Australia’s architectural identity

This is the transcript of the 1984 AS Hook Address by RAIA Gold Medalist Philip Cox.

Philip Cox.

Philip Cox.

Image: Cox Architecture

To receive the Gold Medal of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects is doubly significant to me. Not only does it testify that some of the toil and endeavour for me, my partners and office over the last twenty years has been worthwhile, but that we have been recognized as paying a small contribution to Australian architecture.

Twenty-three years ago, as a student, I was awarded the Royal Australian Institute of Architects Silver Medal. At the time of receiving it I was not fully aware of the Silver Medal’s importance, however in the back of my mind was the genesis of an ambition and one day I might attain the honour of being awarded the Gold Medal.

I think it a pity that there is no longer a formal recipient for the Silver Medal. I believe working towards goals is important and for students especially the encouragement of incentive, particularly in the field of design excellence. In days long ago students gaining Beaux Arts education worked towards the Prix de Rome. In Australia the important prizes were the Byra Hadley Traveling Scholarship and the Silver Medal. Today we seem to be timid in stating, let alone acclaiming excellence, and when excellence is acclaimed that awful Australian syndrome “Knockerism” comes to the fore where people of achievement are quickly diminished by slander, innuendo and brutish assault until they reach the common level. In one sense this may be good in maintaining the equality of society however, the old mathematical cliché that Australia is the land of the lowest common multiple instead of the highest common factor prevails in concept in most levels of Australian endeavour and society.

This issue is coupled with what has been popularly called the Great Australian Cringe or Cultural Cringe and there is no better art form than architecture to illustrate this phenomenon.

Much has been spoken and written about Australian architecture and Australian culture, and whether there is a worthwhile Australian cultural identity at all. I remember reading Bacon’s essays at school, and one in particular on nationalism, where he describes it as a disease and proudly announces that he was a “citizen of the world” and that people should not be confined to one particular geographical region, race or culture. But the world has changed since Bacon wrote his essay and there has been a tendency for nationalism and particularly regionalism to disappear in an identifiable cultural sense. We are today left with vestiges of regional culture and some areas of national identity. One can barely differentiate between contemporary Japanese architecture and British architecture and it is difficult to distinguish a national identity in a building in Kuala Lumpur from that of any western world country. It is extremely difficult to detect the differences between English, French and German contemporary architecture. The erosion of national identity can be discerned in North American architecture, post 1940, due to the influence of European immigration and quicker communication. Where previously the architecture of that country had a distinct and discernible expression in a general sense, it not longer has. World War II saw massive immigration especially from Europe to America and it is understandable that the USA would be influenced by the cultural traditions of those grants and for its architecture to go through some metamorphosis.

During the Middle Ages the master craftsman-cum-architects were known to wander through Europe as far north as Britain, spreading a Gothic internationalism. Local forces were strong enough in those days to mould and amend by direct influence. Hence the Gothic of a particular country is distinctly national and to a larger extent regional. Westminster Abbey is one of the few international abbeys, whereas Wells, Salisbury and York and very English buildings.

The Renaissance had greater impact in producing an international language. However, each European municipality, kingdom and region managed to give an individual flavour to the classical orders. Inigo Jones’ Queen’s House at Greenwich is definitely English, as is Wilton. The architecture of Lord Burlington at Chiswick achieved the translation of Palladio, but somehow he either made mistakes or purposely amended the strict Palladian design, since the result is an English architecture.

Throughout the history of architecture in any country, one can trace external cultural influences and the reaction and interaction with local cultures together with geographical, social, political and, not the least, economical considerations. The result is generally an architecture which expresses the purpose of the people, their hopes and aspirations and their view of the world at that given point of time.

