ARCHITECTURAL THEORY REVIEW CONTEMPORARY ARCHITECTURE IN AUSTRALIA
Edited by Gevork Hartoonian.
ATR vol 11 no 1, 2006. $33.The death of Harry Seidler in early 2006 has prompted a period of reflection in Australian architectural theory and practice. In a fittingly ambitious tribute, Gevork Hartoonian’s recent edition of Architectural Theory Review uses Seidler’s legacy as the base from which to launch a critical appraisal of contemporary architecture in Australia.
Opinion is sought from a diverse range of academics and practitioners. Contributions from Mike Austin, Craig Bremmer, Eva Prats, Ricardo Flores, Tom Heneghan, Harry Margalit and Rochus Urban Hinkel variously explore the tension underlying the relationship of internationalist movements to the specificity of place, history and culture, the subtext of regionalist debate between Australian cities, the importance of Modernism to contemporary Australian practice and the key role of immigrant architects in the development of what we now consider to be distinctly “Australian” architecture.
Sandra Kaji-O’Grady targets critical regionalism, suggesting that its frames of reference have been distorted in attempts to “brand” coherent architectural classifications of Sydney and Melbourne in defiance of the plural richness of their architectures. Conversely, Philip Drew supports the sense of legitimacy inherent in critical regionalism in his discussion of the vernacular as the touchstone of “authentic” Australian architecture.
(Authenticity proves a slippery but provocative subject – one is curious to know why Drew finds Alex Popov’s adaptation of Mediterranean urban vernacular models so “foreign” in a Sydney context, when he reminds us elsewhere that the rural vernacular models so embedded in the Australian architectural psyche are themselves the result of imported traditions yielding to Modernist aesthetic innovation.)
Drew’s analysis of Edmond and Corrigan’s interpretation of Australia’s suburban vernacular and Leon van Schaik’s lively discussion of contemporary architecture’s contribution to the cultural life of the city of Melbourne tangentially expose the major omission in the volume – the lack of a wider discussion of Australia’s contemporary urban/suburban situations.
Such an appraisal is essential if we are to challenge international infatuation with stereotypical perceptions of Australian architecture that are focused on rural/bush romanticism and isolation. It is disappointing that this persists – in spite of Seidler’s forceful urban legacy.
At times the collection lacks editorial polish and cohesion – but it is always compelling.
The transcript of Hartoonian’s discussion with Neil Durbach, Tom Heneghan, Richard Francis-Jones and Wendy Lewin is representative of the energy suffusing it – traversing contemporary issues in Australian architecture with candour, scepticism and good humour. One hopes that Hartoonian continues to lure academia and practice into such necessary and spirited debate.
NEW DIRECTIONS IN THE AUSTRALIAN HOUSE
Anna Johnson. Photography by Patrick Bingham Hall. Pesaro, 2006. $70.There are choices to be made.
Do I stay in, or do I go out today? The houses we find in New Directions in the Australian House ask us to stay inside. The book presents two conditions – the house-form protecting a fragile interior, and the landscape or urban condition beyond – in sharp contradistinction. To illustrate this rejuvenated contrast between figure and field, Anna Johnson opens this picture book of houses with the most provocative image of all – the black shape of Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly standing sharply against the unmistakable red dirt of a mythical Australian landscape. Using this stark image as an index, Anna argues that the landscape is given renewed significance through its juxtaposition with the abstract contemporary form of the house, and that this compelling image is now central to the “idea” of Australia.
Monumental and object-like houses distinguish the new direction of the Australian house. The term “sculptural” is frequently used, and formal acrobatics are not reserved for the exterior surface, but also infect the interior refuge. The monumental plasticity of forms, as recounted by Johnson, collects bunkers, boxes, fortresses, Unabomber or Thoreau-like primitive huts in the wilderness. Many of which have been run through the contemporary architectural logic of deformational design moves – twists, bends and Deleuzian folds. Belying these new adventures in form, the graphics and layout of the book are surprisingly conservative and restrained. And although it seems with this architecture the interior is where life is best preserved, life in Patrick Bingham-Hall’s photographs is disturbingly absent. That is, until we arrive at the animated figures who people Rex Addison’s Rowntree Street House. It is as though this family were the last remaining survivors of a life besides architecture across these pages.
Text and image will have their arguments, but here the intelligent argument appears to have won the day. Johnson lets the voices of the different architects speak for themselves, and interlaces her descriptions of the gathered houses with a more general historical context of Australian modernism. What is missing is a visual genealogy of architectural precedents that could have supported the photographs and argument.
Although the new Australian house appears object-like, and impenetrable from the outside, the dwelling within is secured in comfort. In their own way, each of the twenty-five collected houses speaks of refuge. Silent in these pages – but surely present in the return to the safety and privacy of the interior safeguarded from the unpredictable forces of an unruly outside – is a general fear of what our contemporary world presents us with.
Staying at home and out of trouble also means securing the pleasure of gazing into the glossy pages of the privileged lives of others that architecture so eloquently frames.
