In a July issue of Nation magazine in 1962, one advertisement read; “At the Black Dolphin, YOU WILL NOT FIND: Palm trees, Pretentious menus, A war of primary colours, Second-rate imported wines, The latest American gimmicks… Even our architect, Mr. Robin Boyd, assures us that we are not featurists”. This advert says as much about the Black Dolphin Motel as the state of mid-century Australian Motel design.
It was an attempt by the owners of the Black Dolphin Motel (David Yencken and John Ridge) to revitalise the popularity of the roadside motel. Completed in 1960, the surrounding community and passing moteliers were incensed by this set of units, sitting quietly in the landscape with, well, a complete lack of those features that came to signify motel design as imported from the US. Had they not learnt anything from Las Vegas?
Catching a wave of development in the small coastal town of Merimbula in southern NSW, Ridge and Yencken, principals of Merchant Builders, were looking to establish something more appropriate to a regional Australian setting. Who better to approach to produce this “architectural tranquilliser by the Pacific Ocean”, to cure us of our stylistic ailments, than Robin Boyd, author of The Australian Ugliness?
Boyd’s scheme challenged “practically everything in design that the established motels stood for”: overly flashy finishes, neon lights, affected landscaping, and that all too thin veneer of American ostentation. He would describe it as the “imitation of the froth on the top of the American soda-fountain drink” - austerity and hysteria; “Austericanism”.
The aim was international class with an Australian character. This was achieved through Boyd’s lens of what that character should be; appropriateness in its setting, locally sourced materials, and honesty in their use. In many ways, this positions the Black Dolphin as a worthy member of the Sydney School.
The units that make up the Motel are scattered throughout the site in blocks. Many of the existing mahogany gums were untouched, the blocks arranged around and shaded by them. Boyd incorporated a walkway for shade between the administration and restaurant building to the main unit blocks to create a courtyard for the gums that occupied the space between. This existing landscape composed the better part of the Motel’s landscaping, Gordon Ford filling it out subsequently.
Deep balconies and verandas shade the low western facing unit blocks and the two storey reception/restaurant building that looks out to Merimbula Lake.
The detailing of the structure itself carries through this affinity to the site. The balconies and walkways themselves are supported by heavy trunks of stripped gum, speaking as directly to the context as possible. These verandas shade the windows, broken up by exposed local red brick, set deep within the plan.
The roof structure of exposed timber is articulated within the rooms and main building. While it has been extensively renovated and extended since its construction in 1960, many of its ideals remain, these structural expressions being just one.
A key element of the plan, so appropriate for motel design, is the bathrooms at the entrance of the unit. Surprisingly atypical for such a sensible approach, this blocks the noise and light of incoming vehicles at the unit’s entrance while maximising views to the landscape beyond.
The Black Dolphin Motel, despite its early mixed reviews, did find its way into the hearts of moteliers, nationwide, being described as Australia’s most significant motel building (Victorian Heritage Register). It led to an ongoing relationship between Boyd and Merchant Builders, a development company that aimed to produce off-the-plan, modern, but site and climate appropriate designs en masse.
It is a fine example of the work of Grounds Romberg and Boyd, particularly in carrying through much of Boyd’s theoretical position. Designed in the midst of the firm’s notorious separation as Roy Grounds sought greener pastures, even he telegrammed Boyd, “Congratulations. Best thing you have ever done” - high praise from the divorcee.
Researched and written by Jackson Birrell, an Australian Architecture Association volunteer, edited by Tone Wheeler for the AAA. For more information on the AAA and its activities to promote architecture, go to https://www.architecture.org.au/
BDM 0: Courtesy Black Dolphin Website
BDM 1: Courtesy SMH
BDM 2: Courtesy Merimbula News Weekly
BDM 3: -
BDM 4: -
BDM 5: Courtesy Trip Advisor