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.

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