The Other Housing Crisis: Australian architects “breaking” the new pristine ground.

For Architects the individual house, house renovations and housing are a central concern. Housing is a source of income for many architects and many architects appear to believe that, despite the emotionally charged nature of domestic clients and the strictures of planning regulations, housing can still be the site of experiment. A recent publication that I came across is entitled : “Twenty-one Australian Architects Breaking New Ground” the book is edited by “acclaimed architectural and design editor Karen McCartney – author of the popular Iconic Australian Houses series and Superhouse. 

The blurb attached to the book describes the book in these terms.

The stylish cloth bound tome takes a comprehensive look at 21 Australian architectural practices that are leading the way today. The fabulously photographed volume is an exciting design journey which introduces readers to the cutting-edge architects currently working in Australia and discusses their design philosophy and inspiration alongside examples of their work. 

As a young architecture student the gag reflex probably would have kicked in when I read the blurb. I think I thought the word “cutting edge” was particularly galling. What exact edge are we actually cutting here? For me it conjures up images of ritual scarifications and Tattoo removal. These days I tend not to choke as much.

Cutting edge and emerging 

Along with that, the thing I really hate about this book is the way the architects are depicted in the photos. Who can blame them for getting the publicity and being published? But, the book claims to go behind the scenes to tell us what it is really like. But we don’t see any architect mum’s juggling the kids between child care or male over fifty architects struggling in their little home offices and wondering how they will survive when they have no superannuation. The crude emphasis on the iconic object has helped to create a global system of architecture that is overly bound to a clustering of architectural brands around educational pedigrees, patterns of discrimination and privilege, “cutting edge” architecture and “emerging” architects; a cult of architecture more interested in the fashionable pictures of architects than any real critical debate.

A short history of the architect man-tribes

When I look at the projects in this book I kind of wonder if anything is changed at all for Architects since the 1950s, or maybe it’s worse and contemporary architects are pretending otherwise.  I wonder if we are still in that oh-so-nice 1950s version of Australian cities when the children of the depression era parents moved to the suburbs. Perhaps, thanks to Robin Boyd from the 1950s onwards my city of Australia was full of Architects fighting the Ugliness. In Melbourne, an epi-centre of the fight, there has always been architect men like Boyd: tastemakers and shepherds of modernism. The houses in the streets, and the post-war suburbs in the city, were full of these fighting-Ugliness architects. All of them Boyd’s, or mini-Boyds of one kind or another and all Anglo male: Neil Clerehan, John Mockridge, James Earle, David McGlashan, Peter Jorgenson, Ken Hardcastle, Geoffrey Woodfall, Peter Burns and David Godsell. In Toorak there was Guilford Bell, David Rosenthal, Holgar and Holgar, Theodore Berman and Reg Grouse. Many of these names were later to become holy names in the architectural histories of the city; talismans of nostalgia and reverence.

Alongside these above there were émigré architects such as, Harry Ernest, Anatole Kagan, Mordechai Benshemesh (a name perhaps too long to be revered), Theodore Berman, Kurt Popper, Joshua and Mary Pila, and of course Dr. Ernest Fooks; they plied their trade and tried to forget the camps. Then there were the Whitlam men who sought to meld architecture to a socialist idea of community. Kevin Borland, Max May, Daryl Jackson and Evan Walker and Graeme Gunn. Borland was arguably the most adept architect of the Whitlam men. Borland’s idea of community broadened the dissemination of architectural ideas through his work for Preshill, New Gordon House and his concepts for Clyde Cameron College. Arguably, The 70s were the last golden age of architecture a time when the man-tribe architects were still in the procurement mix and could meld together notions of community in the suburbs.

Housing as a contested site

Housing is a realm of conflict and contestation related to gender, class and race in Australian society. Yet architects and historians seem oblivious to this. Too often architectural theory and history celebrates the nostalgia for past glories of Australian housing with little thought. I think you all know the regime, the glorification of mid-century architecture and those fascinating little gems and idiosyncratic curiosities, hidden in our suburbs. Usually attached to one of the man-tribe talismanic names notated above. Too much honorific salvage history and not enough theoretical history, methinks, has led to this particular situation. Little wonder we get contemporary publications like this.

