Private house architecture tours complement
An architectural tour group on the trail in Birchgrove.
Julie Power, Tours of other people’s homes gain in popularity, The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 June 2023
At the end of architect Stephen Crafti’s tour of a 700sqm newly renovated Victorian sandstone home with an ultra-modern extension on Birchgrove’s waterfront, there was a climactic chorus of “wow”.
Seeing the house and hearing architects Shaun Carter and Julie Niass of Carter Williamson Architects talk about the six-year project had exhausted the tour group’s vocabulary of superlatives.
Called Wurrungwuri, meaning the side of the river, the new modern wing was designed to be as much a piece of art as the original works that hang on its walls. It includes a heat pump system like Jorn Utzon’s at the Opera House that exchanges energy with the seawater, a stacking garage, and a pool that pops with its own original artwork.
Crafti’s weeklong tour took the group of 20 into architecturally designed private homes that are rarely open to the public. After visiting Wurrungwuri and a home nearby designed by Tonkin Zulaikha Greer, Crafti said he often “quivered” from the beauty and vision of an architect’s design. Another building, GB House in Coogee by Renato D’Ettorre, that the group visited was “sublime”, said Crafti, who is also an author and a columnist for The Age.
Coinciding with the housing crisis in Australia, interest in architecture grew during the pandemic when social media accounts showcasing the sustainable, the ugly, the curious and beautiful flourished online, say experts.
Talks, walks and tours like Crafti’s, organised with ASA Cultural Tours, and visits to open houses, sell out quickly.
Crafti has been running tours for 30 years.
“There is so much great architecture. We are almost spoiled. I find people are so excited by architecture and how people live,” he said.
University of Sydney’s associate professor Cameron Logan, from the School of Architecture, attributed a growing interest in modern architecture to the influence of Tim Ross, the comedian, musician and self-described design nerd who writes and speaks about architecture.
A new season of Designing a Legacy, presented by Ross, premiered on the ABC this month. He told the Herald last month that his 2016 show Streets of Your Town, the ABC’s most popular show that year, introduced many people to mid-century suburban architecture and changed perceptions about why these buildings were important.
“Our design literacy in this country, in the last 10 years, has expanded dramatically,” he said.
Logan, an urban and architectural historian, said tours often sell out and have waiting lists. “We can’t put enough stuff on about modern architecture,” he said.
In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, there was a big growth in interest in Sydney’s colonial history when the public was concerned about their loss. That focus has turned to modern houses in the “period just off the misty horizon”.
Logan said, “If you are middle-aged, you can identify with your childhood or your parent’s generation.”
Bob Whight from the Museums of History NSW said its walks and talks of Sydney’s heritage and architecture were highly popular. These include open houses including Rose Seidler House designed by Harry Seidler.
“Even during COVID, where physical tours were not available, our online audio tours were hugely popular and most appreciated,” she said.
Sydney Open, an annual event by Museums of History NSW since 1997 that will take place again this November, celebrates architecture and design and opens homes and heritage buildings to the public. Since it began, nearly 90,000 visitors had explored about 550 significant sites, Whight said.
Crafti’s group also visited a home designed by Tonkin Zulaikha Greer in Birchgrove, a harbourside suburb in Sydney’s inner-west.
“I also love the experience of showing people architecture and the experience of them going, ‘Aaaaah, I can’t believe I am here’,” said Crafti. “I would rather walk into something that shows the personality of the owners or something that is quite disturbing and intriguing rather than bland.”
Retired architect Paul Smith, who lives in a mid-century modernist house by Chancellor & Patrick in Melbourne that he restored, has been going on Crafti tours for 25 years. “There’s nothing like walking through a building and seeing it in context. No magazine, or photographs, are going to show you what it is really like. ”
Troy Donovan is a specialist in architectural facades that he details on his Instagram account, The Donnies. He runs popular walking tours of heritage and contemporary buildings in Sydney’s CBD. He said he often wondered what drove the curiosity of students and practitioners who participated.
“One thing I am certain, this level of detail is not being taught at university or by the architects who employ them. ”