For convenience, I have always considered architecture in two categories – the first, the product of the literate or professional, where architecture is a conscious, deliberate and intellectual process, usually practised by people of skill; the second category being popular architecture built relatively unconsciously by the public generally and within the building industry as a whole. For my purpose this latter area is called vernacular architecture. The former architecture is called High style and, throughout history these two streams have reacted and interacted with each other. The genesis of an Australian architecture was obviously from Britain. It was quickly modified by climate, the landscape, the availability of materials and the existing Aboriginal culture (though not acknowledged) into an architecture which is recognizable to most people as being distinctly Australian.

In recent articles much debate on this issue confirms that all was imported and that nothing was local. This is accurate in one sense; however, these critics miss the most important point – the creative process – the process of first accepting a model first and then remodeling, thereby creating a new language. The influences are both physical and meta physical. The original model may be derived from another country with a different culture, however it is the adaptive process which is the most important issue and the end product.

I do not believe that to be a genuine Australian artist or architect, it is necessary to be born in this country. Nor do I believe that most of the work done in the early days, say prior to 1840, was produced by British architects and craftsmen in a cultural sense. The counter argument denies those artists and architects insufficient sensitivity to absorb local conditions and customs to produce a distinctive local product.

The architecture which demonstrates a unique Australian language and the best response yet to the Australian environment is the homestead. The Australian Homestead was the first building type to unfetter itself and respond to new living conditions and the new landscape, the Australian sunlight and a new society. It holds good that Australian housing generally remains the most identifiable type of Australian architecture and this characteristically has demonstrated inventiveness, originality and response to the landscape.

In buildings other than domestic we somehow fumble, the problems are bigger, and more times than not we lose direction or purpose, or find the creative expression difficult. This is especially true when it comes to large-scale commercial buildings and our cities in particular. It might be true that as soon as we are away from the direct influence of the Australian landscape in an urban or built environment we find it difficult. Recently the Exhibition of Australian Architecture titled Old Continent, New Buildings opened in Washington. The Washington Post stated this position:

“The fundamental oppositions are starkly set at the entrance to the show in enlarged colour photographs of an abandoned farmhouse in parched western hills, which could be nowhere else in the world but Australia and the overview of downtown Sydney, which has been so transformed by mediocre skyscrapers that it could almost be mistaken for a stamped-out post war city anywhere in the world…”

In the last century our forebears, Australian, British or European, believed in Australia. I don’t mean that it was patriotic gesticulation, mere flag waving. No doubt there was much of that too, but somehow there was unique desire that this young country, with its limitless opportunities to say something. It was almost as if it was divinely ordained to do so. It was with almost missionary zeal that artists and architects argued for Australianess in their art and this has remained a reoccurring determination.

Robert Haddon, the first Australian architect to write a book specifically on Australian Architecture, in 1910 states this point of view:

“…In considering a treatise upon architecture we are reminded of the very points of peculiar difference that will always separate our Australian requirements and practice from that of the old world.

With climate distinct from others, with building materials of distinctive character, and with requirements of life, business and habit differing in many degrees from the old civilization of lands of ancient settlement, we are faced with problems in our buildings which require the application of special study, and it is the object and purpose of this manual to direct attention to some Australian requirements, and to provide ideas and suggestions for meeting difficulties of a local character in Australian building work…”

Sir Fredrich McCubbin, one of the great painters of the last century fiercely supported an Australian identity. As a much-traveled Australian he made the remark that “there is no Australian Art.”

A superficial observer would find logic in his assertion, but a person who has studied the question deeply will immediately discount the truth of it. Having followed the progress of Art here, he will know that an Art truly representative of this country has existed and does exist.

McCubbin was one of the first Australian artists to acknowledge and support Australian art. His remarks on art equally apply to architecture. His words are heroic and worth repeating here because they evoke a similar aspiration.

