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Why the humble Beachcomber is Australia’s most iconic holiday home

The humble Beachcomber might just take the award for Australia's most iconic holiday home.The humble Beachcomber might just take the award for Australia's most iconic holiday home. Photo: Helen Thurloe

Ask most design addicts to name Australia’s most iconic holiday home and they might mention something by Glenn Murcutt, or even Richard Leplastrier. However, if ubiquity is any measure, the humble Beachcomber might just take the award.

You might not recognise the name, but there’s little doubt you’ll recognise the house. The Beachcomber, designed in 1961 by modernist architect Nino Sydney, can be found up and down the entire eastern seaboard of Australia, along with numerous inferior copies.

It was one of five display homes created for Lend Lease’s Kingsdene Estate in Carlingford (now Westminster Avenue) which opened in October 1961. The estate was a demonstration village covering some 46.5 hectares. Think of it as a less vulgar and more diffident precursor of today’s Homeworld.

The Beachcomber, an iconic house design from mid-last century designed by Nino Sydney.The Beachcomber, an iconic house design from mid-last century designed by Nino Sydney.

Clarke, Gazzard and Yeomans worked on the village masterplan, under the auspices of Sydney. Rex Hazelwood was enlisted to take charge of the landscaping, utilising native plants. The northern edge of the estate was to remain a eucalypt forest (it didn’t).

All five homes in the display village were created by architects from the design department of Civil and Civic, which had recently been acquired by Lend Lease. But it was Sydney’s Beachcomber that was to prove the most popular by far, with around 200 of them built from 1961 to 1970.

The Beachcomber was a flat-roof pavilion raised on slim steel columns; a Villa Savoye for the middle class. Its elevated design meant it could be easily adapted to sloping bush blocks, as well as accommodate a laundry and carport beneath. The Lend Lease advertising brochure touted the Beachcomber as “An architectural triumph! Cantilevered, wide and sunny … a home designed to stay young for a lifetime!”

The Beachcomber was designed in 1961 by modernist architect Nino Sydney.The Beachcomber was designed in 1961 by modernist architect Nino Sydney. Photo: Helen Thurloe

The home was rectangular in plan, with a living area and two of its three bedrooms opening out on to a full-length sun deck. It was light-filled and open, eons ahead of the dark and dingy suburban homes people were accustomed to. Its area (including the deck) was 127 square metres, reflecting the more modest aspirations of the time. To put that in perspective, the average Australian project home these days is around 240 square metres.

Generously appointed for its time, the Beachcomber also included floor to ceiling built-in robes in the bedrooms, and a separate toilet (at a time when many homes still had an outdoor dunny). It must have seemed impossibly modern with its Formica benchtops and splashbacks, and built-in automatic wall oven.

Sydney followed up the original Beachcomber, with a Mark II, Mark III, and Mark IV (1966). Although all have the same distinctive form, the latter versions had aluminium windows, a kitchen servery and improved cladding.

Author and architecture critic Charles Pickett is a huge fan of the Beachcomber and wrote about them in his book Designer Suburbs: Architects and Affordable Homes in Australia (2012).

“I think it’s probably the best project home ever,” Pickett says. “Nowadays they have become a cult object and people are seeking them out to restore.”

Fans of the home even flock to a dedicated website that tells you everything you ever wanted to know about the Beachcomber, but were too afraid to ask. The website was established by writer Helen Thurlow in 2012 and picked up a National Trust Heritage Award this year.

Since 1995, Thurlow has owned a Mark II Beachcomber in Avalon, an area that once boasted around 11 examples, due to their suitability on the hilly coastal terrain. “When we purchased it, my husband and I had a young family,” she says. “It’s been lovely, but it was a bit small when the kids were teenagers all wanting to use the bathroom. The underneath had already been enclosed, so that provided some much-needed overflow space.”

Thurlow’s Beachcomber is not a museum piece, but has been sympathetically renovated to cater for a modern lifestyle. “It’s contemporary but with a 1960s vibe,” she says. “I love my home. It’s a well-proportioned design, and made from quality materials. And there’s just so much light flooding through, it makes me feel like I’m always on holiday.”

She says her aim with the website is to build a community around the Beachcomber, and encourage people to preserve them. “They are such a wonderful example of Australian design, and I hate that we are losing at least one each year, particularly in areas such as Clontarf and Bronte, only to be replaced with a brick or concrete box.”