Architectural olympics or cultural cringe?

Ever since Donald Horne wrote The Lucky Country, attempts to dissect the state of our culture have almost become a cottage industry, and David Marr and others have continued Horne's critical stance with distinction.

The same can't be said for a recent piece (1 Nov) in The Conversation entitled, 'Building a Nation: the state of play in Australian architecture.'  Written by QUT architecture academics Phillip Crowther and Lindy Osbourne, this article boosts our architecture with a dash of cultural cringe.  

The hook for their comments was the 40th anniversary of the opening of the Sydney Opera House designed by Danish architect Jorn Utzon.  The Opera House happened, they state, 'at a time when we imported European or American culture'.  Presumably they are only talking about architecture, as Manning Clarke, Patrick White, Sid Nolan and Barry Humphries were all in full flight by then.  Forty years on they assert that, 'we are now exporting culture and Australian architects are designing iconic buildings in other parts of the world.'

An icon is a religious painting (usually of a saint in the Orthodox Christian world) and I've almost given up on the incorrect and meaningless over use of the word iconic that the Macquarie dictionary still defines as 'related to or in the nature of an icon, portrait or image.'   Living languages change over time of course, but I'm irritated that Crowther and Osbourne are influencing a generation of students with such sloppy usage; it's bad enough to have iconic bathroomware being advertised without extending it to architecture!

I also cavil at the term 'exporting culture' as though we were selling tonnes of wheat!  And while it's true that Oz firms are designing some good buildings outside Australia, whether this commercial success makes our architecture culturally important in some undefined way, is very open to doubt.

A worldwide jury of distinguished architects chose the Utzon design in an international competition in 1957.  As in all architectural competitions, the judging was anonymous and the jury selected what they thought was the best entry without any knowledge of the name or the origin of its architect.  Rather than setting out to 'import culture' the more sensible aim was to have the best no matter where the architect was born.  I would argue that this was a wise decision and that Sydney has benefitted from this attitude.

In contrast, the two-stage competition for the new Parliament House in Canberra that followed in 1978 chose to restrict entry to local architects.  I protested at the time (to no avail) arguing that if the best anonymously chosen design was by an Australian that would be pleasing, (and if we were as good as was being claimed to justify this move this might even be the case) but that our prime aim in multi-cultural Australia should be to have the best no matter where it came from. 

A US firm who had a young Australian architect working for them put in a design under their joint names, it was accepted as an Australian entry, and again, their design was also selected anonymously to participate in the second stage of the competition.  It hasn't been such a public success as the SOH perhaps, but it's a good building, and was selected as the best of a limited field at the time.

The authors go on to point out that seven of the largest one hundred architectural practices in the world are Australian and that the Pritzker Prize, the so-called architectural Nobel, was awarded to Glenn Murcutt in 2002.  This guarantees nothing except that Murcutt is a very good architect and that seven local firms are very successful commercially.  And the authors proffer as further evidence of the health of Australian architecture, our active participation in the Venice Biennale and the World Architecture Festival in Singapore. 

It all starts to sound uncomfortably like 'Australia wins Gold' and an olympic medal tally!  This sort of chauvinist attitude smacks of a cultural cringe; the best artists and architects have always gone where the opportunities (and the money) were, and we should be thankful that we still attract the best.  But whereas there can be no doubt who wins olympic events, the same can't be said for architectural awards which are always subject to the zeitgeist, fashion and inducements of one sort or the other and quite often give little indication of the lasting power of reputations over time.  While a few of the overseas buildings designed by Oz architects are good buildings, I just doubt whether this emphasis on size and numbers gives any indication of the real health of our local architectural culture.  
Go to any city block, go to Docklands if you're in Melbourne, or to any new residential suburb or local shopping strip and give me an honest answer!

The office and residential towers of 21st century global capitalism have, of necessity, very similar requirements and all use more or less the same materials, so inevitably they are similar in appearance wherever they're built. We may be exporting architectural services but let's not kid ourselves that this is exporting Australian 'culture' whatever that means. 

And when you consider that amazing outlook from the Bund in Shanghai with all those towers designed by architects from everywhere, you can't even begin to guess on looks alone, which of them might have been designed by Australians.  With a few exceptions (mainly houses with corrugated galvanised mild steel cladding) most of our buildings simply don't have anything most people might think of as visually distinctive Australian qualities. 

And the design of more idiosyncratic public buildings like art museums and sports stadia relates more to the current designs of their international peers rather than exemplifying 'our culture' in some special way.  This was amply demonstrated in the recent competition for the redevelopment of the Flinders Street Railway Station where there were some good designs but nothing you might remotely call Australian about any of the finalists.  