“…This land of yours may appear, sometimes, a very poor thing to you; nevertheless it is your own. If you honour it with a lifetime of unswerving servitude and faithfulness it will in turn honour you. I do not for a moment suggest that you should narrow your point of view whereby to what has been done here. You may keep abreast with the finest work that has been done, and is still being done in other countries. Myriad books will keep you in touch with the latest thoughts in Art. In fact, you may command the rest by way of illustration or education that the world can offer you and yet remain here … I have endeavoured to establish a claim that this country possesses a National Tradition of Art, and this Art is valuable, simply because it expresses, in some form or other, the life and feelings of this country…”

In architecture at the turn of the century there were many architects bent on the singular pursuit of an Australian architecture. That is not to say that they were trying to do this in isolation from the rest of the world, sometimes they pursued this endeavour through exotic directions such as Chinese, Japanese and Indian cultures. Hardy Wilson was a prime example of an architect with this pursuit.

There should be no embarrassment in pursuing an Australian direction. It is much easier to see today what is culturally happening in other countries by visiting them, or by examining glossy magazines, or, nowadays, by hearing it straight from the “horse’s” mouth from visiting overseas architectural celebrities, than it was in the past. There will always be those architects who lack the confidence of their convictions and copy overseas examples and do not rely on their own intuition and cultural heritage. They take the model and are unable to take the next step of adaptation in a physical or a social sense. It is hoped the importation of eminent overseas architects will give them greater confidence in their own art. What has emerged is a local Australian architecture conceived in relative isolation, which reflects our own thoughts and destinies. The exhibition, Old Continent New Buildings previously referred to, now touring Europe and America, is the testimony to this fact and the first Australian international architectural exhibition this is symbolically and practically reverses the Cultural Cringe.

There has been rich discussion on the Australianess of an Australian Architecture and many people have become confused into thinking that a prerequisite for Australian architecture is a galvanised iron roof with verandahs. This may be one direction of an Australian architecture. It is certainly the most obvious one. However, I agree with Patrick White in his novel Voss when he says that “to know oneself, it sometimes becomes necessary to lose oneself.” This can be taken both in a physical and metaphysical sense and perhaps is the climate in which Australian architecture is finding itself. Australian architecture is today more mature and multidirectional in its philosophical pursuits and, in the good examples, retains its cultural and national identity.

I cannot agree with Harry Seidler in his afterword to Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness. He comments on Australian students of architecture as having rejected “all they were being taught, students developed a rather paranoid attitude towards anything ‘imported’, be it professionalism or philosophies of design.” “The results,” he argued, “when they tried their hand at practice, are some misguided attempts to formulate a ‘uniquely Australian’ mode of design.” I suppose we belong to the group that Seidler refers to. However, I agree that some of the results may be wanting, but the sentiment of wanting to be Australian is right and the pursuit of an Australian architecture vital and if not fundamental if this country is to advance in any cultural way.

The sentiments of Seidler come close to certain aspects of the Cultural Cringe. There are those Australians who see the best being produced overseas and little merit in local works being produced here. They reveal a strange antipathy towards Australian myths and legends, and particular hostility towards bush traditions and landscape. Geoffrey Dutton has remarked on this attitude as he says, “To attempt to demolish our myths of the bush, the outback, is even stranger than if the Americans were to deny the myths of the west.” It is only with understanding our culture historically that one is able to take the next step forward. We must acknowledge and cherish our past and use this as the basis of development.

Throughout our development Australians have been afraid of expressing enthusiasm for anything Australian; except for a few sportsmen and a singer or two, Australia rarely has acclaimed its artists or architects. It destroyed Griffin and drove off Utzon. It condemned Greenway, it ignored Wilson. This situation must be reversed.

We all love Barry Humphries and his ability to express satire. We are especially sympathetic to mythical creations such as Sir Les Patterson, Minister for Culture. He represents all that is wrong with the paternalism of government towards the patronage and encouragement of the arts. However, the art of satire which is fundamental to Australian humour should not be confused with mockery which is unfortunately at the root of most Australian “knockers.” Throughout the history of Australian Architecture, more architects are knocked than acclaimed.

