Beyond The Tin Shed

Sydney Morning Herald

Saturday November 3, 2001

Elizabeth Farrelly, Elizabeth Farrelly is an urban consultant and writer.

Suburban brick bungalows, designer shacks, sleek steel buildings is there an Australian style of architecture? Elizabeth Farrelly looks at the latest offerings and wonders whether the question matters.

To say that Australian architecture suffers an ongoing identity crisis is to exaggerate greatly the clarity of its position. In part, of course, this derives from a generalised confusion about who we are and what, if anything, unites us. Even in the 1950s, reffos rightly resented the expectation that they commit to the Australian Way of Life without so much as an inkling, much less a consensus, as to what this might be. Swagging? Sunbaking? Six o'clock swill?

And then there's the fact that while 85 per cent of us live in cities (this is a lot; only Hong Kong and the Holy See claim 100 per cent), most of our myths and models from Kelly, N. to Dundee, C. are rooted in the bush.

There's a guilt thing here. Not only have we been transported to the wrong end of the world, we inhabit the wrong part of it, in the wrong way. We habitually see our cities as dens of dirt and degeneracy, which we must abandon to find the ``real" Australia.

Henry Lawson reviled Sydney in particular as un-Australian: ``she, of Australian cities/the least Australian of all/greedy, luxurious, corrupting her sisters one by one". Then claimed boldly, ``It was I who insisted in the capital B for Bush." And he didn't mean George Dubya.

A.D. Hope was more wholesale in his damnation, describing Australia's cities as ``teeming sores ... /Where second-hand Europeans pullulate /Timidly on the edge of alien shores". At the same time, we are conscious that the bush as home is eternally out of bounds, for most of us: even if it were possible, our very being there would destroy it.

This conflict sits at the heart of our residence in the dry continent and, however internalised, is still with us. For every Strictly Ballroom there's at least one Priscilla; for every Corridors of Power, a SeaChange.

So it's hardly surprising that Australian architecture enacts the same paradox. While most of us live in tight brick towns, our stock response to architecture's identity crisis revolves vaguely around verandas, shed roofs and the lightweight bush hut, Kelly-style. That, we think, is where noble ordinariness resides.

We ignore the obvious chasm between rural fiction and urban fact, and the uncomfortable details that (a) the veranda is a creature of British India, and (b) the Kellys' concern for the bush hut was more defensive than romantic.

The shed thing has brought international acclaim to Glenn Murcutt's supremely elegant icons of the genre. Murcutt has other modes, of course urban, suburban, even institutional but it's those lone designer shacks, heroic against sun and sky, that capture the hearts and covers of Europe's starveling archi-mags.

And sure, the architecture's a delight. Tectonically thoughtful, spatially serene, environmentally responsive and formally resolved. But (I've said it before and I'll say it again) architectural publishing is a form of soft porn, and it's the image, not the fact, that sells.

Never mind that the house in question may be a city silk's weekend indulgence, Porsche just out of frame. The international press is dogged in its need to believe we're a nation of Paul Hogans, pitted mock-gloriously against the big bad guys. It's what Tim Clark, producer of ABC-TV's In the Mind of the Architect series, calls ``the corrugated cliche". And for some reason we go with it.

Are we still so ashamed of the actualities of our existence here? If so, why not change them? Continuing denial can only exacerbate what critic Robin Boyd described as our ``selective blindness", by which we live in cities without actually seeing them. It shows.

``Many sensitive Australians," wrote Boyd in The Australian Ugliness (1960), ``are uncomfortably aware of the rootless nature of their artificial environment ... The Australian ugliness begins with a fear of reality, denial of the need for the everyday environment to reflect the heart of the human problem ... [and ends with] a chill near the root of national respect."

The Olympic afterglow, sickly as may be, has brought the expected rash of books on Australian architecture. Most aim squarely at an overseas audience (so that words like Uluru and Botany Bay get explanations attached) and contend (a little optimistically) that Australian architecture has finally made it onto the global A-list.

You might expect that such anthologies would feel constrained at least to confront the irony: world's most urbanised nation universally symbolised by primitive hut.

Not so. In the Mind of the Architect did at least recognise the issue, albeit without resolution. Most, however, continue to paddle about in the old waters of Sydney/Melbourne (and sometimes Other) comparison, attempting to straddle the chasm between a unifying ``Australianness" and the shifting ground of pluralism, as required by fashion.

They rely on a tacit precept of design ``excellence" as some transcendent and verifiable value, knowable beyond doubt above the bobbing contingencies of regional and cultural change.

