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Architectural gem goes under the hammer, but do we value the rest?

Ingrid Fuary-Wagner

One of Australia’s most iconic houses will go to auction this weekend, vying for the attention of its next doting owner.

The Baker House is one of the showpieces of renowned mid-century Australian architect Robin Boyd.

Commissioned in the 1960s by English mathematician Dr Michael Baker, the house typifies the aesthetics of its era – expansive glass, clean lines, an open-plan, striking stonework and a flat roof.

Also part of the mid-century architect’s mindset – executed in this design - was integrating the built with the unbuilt environment.

Set on about 30 acres in the outer-western Melbourne suburb of Bacchus Marsh, the Baker House embraces life in the bush.

“Somehow it was like designing a building for Robinson Crusoe.  This would be the only manmade thing to disturb the calm of the bush,” - Robin Boyd, 'Living In Australia'.

The original owner, Dr Baker, handed over the keys to Melbourne lawyer Peter Mitrakas in 2006, and now those keys are once again up for grabs.

Bidding on the Baker House is expected to start at $1.3 million, while two other buildings on the property – a schoolhouse and a library designed by Sir Roy Grounds, architect of the National Victoria of Australia – will also go under the hammer.



These houses are of cultural significance, but do Australians value them?

According to Mitrakas, until a few years ago, unless houses were Victorian or Edwardian in style, people would knock them down straight away.

But he says he has noticed a change in the way mid-century architecture is appreciated.

“I’ve been impressed actually. I’ve seen a definite change in attitude over the past five or six years,” he told Yahoo7 Finance.

Mitrakas says our recent fixation on modernist furniture is paving the way, citing Australia’s iconic Grant Featherston 'Countour Chair R160’ - which has been copied to death in recent years -  to prove his point. 

The 'Countour Chair R160’ chair designed by Grant Featherston. Image: Flickr

Modern furniture (think Eames chairs and Noguchi tables) are all the rage and heavy, wooden antique furniture appears to be falling out of favour.

“Sotheby’s won’t even sell brown furniture anymore,” Mitrakas says.

But Australia still lags behind the US in its appreciation of the mid-century aesthetic.

“In the US, modernist architecture is much more revered. It tends to fetch double or triple that of other properties on the same land.”

Related: Architects prepare for climate change

And the countless real estate agencies devoted to mid-century design listed across America - from Palm Springs to Washington DC - attest to the coveted status of these houses.

Peter Blank, who started a mid-century-focused real estate agency in the US city of Denver, Colorado six years ago says he has seen a design overhaul since he entered the industry.

“Mile Hi Modern was started specifically because many of our iconic mid-century homes were being bulldozed in favour of bigger, traditional style houses,” Blank told Yahoo7 Finance.

Richard Neutra's Kaufmann House in Palm Springs epitomises mid-century modern design. Image: Flickr.

He noticed the less-is-more aesthetic really started to resonate with people – particularly those between the ages of 20 to 40.

“Even though they did not grow up in the fifties & sixties like their parents did, the design is fresh,” Bland says.

“Also, shows like Mad Men & Masters of Sex have captured the sexiness of space and design that is all fifties and sixties”.

Bland says he found people are genuinely interested in the history of their house, particularly who the architect was and what they intended with their design.

So how should we value them?

Unlike the US where many real estate agents specialise in selling mid-century properties, in Australia it’s hard to find a real estate agent who is passionate and knowledgable about such houses.

Andrew Macmillan, one of the real estate agents charged with selling the Baker House, acknowledges that when it comes to the valuation of a mid-century house location is still the main arbiter - just like any other house.

While he says location is the most important factor, he also says a house is ascribed more value depending on its architect – and Boyd is Melbourne’s cream of the crop.

Related: Foreign property buyers fall away

He says he has witnessed a push by clients to get their hands on such mid-century classics, particularly  those that haven’t been ‘bastardised’ – that is, renovated inappropriately and unsympathetically to the original style and architect’s intent.

MacMillan also makes the distinction between these styles of houses in Melbourne compared to Sydney where many were built in areas still highly sought after.

The house Robin Boyd designed for him and his family in Walsh Street, South Yarra. Image:

“Boyd built a lot outside of Melbourne, but that’s not necessarily where people want to live,” MacMillan says. 

“If it’s an architect of repute in an area of disrepute you have to find a compromise.”

While Macmillan says houses with architectural significance are nevertheless assessed according to standard valuation practices, Mitrakas argues that houses like those designed by Boyd should be seen in the same light as a collection of Sydney Nolan artworks.

“It should be valued as a piece of art,” Mitrakas says. “They are extremely important in terms of our culture and heritage.”

When Blank is asked how he thinks mid-century homes should be valued he admits it’s a tough one.

“Denver is expensive as most U.S. cities are becoming as well.  So if a developer or homeowner purchases a mid-century modern home and tears it down it becomes an incredibly expensive house.”

Related: Real estate agents launch campaign to end 'price baiting'

“Our voice, is and always has been, can the house become COOL again?”  

Blank believes that with the right bones, people should add energy back to their homes with good materials and once a couple of neighbors start the trend of rehabbing their homes, the rest follow suit.

"Property values tend to go with this because of the desirability,” he argues.

Mitrakas hopes that by putting his Baker House up for sale - and trying to publicise it extensively - people will start to look at these architectural gems as a ‘prized possession’.

“There will be one or two buyers [on the weekend], but hopefully for everyone else who has come to have a look, the house will have sparked a new passion”.


9 Gramatan Avenue Beaumaris

2/869 Brooker Hwy, Rosetta

28 Warrington Ave, East Killara


 For more mid-century real estate, visit Modernist Australia.