There is a famous style in Australia, still sold as an identifiable type, separated from the general run of houses of the period, with a certain cache that makes even real-estate agents latch on to it: the Californian Bungalow.   The words might conjure up low spreading roofs supported by solid substantial posts, often just a cairn of rocks, covering a broad veranda, usually facing the street.  In general, the house will be an obvious and comprehensive statement in timber:  timber shingles on the prominent gable, timber weatherboard wrapping around the base, timber sash windows, timber rafters obviously projecting out to the gutters, with of course the timber structure as the core of the house, timber rafter and beams in the roof, and timber floorboards for the interior.    Ideally perhaps, there would be timber shingles for the roof, but in reality, these are most often corrugated iron or concrete tiles.   At their best, there is a sense of anyone selecting their plot, clearing the land of tall timbers to be turned into shelter there and then.   These timbers are only augmented by the rocks ideally conveniently lying on the same land carefully piled into a pyramid to support the veranda or loose small stones to mix with any lime to create a pebble dash surface on walls as a contrast or quick way to weather-proof a wall.   Grounded by the earthy pillars, the low pitched roof, the deep eaves and the layered planting of the carefully nurtured garden, such a house would provide a deep satisfying sense of home; a home tenderly constructed in all its aspects by an independent family to their own requirements, from materials close at hand.    

Constructed during the first half of the twentieth century in Australia, these houses were not simply a rehash of an inherited English cottage, but had the added spice or sense of the American west and so represented a new way of living.   The houses suggested how to live in a climate not to dissimilar to our own, that is distinctly different to the cold northern parts of Europe, where most of the immigrants at that time had arrived from.   It was perhaps an attempt to embrace the reality of long hot summers, the need for deep cool verandas with ample shading of the entries to interior spaces, together with relatively low cost construction, all wrapped up in a distinctive package.

These houses that are now so recognisable, so easily given a label on real estate pages, are really just one type of bungalow amongst many others, founded on the idea that craft mattered.  It was not enough to have a house that delivered shelter, retained heat in winter, excluded heat in summer and all the other functional requirements.   The way that a house was put together mattered so that expressing this construction in the exposed rafters of the eave or the complex virtuosic timberwork of a box window was important.  Who constructed it mattered so that there was a sense that anyone with some basic carpentry skills could do it, or at least add that extra spare room or renovate and repair.  There was a directness and the honesty to the house: you got what you paid for.  Nothing much could be hidden in the simple timber-framed timber clad timber-lined walls.  Any sagging of the stumps would be immediately obvious in the line of the weatherboards (and often was).   It was a style of house that was obvious and useable and fixable and even moveable.   

Even now moving around such a house, there is a sense of the sawing of the timber, with one of those long bladed timber-handled items, now more likely to be seen in a museum than a workshop.   This in turn conjures up the need to measure a length with a timber, pencilling the spacings and the angle of those roof rafter cuts, perhaps even mismeasuring on occasions and having to correct or hide the fault in placed deeper within the roof, so that rafter remain nicely aligned at the exposed edges.   Timbers were robustly nailed, by hand, not with a machine as would be the case now.  With sometimes green timbers, allowance may have needed to be allowed for any buckling or movement, so that nailing down may have meant perhaps more than strictly necessary (what would now be dictated by some code) but what seemed sensible if not prudent given the likely twists, the uneven grain.      

Underlying many of these sentiments, was the inherited romanticism of the previous century, including the words of that noted art critic and social commentator, John Ruskin.   Ruskin and others drew attention to the deep emotions of the dexterous craftspeople, using their own skills.  These would be happy and independent workers, sometimes making mistakes or getting things less than perfect, producing houses that were based on a system, on a long history of timber framing, but nevertheless allowed a great variety of outcomes.  They could build to suit the numbers in a family or expected in a family, with windows to capture sweeping views or discourage views from nosey neighbours.   Their houses would suit the requirements and even reflect the personalities of the owners.          

