Parts of suburban Perth would be where the Stepford Wives go to die – endless miles of anonymous and characterless quarter acre plots. Admittedly for many it’s living the dream – beautiful white sandy beaches, relentless sunshine, umpteen branches of Nandos and K Mart, and for many, their own pool in the backyard. Suburbs have both strange and familiar names such as Joondalup and Yanchep next to Kinross and Duncraig.
And in the perfectly named suburb of Dianella (bang next to where I grew up in the early 70s) are half a dozen of Perth’s strangest houses, built by Bulgarian born architect Iwan Iwanoff, who studied architecture in Germany during the Second World War. He then worked as a caricaturist in the post war era before being employed in the office of German Modernist Ernst Freymuth. In 1950 he escaped war-ravaged Europe as part of the International Refugee Organization resettlement scheme and ended up in Perth. 13 years later he finally was able to register as an architect while working for Krantz and Sheldon, a practice designing apartment buildings for the growing city as well as the Perth Playhouse for which Iwanoff painted a mural (long gone) in the interior.
One of the Krantz and Sheldon landmarks from 1964 in the city is the Mount Eliza Apartment building, locally known as the Thermos Flask, next to the stunning Kings Park and on a hill overlooking the city and the Swan River. This is in a distinctly European modernist style, with several technical innovations and was the first circular apartment building in Australia. But Iwanoff’s style when he set up his own practice straight after he was registered, was closer to Brutalism, with a conviction that architecture is a branch of art.
And throughout the sixties and seventies, he worked on a number of domestic projects dotted around the city, some of them looking as if they belonged in Palm Springs with their flat roofs, palm trees and garages, but others which are a magnificent concoction of concrete blocks and expressionistic details. Pretty much ignored by his contemporaries in Australia, he designed only one significant building in his career – a public library some 100 kilometres from Perth in his signature style. However today, nearly 30 years after his death in 1986 he has a following amongst the city’s architecture buffs, who organize cycle rides around his houses and enthusiastically visit and blog about the homes on Perth’s annual Open House days. It’s a bit of a shame he was such a one off in the city, because some of those suburbs could really do with a bit more dash. Although Perth planning rules do not allow series of identical houses, all the recently built suburbs seem more than a bit samey.