Compounding all this ambiguity is an evident belief on the publishers' part that intellectuals have coffee tables, too or, conversely, that the chattering classes also think. Possibly, possibly.

Some, like Francoise Fromonot and Christopher Thompson's Sydney: History of a Landscape, published in Paris, are overtly idiosyncratic. Combining history, travelogue and critique, Fromonot is refreshingly critical of prevailing orthodoxies, clearly not sharing the view that what's Australian is beyond reproach.

Imposing her own peculiar aesthetic, however, she sets significant wonders such as ``Utzon's mutilated masterpiece" beside minor cult classics like Bill Lucas's 1957 all-glass tree house, Castlecrag, or Hugh Buhrich's concrete virtuosity (1972) in the same suburb, complete with ripple roof, fluffy feature wall and fully moulded gut-red bathroom.

Others, like Davina Jackson and Chris Johnson's Australian Architecture Now, attempt a more objective and synchronistic overview. Lavishly presented in full colour, AAN has a clear marketing mission. But it's a strong and catholic collection, marred only by the occasional lapse into somnambulance such as Jackson's proposal that maybe ``coffee is the essence which fuels architecture in the telecommunications era as powerfully as oil facilitated buildings in the industrial age".

Under the covers, though, such books are forced to presume that ``Australian architecture" is a meaningful idea. This is difficult territory indeed. Even if we knew what Australianness meant, what shape of architecture might carry the message? And why do we persist in believing form capable of such a task?

Take classicism, which has by turns been symbolic of Greek democracy, reviled by Ruskin as ``base, unnatural, unfruitful, unenjoyable and impious", employed by Jefferson to capture the glory of the New World and conscripted to the genocidal ends of Mussolini and Hitler. Meaning sits very lightly indeed on architectural form.

New Directions in Australian Architecture, by Philip Goad (words) and Patrick Bingham-Hall (pictures, publishing) is the latest in the wave of Australian archi-books to beg the ``meaning" question. Small and thick, its square symmetrical format and earnestly convoluted text imply a postmodern approach strangely at odds with a body of work that is largely neo-modern.

The photographs, on the whole, are gorgeous. Bingham-Hall is one of the best and there are occasions when you can only wish the building were up to its picture. Regrettably Goad's text, lacking Bingham-Hall's shining intuitive clarity, is less enchanting. It's thoughtful, but too often verbose, muddle-headed and pocked with tautology. Academic, in a word.

Examples include: ``as pieces of architecture, these works appear unassailable in their dedication to the making of architecture"; and ``such houses point to the continuing validity of the house as a key element to the relevance of architectural artifice"; or ``the awareness of and response to an architecture for and of indigenous architecture has been a long time coming, and is long overdue".

Structurally, too, it's confusing. Goad argues first for Australia as a collection of separate cultures an archipelago is his metaphor each with its distinctive architecture: enviro-responsive in Darwin, snobbish and urbane in Sydney, airy in Brisbane, polite in Adelaide, Italianate in Perth, complicated and flamboyant in Melbourne. Tassie and even Canberra are also said to have their own styles, though we're left to guess exactly what.

So provocative a thesis might be expected to help organise the book. But no. After half a dozen pages the archipelago vanishes without trace under a tsunami of other taxonomic principles ``centre and periphery", ``landscape and space", ``coming in from the veranda" and so on, one per chapter, up to 10.

Still not satisfied, Goad appends a further 10 ``themes" which, he says, inform the book's ``new directions". Each has a cute postmodern title ``the persistent tectonic", ``the deliberate artifice", ``the problematised landscape", ``the positive negation" but no more than a long caption to explain its import. The book itself, perhaps wisely, eschews all of the above, organising quite simply around the 14 architects featured. This means, however, that we never discover how they fit the archipelago theory, or the chapters, or the ``themes". Maybe this is for the next volume.

So, what of the architecture? How new is it and, indeed, how Australian?

Goad argues that ``the common thread that links Australian architecture is an ethos of willing experiment ... a freshness and an openness of brow ..." And you can see what he means, up to a point.

Most of the work would be hard to mistake, on blindfold tasting, as originating anywhere other than Australia except perhaps some parts of Austria or northern Finland. Despite the stylistic variety, there is a distinctive tactile immediacy which is, at best, stylish and energetic and, at worst, crudely derivative.

But in truth there's little that's really new here, despite Bingham-Hall's claim to originality. Donovan Hill's work in Queensland, for instance, is greatly indebted to Frank Lloyd Wright and his disciple Rudolf Schindler, who authored some of Los Angeles's most bewitching houses. Bruce Elder's recent cry over Australian rock'n'roll applies here, too: ``With very few exceptions, we have never approached anything which even vaguely approached a unique Australian [architecture]."