In the spirit of grand architectural treatises of the past, beginning with Vitruvius’s Ten Books and three key attributes[1], through to Alberti with also ten books[2], Palladio with a mere four[3], on to John Ruskin who elected to have seven architectural ‘lamps’[4], we could speculate that there are 7 ‘frames’ for the Australian house – it is always good to number these things.    Taking the Californian Bungalow as our example house style, the seven frames appear to be:

  1. Deep:  Unlike some alternatives such as classicism, there is a certain richness or density intended for our houses, such that the form, details and spaces are not easily and immediately discernible.    The essence of the romanticism is the sense of limitlessness, that all is not fully revealed, lying open and obvious, with the whole pattern of a place understood at the first glance[5].  This sense of mystery or veiled presence, with aspects being experienced differently at different times helps maintains our interest and the allure of our houses.  At their best, the form is slowly absorbed and becomes understood only by moving through and around.   This slow reveal with all the multiple aspects, provides a complex presentation, with many layers.  In the Californian Bungalow, the deep gable-topped  veranda often facing the street, breaks up the forms and offers multiple possible entry points to the house.  In the depth of the veranda shadows, the nature of the openings cannot easily be discerned, with a window perhaps set in a rustic timber box forward of the wall plane,  realised as leadlight panels, or the elaborations around the front door, all making the shapes and colours somewhat of a blur to the passing pedestrian.   Large roof overhangs in general, with rafters revealed at their edge, like some timber teeth, often layered up, sliding out one above the other, add to this sense of multifaceted, multilayers forms.   Wall surfaces do not come in one package but instead all sorts can be mixed together, from half-timbering to the pebble mix of roughcast to brick to weatherboard, to shingles to simply some kind of flat sheeting trimmed with flat strips picked out in a different colour.   Builders of the bungalows were not afraid of ornament, prepared to add some decorative flourish to an otherwise plain wall of brick, possibly towards the apex of a prominent gable, or taking full advantage of the endless possibilities offered by the timber ‘sticks’ needed for the veranda balustrades, posts or valances above.   Timber could be turned, bevelled, moulded, fretted, or even carved, with separate parts picked-out or not, colours matching other parts including walls or windows or not.  What was the point of all these aspects of roof forms, surface treatments, asymmetric primary form, numerous additive secondary forms including chimneys, and the enormous screening possibilities that verandas offered?   The answer can only be: wanting to achieve the much sort after sense of depth so that attempting to grasp the simple essence of the house was pointless.  It would only ever be a series of particular aspects offering a partial sense of the whole.  Of course, not all, nor necessarily most, houses achieved this much sought-after depth but the best ones  provide a sense of what the other still strove for.
  2. Singular:  Being personal, particular or unique, was at least a possibility or hope for most home owners.   Despite the mass production and marketing, the repetition of plans, and the relentless realities of costs, having a home that was specially yours, suited to the block of land, with all its weather, viewing, orientation aspects and size-limitations, plus of course, your preferences about appearances including colours, textures, window treatments and so on, was a goal.  Unlike classicism with its accent on conformity and consistency, a romantic notion of a dwelling accepted no set form, no book of rules describing the proportions that had to be embedded if beauty was the result.   Instead there was to be a personal sense of nature or reality, where you would rely on your own judgement about what combination of sizes, materials, shapes were beautiful.   Nothing was prescribed.   There were no rule books (though plenty of guide books).   The form would develop from the needs or realities of the situation.   Even the look and feel of a house did not reflect the personal whims or desires of the owners, there would still be variety because the site conditions or the special needs of the occupants for room spaces would mean something different each time, at least in principle.  
  3. Expansive:  A house had to be flexible and offer the ability to take aspects from far and wide, from the past and from distant places, and the ability to absorb these components into a still coherent whole.   The Californian Bungalow could be said to reflect Australians broadening their loyalties away from the mother country, looking further afield that simply England, but probably more accurately it was part of broader flow of ideas and images, as the quantity of magazines combined with cinema to change our sense of what is possible.  Australians were taking ideas from far and wide.  This was not a slow development of a purely local idea, where only local conditions and materials influence the outcomes, but instead reflects an industrial society that is part of a broader global community and this community offered an enormous smorgasbord.  Indeed the whole world was a potential source of ideas and influences.   When done well, when the ideas were absorbed deeply and were not simply an ill-fitting distracting add-on, an effective and distinctive comprehensive form could result.  