He helped us fall in love with the ’burbs, now Tim Ross has a new dream
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Tim Ross is careful not to credit Streets of Your Town, the most-watched ABC arts program of 2016, in which he introduced a new generation of Australians to the mid-century wonders of the ’burbs, with being solely responsible for a retro property trend. But it is fair to say that series did, “put a spotlight on heritage”.
“It’s not that people weren’t already interested in buying houses from the 1950s and ’60s, but a lot has shifted since then in the way they’re described in real estate listings,” the comedian-turned- architecture-advocate explains.
Tim Ross is looking beyond the suburbs in part two of his series Designing a Legacy.
“There’s a bunch of reasons for that, but I do think Streets of Your Town changed perceptions about why these buildings are important … Our design literacy in this country, in the last 10 years, has expanded dramatically.”
Ross hopes to again prompt a new perspective on Australian architecture, with the two-part follow-up to 2021’s Designing a Legacy documentary, which looked at iconic postmodern Australian houses. Here, he looks beyond the Australian Dream to other eras and types of buildings. “There were so many things I wanted to try and tackle,” he says. “Social housing, designing for country, public architecture, urban design.”
In the first episode, “Country”, Ross visits Giralang Primary School in Canberra, designed in1974 by Italian architect Enrico Taglietti. In the Torres Strait, First Nations architect Kevin O’Brien gives a tour of a mission church constructed of stones, with beer-bottle lead lighting.
On Arthur Boyd’s estate near Nowra in NSW, Melbourne architect Kerstin Thompson shows off her trestle-bridge museum. And on Bruny Island, Trulwulway elder Rodney Dillon sits down with Ross and architect John Wardle outside a redesigned whaler’s cottage, to reflect on the dark history of Colonial construction.
“One of the most powerful parts of this series is when Rodney’s looking down at the beach, and he says, ‘You know, I can see our old people down there and they want to be a part of this’,” says Ross. “Coupled with Kevin O’Brien talking about designing for country, these are the points that I hope will make people sit up and take notice, in terms of the stories that we have to tell.”
That conversation prompted Ross to reassess his own connection to the landscape.
“There is footage of Arthur Boyd talking about how we can appreciate it, but not understand it,” says Ross. “I’ve always loved the Australian bush, but the prism of how I understood it is that I grew up in bush suburbs. But it’s a love. It’s not an understanding in the First Nations sense of connection to country. The next step, for white Australians, is learning to understand it in a much deeper way, and it takes a long time.”
The second episode is dedicated to “Community”. Ross admires the 2019 Punchbowl Masjid (mosque) in Sydney. He takes in the 1950s military-built town of Woomera in SA. And in the Rocks in Sydney, he surveys Tao Gofers’ 1979 Sirius public housing building, amid protests against its sale to private developers.
“It was important to me to look at social housing and the failure of government to provide that, and at the stigma of social housing,” he says. “I wanted to look at the standard of our social housing and ask, ‘Why can’t we have more of it?’ And why can’t we spend a tiny bit more to have a better outcome?”
Next month, Ross will present his Man About the House live show, now in its 11th year, at the Isokon Gallery in London, which was opened as flats in 1934. The building has a neat connection with Melbourne architect Best Overend, famous for Fitzroy’s Cairo Flats, and who is featured in Designing a Legacy.
“We’ve been fascinated for a long time about the quarter-acre block, but the other Australian dream of apartment living, which found its feet in the early 20th century, is a far sexier story,” says Ross. “It was incredibly empowering for women. People could be with who they wanted to be with, and be whoever they wanted to be, so it’s a cool story.”
Designing a Legacy begins on the ABC at 7.30pm on June 4.
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