Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Sydney Opera House: more than art.

Alternately celebrated as visionary architecture finally bringing Australia into line with enlightened overseas thinking, or as an initially expensive, but ultimately very successful, national branding exercise, commentators have failed to appreciate the true significance of the Sydney Opera House.  

Perhaps its meaning and role was more mysterious than first appears, since the origins of the concept can be traced to the anxieties of Europe early last century.  Perhaps it was a subtle attempt to re-engineer the city based on a utopian view of the world, a concept of a building and its role in society formulated by German expressionists during the turmoil around the Great War.

On this reading, the Opera House would be more than just a building but an attempt to bring existence to a higher spiritual level.  It would be a centrepiece of an alternative society, not simply the addition of more bricks and mortar (or in this case concrete and glass) to a complacent materialist city.  

For the ideal of the German Expressionists was to return to the purity of simple direct rural life and, in a post-religious age, to create new beacons of light - new cathedrals - at the centre of these new, more cohesive, communities.  In that peculiar German way, the ideal combined both the perceived organic unity of the distant medieval past, with a yearning for a transcendent utopian future.  Both the future and the past were a rejection of the sordid inadequate present.  Mixed in with this is the notion of the ‘volk’ or the people naturally united into a singular mass, the very opposite of the conflicted materialist, perpetually anxious, citizens of the countries of Western Europe.

In the absence of a transcendent Christian God as the inspiration, these early Twentieth Century idealists fixed their schemes on awe-inspiring geological certainties.  The notion of towering cathedrals of light merged with images of lofty mountains and conglomerations of primeval crystalline forms.  What could be more uplifting than great height, openness, and all enveloping light?  In contrast to the previously stable, balanced, harmonious forms, the new ideal was dynamic, rhythmic, unified and directional.

Of course, it is hard to argue that it was a conscious scheme by the Utzon or anyone else, but the lineage is apparent from a quick skip through a sequence of images perhaps beginning as far back as Caspar David Friedrich’s painting of a mountainous collection of crystalline ice shards (The Sea of Ice, 1824) to the dreamy drawings of Bruno Taut, Bruno’s own mini-crystal cathedral (Glass Pavilion, 1914) and various (mostly unrealised) schemes for public theatres, churches , exhibition buildings by other designers during the 1910’s and 20's.  

The key ingredients of Expressionism are there in mid-century Sydney: roof shells as sequenced contracting gothic arches, a mountain-like striving for height as the roofs build to a pinnacle, the lofty elements themselves raised on a platform of foothills and the clear sense of flow provided by the peninsular location.  Like a medieval cathedral, light was the driving force, but unlike the past, technology would allow more than simply vertical surfaces of glass, instead permitting complex cascading transparent slivers. 

Possibly the final design was the result of the fortuitous accident of the site (providing directionality, isolation and prominence), functional requirements (the onetime need for a stage lift in the main theatre pushing up the initial heights), and of course, a collection of perhaps deeply imbedded ideas about cities, space and form brought by the architect, if only his own acknowledged fascination with the Gothic: the importance of roofs for creating dynamic interior spaces.

If the hidden agenda was to create a harmonious society with the humble peasantry scattered around the shores of the harbour finding enlightenment and contentment in this house of light, moving beyond squalid squabbles over material things to an appreciation of the deep spiritual forces of the earth, this has not obviously happened.  

It seems that neither of the warring tribes that inhabit the shores of the harbour is content.  The conservatives who initially supported the idea of a new cultural anchor (or entertainment alternative) that was long overdue for the city, may have ultimately come to see the building for what it was: a threat to the previously secure notions of culture and society.  Perhaps pushed along by this new cathedral, culture was to become less the safe repetition of lofty ideals, than an exercise in collective psychoanalysis: a constant questioning and re-examination of social ills and personal confusions.  Ultimately conservatives were able to partially disembowel the building  by engineering the dismissal of the architect and excluding opera from the main space, ostensibly the main purpose of the building.  On the other hand, progressives were unsatisfied with the half-realised dream and, in more honest moments, the distant elitist reality of the location and the sails themselves that help limit internal spaces, restricting numbers and functions – not the people’s hall that many may have had in mind.  

Perhaps the confusion and contests about the meaning and realisation of the building can be traced back to the inadequate ideas of a collection of anxious Germans one hundred years ago, conjuring up their soothing dreams in a time of great conflict and uncertainty.  The wild imaginings of a generation traumatised by war, and the preparations for war, were too elusive to be easily turned into a solid form, or at least a form that would provide the all-enveloping calming space and light that they dreamed of.

Possibly in the end, the only unifying element throughout this interminable conflict over the role of the building, its financing and appropriate completion, as well as reconciliation with its creator, is the commercial success of the building as a marketing icon.

Lost highways: somewhere to ‘boil a billy and grill a chop’

Rather than an experience to bring us closer to the land that we depend on, a drive in the country is just as likely to sustain the detachment that city life is largely based upon.  But perhaps, this need not have been so. 

