The enduring myth of the ‘Australian’ architect

The lazy clichés used to characterize Australian architecture muddy attempts to explain what it is architects do, finds Sandra Kaji O’Grady.

On learning of my recent visit to Stonehenge, English acquaintances invariably quipped, “Smaller than you expected?” British humour has a reputation for being rooted in the comfort of inevitable disappointment. Australian friends, however, were more interested in Denton Corker Marshall’s (DCM’s) Stonehenge Visitor’s Centre, asking “Is it any good?”

January is probably not the best time to see either the ancient monument or the new building. How humans could have survived English winters without central heating is as mysterious as the origin of the stones themselves. English Heritage, though, has attempted an answer to the mystery with four little round huts based on archaeological finds, into which it has installed a shivering teenage docent. The huts are intriguing, but seen through eyes half-closed against the incessant drizzle in the wan light of winter, I’m in no position to venture a belated critique of the building. I am, though, interested in the response to it by critics and what it suggests of the tensions within globalised architectural markets.

The Visitor’s Centre got a lukewarm welcome by English architectural critics (or, more correctly, critics of unspecified citizenship writing for English publications) when it opened in December 2013. Hugh Pearman’s response for RIBA Journal acknowledged the tight budget, site difficulties and programmatic constraints, but in summation he described the building as a “relatively low-key, perfectly adequate if not wholly successful piece of architecture.” Pearman, Robert Bevan and others also likened it to an “upmarket motorway service station,” a tautological complaint given it is a roadside service centre, albeit more elegant than most. Its toilets, souvenir shop and café proffering Cornish pasties and pre-packaged sandwiches serve visitors arriving hourly in the thousands by coach and car. It’s a transport hub used for transferring these crowds to mini-buses before driving them several miles to the ‘henge. Few opt to walk.

The most fascinating part of the critics’ response was pointed out to me by Hayley Kastelein, a recent graduate from the University of Queensland. Kastelein identified that the lightweight character of the structure, although a requirement of English Heritage’s insistence on the building’s reversibility, was repeatedly ascribed to the nationality of the architects. As Bevan wrote in Building Design, “The canopy on sticks is […] a familiar Australian trope, where it is perfect for a pavilion in the grisaille of the bush (or at a waterfront café, for that matter) but not on this blasted heath.” For him, “the Aboriginal injunction (via Glenn Murcutt) to ‘touch the earth lightly’ has been invoked here.” It is an odd allusion, for Glenn Murcutt’s approach, while respected, cannot be extended to the diverse and at times fractious Australian architecture fraternity. The Melburnian commercial practice of DCM, with a prodigious output of work crossing every postmodern genre, shares nothing in form or attitude with the Sydney-based solo architect of romantic second homes in the countryside, whose stylistic repertoire is remarkably constrained. In any case, DCM’s European activities are led by two British citizens and graduates of the University of Edinburgh, Stephen Quinlan and John Rintoul. It is also curious given that Bevan knows DCM’s work well, having reviewed their competition-winning scheme for Stonehenge from 2001, which, in complete contrast to the “light touch” of the final design, he noted was “gouged into the landscape… like an unearthed monolith, revealing itself as a building layer by layer.”

I’ve not attempted a systematic review of how nationality plays out in the critical reception of DCM’s Stonehenge, or any of their other projects in the UK. But reading the reviews again after visiting the building, I’m prompted to wonder how and why notions of nationality play out in architectural discourse today. Why did Bevan feel the national origins of the architectural practice were noteworthy in appraising this building? In the mid-1990s, many academics and political theorists proclaimed the end of the nation-state in the face of economic globalization and the World Wide Web. Kenichi Ohmae, in his book The End of the Nation-State (1995), heralded “today’s borderless world.” Yet, from passports to the Eurovision Song Contest, the nation state has persisted as the single most important source of identification in our societies. The question remains as to how national identity plays out in the context of globalized architectural markets and the practices that serve them according to what Boris Groys calls “universalized taste.”

When called upon to present ourselves in international contexts, we get tied in knots attempting to define something shared and nationally distinct. Many other nations do the same. At the same time, the Australian architectural profession is extraordinarily successful in exporting design services abroad. DCM’s Stonehenge is just one building from a practice portfolio that extends the world over, and there are several Australian firms whose revenue from designing offshore projects is an even larger part of their business than it is for DCM. Far from exporting a recognizable Australian product, like other “global practices” they complete projects that are indistinguishable from those by European and North American architects in the same markets.

Rather than shelve this to hypocrisy or the critics’ response to Stonehenge as territorially motivated, what we are seeing are symptoms of the irresolvable contradictions of globalised aesthetic economies. Just as I referred to “British humour” we each operate with nationalist stereotypes that serve as a kind of shorthand. The problem lies in the fact that the lazy clichés used to characterize Australian architecture, be that “touching the earth lightly”, youthfulness, or an ability to bring the outdoors inside, can work for and against us. Labouring under ideas about nation as a unifying character — whether derived from landscape, history or culture — can obscure the rich offerings of a heterogeneous and outward-looking profession. It also muddies our attempts to explain what it is we do as a profession. A moralizing affirmation of local knowledge is incompatible with our claims to hold investigative skills and cultural agility learned through education and professional experience.

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