How often must we be reminded by eminent historians and architects like Sir John Betjman and others that the Victorian Architecture produced in Australia 1837–1901 is some of the best in the world? How often do we have to be assured and reassured by others that the work of Australian architects is vital and expressive and some of the best in the world? How often do our cultural agencies have to support editions of overseas magazines to publish Australian work so that others may see and realize that Australia is not just an antipodean mirror for northern civilization? The fact is, Australia is achieving a mature outlook and is developing an art and architecture expressive of its culture and landscape which is important in itself and perchance may be important to others globally.

The average Australian may see little point in the search for identity, however, there is evidence that today this is a view held by many architects. This is not to be confused with a single view or ideal. There are many schools of thought and expression and this is part of Australia’s growing maturity. It must be recognized for a healthy environment that all expressions exist comfortably beside each other, without the need of critics to say one is more Australian than the other. The fact that there are many branches to the tree does not deny that the tree its existence or its strength.

Recently there has been a re-evaluation of modern architecture, particularly its philosophical adherence to technology. Recent thought has tended to displace this approach. The architectural world has echoed the art world where a multitude of fashionable thinking has evolved much which is superficial however it does contribute something. Many of these ‘isms’ quickly are displaced by the next wave of fashion. However, recent trends demand architecture requires basic “theory” and “philosophy” for advancement rather than a purely emotional response.

In one sense, it is dangerous when art or architecture requires textbooks or working manuals for appreciation. Tom Wolfe, in The Painted World, argues this. To me, architecture is one of the most direct arts dealing with space, form and function, and one which transports the emotions with reasonable dexterity without too much written explanation or reliance on philosophical guide books.

One result of the new thinking has been popularly called Post Modernism. In Australia it has freed architects to do what they want to do both emotionally and visually, and to look at architecture in a more direct way. There are more diverse architectural attitudes today than ever before, and perhaps these explorations will lead to a healthier architecture in the future and one which expresses more the ideals of our community without social or aesthetic guilt.

Despite the efforts of the quest for an Australian architecture and the advances made in this endeavour, the cities in Australia remain desperate areas of visual poverty. Even today there is little hope of real improvement and there is evidence to suggest that it will get worse. To look solely at a sample of Australian architecture practised by a small group of members of this institute is completely misleading. Tour the inner and outer regions of our cities to see the reality of the situation that is the real cultural shock. We have gone backwards instead of forwards and, as architects, have abdicated responsibilities for improving the general standard of the environment. This for our fellow Australians should produce the real Cultural Cringe in us, not that we are not keeping up with the international Joneses!

Since Robin Boyd wrote the Australian Ugliness in 1960, there has been very little improvement. As Boyd says – “The Australian ugliness begins with the fear of reality, denies the need for the every day environment to reflect the heart of the human problem, satisfaction with veneer and cosmetic effects. It ends in the betrayal of the element of love and chills the root of national self respect.”

There are, however, good omens. The various state housing commissions in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia have recently taken up the challenge other states have and gained new ground improving the standard of design and the environment. The standards of architecture in such places as Woolloomooloo are high. However, they need to be sustained. Architects need to be more actively involved in this work and such work directed towards the real problem of the outer fringe areas.

The problem is in the consumer sector of housing where the ticky tack is popularly accepted by the middle income Australian. The square kilometres of boring suburban environment continue. This is the real Australia; it is the continuation of the great Australian ugliness and we as architects do very little about it. There is argument that this is the new vernacular however a distinction must be made between an architecture which generates from the aspiration of the people generally and that of consumer architecture packaged and sold as the new synthetic way of living.

At its best the Australian suburb is seen as the individual responses to the dreariness and monotony of the environment by acts of robust assertiveness and individual vulgarity. Hence the proliferation of pathetic attempts of one man’s acts overwhelmed by the sheer tide of repetitive building elements.

I believe this a fundamental problem of the future. We can’t expect Australia to advance in a cultural sense unless we identify, arrest or change the direction of this suburban phenomenon. What was formerly the Australian dream to own one’s own home – the veritable ideal – has become the Australian nightmare.