In the long distant past, back in the 1950s, the influential Melbourne-based garden designer, Edna Walling published a book aimed at getting our eyes off the bitumen, or gravel as was often the case then, and encouraging us to stop the car occasionally and absorb the ‘elusive beauty’ of the trees, scrubs and flowers along the sides of highways and other country roads, both the intimate detail and the broad views.*   For Walling, it was the roads near to the earth, closely following the contours of the land, and leaving as much of the native vegetation intact, that were to be celebrated.  It was these roads, where you could properly appreciate the intricacies of the land and the complexities of plant life that couldn’t be replicated in highways that are wholesale reconstructions of the landscape, with beautification schemes using unrealistic selections and arrangements of plants.  In Walling’s world, you drive as much to see and understand, as to reach your destination, taking time - ‘slow travel’ in modern parlance. 

Not that there were many superhighways, that is engineered systems detached from the land, in the 1950s, at least in Australia - that was yet to come.   Why did we fail to follow the path laid out by Edna?

We could blame Adolf Hitler (created autobahns), the Americans (developed super highways to an art form), or simply engineers (for narrow thinking) but perhaps the expectations and demands of the users may have a role as we privileged speed and comfort over insight and openness.  As we focus on reaching our destination in the shortest time, or on the entertainment alternatives inside the bubble of the car, we prefer to be separated from or simply ignore our surroundings.  We drive cars that don’t have to slow down to go up hills, let alone change down gears as you may have had to in the 1950s; cars that almost drive themselves.  When, in the near future, they do become genuinely driverless, the detachment will be complete.  The convergence with other more ideal ways of moving ourselves such as air travel will be greater: journey at the maximum practical speed, in the shortest time, in the most air-conditioned and sound-proofed comfort.  To achieve this, highways will become more heavily controlled and engineered, something approaching a science fiction notion of travel as a tube.  The image of some highways is changing to reflect this: the plastic highways with colourful transparent sound barriers or the short Melbourne sound tunnel that features in so many advertisements. 

In the 1960s, Reyner Banham, a British architectural critic fascinated by the USA, moved to a city dominated by a freeway system: Los Angeles.   With his rather abrupt change (as opposed to our gradual acquiescence), Banham saw that these roads had moved beyond being merely connections, they had become a central part of life, that nearly everyone had to use; all other roads being simply tributaries.#  The system was a separate public sphere, where you could sit for hours in a jam, or spy neighbours to be ignored or relatives that you had forgotten, perhaps like a promenade in the old towns of the old world.   The system had its own culture and even psychic state: a mesmerizing mix of speed, fear, smog, and sociability.  But above all, it endured and developed because of the promise of freedom, a promise that was mostly false, as drivers plugged themselves into a system over which they have little power, hemmed in by a complex layering of social norms, commercial and mechanical realities, and government rules.  

This notion of a highly artificial system purely serving the need for easy connection within cities, of course extends beyond the city until all cities are part of the coordinated universal scheme.  In many ways, the countryside ceases to be an open space with choices about where to go and where to stop, but a series of controlled exit points and those brown signs showing designated, not accidental points of interest. 

And there are many positive aspects that come with this high-speed, highly controlled travel on the earth’s surface.  Like flying over the land, there is a heightened sense of space and the feeling of progressing through it.  We can identify locations in the distance and quickly gain a sense of how we are moving towards these points as we speed through valleys or cut through tunnels, and over bridges.  Car journeys converge much of the way to air travel.

Of course, there are many minor roads that may remain just as they were in Walling’s day, perhaps with a well-patched strip of bitumen, instead of the gravel surface.  In this sense we have a heightened choice: we can travel quickly on the highway ‘tube’ perhaps in our computer-controlled car and then ‘choose’ the scenic route for the 1950’s experience, looking for a spot where ‘one pulls up to boil a billy and grill a chop’ in Walling’s words.   The speed and ease of the former, allows us to get to gain more of the later older roadside experiences.  

However, it is more than just a consumer market delivering more choice.  The scenic road becomes part of a packaged and planned experience.  Our on-line research, or conveniently coloured-coded satnav map, has directed us to the quaint roads marked in green as scenic.   It is not accepting the haphazard, find-out-for-yourself travel of the past, but just another scheduled experience, albeit somewhat slower than other ones of the day.  

The downside of an excess of information, is not the information as such but the packaging, mediation and presentation of this information.  It is information that is abstracted and generalised.  It is less about stumbling upon flora and fauna and more about expecting to see, based on prior knowledge.  Even the most avid bird-watchers are likely to speed quickly to a planned destination said to be teeming with the preferred range of species, rather than meander somewhat aimlessly, stopping at random roadside spots in the faint hope of being able to fill in another line in their twitcher’s diary.   Perhaps we have lost something, not just the chance to stop and let sheep pass on the Hume Highway.

* Edna Walling, The Australian Roadside, OUP, 1952.

# Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture Of Four Ecologies. Harper and Row. 1971

Behind the brick veneer: the biplane house.

Some years ago, Les Murray published a collection of poems under the name of ‘Biplane Houses’.  The obvious implication being that our houses are light, made of timber uprights and steel struts, wrapped in nearly equally insubstantial materials, but also the sense of suddenly dropping into previously bare paddocks from somewhere beyond, or even the constancy of the form: hand-made but to an established pattern.

