An interview with Dymphna Clark about 11 Tasmania Circle, Forrest, broadcast on ABC radio circa 1994, and several times since.
Interviewer: It’s a very large block you’ve got here, Dymphna
Dymphna: Two-thirds of an acre. It’s a lot to mow by hand, which we used to do. It’s a lot to weed, it’s a lot to water, but we love it very dearly.
Interviewer: And as Rick pointed out built in 1953, the house, and as you were saying a moment ago to us things were very different back in those days.
Dymphna: Yes, well, Tasmania Circle was not even sealed, it was a gravel road, and our bread was delivered to us by a horse and cart, who kindly left a little manure behind from time to time.
Interviewer: How did you actually come to get this block of land?
Dymphna: Well when Manning first came here before we ever arrived, we at that time already had four children, we had two more later, it was important for the Clarks to have a fair bit of insulation, of space round them, you know, they were likely to be audible from time to time, anyway the only bigger block of land that he could get from the Department of the Interior I think it was then up there in, where, Torrens Street and it was 3 acres, and that was mighty large for a family like us to maintain as a city garden. However, he took it. And then Sir John Eccles came, to be the head of the John Curtin School of Medical Science and he was so famous that he had to be given exactly what he wanted. And he wanted a block of land big enough for a square dance lawn, and a swimming pool and a tennis court, because he had nine children and they were in for all sorts of improving occupations.
Interviewer: Like square dancing?
Dymphna: Yes, like square dancing. Anyway, they couldn’t offer him anything and to our amazement someone from the Department of the Interior arrived at our then house in Turner where we were renting and asked us if we would be prepared to swap. They knew we thought this block was a bit large for our capacities and we were rather condescending about it. We were prepared to go and have a look at this block that was too small for Sir John Eccles, and we came here, and it took us all of 30 seconds to decide that this was, you know, a very lovely block of land and so we took it.
Interviewer: And how long did it take you to decide on which architect to use?
Dyphna: Ah, well that was ancient history. When we lived in Croydon, outside Melbourne, where I was very isolated, had lots of babies, but very few pennies, and certainly no car, no telephone, nothing else, but I did get The Age every morning, and on a Wednesday there was a thing called the small homes service, and, although if you look at those early designs now you wonder what on earth I saw in them I was very excited by them and when Manning came home on his bike about 8 o’clock in the evening I would say to him "Oh, have you seen the latest small homes design", and this this this and this and how wonderful it all was and he’d say "Yes dear where’s my dinner."
Interviewer: A typical man.
Dymphna: A typical man. However one night he arrived home quite a bit later than 8 o’clock and he suddenly announced "I’ve met the most marvellous architect, and if ever we build another house he must design it." And this was Robin Boyd, whom I’d been telling him about for at least a year. That’s how we came to have … cos he and Robin had quite a lot in common. They used to meet at the home I think of Brian Fitzpatrick, another historian. And anyway, so when Manning was so depressed after his big illness, in 1952, in January 1952, to cheer him up I said "Why don’t we build on that block of land we have in Tasmania Circle" and I started to write to Robin. It was all arranged by letter because we had no phone there in O’Connor. And he only came up three times. He came up to look at the site, and he came up I think when they had started the foundations and he came up to talk about the paint and colours once. So we only saw him three times. There was a supervising architect who really was not at all sympathetic with this kind of house, however he did supervise it, mm.
Interviewer: And was it originally white? It’s all white now.
Dymphna: Well it was grey and it is grey now, there’s a lot of black in that paint. But you would think, especially when the sun shines on it you’d think it was a white house. It was a darker grey in the beginning. I like it much better now. And there was more colour around, because Robin’s ideas of colour were at that time, you know, very very contemporary. I know that his own sitting room had one scarlet wall and one black wall and one white wall, and a black ceiling and a white floor, or something like that, in Melbourne. And he thought my choice of colours was very pussy. So I gave him his head, and we had a scarlet door and a wreckage blue door. Well they’ve all become charcoal now. My pussy colours are still there.
Interviewer: Rick, we’ve come around to the back of the house. It’s a very unusual shape I suppose. I mean it’s very skinny in the middle with two large wings on either side and then a … well you can describe it. What’s looming over the top of us?
Rick Butt (architect): Well looming over the top is a large pergola, a very high pergola, over a large courtyard in the middle of the house. The house is essentially in two parts or pavilions on either side of the entry covered way which links the two and the entry way — from the front door you can look straight out across the courtyard and out to the north. And right in the middle of the house located above the front door and above the covered walkway is Manning Clark’s study, and it’s upstairs, and I think everybody in Australia is probably aware of the amazing staircase that he uses to get there. And then to our right on the western side of the courtyard is a bedroom wing with full glass windows down to a normal waist height window sill and on the left hand side or the eastern side of the courtyard is a living area. It has virtually full-height glass down to floor level, and Robin Boyd was a very smart architect, as most architects are, and he knew a little bit about sun-shading and has provided some timber slats to shade this northern glass and the pergola up above is an adaption of his after a little bit of experience where there was almost too much sun coming into the upper study.