Even this isn't new. As a 1938 letter to The Bulletin complained: ``[Sydney] architects have not consciously designed their buildings because they like the look of them, but because every other country is designing buildings like them."

Not that it matters. Or diminishes Donovan Hill's status as the most interesting young practice around. Broadly speaking, originality is not worth a damn in architecture. The most innovative works are usually the first to fall apart and the least lamented when they go. Architecture is a tradition; that means everyone copies, especially the good ones. The important thing is who you copy, and how well.

Predictably, the primary models for current Australian architecture are not Australian (Arthur Baldwinson, Sydney Ancher, Roy Grounds, even Harry Seidler) but American, often Euro-imports. And they're not contemporary, or even recent, old California Moderns; Richard Neutra, Gordon Drake, Charles Eames, Craig Ellwood, Pierre Koenig, as well as Schindler.

Schindler's work in particular such as his own, justly famous house for two couples at King's Road, West Hollywood, 1922, and his 1948 proto-punk Janson house in Hollywood Hills (its long legs and raked planes reincarnated in Frank Gehry's 1984 Norton House on Venice Beach, California) resonates in scale, texture and spatial quality through a number of New Directions oeuvres, as well as Donovan Hill's.

These include the serene and cerebral stick houses of Queensland's Brit Andresen and Peter O'Gorman (for whom both Brian Donovan and Timothy Hill worked as new graduates); Victoria's reserved but intensely purposeful Sean Godsell; Sydney-Newcastle's sprightly Peter Stutchbury and Phoebe Pape (winners of this year's Sulman award); Sydney's Tonkin Zulaikha Greer; Melbourne's John Wardle; and the Top End's Troppo, whose multi-winged Rozak house makes the book's front cover.

There are echoes, too, conscious or otherwise, of Wright and Mies van der Rohe, the Finn Alvar Aalto, Swiss le Corbusier, Italians Carlo Scarpa and Giuseppe Terragni, Dutch JJP Oud and Mexican Luis Barragan; all modern masters and all cult student-heroes for this generation.

Nor is this modern revival a specifically Australian phenomenon; more Euro than American and, in America, more West Coast than East, it is nonetheless another global fashion.

That's OK. Every culture has to start somewhere. Better to stand on the broad shoulders of earlier heroes than the rocky raft of invention. As Schindler, a Viennese, wrote in 1920 of his adopted homeland: ``If I am to speak of `American Architecture' I must start by saying that no such thing yet exists ... ``architecture" and ``America" have never really gone together and the few skyscrapers that have been cast up by the immense vitality of the infinitely fruitful prairies have nothing human about them."

So, derivative as it may be, much of the ``new" Australian architecture is also strong, confident and vital. Playful in some cases, serious in others. Often spatially delightful and environmentally responsive. Notably, though, and with few exceptions such as Sean Godsell's extremely clever and charming Future Shack 2001, a parasolled container-house (conceived as ``a protoype for temporary relief accommodation for homeless people in disaster-struck regions) this revival is modernism shorn of its social content. Modernism as a look.

Thus, while the ``real" modernism strove (futilely) to alleviate poverty and injustice through the mass production of low-cost housing and schools, modernism markII appears largely resigned to its role as stylist to the patron classes. What moral agenda remains has replaced social concerns with environmental ones.

Nonda Katsalidis's signature residential towers, for instance, far from being social housing, are strictly developer stuff. What else is there, these days? But they derive a degree of virtue from the notion that, in helping popularise high-density living, they're doing their bit for the sprawl-threatened bush.

Where does that leave the question of meaning? Australian architecture may cultivate the forms of openness, but possibly the thinking needs a little more depth. As Fromonot notes, Australia ``has little architecture other than that derived from the dominant cultures of Western Europe and North America. And this declaredly free and open democracy accepts, almost without question, an authoritarian management of its public architecture and planning, one notably lacking transparency and public accountability."

Two Melbourne firms, Ashton Raggatt McDougall (ARM) and Lyons Architects, both clearly favourites with Goad, stand out as misfits, even within this diverse bunch. Regarded as intellectuals in the Melbourne scene, they choose to emulate not the architecture of modernism but its imagery, photocopying and pixelating the iconic pictures, then pasting them on in different colours. That is what passes for ``critical and intensely cerebral" in Australian architecture.

So, has Australian architecture finally made it? Wrong question. Who cares and who are we trying to convince? The Prince of Wales? Relax. Buy the book. You won't get better pictures of what's around this continent in a hurry.

© 2001 Sydney Morning Herald

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