Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
FREE OF THE FILIGREE
MODERNISM, post-modernism, deconstruction, neo-vernacular, multi-decorative mindless mixed eclectic; the stylistic possibilities for architecture these days seem endless. Liberating, even. But perhaps this pluralism signifies not so much a mature breadth of the social mind as some deeper cultural unease? Never in fact has the relationship between architecture and society been more fraught, each side viewing the other increasingly with a dismay bordering on despair. The dismay – indeed, the relationship – centres on the question of history. Or, if you like, tradition
Modernism, rejecting history as an unnecessary encumbrance, unwittingly severed its own roots and those of generations to come. Post-modernism, in reflex reaction, collapsed into uncritical (and largely uneducated) pastiche.
But Aristotle was wrong. Imitation does not necessarily breed the virtue it apes. And post-modernist pastiche, far from re-establishing the memory which modernism had wiped, succeeded only in trivialising both itself and its object. This approach deprives architecture of either invention or purpose -or any direction other than backwards.
What is the answer? Humans are complex animals; at once timid comfort-lovers and brave optimists. Nothing new in that. But how, then, can we produce an architecture which accordingly both soothes and inspires; which maintains our rootedness in history, yet looks to the future – however precarious or misshapen we may conceive our future, as a species, to be? What combination of form, material, and spatial quality can bear as dignified and dignifying a relation to our present as did, say, the Georgian town house, or Renaissance palazzo, to theirs? Is there an architecture for democracy?
This, perhaps, is the post-modernism predicament. And there are no easy answers. There are, however, glimmers of hope – one of which is architect Alexander Tzannes’s small but growing number of highly skilled insertions into the terraced rows of Paddington.
Tzannes is one of those rare creatures; a successful architect who is happy to be ignored. Not that, through a short career crammed with glittering prizes, he has been – or is likely to be – in the future. Tzannes’s demeanour, like his buildings, is thoughtful, serious, and assiduously restrained, but his preparedness to go unremarked has more to do with an attitude to design, than with any conscious erasure of self.
This, as is so often the case in architecture, is a judgment based partly on aesthetic concerns, partly on moral ones. “I love things that don’t look designed,” Tzannes explained. “If a building is too assertive, it tends to speak more of the architect’s ego than anything else,” he said, adding “When I travel, I enjoy the gems, the centres of design excellence, of course. Who doesn’t? But in living my life, I like the ordinary streets. The undesigned has a nice quality – and very often the very best design has exactly that quality, too.”
The moral side of the issue has to do with old-fashioned notions of public responsibility; with a sense of being part of society and offering it as a service based on developed professional judgment which, says Tzannes, is something that “in our training as architects we have lost, rejected in favour of an image of idiosyncratic creativity”.
His attitude to history is similarly unassertive. Some of Tzannes’s work -in particular, the Federation Pavilion in Centennial Park – have earned him a reputation as a classicist (quite wrongly, in fact, since the monument is classical only in its centred, static self-sufficiency; the forms themselves owe as much to Egyptian and archaic orders as classical ones).
At the other end of the spectrum, however, Tzannes works with equal confidence in a lightweight steel-and-glass idiom, within a strictly modern tradition (such as the very elegant Pittwater retreat which won the RAIA Wilkinson Award for a residential building, announced on Monday). The choice of idiom is determined largely by context.
With an honours degree from Sydney University and a masters in urban design from Columbia, Tzannes set up practice with his partner, architect Wendy Lewin, six years ago. His commitment, throughout that time, to responsiveness before style, has not allowed Tzannes to escape the serious architect’s curse- of being regarded at times as a sort of stick-on designer label; nor has it prevented clients approaching him with that heartsinking “I want one of those attitude”, demanding, for example, a Paddington town house in the bush. But it does at least give him the confidence to refuse.
FOR me,” Tzannes said, “the issues are always environmental first. The best inspiration is the environment – rather than the isolated culture of ‘Design’. Prima donna creativity is less interesting, and often just not appropriate, especially on an urban site. For better or for worse I’m extremely interested in being objective about the site. About what’s there, and responding to it”.
All very noble, but where, you might ask, does it leave the architect in terms of the development of a personal style? Might not such an attitude, hobbling architecture to a prosaic prescription of site response, client whim and functional requirement, deny personal creativity altogether? Perhaps. But in this case the reverse seems to hold.
Many architects today are so fearful of compromising their originality that they opt, as society seems to accept and even require, for the appearance of novelty over the real thing. Generally, of course, their attempts are self-defeating, since such apparent newness, being governed primarily by fashion, is not new at all but merely transient and, therefore, eminently dateable.
Tzannes takes the opposite approach. “Ironically,” he said, “the conservative position, these days, is often the more radical.” This in itself is a liberation. Where pastiche demeans itself by copying merely the forms of history, an understanding of historic principle equips the architect with a much more effective tool. Frightened neither to draw on history nor to manipulate it to his own ends, Tzannes is able therefore to work inventively within even so regimented a context as Paddington’s serried rows.
First and smallest, but still perhaps the most ingenious of what amounts now almost to a personal genre, is the Henwood house.
Barely conspicuous in the street, but three-storeyed in a two-storey volume(and area), 30 per cent over allowable FSR and unadorned almost to the point of severity between pretty-filligreed neighbours, the house was very much a breaker of new ground. Says Tzannes: “It really smashed the rules; but the mere existence of such rules showed their insensitivity to the urban situation.”
It took six years to gain council approval (finally given three years after occupation), but the architect, backed all the way by the intelligence and enthusiasm of his client, argued from principle. Now the house has not only won more than its share of architectural awards but is upheld by the council as a normative standard for the area.
The standard then, though, and still followed by many, was so thin and threadbare a version of the 19thcentury Paddington terrace that Tzannes, despite his conviction that urban buildings should be “unassertive; a quiet part of the street”, had no
qualms about fighting for the right to model the house as much on Sir John Soane’s small 18th-century miracle of a house in London’s Lincoln’s Inn Fields, as on the “house next door”.
The struggle was to produce something not wilder, just more spatially inventive than the existing rules allowed. And while Soane must remain acknowledged master of spatial invention, Tzannes’s Henwood house is surely an honourable disciple. So unflinchingly urbane on the street, its ingenious section uses a cross-grain top-lit stair to zone the house into public (noisy)and private, while filling the interior with a golden, buttery light which penetrates even the most shadowy recesses.
None of it was easy, but the Henwood house so liberated the Paddington terrace from its bloodlessly conventional straitjacket that a small family of further commissions was spawned on the strength of it. And the later houses are no less inventive. Another recently completed example, modelled on the Henwood, only more complex and twice as big, contrived nearly to double the allowable floor area by maximising basement and attic.
Street noise is kept at bay with a combination of elegant devices, including subterranean rubber mountings and a two-storey shuttered loggia, giving in effect a double masonry wall, with integral balconies and pavement lights to the low-level living room. This, says Tzannes “is a building about walls. Walls and openings in walls.” Walls he says “are very important in the city. Roofs are important in the country”.
“I want to stress,” Tzannes said, “the importance in a house of rooms. I really like calm spaces, static spaces, rooms that you can furnish.” Such repose very much characterises the Henwood house; here, though, there is a subtler ambiguity at work. The spaces are balanced, rather than static, with a gentle dynamism that derives directly not from Soane, but from the modern movement and, before that, from cubism.
The section is intriguingly contrived once again to allow sunlight to filter throughout. It repeats, for example, the Henwoods’ top-lit stair and sun-and-view-drenched bathroom (which latter came about, Tzannes admits, through adamant client conviction and against his own advice; but which has proved such a blessing that he too is now a firm advocate.
A further three houses, under construction and on the drawing board, extend the vocabulary further still, to include internal courts, elegantly curved stairs, and a two-storey galleried library. (The Tzannes oeuvre, however, is not limited to domestic work; a fully-fledged city office block is also among the office’s current projections.)
Tzannes repeats his conviction that innovation in architecture is overrated and that there is no need to re-invent the wheel, any more than there is for a doctor to find new forms of tonsillectomy. Yet one suspects, nonetheless, that given the opportunity he might easily re-invent in Paddington that most urban of urban forms, the Italian street palace; evidence, if such were needed, that only a thorough understanding of earlier times can ground
us securely in our own.
Two Illus: The ground-breaking Henwood house, and (below), smasher-of-rules Alexander Tzannes.
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