But, being poetry, of course, there are more substantial themes than these: perhaps the sense of movement, time and lofty perspective, or the cultural critique of our cities as the self-regarding, ‘shiny’ centres around which the rest spin (‘gentrifical force’).  A remorseless cycle of fashion, forgetting, and politics is spun out from the centre in an effort to maintain its position and shine. Murray is about remembering and celebrating the details on the periphery.

These tethered biplanes are interesting not only because of the people and fashions that flow through, but also how people adjust or respond to them.  The poem from which the collection gets its name is about the need to repair an old timber house, in particular remove the plants that also managed to occupy the premises.  Perhaps, it is also about the lack of interest or awareness of the owner-poet in the crumbling state of his roof (until nearly too late).

Whatever their origins, houses have reality only as lived spaces.  This movement of fragile people residing in precarious houses takes houses beyond the construction materials, the form and physical reality that presents itself.  There is a contrast between the vulnerability of houses and people, and the sense of deep history that comes with continuous attachment to a space, possibly for generations, especially in forgotten rural areas.  It is a surprise that something so light should provide such an anchoring for people.

The stripped out remains of an old timber-framed house just before the final push to remove the skeletal timbers of walls and roof would appear to be very like the first framing stage of a newly erected house, soon to be disguised in brick and tile.   But a more careful look will reveal the accumulation of details that demonstrate occupation but defy easy explanation. 

However, with a detailed knowledge of the people, events, dreams, compromises, or even indecisions that went into the place, these details show space that is alive.  It is possible to remember the house as it was used and who made what when: the intention behind an old concrete shower; the laying of a now-broken concrete pathway, later painted red for a reason that is not possible to recall; the undulation of the ground beside the toilet, always to be levelled but never was; the history of the debates about spaces and the projects to be done; the needs of the times, from the arrival of the first car to be accommodated, to the television tower to be installed; or the delight and disruption of repainting traditional oiled boards in modern paints with colours of any choice.

The bare bones of a house don’t reveal all this, only the ‘aged children’ know the reality and on site are permitted that special vision; all others are blind, only able to see the bare bones much like any other biplane house.

The notion of a biplane house celebrates the lightness, openness, and sameness of these repeated forms, recognising that distinctiveness –‘ the narrative’ – only comes with the wearing and tearing, rearranging, recycling, and adjusting that results from occupation and use.  The form is simple enough, and easily modified enough, to allow this tailoring to the occupant.

The biplane house is not an architectural masterpiece that can only be preserved in its purity nor is it a solid brick shell containing change, defying easy adaptation.  Equally, while the famous brick veneer house is a biplane building (disguised in respectable masonry), this covering usually inhibits modification as much as the real thing.  The interest is not in the original form, but in the narrative.  Sharp shiny contemporary forms or unyielding, deliberately imposing traditional ones are unlikely to accommodate a strong story.

The resolute sisters of Provence.

A modern visitor could be easily seduced by Three Sisters of Provence, whether it is the seamless flow of pure stone-vaulted spaces, the gentle and sometimes golden glow from light falling on bare stone, the carefully calibrated hierarchy of elements, or the unfailing discipline of the continuously felt geometric order.  On top of all this, in their current restored state, the buildings play to the contemporary requirement for painless rusticity and explicit naturalness: unadorned stone surfaces underfoot, overhead and on walls; retained mason’s marks proving hand-made authenticity; the imperfects and discolouring that could only have resulted from a lengthy service; the controlled irregularity of the (local) stone roofing tiles; and the now unmatchable position in wild country: if not the exact form, at least the preferred textures and location of a desirable contemporary country house.   

But these buildings are not some easy luxurious abode, designed for the comfort of the occupants and to be envied by the television viewers.  The three surviving intact Cistercian monasteries of Provence, known as the Three Sisters of Provence are the words of the Rule of St Benedict formed into stone.  The same qualities of discipline, balance, consistency and cohesion are found in both the 6th century manual on running a monastic community and these 12th century buildings: buildings designed to most effectively bring the monks closest to God.   The three sisters are Senanque near Gordes in the western Luberon, Silvacane near the Durance River on the southern edge of the Luberon, and Le Thoronet, further to the east.   

The great distinguishing feature of Cistercian monasteries was their sparseness, the rejection of the ornaments and decoration, whether in stone, paint or fabrics, that other orders or the wider church used to glue their adherents more firmly to them.  Instead of visual clues, monks were to reflect solely on the word of God, either sung, recited (during the main meal) or read individually.  Buildings had to encourage this singular focus not only through the near absence of adornments but also in the enclosure and removal from wider world with windows placed high and kept small, though carefully detailed and precisely positioned.  The distracting comforts were avoided, whether it was the unyielding stone provided as the bed base in the brother’s dormitory or the absence of heating except for one space: the calefactory.  The daily discipline of physical work (alongside the prayer), the assistance of lay helpers, the seemingly constant donation of additional land by local lords, together with the order and system brought to the task of food production and storage, meant regular nourishing food was available, something very different to the variability of the outside world.    

It is this constancy of daily existence, undistracted by hunger or the random events of the wider world, reinforced by the regularity and repetition of the sequence of stone spaces that provided the best opportunity for monks to stay focused on their singular mission of getting closer to God.   An efficient earthly ordering of living, praying, contemplative and working spaces provided the best chance of freeing their minds for non-earthly things.  Though, of course, it was ultimately this same ability and discipline to order material things that concentrated excess wealth in the hands of the monasteries and, in many cases, corrupted their original mission in later centuries.

