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Boyd, Robin Gerard Penleigh (1919–1971)

by Neil Clerehan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Robin Gerard Penleigh Boyd (1919-1971), architect and critic, was born on 3 January 1919 at Armadale, Melbourne, younger son of Theodore Penleigh Boyd, artist, and his wife Edith Susan Gerard, daughter of J. G. Anderson. The couple had a daughter Pamela who died in infancy. Their elder son John à Beckett Penleigh ('Pat') was to become a distinguished pilot. Edith, a miniaturist and water-colourist, had been the auburn-haired model for several paintings by E. Phillips Fox. Martin Boyd was Robin's uncle.

Until he was 3, Robin lived in a Picturesque house, The Robins, at Warrandyte, designed and built in 1913 by his father. In 1922 he made the first of many journeys abroad, accompanying the family to Europe where his father arranged to bring an exhibition of modern art to Australia. Within days of his return, Penleigh was killed in a motorcar accident in 1923. Edith moved to one of the city's earliest apartment blocks at Toorak and in 1927 bought a brick bungalow at East Malvern, from which Robin walked to the Lloyd Street central school and then (1930-35) to Malvern Grammar.

Leaving school, Boyd studied at night at the Melbourne Technical College and the Melbourne University Architectural Atelier, while working during the day in the office of A. & K. Henderson where he was articled for three years to Kingsley Henderson. The job in the Bank Place office was inimical to Boyd's growing Modernist ideas and he threw himself into the formation of the Victorian Architectural Students' Society. With his three-generation background in aesthetic affairs and his striking appearance, fair hair, clear, blue eyes and light colouring, he was at 19 a charismatic leader in V.A.S.S. affairs. Boyd founded its monthly newsfold, Smudges, which soon became the voice of the reawakening profession. He wrote every editorial and in each issue singled out buildings for either a 'blot' or a 'bouquet'. When he designated an apartment building in South Yarra a 'blot', its architects threatened legal action. To avoid heavy damages he published a retraction, but, by using Gothic typeface, still managed to convey his opinion of the building.

Having completed his articles, he worked in several offices, quit the atelier over a design decision by the director Leighton Irwin and obtained the post of sole assistant to (Sir) Roy Grounds. On 27 December 1941 at Scots Church, Melbourne, Boyd married Dorothea Patricia Madder. They had known each other from childhood: Patricia's mother was the sister of William Merric Boyd's wife who was the mother of Robin's cousin Arthur. Despite the wartime housing shortage, the young couple managed to lease a flat in Grounds's noted Clendon (the subject of a 'bouquet' on its completion in 1939) at Armadale.

Enlisting in the Citizen Military Forces on 21 November 1939, Boyd was mobilized on 11 November 1941 and posted to the survey directorate, headquarters, Southern Command, Melbourne. In July 1942 he joined No.3 Field Survey Company in Queensland and was confirmed sergeant in October. Embarking for Port Moresby in March 1943, next month he transferred to the Australian Imperial Force. He remained in Papua until April 1944 when, taking leave, he saw his 14-month-old daughter for the first time. From March 1945 he served at Bendigo, Victoria, with the Land Headquarters Cartographic Company. He was discharged in September with the rank of acting warrant officer, class 2.

Throughout his army service Boyd maintained his involvement with architecture. The preparation of military maps meant that drafting facilities were readily available, and with his colleagues—notably Kevin Pethebridge and Francis Bell (Kingsley Henderson's nephew)—he entered competitions and prepared designs for houses. He also contributed to army publications and constantly debated the future form of the Australian home. His first partnership, Associated Architects—Boyd Pethebridge & Bell, produced a significant house at Kew and a factory at Hawthorn.