Interviewer: The north-facing aspect of the house is something I know you’ve got such a big rap on.
Rick: Yes, it’s the only way to build for Canberra’s climate. Here we are in 1952, an architect from Melbourne being aware of good design and appropriate design for a cold climate and a house completed in 1953 which meets all of those requirements.
Interviewer: And Dymphna the yard is terraced at at least three different levels. Why is that?
Dymphna: Oh, well, Manning designed that. This became a putting lawn, that there is a badminton and deck tennis lawn but also used as a cricket pitch and the master of the house once was batting there and he sent a beautiful shot along here, right along till it hit the brick wall there and ricocheted, and that was the end of that 7 by 12 foot window. That was a bit of a tragedy because the insurance didn’t cover that at the time, so it’s just as well it was the master of the house who did it.
Interviewer: It didn’t cover stray shots from Australian historians.
Interviewer: Was he a big golfing fan as well, was he?
Dymphna: Well, at that time yes, and he had five sons, remember, they had to … and the side lawn was a football lawn
Interviewer: Well I wouldn’t want to be running up hill in the second half. You’d struggle.
Dymphna: When Robin was designing the house he asked us did we want a carport? Now Manning had really never heard of these newfangled things so he said "No." He said "A brick garage." So we got a brick garage, but being a Robin Boyd house of course it all had to be parallel, and this meant that when you backed out on a cold morning, and the cars were not quite as sophisticated as they are now, you had to back out up a … like that and it was very awkward. So the car in the end was never put in the garage and it accumulated rubbish and rats and all the rest of it, so I decided eventually that, as I had a part-time job the best thing to do was to turn that into something else so its now, well officially it’s known as a workshop, but not for habitable purposes, the approval said.
Interviewer: Well we’re still in the back yard here, although it’s down a side yard and we’ve got a vegetable patch and we’ve come across the only structure that was not designed by Robin Boyd … even the chookhouse was designed by Robin Boyd?
Dymphna: No, by Manning.
Interviewer: Manning Clark has designed and built the chookhouse.
Dymphna: Which is still standing 55 years later.
Interviewer: What sort of chooks have you got?
Dymphna: Well, unfortunately I can’t get my favourite breed. This is a white, I think it is a white leghorn buff orkington cross or something and they’re a bit flighty for my taste. But they do lay eggs.
Interviewer: Rick, any comments on the design and construction of this fantastic chookhouse.
Rick: No, it’s a very …
Interviewer: Form follows function, there’s no doubt about that.
Rick: It’s very well designed as a chookhouse because it faces north, like the house, and chooks, like human beings, need a little bit of warmth to keep them happy and laying lots of eggs. It’s got a lovely floor covered with lots of litter and grass and things, so nice soft area there, and well protected on the west and the south and east, three sides of walls there so plenty of wind protection with a nice gap between the back wall and the roof for plenty of cross-ventilation.
Interviewer: We’re in the living room or the sitting room. What can you tell us about it?
Rick: Well, it’s almost a square in plan but its spatial quality is very different because its lowest point is the north wall with a huge picture-window facing the garden and the ceiling then just rakes up in a simple plain raked ceiling up to the midpoint of the house with just two simple white beams across it. But the windows in the eastern wall that Dymphna’s just talked about are two lovely little rectangular slots that have been cut into the wall, one at eye height and then the other one’s down at chair or seat height.
Interviewer: It’d be eye height if you were sitting down.
Rick: Yes and much closer either side of the furniture on that wall, but they’re just lovely little apertures or holes in the wall. Very artistic, quite elegant, simple. The whole house is very simple. The rooms are virtually squares.
Interviewer: And in fact the room is bigger because we’ve slid back a sliding door which leads to a magnificent kitchen which is on two levels.
Dymphna: These two rooms, of course they combine quite well. And then people often tell me "How on earth can you manage with such a small kitchen. Well the Clarks wanted space. Well you can’t afford to have space everywhere. Other rooms were fairly spacious, so something had to be small and it was the kitchen.
Interviewer: We’re in the kitchen, and on the wall, of course, is a very famous portrait of Manning Clark done by Arthur Boyd, another Australian of the Year. Of course Manning Clark was an Australian of the Year, you got your house, the land rather from Sir John Eccles who was also an Australian of the Year, there’s very much a feeling for that here, isn’t there?
Dymphna: Well I hadn’t thought of it in that light, but that’s, Arthur painted that down at our place at the coast and our lovely dog Tuppence, who as you see, Arthur has let her off rather lightly, for a Boyd dog she’s not bad looking.