Just as the Rule of St Benedict was not some instant, abstract or even utopian ideal about how a group of people could live effectively together, the arrangement of monastic spaces resulted from experience over time and had to combine workability with symbolism.  The symbolism is obvious: the Latin cross form of the church is the dominant element, with the cloister, ideally nestled into north-eastern corner of the cross, providing the link space, drawing all the other parts together, whilst doubling as a reading, meditation and possibly meeting space (though silence was required, with necessary discourse by hand signals).   The other key spaces of the sacristy, chapterhouse (meeting room), calefactory and monk’s dormitory were an extension of the transept or cross arm of the church (allowing direct access to the church at night, from the dormitory).  This was a tried and true formula, repeated in monastery after monastery, just as much as a modern fast food chain would lay down world-wide systems and procedures. 

While the system may have been precisely prescribed, the realisation could never be.  Abstract geometry had to meet physical reality, whether that is the shape of the land, the nature of the local stone, and even the quirks, interests and knowledge of the local builders.   Each of the Sisters step down their site, adjusting floor levels to the slope with carefully considered transitions that add complexity to the spaces.  While cloisters are all square more or less, they are rarely level and in one case, Thoronet, the form is so distorted as to be trapezoidal, with the expanded (and sunny) northern end holding an elegant hexagonal room for the washing fountain.  The cloister of Thoronet also descends quite rapidly into this northern end, with multiple flights of stairs providing a challenge for perambulating monks.  Silvacane holds the most of the height changes within the church, making a seating ledge out of the step up from the nave to the southern aisle and a rather tight set of steep stairs from the church to the cloister, allowing the steps in the cloister itself to be quite modest. 

However, it is the colour of the stone and the lightness, openness and styling of the stone screen separating the central garden from the walkers that define the cloister.  The cloister of Senaque is perhaps the most enticing, with sunlight able to fall on the double sets of fine columns: a small forest of light-coloured trunks that enable our sight to easily penetrate the supports, as well as sunlight to brighten the elegant flower or leaves of the column capitals.  By contrast, the depth of the cloister arches of Thoronet creates a sequence of mini-vaults, demonstrating that the main vault of the cloister is firmly suspended.  Initially hidden, a single sturdy column in each mini-vault produces two secondary vaults (or arches?) and oculus above, creating a complex stone screen of great depth and dramatic shadows.  With its pink or orange colour and rich pockmarked surface, this stonework the is the ultimate in pleasing rusticity: gentle golden reflected light thrown on to heavily textured and almost irregular surfaces.  This enviable material, combined with the stripped-down, almost 20th century sense of geometry greatly impressed one of the high priests of Modernism, Le Corbusier, when he was after inspiration for his own monastery (Sainte Marie de La Tourette, near Lyon).  

The cloister of Thoronet is almost an exact extrusion of the nave arches of the adjoining church.  Both have amazingly minimal, with a small projecting capital restricted to the inner surface of the arches and pilasters, just enough to define the separation of the vertical (pilaster) from the curving (arch) and reinforce the modularity of the system.  The absence of wrap-around mouldings or capitals allows the whole inner surface of the nave or cloister walls to flow almost uninterrupted into the stone of the vault above: all-around unceasing stone.  Again, only a simple moulding for the length of the springing of the vault breaks the flow and helps control the space.                  

While Thoronet divides the barrel vault of the nave with a sequence of simple ribs aligned with the centre of the piers of the arcade, Silvacane ignores this ‘rule’ and has a unbroken nave vault through to the crossing, while Senanque goes for a more elaborate combination of engaged columns, with clearly defined capitals, both for the arches and for the base of the vault ribs.  All three abide by the Cistercian habit of ending ribs well above the floor to allow for stalls to abut the nave piers.  All churches end in either a pleasing semicircular apse, or in the case of Silvacane, a more stark square sanctuary, though all retain the seeming obligatory three balanced windows.    Windows in general are simple and deep-set: pin-pricks of light in an otherwise sombre interior, with the sloping surfaces of the slits in the thick walls creating expanded pockets of light.  This is a long distance from the later northern French quest for churches to become almost walls of glass, with light, particularly light coloured by stained glass, given some mystical role as leading the mind directly to the immaterial, heavenly or transcendent.  Here it is the building form itself that is to influence the mind. 

When these monasteries were built, Christianity was very old and had hammered out its position on key doctrinal issues over the previous millennia or more.  To the monks, God was not some nebulous unformed thing but to be approached with fixed idea of the nature of his existence and purpose in bringing his physical presence into this world.  So equally the separation and simplification of these buildings is not some ‘New Age’ stripping away of the distracting low grade clutter of the modern industrialized world, with the hope that enlightenment and non-attachment might somehow result, but instead is a strict system.  The sequence of bays, columns, vault spans, heights and spaces of various purposes are all locked together in a way that reinforces the sense of the whole place, and possibly the relationship to the whole cosmos created by God the architect.  