In 1946 Boyd left the partnership to become director of the Small Homes Service, set up by the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects in conjunction with the Age. The service aimed at promoting rational house-design and to this goal he was to bring his talents in design and in communication. He prepared for publication the illustrations of members' submissions; he drew up standard specifications and rationalized working drawings so that they were acceptable to owner-builders; and he produced a weekly article for the Age on all aspects of design as it affected the house. The service opened in July 1947. Within a short time Robin Boyd had become a household name.

In 1947 the Boyds moved into a new house which they had built at Camberwell. In the same year Robin passed the registration examination, was made an associate of the R.V.I.A., and won the Robert and Ada Haddon travelling scholarship, which took him to England and Europe in 1950. He continued to run the Small Homes Service until December 1953, while at the same time writing and lecturing part time at the university. As a lecturer he was impressive, preparing his material carefully and delivering it in a clear, incisive voice. The majority of the commissions in his growing practice were for houses and from this period came some of his most creative work. He prepared all drawings himself, working in his distinctive, left-handed style. In 1953 he designed Australia's first project home, the Peninsula house, and next year produced a standardized window-wall for Stegbar Ltd: he later described this work as 'brief-case practice'. After completing his last article for the Age, he immediately began to write weekly pieces for the Herald. During these busy years Boyd continued to take an active role in public and professional affairs. He published Victorian Modern (1947), Australia's Home (1952) and The Australian Ugliness (1960). The last two books, which discussed architecture in terms of the total environment, were to be regarded as classics.

In July 1953 Frederick Romberg, Boyd and Grounds formed a partnership. Located in a terrace house in Albert Street, East Melbourne, their office flourished from its inception. The long-awaited postwar boom had arrived. Their commissions ranged from flats to factories, and from schools to churches. Houses continued to form a significant part of the practice, which was uncommon in a major office. Although the three partners were prominent as individuals, the firm maintained design unity. Some buildings revealed the hand of one or other of the architects, but in general the firm developed a corporate style, combining the philosophies of the trio and representing the advanced thinking of that era. Their work was a distinctive Australian form of the International Style, then called Contemporary.

Boyd's focus remained domestic. In all, about one hundred houses were built from his designs. Because of his fascination with the flexibility offered by frame construction, many of his earlier houses (Gillison, Darbyshire, Myer and Richardson) have been re-clad, extensively altered or destroyed. In contrast, the Clempson house at Kew has been restored and its 1959 furniture reinstalled. Of his subsequent, more substantial work, the Featherston-Currey house, Ivanhoe, the Baker house, Bacchus Marsh, and the house he built for himself at South Yarra (1959) best illustrate Boyd's wide, analytical approach. To him, each building presented a challenge, to be solved from the ground up. He had a consistent approach to design problems, but the solutions were always different. His Domain Park apartments, South Yarra, Menzies College at La Trobe University, McCaughey Court at Ormond College, University of Melbourne, and the Tower Hill Museum at Warrnambool showed his willingness to embrace unconventional plan-forms and construction methods. Among his other buildings were the John Batman and President motor inns, Melbourne, the Black Dolphin Motel at Merimbula, New South Wales, and the zoology building, Australian National University, and Churchill House, Canberra.

While spending 1956-57 as Fulbright scholar and visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boyd travelled around the United States of America and his admiration for the country and the people was fostered. He was particularly influenced by Walter Gropius, professor of architecture, Harvard University. At the same time, however, Boyd chastised Australians for their mindless emulation of America, in 1957 coining the term 'Austerica': the belief that 'everything desirable, exciting, luxurious and enviable in the 20th century is American'. In 1958 he became a fellow of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects.

Boyd's life was profoundly affected when Grounds accepted on 18 December 1959 a commission to design the Victorian Cultural (Arts) Centre. Although the partnership had been included in the appointment, Grounds preferred to proceed on his own. Romberg & Boyd was founded in 1962 and the firm produced notable work during the straitened early 1960s. Romberg accepted the chair of architecture at the University of Newcastle in 1965, but remained in the partnership. Boyd, already a national figure, was by then widely recognized internationally. He travelled frequently, to Europe, the U.S.A., South East Asia and Japan. In 1962 he published Kenzo Tange and The Walls Around Us; in 1963 The New Architecture; in 1965, probably his most important work of architectural theory, The Puzzle of Architecture. These were followed by The Book of Melbourne and Canberra (Adelaide, 1966), New Directions in Japanese Architecture (New York, 1968) and (with Mark Strizic) Living in Australia (Sydney, 1970).