Some architects, such as Peter Corrigan, have done work in identifying, as Venturi did, the elements of what might be a sub-culture, and have expanded certain themes in a way which irritates certain members of the profession. However, it can be said that the first steps have been made in accepting and expanding this phenomenon. It is a world where good taste does not prevail. There is much to do, particularly in urban planning and developing architectural responses which will respond to these problems and these pose interesting solutions for the future. The Design Arts Board of the Australia Council, of which John Andrews and I were foundation members, has directed a considerable amount of the board’s effort in education particularly oriented to young people unaware of design. The real purpose is to make them aware that the environment is a designed article over which they will have responsibility and control.

We all recognize that within Australia there is a philistinism which is now part of our cultural identity. It is expressed nationally throughout the media in the form of “ockerism,” it is revered and encouraged. It has created heroes and heroines in the form of Barry McKenzie and Mrs Norm Everage and despite the satire they somehow slip from this to be the “dramatis personae” of our very living. It is therefore difficult for architects to influence, advise and encourage their client to produce cities and buildings of merit when the whole basis of thinking is alien and lacking fundamental direction. Our TV advertising is aimed at the celebration of Australian “ockerism.” Our own experience in designing the Ayers Rock village of Yulara was one of continual insistence and encouragement for government and developers to do things properly against certain preconceptions and prejudices. In the end we won 857 of the arguments. Nothing is perfect. The importance of Yulara is the fact that for the first time an Australian town has been built which doesn’t look like something in the USA or elsewhere. It is the combination of many people’s work culminating in an environment which gives both Australians and overseas people pleasure and reflects problems of our environment as well as some cultural issues. Government should be encouraged to do more comprehensive projects, give more opportunity for large-scale environments to be created to overcome and give direction to a new way of living. Let us not continue the image created early in our history, [where] as Anthony Trollope remarked, “it’s taken for granted that Australia is ugly.” Ayers Rock, symbolically the centre of Australia, may give direction or perhaps a different direction.

Professor Hook did much to unify the profession and to raise the image and performance of architects throughout Australia. There are many problems that architects are facing now and will continually face in the future and, in order to take the next step forward, it is necessary to understand the past and evaluate the progress of the present.

The Cultural Cringe is at its height when architectural criticism is considered. There are few, if any critics of architecture who give constructive, scholarly criticism in Australia. At their best, they are bitchy, self-effacing, jealous and mocking; they fail to understand the hopes and aspirations of architects generally. In our own experience we have read about our buildings in the press without a critic ever contacting us to how what our aims and ambitions were. I was interested to read in Transitions magazine that a society of critics and academics had been established in Adelaide to deal with the matters of criticism. The Cultural Cringe are manifest in their attitudes and until architects are encouraged to criticise and evaluate their own work in a constructive way, the profession will languish. Unfortunately, the state of the art still allows inarticulate and derogatory comments to be published under the guise of criticism. Architectural criticism is now at its lowest ebb despite the increase and glossiness of publications. Part of this may be due to the singular consideration of design criteria being limited to building assessment without really taking into account economic, political or social factors, let alone environmental ones.

The awards system is integral with architectural criticism. Its intention is to promote good design and architectural excellence. In reality it is hardly noticed and in fact the press at recent awards in Melbourne and Sydney positively damaged the whole affair by virtually ignoring them. It was not so much that the buildings were not controversial or [were] uninteresting, but the whole affair was a self-congratulatory bore. The lack of effective criticism of architecture has meant an erosion of positive assessment of architecture by the public. The public are confused and bewildered by low-level petty bickering. The real issue wherever buildings respond to our culture and society, whether the architect has been responsible to his environment or to his client in meeting budgets or in his handling of the project or his response to society, many times are ignored. To go over past recipients of awards is revealing in that a lot of them, assessing them on an historical basis, as good examples of architecture of time and place no longer measure up. It is important that the public be made aware of the design process and of good design. The purpose of awards should be directed towards elevation of public awareness not only of design standards but performance of the profession generally, so that the public regain their confidence in us.

