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With the so-called culture wars being fought in our national dailies and the wider press over the last decade, where is the architectural profession in the debate? Many of the issues seem axiomatic to architectural practice: occupying the landscape, interpreting history, the debate about what constitutes Australian identity and “values”, or the pervasiveness or otherwise of postmodern thinking in practices and in our academies. Perhaps there is a debate within the profession that doesn’t receive sufficient airplay – or perhaps it is simply that our efforts are invisible within this redefining of our national culture. For a profession that likes to see itself as undertaking a cultural pursuit, not merely operating as a commercial profession, the apparent absence in this “war” is telling – we are missing in action.

Let’s take our relationship with the land or landscape as an example of the “war”: debate over ownership questions and native title, the benign settler society vision or invasion and occupation, or pure wilderness versus cultural landscapes, or ecosystems versus natural resources – the list can go on. Other disciplines within the cultural mainstream seem to have had no difficulty engaging with these issues. The discipline of history has been pulling itself apart for a decade over the “history wars”, and is now entering the school curriculum debate. In literature, there has been a spate of novels exploring these landscape issues within their core themes, such as Alex Miller’s Journey to the Stone Country, or Andrew McGahan’s The White Earth, or more recently, Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. This latter work has even opened up a debate about who “owns” history – the novelist or the historian? We might also look at the environmental movement and who owns this debate, through books such as William J. Lines’s Patriots – Defending Australia’s Natural Heritage. Or the film industry, with releases such as Japanese Story, The Proposition, The Tracker, or again more recently, Ten Canoes, all exploring themes about our relationship to our landscape.

In their recent book, academics Felicity Collins and Therese Davis have reviewed the last decade of Australian cinema under the title Australian Cinema After Mabo. Is there an Australian architecture after Mabo?

This seems like a reasonable question, particularly as the Australian landscape is the commodity in which the architectural profession has traded most heavily in building its reputation. The image of the settler’s shed “conquering” the landscape is rapidly being replaced by the lifestyle shack (often very glamorous) in the bush. Progress perhaps – but also roughly the same. We largely continue to trade on the notion of the landscape as “natural wilderness” in order that architecture can be its opposite – the rational machine. We shouldn’t forget our history, that architects came immediately after the surveyor in redefining the local landscape, turning country into a country.

However, these axioms will continue to turn as our understanding of the Australian landscape becomes more complex and complete – from understanding the fragility of our ecosystems, to the cultural and spiritual values embedded in the landscape via thousands of years of occupation. This is a more interesting picture than a wilderness “default”, and a view of the landscape from which the profession might create architectural projects more relevant to contemporary Australia. In doing so, we might prevent ourselves from being missing in action on the debate over the land and landscape.

We can apply the same measures to many other areas of this wider debate. How should we interpret the history of architecture – as an “objective record of achievement” or a “stew of themes and issues”? Or multiculturalism and the question of Australian values – where are the architectural projects in the west of Sydney or Melbourne or Brisbane that are redefining Australian architecture away from its anglo origins, or toward a new understanding of the Australian identity?

Architecture seems uniquely placed to engage in this debate, because architecture is, literally not metaphorically, about building the future. This may not necessarily be through conventional public advocacy, but rather through architects creating work that is more open and responsive to a debate that is drawing a line across our national culture. Not to do so risks us being left on the sidelines of the war, or silently claiming our neutrality.

I’d be interested to receive any thoughts on these issues via




Published online: 1 Jan 2007


Architecture Australia, January 2007

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