A trustee (1965) of the National Gallery of Victoria and a member (1968) of the National Capital Planning Authority, in 1967 Boyd delivered the Boyer lectures (published as Artificial Australia) for the Australian Broadcasting Commission. That year he was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters from the University of New England. He designed the Australian Expo exhibits at Montreal, Canada (1967) and Osaka, Japan (1970), and wrote the scripts for the broadcast commentaries. Having previously written for the Australian in 1964-65, he published regular articles in the Sunday edition from 1970. He was an honorary fellow of the American Institute of Architects and a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

In 1969 Boyd was awarded the gold medal of the R.A.I.A.; he became an honorary fellow in 1970. As president-elect of the Victorian chapter, he revamped its journal, Architect, and made it a critical force. He also instigated the Melbourne Papers (a series of lectures by visitors). Boyd supervised every detail of any publication in which he was involved, choosing every typeface and often producing the illustrations.

In January 1971 he was appointed C.B.E. That year he was invited to be one of five judges of an international competition for a new building to provide office accommodation for members of the British parliament. He returned home in September and died of subacute bacterial endocarditis on 16 October 1971 in Royal Melbourne Hospital. After a private service in the chapel of Ormond College, he was cremated. His wife, son and two daughters survived him; his estate was sworn for probate at $13,958.

Shocked by his early death, the R.A.I.A. arranged a public tribute to its popular Victorian president in the garden of its headquarters, Robert Russell House (Boyd had suggested the name), during which excerpts from his writings were read. In 1973 Boyd was posthumously named recipient of the American Institute of Architects' architecture critics' medal. In 1989 the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology held a symposium on his work.

When he died, Boyd was Australia's best-known architect, esteemed both for his writings and his buildings. Although he declared that he was essentially a 'practising architect', his greatest contribution was as a critic of and an advocate for the profession—a social commentator, publicist and polemicist, and an arbiter of taste and standards, who challenged Australian complacency and apathy about its architecture and environment. According to the architect Sir James Richards, he was 'a persistently civilizing influence on Australian life'. Many of Boyd's books remain in print; his last work, the Great Great Australian Dream (Sydney, 1972) summed up the pretensions of his profession and the frustrations of his generation. He had become an authority on architecture, but his abiding interest was the design of buildings, many of which, especially his houses, are the subject of increasing interest and continuing study.

Despite his sometimes acerbic social comment, Boyd was a sociable man of unfailing good manners, kindness and charm. He never lost his engaging modesty. That quality and an all-pervasive sense of humour distinguished him even more than his capacity for work and his pursuit of excellence.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Hetherington, Uncommon Men (Melb, 1965)
  • Robin Boyd: The Architect as Critic, exhibition catalogue (Melb, 1989), and for bibliography
  • P. Dobrez and P. Herbst, The Art of the Boyds (Syd, 1990)
  • Architect (Melbourne), 3, no 17, 1971
  • Architecture in Australia, 62, no 2, Apr 1973
  • Transition, Nov-Dec 1981
  • Age (Melbourne), 12 Nov 1969, 18 Oct 1971
  • Times (London), 23 Oct 1972
  • C. Hamann, Three Leaders of Melbourne Architecture 1926-1971 (Ph.D. thesis, Monash University, 1978)
  • Grounds, Romberg and Boyd archive (Monash University).

Citation details

Neil Clerehan, 'Boyd, Robin Gerard Penleigh (1919–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/boyd-robin-gerard-penleigh-9560/text16841, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 21 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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