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Pholiota: The tiny house with big ideas

A new exhibition shows how two architects’ 1920s dream of democratising housebuilding could influence the way we live now

Sometimes it takes a couple of dreamers and a chicken farmer to build a house.

When Walter Burley Griffin and his wife, Marion Mahony Griffin, were working in Melbourne in 1915 to plan Australia’s new national capital, Canberra, they soon applied to their local council to build a home in Toorak.

They wanted to construct the house using their own “Knitlock” system of interlocking concrete blocks which they had invented as a quick and economic way for amateur builders to erect their own homes.

Marion Mahony Griffin and Walter Burley Griffin gardening in the backyard of Pholiota, Heidelberg, Victoria, 1918. Picture: National Library of Australia

But it seemed Knitlock was too radical for the conservative building regulations of the time and they were refused a permit.

Undaunted, they successfully shifted their site and their plans to create a unique and now heritage-listed house they named, somewhat botanically, after a species of mushroom.

Now the house has been re-born as a ground-breaking exhibit, Pholiota Unlocked, for the Melbourne Festival’s Cultural Collisions exhibitions at the University of Melbourne.

The Griffins, both brilliant and adventurous American architects and landscape designers who had worked for the legendary Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago, wanted to democratise the building process and Pholiota was an example of that.

“The key thing about Knitlock was that you could make the blocks yourself,” says Phillip Goad, Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor in the Melbourne School of Design. “They were interested in creating an efficient system where you don’t need tradespeople.”

After their failure to gain a building permit in Toorak, they decided to build a modest home on a vacant lot on the Glenard Estate in Eaglemont, which they had earlier planned and laid out.

The local council advised them that if they submitted an application to build a doll’s house a permit would be granted.

So they did exactly that and the tiny house (it measured just 6.4 metres by 6.4 metres) was born. In reference to its distinctive shape, Marion referred to it as “the mushroom that sprang up overnight”. They named it Pholiota.

With the help of a local purveyor of fowl, the Griffins made 2300 concrete blocks, each about 60mm thick, on site.

They laid a red brick floor directly on the earth (efficient for absorbing geo-thermal heat) and a terracotta roof.

The single-storey house had no corridors (Walter hated them) and few walls. It contained a single square room at its centre, surrounded by curtained alcoves (which were also used as bedrooms and a piano room), a kitchen, a bathroom, a dressing room and an entry vestibule.

compact but efficient

Despite its modest proportions, the Griffins managed to comfortably fit an upright piano, bookshelves, some chairs, two double beds as well as a round table in the main space.

The couple lived at Pholiota from 1920 to 1925 and Mahony famously described it as the “most perfect and cheapest house in the empire”.

Professor Goad says this description was most likely a laconic potshot at the British way of doing things. (Indeed, when they arrived in this imperial outpost they described it having building regulations akin to those of the Roman Empire.)

He says despite Pholiota’s faults – poorly insulated and too small for a family – it was ahead of its time and there are lessons we can learn from it.

“One is that we are profligate in our use of space, resources and land,” Professor Goad says. “It shows we can be more efficient in how we live in the suburbs without dramatically increasing the density. It also shows that we should be able to design our apartments better.”

Led by Professor Goad, Master of Architecture students are now building a full-scale replica of Pholiota employing the Knitlock method, but using plaster blocks instead of concrete.

Pholiota, which will be installed in the Melbourne School of Design’s Dulux Gallery, won’t have a roof so as to allow visitors to view it from above and gain an insight into the house’s original 43 square metre layout.

“Visitors will be able to be Walter and Marion and get a sense of the scale of this tiny little house,” says Professor Goad, an authority on modern Australian architecture.

Interior of Pholiota, 1920s. Picture: The Griffin Society. Reproduced from “Segmental Reinforced Concrete Construction”, courtesy Mary Lightfoot

Students have also drafted 13 designs for contemporary Pholiotas, which will be displayed around the main exhibit.

Another feature is the futuristic New Pholiota, an interactive virtual reality experience developed by Travis Cox at the University’s Microsoft Research Centre for Social Natural User Interfaces (SocialNUI) and Master’s student Mengyan Wang.

Cox says those who cross the threshold of the replica will be given a portable Virtual Reality headset (which uses a mobile phone as a screen) which they will hold up to their eyes like a camera.

It will enable them to experience a three-dimensional vision for a 21st century Pholiota that will incorporate an updated floor plan designed by Wang.

“People will learn about the Griffins, explore what their ideas on space were and how that was reflected in their architectural designs,” Cox says. “Also they can see how that fits in with contemporary ideas about the environment.”

Pholiota Unlocked: 7-23 October, 9am-5pm. Dulux Gallery, ground floor, Melbourne School of Design, University of Melbourne. Entry is free.

Banner Image: Exterior view of Pholiota. Picture: Eric Milton Nichols Collection, National Library of Australia.

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