Is there a Sydney architectural style? Ever wondered why the bachelor pad that architect Neville Gruzman built for his client needed quite so much privacy? And what sorts of houses do some of Australia’s most renowned architects build for themselves?

These were some of the questions that kept occurring to Inside Out interiors magazine founding editor Karen McCartney. Her own home was designed in 1967 by architect Bruce Rickard; all natural materials and sandstock brick. McCartney began to wonder who else might be living in houses designed by some of Australia’s greats, and what they looked like now.

The result of her inquisitiveness is the book 50/60/70 Iconic Australian Houses, which proved so popular it was reprinted this year. That book, and its follow-up 70/80/90 Iconic Australian Houses, is now the subject of an interactive exhibition that brings to life some of the more fascinating homes built in this country over the past half century.

The exhibition goes behind the scenes of 30 of Australia’s most important houses through interviews with the architects and homeowners, a series of talks with architects and historians including Peter Stutchbury and Philip Goad; models of the homes, 3D plans on iPads and walking tours of some of the homes themselves.

The exhibition charts the rise of a local architectural style following the post-war era, when young architects could finally express themselves through designs that were radically different to the conservative, functional British-influenced style that preceded them. Take Peter McIntyre’s 1955 highly experimental Butterfly House built on the Yarra River in Melbourne, which celebrated a move away from the ‘bleak grey prison’ of the war years with its triangular windows, spiral staircase and bright, bold kitchen.

Well-known homes, such as Harry Seidler’s Rose Seidler House on Sydney’s north shore, celebrated the International Style; while architects such as Peter Muller and Bruce Rickard adapted the trend for using simple, unadorned materials to create homes that suited the Australian climate and environment, embracing the outdoors and drawing them in.

“As building technologies changed, awkward sites with great views [opened up], creating whole new ways of living that were more suited to the Australian climate,” McCartney says. Take Peter Muller’s Audette House in Castlecrag, which was inspired by the great American architect and interior designer Frank Lloyd Wright who focused on integrating homes into their surrounds. With its exposed timber beams and ‘snotted brickwork’ – Muller’s solution to the awful, cheap red bricks purchased for Audette in lieu of sandstone – the home is a beautiful reflection of its natural surrounds.

Again, Neville Gruzman’s Rosenburg/Hills House in Turramurra was influenced by the architecture of Japan and incorporates its environment into the design of the house itself. The homeowner, Sam Rosenburg, was a ‘practising naturist’ and requested a design that allowed him to wander around his house nude. “Gruzman’s house is wonderful conceptually – the bravado he employed, with interiors by Marion Hall Best, originally with bright red carpet, pony-skin sofas and Marcel Breuer Cessna cantilever chairs – was this extensive bachelor pad in the bush,” McCartney says. “They were really thinking in that 360-degree way about the site itself.”

The exhibition includes one apartment – the two-storey, zinc-clad Droga apartment in Surry Hills – and John Wardle’s award-winning Fairhaven house on the Great Ocean Road from McCartney’s upcoming book, The Super House which looks at contemporary design around the world.

McCartney says she didn’t want to simply adapt her book and its beautiful photography for the walls of a museum and has instead curated the exhibition in themes, such as connection to landscape or sculptural shapes that are influenced by materials. “It’s a very nice way of pulling various houses from different periods over the century and organising them in themes where they sit together,” she says.

She has also interviewed 11 of the architects or homeowners, on video. “A lot of these architects are getting older now so I thought it was important to get their ideas on life and capture them [on film],” she says.

McCartney believes some of the more inspired architectural concepts of the last century are still in evidence today; although emerging designs could do well to observe the smaller, but no less spectacular or innovative, dwellings. “The connection to outdoor living and open plan doesn’t go away because that’s how we want to live,” she says. “Houses don’t need to be very big; a well-designed house can still be designed on a smaller footprint. There are lessons to learn here from a visual perspective, but also in terms of sustainability.”

Iconic Australian Houses is being run at the Museum of Sydney from April 12– August 17. Further information: