Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
WHEN A HOUSE IS MORE THAN A HOME
HOUSES have always been, at least until recently, rather Australia’s architectural forte; particularly since the advent of the Modern Movement, which came, from both Europe and America, in the aftermath of World War II. Already 20 years old, it took root like a native. Domestic Architecture: Sydney Architecture in the 1950s and 1960s, the current exhibition at Penrith’s Lewers Gallery, illustrates the extraordinary fecundity of the newly transplanted movement, while inadvertently contravening some of its most fundamental principles.
Modernism in architecture was from the beginning a hugely various movement, held together by only a handful of underlying beliefs: the flow of space, the rejection of superficial decoration, the importance of structure as an ordering device and of
material as a source of integrity.
Such ideas as honesty and openness in architecture were immensely popular, natural allies for the burgeoning social consciousness and generalised privation of those immediate post-war years.
While Sydney painters of the time fell for abstract expressionism, architects here were developing a school of thought which, while certainly numbering painting among its sources, was neither particularly abstract nor overtly expressionist, but adapted the tenets of modernism to an eminently well-suited local climate, both social and physical. It came in time to be known as the Sydney School but began, in the 1940s, as a more direct adaptation of both the white-world Corbusian purity of European “international style” modernism, and the New World optimism of Frank Lloyd Wright.
The effect was revolutionary. “House”, until now, had meant a bigger or smaller collection of bigger or smaller rooms, garden front and back, facing the street; playing the social game. Suddenly, architecture was liberated. Houses could adopt any stance or orientation, turning their faces to the sun. They had open plans, split levels, courtyards, and patios. Materials such as timber, stone and even the humble brick, hitherto assiduously hidden or flossied-up, were allowed – positively encouraged – to appear in all their glorious nakedness, and glass was everywhere, welcoming sun and nature with an enthusiasm hitherto unthinkable. The world had changed.
Nor was the transformation confined to the few. Any art form, perhaps, but particularly architecture, must choose one of two general strategies: to try either to lift ordinariness to the height of the special, or to bring what is special down to the level of the ordinary. Where post-modernism, pleading popular accessibility and “humanism”, has chosen the latter, easier course(take, for instance, the new Parliament House in Canberra), it was the Modern Movement’s heroism – and, perhaps, its folly – to attempt the former, giving rise to current accusations of “elitism”.
At the time, however, and not despite but because of this transcendental impulse, modernism saw itself as a consciously egalitarian, even socialist, rebellion, raising and dignifying every individual against the oppressive authority of atrophied historical habit.
It’s all a matter of perception. What began as architects’ architecture, having engaged the popular imagination, transformed even mass housing -producing in Sydney, for example, such pared versions as the hugely successful”Lowline”, designed by architects Ken Woolley and Michael Dysart for Pettit and Sevitt in the early 1960s, and a constant best-seller until the late 1970s.
This exhibition, brainchild of director Michael Crayford, begins (in contradiction to its title) with houses by Syd Ancher from the late 1940s, and runs through to the 1960s with works from Arthur Baldwinson, Harry Seidler, Peter Muller, Bruce Richard, Douglas Snelling, Richard Apperly, Don Gazzard, Neville Gruzman, Russell Jack, Alan Williams, and Ken Woolley. Of these, early works by Seidler, Richard, Baldwinson and Woolley stand head and shoulders above the rest – partly because the selection of particular works is so curiously uneven, having been affected as much by a want of available material as by any more lofty determination to show the best of the period.
Like any era, this one had its seminal works. Of these, some, such as Harry Seidler’s 1950 house for his mother or Ken Woolley’s own house of 1962, are included in the show, while others (notably Ancher’s 1937 Prevost House, Bill Lucas’s stunning suspended steel and glass house in the bush at Castlecrag(1957), Peter Johnson’s own house of 1963, and Seidler’s own house from 1966)are remarkable by their absence.
There are a handful of paintings and sculptures from the period, but otherwise the exhibition consists entirely of large black-and-white photographs, mostly by Max Dupain and David Moore. The photographs, almost without exception, display that compositional elan and refined succulence of detail that now seem to characterise the era, but their overwhelming dominance(there is one lone plan) points to further ironies unconsciously present in the show.
Plans and sections provide irreplaceable insight into any building, and into none more than the modern house, for which the plan, as Le Corbusier put it, was the generator. It is true, here as throughout the history of modernism, that sometimes particular single images – such as Max Dupain’s of Harry Seidler’s Rose 1950 house at Turramurra – became indelibly imprinted on the international architectural consciousness; bringing well-deserved recognition to works which might otherwise have languished unknown.
But it is also true that such photographs, in consciously excluding the generally suburban context of the houses, glamorise to the point of deception. Sacrificing exposition in this way to the maintenance of the idyllic illusion that was so much a part of the brave new vision, they are more concerned to be good pictures than to reveal good architecture.
The predominance of photographs in such a show, therefore, and the inevitable pictorial emphasis that that brings, can only encourage our already conspicuous latter-day tendency to see buildings as image first, organism second.
The lack of drawings, of course, is attributable in large part to simple scarcity. Even the houses themselves, which elsewhere might be preserved as national monuments, are still frequently demolished without a second thought.
It is partly because of this, however, that the exhibition is so well worth seeing. The clarity of the modern European vision, and the warmth and strength of American modernism are here combined with a gusto that was peculiarly indigenous. The photographs and many of the houses are excellent, making at least some effort to acknowledge an era when Australian architecture came closer than ever before or since to producing a truly Australian architecture
Illus: Max Dupain’s image of Harry Seidler’s house for Julian Rose (1950) … clear influence of Seidler’s guru, Marcel Breuer.