It seems bizarre to imagine Cremorne as a crucible of radical architecture. But some of the 20th century’s first flat-roofed houses were built around this Sydney harbour district, long before Bauhaus boxes shockedEurope during the 1920s.

Sydney’s proto-modernist residences arose in 1907–08 on new land subdivisions near steam ferry terminals at Neutral Bay, Cremorne Point and the harbour side of Mosman. In the decade after Australia’s Federation and Queen Victoria’s death in January 1901, they were built by progressive architects who saw a need for sensible, suburban dwellings after the gold boom era of ostentatious mansions on pastoral estates.

Instead of imitating European medieval manors with elaborate, expensive roofscapes, Sydney’s post-Federation innovators appreciated the cost-benefits of traditional Mediterranean mud-brick houses, which lacked spooky attics and basements but often included sunny roof terraces used for outdoor dining and sleeping under the stars.

The first Sydney architect to build a modern flat-roofed house was Henry Austin Wilshire, the youngest son of Sydney’s second mayor and a parliamentarian, and the architect of several hospitals and Grafton Gaol. He said he first became interested in flat-roofed houses during an overseas tour to Europe and the United States.

In Claude Street, Cremorne, Wilshire built a two-storey brick villa, with balconies and a roof terrace, that was illustrated in Building magazine in November 1907. Three more of his planar domiciles, all on lower North Shore sites and some including gable features to contrast his daring flat roofs, appeared in the October and November 1908 issues of Building. Wilshire later built several more flat-topped residences around the lower North Shore, although most of his works no longer exist.

Two other Sydney architects – James Rutledge Louat (son of a French bridge engineer) and Donald Thomas Esplin (an 1890s apprentice of London-educated John Sulman) – built flat-roofed modern houses on sites in Cremorne in 1908. Esplin’s former partner, Roscoe Collins, also built at least one flat-roofed house in Bondi between 1908 and 1910.

As far as we know, Australia’s first published sketches of a modern, flat-roofed house appeared in Art and Architecture magazine’s ‘Castle in Spain’ (ideal home) feature in 1906. These were inked by architect George Sydney Jones, a Strathfield-born, London-educated grandson of retailer David Jones.

George Jones’ two-storey, rectilinear design, with projecting balconies, terraces and pergolas, surprised the magazine’s readers then, but now it seems uncannily predictive of modern villas in western Europe’s warmer countries between the world wars. Even in this century, modernism remains the globally ubiquitous architectural style for houses and hotels. 

Although Jones wrote in 1906 that he could not yet afford to build his dream home, he owned land in Pennant Hills, where he completed in 1909 a partly flat-roofed mansion named Barncleuth. It still stands high on steep ground, facing faraway Sydney city. Jones later built a flat-roofed house and doctor’s surgery, named Rochester, in Beecroft.

Wilshire, Louat, Esplin, Jones and Collins, along with most of their proto-modernist houses, are only faintly recorded and recognised now. But useful files on them are accessible at the North Sydney Council’s Stanton Library, where historian Dr Ian Hoskins is available by appointment. The expert on Wilshire’s houses is Garry Webb, the owner of one of his flat-roofed dwellings, at 58 Murdoch Street, Cremorne. He researched and wrote (anonymously) the Wikipedia article on Wilshire.

58 Murdoch Street, Cremorne, an early modern flat-roofed house designed by Henry Austin Wilshire.

Let’s call these innovators the North Sydney School. They were at the forefront of global attempts to transfer new industrial building systems, using reinforced concrete, steel, glass and other flat materials, from 1880s commercial pinnacles (like the Eiffel Tower in Paris and tall office buildings in Chicago) to efficient housing for 20th century workers and middle-class families.

After several decades of local and international research for my new book, Australian Architecture: A History (Allen & Unwin, 2022), it seems clear that these five Sydney architects designed and built their cubic residences before – and even long before – the American and European architects who are mostly claimed to have invented 20th-century modernist housing.

Wilshire’s first flat roof was photographed in Sydney in 1907; two years before Frank Lloyd Wright completed his first flat-roofed Prairie house, for Mrs Laura Robeson Gale, in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park (1909); five years before Austrian architect Adolf Loos laid a flat roof on the Villa Scheu in Vienna (1913); and more than 15 years before Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and other leaders of the Bauhaus movement built their first flat-roofed, white pavilions after the First World War.

Sydney’s flat-roofed houses also appeared a decade before Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin (former employees of Wright in Chicago), built their flat-roofed houses in Melbourne’s Heidelberg area, Sydney’s Castlecrag, and Canberra. They used either rustic sandstone blocks or their Knitlock system of pre-cast concrete wall panels and roof tiles.

Another former colleague of Wright’s seems to have preceded everyone in the 20th century timeline of building basic modern houses. In San Diego in 1903, Irving John Gill built probably the first of his three-decade series of flat-roofed workers’ cottages. Inspired by Central America’s Spanish Mission style of adobe buildings, it was made of stuccoed wood, but he later adopted the tilt-slab method of erecting concrete wall panels.

Although Gill’s Spanish Mission styling and concrete construction did not seem to influence the North Sydney protagonists before 1909, other Australian architects adapted those precedents in the 1920s. Gill was ignored by American curators of the legendary ‘Modern Architecture: International Exhibition’ at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1932.

Gill had worked with Wright, in the office of leading Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, during the early 1890s. At that time, Sullivan’s tall, steel-framed office buildings, and the 1893 Chicago world’s fair – a ‘White City’ of splendid, neo-classical pavilions and monuments reflected in a lake – inspired progressive architects around the world.

In Australia, flat roofs were widely discussed long before they were built. The trend was enabled by 1890s imports of bitumen membranes such as Malthoid, Vulcanite and Flintkote; which were initially applied to the roofs of commercial buildings.

But the post-Federation fad for flat-roofed housing flopped – because supposedly storm-proof, tar-sealed sheets tended to degrade and leak. In a 1974 thesis on interwar Sydney houses, scholar Richard Apperly said: ‘Maintenance problems, lack of insulation and the unprepossessing appearance of Malthoid from which the gravel had been scuffed by feet and furniture all combined to dampen architects’ enthusiasm …’

After North Sydney’s early sprinkling of right-angle residences, Australian suburbs generally were blanketed by brick bungalows crowned with orange slopes of ‘Marseilles’ tiles.