Refugee housing 

In Australia we have arguably created a machine that regurgitates an architectural history that repeats the tropes of a mannered male modernism, a patrician and pedigreed modernism of the 1950s. This current tome seems to perpetuate that. In this swampland of nostalgia no-one really hears any one screaming about homelessness, affordable housing or radical sustainability in the face of catastrophic climate change. Perhaps a greater insight into our social history and housing might be a better thing like my friend doing the PhD on refugee housing in Australia. I don’t think Belle are going to cover that.

The tragedy is that the housing architects of Australia’s past, as suggested above, still seemed to cling to a modicum of architectural theory and still sought to speak about social conditions and culture. Boyd was obsessed with explicating theories of modernism through his work as he slowly sought to build his own framework of theory and practice. The houses of Borland in the 1970s, Gunn’s Merchant Builders work also seemed to engage with the social.  Looking at this book I am not sure if this is the case now. I guess we have Nightingale, not published here, but is that really enough?

Fight-the-Ugliness

This book is full of a whole lot of tastemakers fighting the ugliness with modernism. So many contemporary architects focused on appeasing and expressing the lifestyle of their clients through the glories of big windows, minimalist detailing ala Scarpa and the well-worn tropes of modernism; there are obviously no social contradictions to express in this housing market. Perhaps housing, the bourgeois house in particular, is a bit of pop-up folly-like fun. After all why should the house be anything else ? Cut loose from theory and memory why shouldn’t it just be about the fun of architecture.

I could go through each of the projects published in this tome and put them through a sieve to see if any of them elevate themselves beyond the marvels of a great details and minimalist modernism. There are probably a few projects in this lot that escape the ennui that a disengagement with architectural theory brings.

The worst crime, in this cutting edge publication– and perhaps crime is too soft a word–is that many of the houses, revel and glorify in landscape, with no acknowledgement of the real history of country.  One of the houses published in this book, and I am too polite to name it, reeks of this. The house is named after a French explorer and situated in a place where the worst of the settler crimes of genocide were committed. Yet these architects blithely state that within the house there is “a  black interior” providing “relief from the blisteringly bright light” As Mark Mckenna writes in his recent Quarterly Essay Australian’s have avoided the bright light of a real history. Casey Brown Architecture in Sydney seems to win the prize for colonising the landscape with the biggest range and riffs on the settler shed. Can us architects please get over this sheddy stuff ?

As for the projects, you won’t find any irony in this lot. The white walls and big windows and quirky details have washed the irony out. There is a lot of Paris in the 1920s with a little mix of Ibiza and the Greek Isles. There is a truckload of “old and new conversations” and that’s about as theoretical as it gets. Once you are cut loose from architectural theory you can really have some fun.

Image making and oblivion

Everyone is pretty serious in the publicity shots. Stutchberry (not sure how he is “emerging”) is there with his hair. Millsy is there with his boyish charm and who can blame him for his Facebook adverts; and there is whole lot of pictures of architects with, don’t fuck with us architects looks on their faces, because we are so serious. White shirts, black cardigans, jackets and designer glasses; we are about to go to a wedding in our expensive trainers. A few smug smiles from some. Why architects perpetuate these images and tropes with their hints of understated and aristocratic luxury never ceases to amaze me. It’s like going into Vittorio de Sica’s movie the Garden of the Finzi-Continis. Like the aristocratic Finzi-Continis oblivious to Nazi storm about to descend on them and Australian architects are similarly oblivious but its not the Nazis.

This book screams: hey come and spend your dollars with us and archiects will make you feel good. No need to worry about the vapours of indigenous genocide still rising from the landscape: Let’s just build a luxury home and pretend its a settler shed.