DESIGN CITY MELBOURNE
Leon van Schaik. Wiley, 2006. $99.95.Leon van Schaik’s latest book sets out to test the idea that the Victorian capital has emerged as a “design city” alongside other cosmopolitan luminaries such as Barcelona in the 1980s or, more recently, Antwerp. The book argues for the significance of architecture and design in Melbourne in the last decade and presents this as a localized phenomenon embedded in a geographic and intellectual specificity.
The skill in these kinds of survey texts lies in drawing disparate practices together as a cohesive whole. Without the commonality of a unified theoretical position or formal approach, van Schaik uses a number of other devices to organize the material. The first is locality: the practices are discussed in terms of an oblique, temporary or direct place on a “civic spine” that stretches from Carlton to St Kilda, from Newman Collage to the Shrine of Remembrance via Swanston Street. The specificity of “location” allows a discussion of Melbourne’s urban condition, history and subsequent modes of patronage. For instance, the migration of architectural experimentation from the laboratory of the suburbs to the mantelpiece of city (and back again) emerges as one of the few consistencies between the architects discussed. Van Schaik argues that the recent QV development is emblematic of these networks of experimentation and procurement. Here they are manifest in a very Melbournian urban condition – a matrix of laneways, major and minor streets. A meditation on this development’s particular urbanity – one closer to an Asian model, than a European one – concludes van Schaik’s discussion of this linear, but nodal, precinct as an organizational device.
Laid across this “spine” is the second of van Schaik’s devices, the “curatorial armature”.
Loosely defined as involving aspects of patronage, editorship and boosterism, the “curatorial” centres on the role of individuals in making connections between people and institutions, across the disciplines of art, craft, furniture and graphic design and the city.
Almost all the work intersects with van Schaik’s masters programme at RMIT and not unexpectedly the term “mastery” litters the text.
Despite the success of these devices for organizing the disparate material of a city into a cohesive if repetitive argument, the book is perhaps best described as uneven. Its production feels rushed; there are typos, misspelt names and out-of-focus photographs.
Discussed projects are often not illustrated. This unevenness of production extends to the book’s tone. Unsure of its audience, it seems caught between the coffee table and the library. There is an almost deliberate subjectivity in the discussion of the practices and their principles, which at times verges on the self-referential. One wonders if a broader frame of reference might have lead to the consideration of other factors that have also contributed to the emergence of this design moment.
Van Schaik’s promotion of the nexus between practice and research, the academy and the profession, and his efforts as an advocate for a design-as-research model of education, are significant. It is important to acknowledge his endeavour in promoting the architecture of Melbourne. But instead of the book’s concluding lament for the apogee of the “design city” a wider network of design culture might be encouraged; one that is less reliant on the individual and more dependant on the collective will of the city. In turn, this would offer opportunities for those outside Melbourne’s existing network of patronage to leave their mark on the city.
OVE ARUP MASTER BUILDER OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
Peter Jones. Yale University Press, 2006. $80.It is likely that many Australian readers of this, the first biography of Ove Arup, will be tempted to turn straight to the chapters on the Sydney Opera House. But be warned. This is an account of the building written unapologetically from the Arup camp, and Utzon doesn’t fare well.
To do the book, and Ove’s story, justice, it is far better to start at the beginning. Born in England in 1895 to a Danish father and a Norwegian mother, Ove’s life spanned most of the twentieth century. Indeed his career was defined and propelled by many of the major design, technological and economic developments of the century: early experimentation with thin-shelled reinforced concrete structures; the emergence of the modernist agenda through, for example, Gropius and Le Corbusier – both of whom Ove knew; and more recently the phenomenon of corporate globalization of which the present-day Arup engineering consultancy is a highly successful example.
Initially a somewhat reluctant engineer – his first degree was in philosophy – Ove came to engineering via architecture and the potential it offered in the interwar years to unite art and technology. In fact Ove never lost his philosopher’s need to investigate and understand, and it is this humanist perspective that drove his lifelong quest for “total design” – the integration of architectural and engineering skills.
Ove himself seems to have happily combined the qualities of both professions, writing in the 1980s, “There is such a lot of humbug in architects, but there is such a lot of stodginess in engineers. I am almost in favour of humbug, temperamentally.” In fact Ove was far from “stodgy”, driving his long-suffering secretary Ruth Winawer to distraction with his often chaotic management style, his appalling driving and his penchant for a good lunch. Peter Jones, an eminent philosophy historian in his own right, has achieved a neat balance between Ove the man and Ove the engineer, drawing on an extensive archive of personal papers, company records, correspondence, articles, lectures and photos.
Since its formation in London in 1946 Arup has been associated with many renowned structural projects, but it is undoubtedly the Sydney Opera House that secured the global reputation of the company. For Ove personally it offered the supreme opportunity for the integration of artistic vision and technical innovation. Ironic then, that the building engendered one of the most fraught breakdowns between architect and engineer in twentieth-century history. Sadly the treatment meted out to Utzon over two chapters in this otherwise laudable biography will do little to aid the healing process.