A personal odyssey and the vernacular…

I couldn't wait to leave the provincial Australia of the Fifties with its six o'clock swill, religious sectarianism, censorship and political conformity, I couldn't wait to experience life in the rest of the world.

 My education in the history of architecture had been so lack lustre that I wasn't interested in old architecture at that stage and instead made pilgrimages to see the hot postwar buildings like Le Corbusier's Unite d'Habitation in Marseilles.  But as they say, a funny thing happened on the way to the Forum, and I became an insatiable student of the great places and buildings of the past, mining them for their spatial and visual lessons.

 As a going away present I'd been given a book describing vernacular buildings in the different regions of Italy; timber in the alpine north, barrel vaulted and pastel coloured stucco buildings in the Bay of Naples and those curious beehive shaped stone trulliin Calabria, among others.  I became increasingly fascinated by the way buildings clustered together in walled hilltop towns and villages had achieved such a unique sense of place.  Even before Europe I'd been more interested in mills and woolsheds than boom time Victorian buildings with their decorative iron lace.  Functional buildings suited the modern canon better and fitted with my enthusiasm for writers like Henry Lawson. 

The word 'vernacular' comes from the Latin, and means 'domestic, native or indigenous', and is usually applied to the speech of ordinary people as distinct from an educated or mannered way of speaking.  Applied to buildings it means those designed and built by people for themselves using the locally available materials.  Like everyday speech they are often rough and not always grammatical but are always possessed of an honest, authentic quality.  They always have a real sense of place and a great understanding of what is most practical in regard to their siting and the prevailing weather, the direct use of the available materials and the way all these things have shaped the buildings and towns to fit the topography.

 They've had hundreds of years to get it right, so these towns and villages have a wonderful design unity; they don't suffer from that 'affluent suburb' desire to be different from your neighbors.  However, one can also intuit that (like some affluent suburbs) these towns and villages were probably also pretty conservative and conforming places in the social sense; it's only the straightforward attitudes to their buildings and the unity they have created that is of interest.

 All these cumulative experiences rubbed off on some of my buildings (the Wentworth Church below is often compared to whitewashed Greek island buildings) and they also led on to my lifelong interest in urban design, the design of the spaces between buildings, which led on to Circular Quay, Paddington and Martin Place. 

Wentworth Church
Wentworth Memorial Church, Vaucluse NSW            photo David Moore

 Later I found Le Corbusier had been there before me. His 'Journey to the East', a young man's record of his rite of passage travels around the Mediterranean before the first World War, was published just before he died in 1965.  I had followed him forty-five years later in making a decisive journey of growth as an architect.  It was the equivalent of the grand tour of 19th century men of letters, touring on a Lambretta with a small Paddy Pallin tent. 

 Like Corb I was as impressed by vernacular buildings as the great castles, churches, mosques and palaces of the past.  My interest in unsung 'architecture without architects,' had begun. It seemed then, and even more so 50 years later, that vernacular buildings are exemplars of appropriateness, sustainability and truth to materials and place that we should learn from, and ignore at our peril. 

 Regional differences in building technology have largely disappeared in Australia as the rural population and rural economy have declined.  However a new environmental technology is evolving to deal with the changes brought about by rising temperatures that has great visual potential and which will no doubt be interpreted differently in different regional climates.  And there are also new building types such as science laboratories, office towers, shopping malls and regional hospitals that didn't exist one hundred years ago, which would benefit from a more down-to-earth design approach.

Right now the emphasis is on the practical aspects of this evolving environmental technology but as it is assimilated into the design culture, the visual opportunities will become more apparent, with P/V panels used as sunshades and solar collectors integrated into the skins of buildings.  There are therefore great visual opportunities if design is approached in a straightforward, vernacular problem-solving way rather than the current posturing of façade design for its own sake.

 I've been taking and collecting photographs of our own unique vernacular buildings since I returned home in 1960 and the first of a regular series of articles to record aspects of our quintessentially Australian vernacular heritage is published in this issue.

 My aim is to remind us of the hard won achievements of our immigrant forebears and to appreciate anew the distinctive Australian character of our vernacular buildings. I would like to see us build a truly sustainable nation based on respect for all the important Australian differences and values before they disappear in a hotter, more homogenized world.  And to do this we need to take a strong moral view of the necessity of dealing with climate change now.

 My friend Penny who lives way out on the Budderoo track surrounded by bushfires, thinks I'm too optimistic considering the Prime Minister's denial that it's our coal fired power stations and all the hundreds of millions of tonnes of coal we sell to the rest of the world that are increasing world temperatures, and she is further irritated by his dogmatic claim that climate change has nothing at all to do with her increasing bushfires!  

The consequences are too grave for us not to be concerned. We will only triumph over the multiple inanities of governments and those whose only concern is making money, if we remember that all that is necessary for the triumph of naysayers like Abbott and the vested interests of the coal corporations, is for good men and women to do nothing.  However hard it is, each of us in our own individual way should start making a difference in 2014! 

Don Gazzard LFAIA
New Years Day 2014