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.

Architects, the flow of matter, and the lightness of being.

Recently the habits of millennia have been overturned.  It used to be so simple: look for firm foundations in the earth, erect walls or columns, and roof the space.  Then you had a building.  But now buildings must be free of the earth, without distinction between walls and roof, one continuous free-floating flowing form that moves effortlessly, unimpeded by gravity, appearing as a smooth harmonious stream of matter.   These are some of the digital dreams of architects, the ones that managed to be realised as in a physical form, and perhaps like any such utopian imaginings, they will prove as illusory and transitory as those of the past.  

Recently the habits of millennia have been overturned. It used to be so simple: look for firm foundations in the earth, erect walls or columns, and roof the space. Then you had a building. But now buildings must be free of the earth, without distinction between walls and roof, one continuous free floating flowing form that moves effortlessly, unimpeded by gravity, appearing as a smooth, harmonious stream of matter. The old-style solid square walls are redundant if only because they that create turbulence and an unnecessary barrier to the easy movement of space and materials.
In the recent London Olympics in London, the Aquatics Centre designed by Zaha Hadid has made obvious to all the increasingly liquid dreams of architects. Here ‘the fluid geometries of water in motion’ have become a building. The excuse for this watery excess is the need to depict the movement of a diving swimmer, or perhaps the surrounding river landscape, or even, on a more personal level, the villages of the marshes of the southern part of her native Iraq where ‘... where sand, water, reeds, birds, buildings, and people all somehow flowed together..’. The Aquatics Centre may be at the highest end of the spectrum, but the need for a gushing torrent of matter seems now to pervade the most humble of buildings designed by architects.

What has created this revolution?

Perhaps it was the modern conceit that architecture should reflect the times we live in. The possible explanations seem endless: a couple of generations of architects brought up on science fiction fantasies; greater awareness of space and the continuity between earth and space; at the other end of the scale, a heightened concern with the interconnectedness of our biological existence (the complex exchanges of substances at all levels); possibly the instability of daily lives lived in a ceaseless flow of information (blame the digitalised globalised age); or at a mundane level, simply emulating the design of new consumer products. New construction technologies have allowed architects to use every one of the three hundred and sixty degrees in their work and the turn-of-the-century economic boom (whose aftereffects we are still struggling with) funded the excesses of this very expensive building style.

While these may all play a part, in the end, perhaps it is just architects sitting at their computers playing with their fantasies and wanting to realise these fantasies in the real physical world. The style represents a triumph of the power of computers where all is without weight, infinitely malleable and, almost instantly, comprehensively re-imaginable.

As in the past, the power of new technologies stimulated utopian ideals. Design became separated from ordinary life as architects tried to grasp the infinity of possibilities now emerging. The temptation to try to step beyond the mundane, the here and now, and the constraints of small minds, limited budgets and the slow grind of current events was too tempting. Reality should become a close as possible to the limitlessness of digital space and the convenience of the ‘undo’ button.

The parallels with the Futurism art movement of the early Twentieth century could be instructive. Particularly in Italy, for people like the poet Marinetti, the new machines appeared to promise an extension of human capability beyond what his ancestors could have dreamed of: enormous earthy speed, escape from the ground into flight, and instant power anywhere for illumination or the cheap conversion of materials. There was a desperate desire for the future, an effort to escape the terrible, backward, second-rate present. Technology could not be argued with: unequivocal, unambiguous, unencumbered by history and the compromises of politicians (and therefore, Fascist).

While some of these new technologies ultimately came to be connected with violence and death, others suggested more of a dull de-humanising repetitious monotony, the opposite of desired artistic creativity. Ultimately, the movement proved to be fragile, merely the dreams of a few, not in touch with the broader realities of the stable political system that was necessary to be effective in the long term, a system that could accommodate the societal shifts required for sustainable innovation. The style represented an obsession with the current crop of technologies, not a grasp of the full possibilities of the idea.

Our current obsession with the flow for matter may prove to have a similar fragility as the current falling economic tide reveals the disconnection of the digital classes. The promises of rising freedom may well hit the reality of falling real world incomes. The enormous cost of these digital dreams adds to the potential style collapse. Hadid’s aquatic palace relied on the old technologies of steel and concrete, requiring complex structures hidden behind the seamless skin, not simple elegant engineering. Solvent governments may have sought prestige projects to gather world attention, but the current fiscally-constrained ones not doubt find it hard to justify the limited economic benefits that any new schemes might bring, particularly as the oversupply of large floating forms anchored in would-be global cities reduce potential returns.

The increasingly obvious broken promises of the new technologies may also impact on the dream. The developing sense that the digital world may leave us vulnerable as much as enabling us and, for all its complexity and enormous information flows, reduce the depth of life as the concern for the surface of things increases at the expense of what Marinetti derided as ‘the old sickly cooing sensitivity of the earth’. It was a pleasant dream while it lasted.