Dr. Christine Phillips from RMIT and I recently presented a paper on Robin Boyd at SAHANZ 2017. SAHANZ is the 34th Annual Conference of the Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand. This year it was around the theme of Quotation, Quotation: What Does History Have in Store for Architecture Today? For the conference we chose to focus on the Australian Architect Robin Boyd; over a series of previous SAHANZ papers we have sought to demythologise Boyd’s work by a close examination of the Boyd archive at the State Library of Victoria.
What follows are excerpts from our paper alongside a call to arms, as we increasingly find our architectural heritage from the 1960s and 1970s slowly being destroyed.
At the conference, we were able to duck out and visit two notable Boyd buildings. The Zoology Building at the Australian National University competed in 1961 and Churchill House on Northbourne Avenue, completed after Boyd’s death in 1971. The Zoology building is finely constructed and Spartan modernist building within it is a characteristic Boyd courtyard.Taken together both of these works indicate how Boyd himself changed over the tumultuous 1960s.
The research for this paper adopted a framework focused on a discursive analysis of Boyd’s journal articles and books of the 1960s to his death in 1971. We chronologically mapped and matched his writings to his public building projects during and across this time period. The analysis revealed how Boyd’s works and writings from 1960-1967 depict a relatively consistent commitment to a universal modernism tempered through a regional lense. This is exemplified in the earlier Zoology building. On the other hand, Boyd’s later writings and works from 1968 through to his death in 1971, diverge into a less coherent and fragmented body of work. This is arguably evident in the later Churchill House.
This trajectory illustrates the degree to which Boyd’s Modernist Universalism changed over the course of the 1960s, his last works arguably expressing a crisis and bewilderment in Boyd’s own thoughts about modernist architecture. This also echoes the degree to which Modernist Universalism changed over the course of the 1960s as it entered into Post-Modernist tendencies.
In a number of later projects Boyd appears to produce conceptual designs which highlight the iconicity of quoted fragments rather than trying to produce an integrated concept. Neptune’s Fishbowl is a good example. It is a project that appears to indicate an abandonment of the principles espoused by Boyd earlier in the decade. This was an iconic geodesic dome reminiscent of Buckminster Fuller, but via it’s use of integrated advertising signage it also appears to allude to the iconicity of Venturi, Scott Brown’s Learning from Las Vegas published after Boyd’s death in 1972.
Churchill House designed in 1968 and 1969 also appears to show Boyd’s experimental bent and abandonment of an integrated and universal modernism. Again, this plays on a dichotomy of forms but there appears to be no effort to integrate or reconcile these forms together. Each façade has a different compositional treatment and the building is not a whole, like the earlier zoology building, but composed as series of fragments.
Churchill House Detail
The sloping glass box which sat on top of the original Churchill has been destroyed. It is only a matter of time before either of these fine buildings face demolition. As with the Sirius building in the Sydney and Kevin Borland’s Harold Holt Pool, not to mention the imminent destruction of Robin Hood Gardens in London, these buildings face mindless destruction.
This destruction is ironic given this is a time when the curiosities of Brutalism and other architectural moments and experiments exemplifying the 1960s and 1970s are rushing through our social media feeds. What we need to understand about these buildings is that they represent an era, if not the very last era, when architecture and architects still mattered. This heritage is now slowly being destroyed.
For those of you interested the French architectural historian Jean-Louis Cohen’s keynote at the Conference was delivered on 6 July 2017, introduced by Gevork Hartoonian. Its a great lecture and can be found here.