All elements of the house, internally and externally would support each other with a thoughtful adaptation of hitherto foreign or long-standing often-used historic ideas into any composition.   One key place of inspiration was Japan.   Certain motifs, such as slightly upturned timbers on the ends of sweeping roofs, or where the gables peaked could suggest the curvaceous temple roofs of that country.   The layering of other timber work under extended eaves or around the verandas could reinforce the effect.   All this could be easily accommodated within the basic bungalow approach.   Obviously such house did replicate those of other countries.  There never the same sense of carpentry traditions nor the ways of living such as the openness to the outside with often thin screen walls (and the attendant acceptance of cold) as in traditional Japanese society.   Perhaps it was sufficient that some sense of the flavour of other places could be combined into any composition.
  4. Smudgy:  There was not a single image or idea what some academic might define to exclude as much as to develop, but any style was something that can embrace a great variety of preferences, views, outlooks but still work or hang together somehow.  The Californian Bungalow may have started with a single simple idea, that is a modest simple cottage in the forest built with a minimum of effort and materials and made long and low to hug the wide brown land, with none of the steep roofs of cold northern climes necessary, but it could still accommodate a great deal of alternates.  These alternatives could be close in appearance but not the same.   So bungalows came in brick and tiles, with steep and hipped roofed, with fairly plain interiors or heavily textured with low hanging timber beams and rough stone fireplaces, with all the modern materials and machines obviously displayed or with only traditional rusticity allowed.   Under some hands, this very romantic craft based approach could converge with classicism.  There were few clear edges and no strong separation from other styles.
  5. Malleable:   This bungalow style was equally suited to a range of environments from the small, narrow plots of land and limited budgets, to vast estates of rolling green grass and dense bands of shrubbery.  Equally it could both weather the winter storms of the southern ocean and to be elevated sufficiently to catch the essential breeze of the sub-tropics.     The essence of the idea may have been a simple cottage in the forest, but not all could live in the pleasant temperatures of California.   In less benign climates, there are still many wind-swept eternally-shaded verandas that are of little practical use for much of the year, but still come in handy at certain points of spring where the garden has come alive.  The notion of being close to the ground was translated to the sub-tropics with houses raised on stumps and high columns supporting the prominent sweeping veranda roof, a way to tie such roofs to the ground.
  6. Lively:  When so many houses are produced over many years often to so similar designs, in the one developing suburb, the appeal of an image or idea dullens.    Being able to maintain a sense of freshness or newness is essential.   The Californian Bungalow not only represented a stylistic break from the past, but it facilitated new ideas, incorporate developments such as more open internal space including wide framed opening, not simply doorways, and fitted kitchens not a loose collection of furniture.   These houses were built at a time of fast moving innovation.  There were new notions of how to live both here and overseas.  Some were sustained and still used today (such as compact, fitted kitchens) and some ideas were largely discarded (such as open-air living).   Having an essential form that allows this adaptation and responsiveness to other social or technological developments was vital to the success of any approach.
  7. Doable:    Any approach had to be buildable, that is easily realisable with current skills, techniques, available materials and costs.   There has only been one real option for most of our history that is simple timber-frame construction.  This uses the minimum of materials, materials that are readily available at low cost, and such framing is easy to construct with often limited range of skills.  It is a core system that is adaptable and workable.   With the Californian Bungalow, the skill with handling timber could be taken for granted and these skills could be allowed to express themselves in almost virtuosic display on occasion but for most of the time, timber frames could be knocked together quickly and effectively by anyone with the most basic grasp of carpentry.   Timber-framing offered enormous flexibility with complex forms possible: elements projecting out from the main shape or an intricate layering of roofs as required.   Timber-framing could be prefabricated off site for installation on any site.   At least there was the possibility for both mass production and massive variety at the same time, even if this was not always realised.

[1] Marcus Vitruvius Pollio ( 80BC – c. 15AD):   Ten Books of Architecture  (probably written between 30 and 15 BC)

[2] Leon Battista Alberti (1404 – 1472) : On the art of building in ten book (1452).

[3] Andrea Palladio (1508 – 1580): The four books of architecture (1570)

[4] John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849)

[5] See Wolfgang Kemp’s discussion of Ruskin’s Science of Aspects in Wolfgang Kemp, The Desire of My Eyes: A Life of John Ruskin, Harper Collins, 1991.