Architects are facing new roles. The manner in which contracts and commissions are now handled demands better performance by the profession. For example, clients are tired of cost over-runs and are calling for design and construct packages. The architect is not only required to display his skills in a design sense but to respond to exacting budgets and time schedules. “Fast track” construction methods require the architect to respond quickly and efficiently to design solutions. It does not mean that design standards are diminished. In fact, it requires great design skill to ensure that the design process during construction is clear and precise. Any confused thinking can no longer be tolerated.

More clients are adopting limited competition procedures for architect selection or, alternatively, seeking creditations and submissions by panels of architects rather than direct commissions. All these changes affect architects and it is important that we all know how to deal with these continuing trends. This process demands higher design standards. Let us not lament our shortcomings where the management of projects has been taken away from us. Let us demonstrate again that we are in control.

Our educational institutions should be aware of the changes within the profession, particularly the way in which the art is practised, for it is the present students who will be facing these problems in the future.

It is of concern that some schools are confused with the state of the art and the responsibilities involved with creating architects. That is not to say that any student leaving these establishments will not immediately possess the tools and skills for practice. The student must have a clear understanding of the art and the directions ahead. It is important that schools enthuse and fuel the desire for young architects to create, to design, to “think buildings” and the issues related to them. So often enthusiasm is diminished by lack of early creative exposure to art, architecture and the qualitative analysis of the environment. The early years of any course should be most creative, where ideas and philosophies are explored. If we are to create the Australian architect of the future, the seeds must be planted in those early years.

Part of the Cultural Cringe when I was a student was that one’s education was not complete without either the grand tour of Europe or taking the finishing course at either Harvard or Yale post graduate schools. I think I was one of the first students from Sydney University who didn’t adopt that procedure. It was more important for me to understand my own country, to experience its urbanism, to contrast this with its vast interior, and to experience first hand its architectural history. I encouraged other students to do likewise because without some self-evaluation it is difficult to know how to proceed in the future because I most sincerely believe to live in Australia is to be dominated by its landscape. I know of no other country where a capital city such as Melbourne, Sydney or Adelaide can be blackened by the smoke of bushfires, or the heat from the inland. You are continuously aware of the landscape it is the generator of our culture, our myths and legends. It was the generator of the myths of the aboriginal people before us.

We are shaking off our inferiority complex. The influences of the various ethnic groups in Australia are yet to be realized. We have until recent times been dominated culturally by our Anglo-Saxon and European backgrounds. It will be exciting to see how an Australian architect comes to grips with the influx of Asian migrants and their culture and a realization of the position of Australia within an Asian region and the Asian landscape for the landscape of Australia has an essential Asian quality.

Hardy Wilson was the first architect to enunciate the hope that one day Australian architecture would respond to Asian influences. He saw Australian architecture as a phoenix rising out of the ashes creating new, vigorous and exciting works expressive of the ideals of the new Australia.

The previous great change in the world took place when Copernicus showed that the sun, rather than the earth, was the centre of the solar system and at the same time geographic discoveries created upheavals in philosophy, beliefs and living. The result was a series of artistic Renaissances.

We are reminded that during the last forty-five years, the human race has split the atom and put man on the moon and in doing so has given us a new world view of our universe as well as our infinite number of universes.

In one sense it reinforces the necessity to retain national identities as part of our most important microcosm. It could be that we are coming out of the dark into an age of enlightenment and that we are on the brink of a Renaissance which takes full advantage of the technical progress made during the last forty years. The realization of invention between 1900–1940 is with us now. The forty years next will prove to be most exciting. The most important philosophical difference between us and our forefathers was the belief that all problems would be solved by technology. We do not believe this, but instead place great influence on the UMI spirit and its determination to create a better world.

We all have the task ahead. Mr President, as I have tried to say, I am a great believer in creating the art of which future generations of Australians will be proud.

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