The Godsell House: The Mid-Century Modern Masterpiece Inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright
Beaumaris, VIC, Australia
Inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, The Godsell House, designed in 1960, was the first residential project by Australian architect David Godsell.
Set in bayside Melbourne Beaumaris, it is one of the suburb’s many significant mid-century modern buildings, and has now been included in the book Beaumaris Modern: Modernist Homes in Beaumaris by designer Fiona Austin, founding member of the group Beaumaris Modern.
With its setting high on the hillside on Balcombe Road and at three storeys high, the home should be imposing, yet one of the triumphs of the Godsell House is its empathy to the surrounding landscape. From the street, the house’s distinctive Wrightian cantilevered horizontal roof planes become an extension of the garden terrace planes, and the restrained material palette of earthy-brown bricks and wide boards of Californian redwoods cause it to blend sympathetically with the mature trees on the site.
As the architect’s first residential project, and his own family home, it provided the opportunity to be more experimental, incorporating Godsell’s interest in Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘Usonian’ principles. As Fiona Austin describes in Beaumaris Modern: Modernist Homes in Beaumaris, Usonia was the term Wright coined in place of the word ‘American’ to describe his vision for architecture free from the legacies of traditional styles, designed to complement the landscape and climate of America.
Fiona writes, “These houses were usually small homes, set into the landscape and shaped to fit around a garden terrace on unusual sites. They are characterised by flat roofs, natural lighting and large cantilevered overhanging eaves and with a strong connection to the outdoors. The Godsell house successfully incorporates many of these Usonian principals.” The L-shaped plan steps up with the natural slope of the block, where the carport and its dramatic cantilever roof form the basis for “a series of projecting horizontal roof planes, contrasting with vertical thick brick pylons”.
Internally, Godsell incorporated many beautiful details and a carefully considered material palette, which continues the exterior’s use of rich brown brickwork and raw Californian redwood. Windows are positioned to shelter inhabitants from sight of the road, instead framing views of the gardens, with glass doors leading out to a protected central courtyard and the north-facing terrace. An unusual linea skylight diffuses light through the living area, which also features built-in furniture and the detail of stepped-brickwork.
Over time, the architect added to the home, with a studio incorporated in 1966 and additional upper storey in 1972 that houses the eyrie-like master bedroom and bathroom. The Godsell House was eventually sold by the Godsell family, who carefully vetted potential purchasers to ensure the home would be preserved. (A goal Beaumaris Modern share, aiming to save as many significant mid-century modern buildings in the area, many of which remain un-heritage listed and thus vulnerable to development).
Since then, the new owners have worked to preserve the building in as close to its natural state as possible. Much of the work is not visible superficially, such as maintenance on gutters and roofing. Other efforts are more obvious – when new kitchen appliances were needed, rather than renovate the still-functioning original kitchen, the owners searched for an oven that would perfectly fit the existing Redwood panelling. They have continued to maintain and preserve the original materials, and where changes have been made, they have remained true to the spirit of Godsell’s design.
Sadly, such thoughtful stewardship of an original mid-century home is not guaranteed, and other significant homes in Beaumaris have been demolished. In telling the story of this heritage architectural masterpiece and many others in the suburb through Beaumaris Modern: Modernist Homes in Beaumaris, Fiona Austin continues the Beauris Modern group’s mission to increase awareness and appreciation of these significant buildings, and in doing so, save them for future generations.
Beaumaris Modern: Modernist Homes in Beaumaris launched on November 22nd. It features stories about the homes written by Fiona Austin, and Alison Alexander, a Beaumaris mid-century home owner, writer, editor and daughter of prominent architect Ross Stahle, from the architectural practice Mockridge Stahle Mitchell.
The homes are documented by Jack Shelton, and biographies of the architects are provided by Simon Reeves, mid-century expert and architectural historian.