It is tempting to describe these Sisters as ‘machines for producing spiritual enlightenment’, just as Modernism Architects saw their houses as ‘machines for living in’.   However, ‘machine’ implies that there is almost a guarantee about the result, a precision about the method and a nearly infinite repeatability.  Instead, all the original monks themselves would have been likely to acknowledge is that the simplicity and order of these spaces created the possibility of moving closer to their God.  







The fantasies of modern architects: Marx & Mao.

As European capitalism acquired momentum in the nineteenth century, Karl Marx identified many of its essential characteristics and prophesised how these would play out.  In one of his famous quotes, he saw how “uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty, and agitation distinguish (this) epoch… All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.” 

Marx explained how the economic system alone would achieve this everlasting disturbance and how this was essential for the system.  What he didn’t foresee was the detail of how architecture would contribute to this disordering.  In late nineteen century capitalism, particularly in the new frontier of the USA, the constant expansion of cities in size, building height and quantity, as well as the scaling up of the economic, energy and transport systems upon which they were based, meant cities and lives in a state of upheaval.   And all this was achieved without any new concept of architecture.  Despite new building technologies that allowed buildings to scrape the skies, where they previously huddled safely below church spires, the forms remained traditional: stone-faced, with capital and base.  Buildings still played homage to the ancient world, providing a lingering sense of solidity in an otherwise disturbed world. 

It took the first major industrial war, the Great War, to knock out this last stable pillar.  The carnage killed the pretence of solidity.  Just as the Bolsheviks in Russia were making the world anew, ‘beginning from scratch’, ignoring any established notions of societal order, so Modernism would have buildings that began from zero.  Equipped only with their knowledge of the laws of physics, geometry and materiality, and, of course, their heroic imaginations, the Modernist architects would make buildings that owed nothing to previous ideas, not only the now discredited historic styles but also, at least in theory, any previous Modernist form, masterpiece or otherwise.

While the vigour of the Russian revolution was destroyed by the corruption of the centralised system that was necessary for its creation, perhaps channelling Mao in the East, the new enlightened Western architects would allow no such impediments.  Theirs was to be a pure revolution, constantly destroying itself so that it could rise again to a higher stage of design achievement with buildings perfectly reflecting the technology, ideas, and perhaps even mood of the time.  Within twenty years of his revolution, Mao saw the need to overcome the forces preventing its full development (or, at least, recapture political power by destroying the forces around him), and so propagated the idea of continuous revolution.   While Mao may have killed tens of millions of people in this Cultural Revolution (and the previous Great Leap Forward), at least in their minds, Modernist architects merely destroyed blighted suburbs.

However, the attack on the solidity of the old city went further.  Fixed, regular building forms became transformed into any conceivable shape that technology would allow, and usually but not always, what commercial reality would dictate: the support of deep-pocketed governments was necessary to push the boundaries further than commerce would allow.  While at least intended to have its own aesthetic integrity, the relationship of each building to its surrounding buildings, whether old or new, and to the street became secondary.  The traditional street, with it multiple and sometimes conflicting roles, was to be replaced by transport ‘systems’, separated and often elevated.  Most of all the old, easily readable, hierarchy of the city was no longer considered important, merely a left over from the days of commanding churches, parading armies of now redundant monarchs, or more broadly the impression of a natural order that pre-democratic regimes depended upon for their survival.  A modern, democratic, open, efficient, flexible, and exciting city would need much more than this.  There can be none of the old, easy, and indeed ‘lazy’, aesthetic rules.  What beauty the new cities could provide was to be the temporary outcome of the complex and constant rearrangement of buildings and spaces based on conflicting ideas and styles.  So, in addition to the relentless  rearrangement that was inherent to capitalist city development, there was the equally ceaseless reconceptualization as Modernist architects experimented on their cities, possibly in pursuit of some ideal and presumably stable state, or more probably, architects would never be satisfied, design perfection could never be reached.

But, as things turned out, much of this was merely a fantasy in the minds of architects.  In reality, like the political revolutionaries, the civic aesthetic radicals also quickly faltered and their movement became corrupted, as it was subverted from its original mission.   This reflects a number of factors:

Impaired vision and incompetent execution.  Shallowness of the notions of the eager post-war architects, impatient to remake cities, led to early and very obvious mistakes and these failures came back to haunt and constrain the revolutionaries.   When the still young, stunningly ‘rational’ high rise public apartment blocks, so obviously a break from the past practice of cutting land into thin slices of terrace houses, began to literally implode by the 1970s, the game was largely over.  Of course, many towers survive as financially constrained cities are barely able to patch them up and periodically remake them in some cosmetic way, in a vain effort to correct the Modernist mistakes.

Largely the result of the failures of early experiments meant the broad movement to reconstruct cities ended within several decades of its start.  Modernism was quickly reduced to a mere style, the preferred approach of the corporate elite.  Modernism enables these groups to project an image of high technological conversancy and competence to the world, combined with occasional daring experimentation.   This applies both in their work places, either the glass towers of the city centres or the more recently the regulation informality of low rise offices in park settings, and to their houses of projecting glass boxes or sliding panels of marble and concrete.

Dialogue and process.  Architects are less scientists in control of a laboratory than they are one small part of broad process of change and often conflict.  Both the successes and the failures of Modernism at its post-war height created reaction.  In parallel with the desire for innovation, has been the wish to preserve what works, whether it is in the name of cultural, and more recently environmental, conservatism. The fear of wealth, technology and wild ideas overwhelming the historic, familiar, regular, easily knowable city has grown in parallel with experimentation on cities.

