought it was ridiculous, too steep to build on, subject to flooding and no access. That little roadway that you came in on didn’t exist – it was a 30-foot drop. I was determined to buy it though and he ended up being very proud of what I’d done.’
In 1952, as a young Melbourne University graduate, Peter and his fellow graduate and friend, Kevin Borland, were running two separate architectural practices and sharing an office space. Together with another architect friend, John Murphy, they entered an Australia wide competition to design the Olympic Swimming Pool in Melbourne.
‘With the pool in the centre, they wanted to know how best to get 5000 seats on each side. We used the old counterbalancing thing. We hinged at the bottom and at the top so that gravity is pulling them out and that force coming out is applied to the truss. So it reduced all the force elsewhere and to help it even further there is a cable that comes down to stablilise the whole thing. Applying the principle of counterbalancing, we were able to reduce the amount of steel by a third.’
Applying the principle had never been done on this scale before and the panel were initially hesitant as to whether it could be done. One of their university professors was on the panel though and confirmed to the rest of the panel it could in fact work. With the money he won, Peter finally had enough to build the A-frame house and as business began to flourish, he developed an architectural practice.
The portfolio of work produced by the practice has been broad. A passionate skier, Peter has been involved in alpine architecture, in particular the design of Dinner Plain, a town in Victoria located on the Great Alpine Road close to Mount Hotham Alpine Resort. It was the highest piece of free hold land in Australia, which Peter explained was particularly attractive because all the other ski resorts were owned by the government.
As a student at Melbourne University, Peter started ‘The Architecture Review’ with his tutor Robin Boyd. The two developed a close bond which they shared until Boyd passed away. He said meeting Boyd changed his life.
‘We used to work together to try and help people understand modern architecture. This was a unique country with a special environment and the buildings should respond to it. Of course, the first people to settle here just tried to build Europe.’
Peter and the generation of architects he worked alongside had a big impact on the way Australians thought about houses. Rather than designing houses to front the street as was done in England, with the most important rooms facing the street, they reversed the design.
He explained that at the time, the universal design in Australia was ‘The great Australian L shaped plan’ with a brick veneer and set out with the front bedroom a little bit forward, then the chimney and living room, then the second bedroom, bathroom and kitchen at the back. Along with his contemporaries, he was amongst the first to design houses oriented to the north and sun, protected with eaves.
‘We were trying to tell people there are new ways of construction, new materials. We wanted them to understand that you could build in response to this climate.’
One of Peter’s most famous works, Mallee Hospital, is the perfect example of his focus on the impact the built environment has on its occupants.
‘It has a way of cooling without air conditioning and the whole thing was based on getting every ounce of water when it rained. Inner courtyards were a way of overcoming the heat and dust storms. It was a circular hospital and the roof came into a circular column which was in fact a tank. It was in two halves and pumped the water up which was fed by gravity through the hospital.’
The project was lauded by his friend Robin Boyd as being the beginning of a new Australian architecture that responds to the country. To this day, his designs continue to have an incredible influence on modern architecture.
About the Author
James Redfern, Marshall White Director
Renowned for his sense of integrity and sheer professionalism, James is one of the industry’s most innovative practitioners. As a director at Marshall White, he also heads-up our training program, passing on his accumulated knowledge to new generations of real estate practitioners.
View more about James here.