Don Orr had only recently graduated as an architect, married and moved to Neutral Bay when his friends John and Joan Churcher asked him to design a three bedroom ‘modern’ house on one of the last vacant blocks in that suburb.
That was 1955. The Churchers were ideal clients for the keen young architect because they shared a love of new architecture and did not write a detailed brief: ‘They knew I embraced Modernism... and they gave me a free hand which was excellent’. Joan’s only design stipulation was for a ‘modern home’ with ‘areas that would flow into each other’. That suited Don for he had just become aware of new open plan houses, such as Harry Seidler’s 'Bowden House' in Canberra, which combined living areas and opened interior spaces to those outside. ‘People were beginning to realise that open planning offered a lot for the Sydney climate’, recalls Don. Before then, the tendency was to create dwellings that cut residents off from the landscape around.
Like Seidler, Don Orr utilised newly available plate glass - then being manufactured by the British firm Pilkington - to create the effect of flow to specially planned outdoor spaces. The house he designed for the Churchers had ‘four large sliding plate glass doors’ which joined the open plan interior to a large deck.
The lot on Bogota Avenue had remained undeveloped because it was so steep. It was, in Don’s words, ‘a daunting site’. The design he drafted ‘embraced the slope of the site’ by providing a split level. This was made possible through the use of reinforced concrete and steel. Don recalls there were ‘lots of virgin sites around Sydney which were left vacant and not built upon because they were too difficult in the early days to build upon. But with the advent of Modernism and new technology and new techniques those sites could be built upon.’
Neutral Bay had been developed since the late 19th century and, in the early 1950s, was very much characterised by English Revival/Federation architecture with some Georgian Revival houses. The 'Churcher House' was one of very few Modernist houses in the area: ‘It did stand out because it was so radical for those days.’ Interestingly, however, it complemented the Modernist home Sydney Ancher designed for himself nearby at 15 Bogota Avenue. But though his house was part of a new movement, Don also thinks that his design recalled the early Australian bungalow design whereby verandahs linked interiors with outside spaces. Australian Modernism was, he suggests, a ‘rediscovery’ of that earlier form. Don Bank cottage is a good local example of the type.
Don completed the design for the Churcher House as the junior partner in the firm Joy, Pollitt, Malcolm and Orr. He left in 1957 and began a long career in the Government Architect’s Office, retiring as Acting Assistant Government Architect in 1987.
Audio: Listen to Don Orr discuss at length the architectural influences in 1940s and 1950s Sydney, the design philosophy of Modernism and his own design of the 'Churcher House', in this excerpt from an interview with historian Ian Hoskins in 2015.