When Modernists develop nostalgia for their own creations, lobbying for the preservation of some fine example of post-war office towers, it is obvious that the process has come full circle and that the heroic stage of the revolution is clearly over.

Resilience of the original.  The city could take a lot of knocks and still survive with its core original characteristics intact.  City authorities could demolish houses and obliterate the original street layout of areas which could easily be designated slums (from the outside), but such a wholesale reconstruction is not so easy in places where people with stronger voices lived.  In addition, as Charles II, and would-be grand city reformer, Christopher Wren, found out after the Great Fire in London in the seventeenth century, in a commercial city, property rights are everything.  Existing property ownership is not willingly surrendered and certainly not on a massive scale.  Governments, and other promoters of bold projects to rearrange the city, were often left playing at the margins.

Perhaps in the end, it was mainly a failure of nerve.  Rather than creating the uninterrupted disturbance of the built world and therefore all social conditions as intended, the everlasting uncertainty has been more in the minds of the would-be revolutionaries as they have questioned themselves and their mission, unsure of what they wanted, let alone were able, to achieve: a long retreat into a state of debilitating confusion, covered up by bouts of provocative display. 


William Wordsworth: the patron saint of modern town planners?

It is difficult to see twenty-first century town planners huddled in their non-descript offices dreaming of the birds, flowers, and scents of the fields of England and looking for inspiration from an eighteenth century gentleman as they tick off the compliance of the latest revamp of some suburban house for conformity with some obtuse and absurd twentieth century rule designed to prevent the slim possibility of the applicant seeing the private behaviour of their neighbour in their personal open space.  But evidently, this is what they do.

Perhaps muttering under their breath as they search for the relevant sub clause:

Up with me! Up with me into the clouds!

For thy song, lark, is strong;

Up with me, up with me into the clouds!

Singing, singing,

With all the heav’ns about thee ringing,

Lift me, guide me, till I find

That spot which seems so to thy mind!

(To a Sky Lark, Spring 1802)

For in their work, they are channelling William Wordsworth, the great English poet and would-be town planner.  The rules of how to preserve or create a pleasant and satisfying garden suburb were set out more than 200 years ago by the Lakes District poet.  At least in their original sense, suburbs were an attempt to return to the country, houses set in a pleasant rural setting, but nestled close to the conveniences of an urban centre.  Perhaps instead of hundreds of pages of perverse prescriptions, all the protagonists in suburban planning dramas might consider reading from the text of St William of Grasmere.  In his Guide to the Lakes of 1810, Wordsworth explained how the integrity and beauty of a rural landscape should be preserved, as these areas were even then threatened by insensitive development.  For Wordsworth, Nature constructs such beautiful country scenes in a number of ways: 

‘Insensible gradations’:  Unlike the superficial ordered art of man, Nature has no ‘strong lines of demarcation’.  Instead, there are ‘fine gradations by which in Nature one thing passes away into another, and the boundaries that constitute individuality disappear in one instance only to be revived elsewhere under a more alluring form.’  Unlike a decorative garden, Nature allows a refined and complex connection of parts, with a seemingly endless and effortless melting or laying of elements into each other.  In contrast to the gardens then being filled with foreign trees, all planted together, tendered and perfectly selected for the location, natural forests began randomly from deposited seeds and the layering of the staged growth, and produced trees that are fashioned as much by their neighbours as any other natural conditions.  While the plants of nature may flow together without sharp distinctions, this does not create an undifferentiated singular mass.  Instead bare mountains, where wind and cold prevent the tree coverage of the lower lands, provide a focus.  Human forms such as church steeples can also be a valuable highlight, as opposed to a ‘discordant object’ such as a newly erected gentleman’s house located on a prominent hillside.

‘Variegated landscape’:  The randomness of the formation of soil types, stony patches, and land steepness ensures a pleasing ‘intermix of wood and lawn, with a grace and wildness which it would have been impossible for the hand of studied art to produce’.   In an effort to avoid flooding, and perhaps benefit from the most sheltered position, or the best veins of soil, houses are clumped together on the side of the surrounding hills not simply scattered across the valley bottoms.  There is diversity to the form of the houses as only materials immediately on hand are used.  Houses are changed over long time by a succession of owner-builders, and so appear to grow by instinct without following any fixed notions of form.   The rough texture of these houses and their uneven form allow them to be ‘clothed in part with a vegetable garb’ and ‘appear to be received into the bosom of the living principle of things’.

‘Multiplicity of symmetrical parts united in a consistent whole’:  For the whole scene to work well, there needs to be the balance of both the grand prospect and the enticing immediate details.  The sublime, broad, and massive forms of the mountains and valleys contrast with the beauty of the details along the lakeside edge, details such as small seasonal rivulets depositing gravel and subtly changing the lake form, and indeed the water surface at times.  The lakes of William’s area were formed in broad valleys that allowed well-proportioned bodies of tranquil water as opposed to rapidly flowing rivers, thereby creating ‘that placid and quiet feeling that belongs peculiarly to the lake’ with its attendant ability to reflect clouds and hills and express changes in light and atmosphere.