Tom Heath, Head of architecture at QUT till his death in 1998, wisely wrote:

'Anything peculiarly Australian in architecture, like any other regional or local style, can come only from the struggle between local limitations and problems, and the traditions of architecture; it will be forced on architects, not chosen by them.  One cannot have a national architecture by wishing for it.'   

The professionalism of Australian firms is the reason for their success and while their fees remain competitive in a global market it should continue. One large local firm for example was for a few years documenting (the term used for preparing construction drawings) very large buildings in the United States because the Australian dollar was valued so much less than the greenback; it clearly saved the US developer a lot of money to have the drawings prepared here!  It came to a halt when our dollar soared in the same way that our high dollar has affected fruit canners in Shepparton and other local exporters.  Indian architects are documenting buildings in Australia because their fees are lower; working abroad is more to do with competence and money than exporting culture!

At the same time as part of a globalised economy there is an unfortunate and increasing trend to bring in so-called 'starchitects' (dreadful word) from overseas, largely (though not always) for marketing reasons.  We can't really complain, it's the flip side of all those buildings Australians are designing in foreign countries.  As the blog Architecture AU reports on a merger between two of the larger Oz firms aimed at countering this trend; 

The increasing penetration of big-name overseas architects into the domestic market is a strong imperative for the merger. The pressures of globalization are particularly pronounced, not surprisingly, in the nation's most international city. In the next few years Sydney will gain new buildings by the likes of Frank Gehry, Norman Foster and Jean Nouvel, while the shortlist for the second Sydney casino at Barangaroo makes particularly galling reading for anyone with a passion for Australian architecture: not one home-grown firm is in the running for the $1 billion project.

While competition may be a good thing, time will tell whether this may or may not increase our stock of good architecture; architects quite often don't do their best buildings in these footloose commissions away from their home base.  But it does help explain why our best buildings can hardly be said to be Australian any more than Foster's designs can be seen as quintessentially English or Piano's as distinctively Italian.  In a global world there simply aren't any identifiable modern national architectures. 

But while all those global office and residential buildings the world over might generally look alike, fortunately there are always differences in the design quality in even small, straightforward buildings built to a budget when you get up close.  Take this recent 6 storey apartment building in Sydney for example. It's located to one side of the Darlinghurst Court House with its sandstone Greek Revival façade, and faces the high sandstone wall around the old gaol that was already Sydney's principal art school when I went to high school two blocks away and 70 years ago.

dominion apartments
Dominion Apartments, Darlinghurst, Sydney; architects GROUP GSA

This is an unpretentious functional building that sits well in an historic area with sloping Sydney topography and has a base course that echoes the older sandstone walls around it.  Several heritage buildings in the courtyard on the southern side were also conserved and adapted as apartments. 
The apartment plans all work well and it's environmentally savvy with sunshades that adapt to the Sydney climate; and most of the apartments have natural cross ventilation to take advantage of the Southerly Buster.  The black anodised finish of the external walls has a decidedly elegant look that minimises the visual bulk of a building that had to meet tough commercial cost standards.

taylor square
Taylor Square and Oxford Street top right, Courthouse and old gaol/art school top left, Dominion apartments in centre facing (from left) Forbes, Burton and Bourke streets.

taylor square 2

But I wouldn't claim that this building was distinctively Australian, and even though it designs for Sydney conditions very competently I wouldn't claim that it has a distinctively Sydneysider appearance either.  Why make special claims for what is simply a good building? 

And while recognising that some individual buildings may be worthy of greater individual notice, there is simply no need to make pompous nationalist claims for the cultural importance of our architecture as a whole.  History shows that most self-conscious attempts to create nationalist art forms, ranging from the wedding cake architecture and heroic sculptures of Stalinist Russia down to our own Jindyworobak poetry movement have failed. 

Tom Heath was quite right, it's not something you just decide to have, nor is it as easy as these QUT academics might have assumed. In fact there may never be unique 'national' architectures in a globalised world.  It's not as though lack of national styles is a new thing, there was a global architectural culture for over four hundred years after the Renaissance!

Indeed some writers on the effects of climate change think that things will get so bad in forty or fifty years time that global trade will grind to a halt and that at that time import replacement industries where we go back to making things again will save our economic bacon.  Let's hope we still have an architecture profession by then.

In the meantime, iconic pronouncements should be banned in all architecture schools forthwith, and we should be content to rest on the simple assertion that we have indeed many good Australian buildings, along with some good buildings designed by architects from other places, …. and to hope that we continue to have many more of the best of both. 

Don Gazzard LFAIA
December 2013