As Wordsworth’s explanation of the Lakes District shows, the perfect country scene is one formed over a long time, by few people with limited resources, if not subsistence living, with predominantly local communications and influences, but above all, a necessary acceptance of natural constraints.  Despite their pretence to being part of nature, modern suburbs are the very opposite.  Contemporary suburbs can be formed almost instantly, with considerable resources and almost limitless information allowing a vast ever changing smorgasbord of styles, materials, colours, and technologies.  Far from feeling the firm hand of nature guiding the choice of location, form, plantings or scale, the suburbanite is free to express individual style collecting the available elements together in some hitherto unconsidered combination, though set firmly within the logic of the layout of streets, services, conventions and innumerable rules or laws.  The contemporary suburb is an industrialised, commercialised landscape just as much as the nearby industrial estates or commercial centres are.

Saint William understood the inevitability of human presence but thought that the ‘invisible hand of art should everywhere work in the spirit of Nature’.  Even then, before industrialisation had moved into full steam, he was concerned about the encroachment of red-tiled ‘flaring’ gentlemen’s houses and alien improvers.  These houses with a desire for prospect - height and prominence -, he contrasted unfavourably with the receding peace, comfort and shelter of traditional houses, thinking that a desire for lines and formality showed an ignorant mind.   A careful understanding of nature revealed harmony to be the delicate balancing of individuality and commonality, the large and the small, and fine gradations set within broad contrast. 

But given the transition from the constraints of pre-industrial poverty to the many alternatives that the extreme wealth and technological capacity of recent times provide, how could we expect Nature to remain dominant and continue to shape our spaces?   In the absence of an alternative, the shaping of the suburbs has to become a conscious human thing but there is no single guiding hand.  Those who have nominally been given the role – the town planners – inevitably fail to live up to the ideals of their saint.  Their powers are too limited.  There is no meaningful sustainable consensus about all the elements necessary to replicate the actions of nature.  Planners are thwarted by the very nature of the process.  While at one moment we may want to imbibe ‘the spirit of Nature’, listening to bird songs or watching the complexity of light playing on a lake surface or clouds rolling over a mountain edge, at another, we seek the distraction of other forms of entertainment.  There are inevitably more resources, more connections and more ideas than a subsistence lifestyle can provide and these divert us from the natural path, making ever larger houses, with ever more exotic forms.  The ability to gain greater levels of convenience, comfort, safety, and pleasure that comes with wealth, takes us further from the realities of the perfect natural rural scene with its alternately dusty and muddy roads, unmade pathways, ill-defined unfenced boundaries, damp crumbling houses, randomly unkempt corners or fields, and irregular plots of land.

In his book, Wordsworth had a lot to say about the colours of houses, searching hard for a reliable rule to be followed.  Clearly, the ideal would have been to have colours that imbedded houses in the their location, and so reflected the colours of the nearby soils, rocks and plants.  However, Wordsworth understood that some rock colours in particular were so obviously inappropriate – likely to produce more discordance than fine gradation - that he could find no firm principle and in the end merely settled for ‘a warm tint’ that ‘would not disturb but would animate the landscape’.  In their range of brown to cream coloured brickwork, the builders of Australian suburbs seem to have taken the poet at his word.  If anything, the pursuit of the perfect warm tint has become a national obsession.

Perhaps it is time that we gave up this pursuit of natural beauty and the attendant desires for protective pyramidal roofs, cosy cul-de-sacs, serpentine streets, pallid nature strips, and most of all, obligatory boundary setbacks that create desolate would-be gardens or unnecessary service spaces.  Suburbs are not a replica of some tranquil harmonious rural place.  They have the thinnest veneer of a natural setting that does little to hide the reality of discordant objects and flaring colours overlaying pervasive regularity and relentless repetition.

So why maintain the pretence?  We could give this all up and accept that suburbs are human-created cities.  St William could remain the patron saint of rural planners, but suburban planners could look to some pre-romantic figure such as such as Leon Battista Alberti , that great Renaissance figure who managed to be both an architect and a poet (and many other things).  It is doubtful that Alberti would even have understood the romantic notion of Nature promulgated by Wordsworth and his ilk.  In Renaissance Italy, the city was an ideal and was to be built for humans to human standards.

But we are unlikely to be able to make this mental shift.  The trouble is that Wordsworth and the other purveyors of the picturesque have locked us into a process of continuous picture making, as we unconsciously gather all the clutter of suburbia and elsewhere into a comprehensive visual whole, and judge the worth of the resulting scene by some standard created either in the distant past or at least in some faraway place.  So if we are to give up the attempted identification of suburbs with natural beauty, some other ready-made notion of beauty will inevitably be substituted.  Perhaps we will end up following recent Chinese practice and attempt to recreate compact traditional villages modelled on whatever happens to gain our attention as a result of the random processes of pulsating visual media or the accidents of world travel.  Even Wordsworth would have found the notion of suburbia modelled on the genuinely beautiful naturally-created pre-industrial landscapes to be absurd.   Wordsworth accepted that in the featureless plains, away from where the strong hand of Nature was felt, houses themselves would be the feature and perhaps humans could apply their own standards of beauty.


Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Is the increasingly inbred Australian house losing its vigour?

How do you invent a housing style for Europeans on a new continent?   Obviously, you don’t begin from scratch, plucking notions out of the ether.  Inevitably, you bring the basic impulses with you.  But having done that, the housing type must succeed in its new habitat for which there is no reason to believe that it will be suited.   The key words become adapt, improve, evolve, adjust, tinker, fine-tune, develop and so on.
One of the dominant lineages of the Australian houses began in merry old England, only to be resuscitated by the Victorian romantics, before being reproduced in the famously harsh antipodean environment, thereby developing its own energy.  It was a hodgepodge of desirable domestic attributes, jumbled together to suggest the informal, usually rural, contentedness that was required for the developing suburbs.  Sometimes misleadingly called Queen Anne (implying the early 18th century), it was mainly a mixture of Tudor (16th century), perhaps Gothic (15th century and before) with some old ‘foreign’ influences thrown in.  William Morris in the thick of the confusion which was Romanticism (mixing medievalism, socialism and high-end hand-made homewares), built the famous Red House in Kent, stripping away fussy Victorian formality, leaving bare bricks, simple timber windows and exposed beams  – all of which has found at least some resonance in Australian houses.   
When the English model landed on our shores, it quickly added some shading appendages (verandah roofs), took on a little nationalistic flavour for a time (Federation houses), relaxed a bit during the 1920s (absorbing some Californian flavour), though still preserving some half-timbering into 1940s, before being cleaned up and made ‘modern’ by the 1950s.  By the 1970s, there was perhaps a desire to return to something closer to its primitive origins, but without the original stylistic flourishes.  And, that is to ignore many twists and turns in the stylistic shifts during nearly a century of development.    
The pattern was a mixture of referral to earlier versions of itself and bringing in new ideas, usually, but always, borrowed from current dominant global cultural centre.   It was an amalgam of any indicators of essentially soothing domesticity.  While the stying changed, common elements were recycled.  These included the dominant asymmetrical form most often in bare brick, with the main front projecting towards the street often softened by a bay window, or at least an effort at a decorative window statement.  This ‘L’ shaped form controlled the flow of the winding pathway from the front gate to the verandah and a wooden door nestled in the recess of the shape.  Chimneys hovering over the roof, caste iron or timber screening for valences or balustrades, and tiled hipped or gabled roofs completed the composition.  Features were often unconnected to their original rationale, but nevertheless reinforced the essential message; decorative devices that added character and were not simply optional extras but controlled the composition.  Without these devices, houses would lose their power to provide comfort, reassurance, identity, character, individuality or distinctiveness.
Under the regime of European Modernism after the war, (nearly) everyone accepted that decoration was a crime and these ‘features’ were largely dropped.  Brown brick walls, and windows with their frames cut to a minimum, were reduced to vast planes of unadorned materials, though still kept under a comforting, though shallow, tiled roof.   The Glengarry House developed by AV Jennings in the early 1960s is perhaps this post-war, modern house at its high point.  However, all did not come on-board:  a kind of neutered bay window sometimes remained; small, obviously superfluous, edges of decorative trimmings crept onto verandahs; and roof ends retained a hint of half-timbering or barely visible finials.            

The free placement on the generous block of land meant a complex relationship with the garden and the street setup by the form of house, any projecting window bays, the positioning of openings, or simply orientation towards the sun.  And this built form, and even more importantly the surrounding gardens, were never static, instead were characterised by improvisation and continual change.  At its best, the suburban house was not an inert, highly polished and exquisitely finished object, but in a continual state of reinvention as projects big and small were undertaken to adjust to changing fashion, family or functional requirements.   Houses and gardens could be untidy, with improvised details and informal elements creating what some describe as a ‘vital ungoverned energy’ in the suburbs.
Where are we now?  Under the dead hand of developers, houses have been reduced to mere facades spread across the entire diminished block, with empty features unconnected to anything, either the idealised past or the essential notion of a house.  Suburbs have become ordered things, packaged, produced, static, and locked-in.  There has always been inbreeding and the modernist anti-ornamentation crusade has been underway for a long time, so what is different now?   Perhaps it is the accelerated design development where products must be differentiated in the smallest ways but kept to a standard method.  Decoration is applied without being decoration in the old sense: houses sprouting random lumpy cuboid appendages, perhaps with the faint allusion to a column or portico. 
Ancient royal families learned about inbreeding the hard way.  Centuries of marriages between close relatives sometimes led to mental degeneration, infertility, and the eventual extinction of the entire bloodline.   Similarly, the signs are that the Australian house is going the same way as designers, builders or owners have run out of ideas, new viable influences or simply the imagination to recycle old motifs in creative workable ways.   Or, perhaps it not inbreeding as such but rather the modern desire to have it all and breed for all sought-after characteristics, so that the one house can both hint at formal frontal urbanity (symmetry and stripped down porticos) as well as relaxed rusticity (asymmetry, protective gardens and raw brick).   

The only redeeming thing is the much criticised dominant double garage door that must now be squeezed into the competing space that is the street facade.  Rather than the mundane, maintenance activity that might have happened hidden away in the backyard in the past, the open garage door spills activity into the street and breaks the solemn formality of the regimented streetscape, at least on sunny weekend days.