Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Size does count, to architects’ despair
Desolation row is every street in the new mass-produced suburbs, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
There’s nothing like a day in Kellyville to tip your sensitive architect-type deep into existential despair. Not just depression. Despair. Despair of the go-on-without-me type. Nor is it just the vast macpalaces themselves, set bloatedly cheap-by-rollerdoor along what passes for street. It’s the heartbreakingly, wrist-slittingly obvious fact that this this is what people like.
Kellyville, as epicentre of Sydney’s latest and possibly last great greenfield land grab, is the current new-homes hypermart. Not houses. No one buys houses any more. Today’s builder flogs homes, just as today’s developer flogs community. Cohesive spirit included with the games room and the ensuite. And communing at Kellyville are the supermarts like Homeworld and Homequest, single-builder jobs like Clarendon and Jennings, and brand-spanking estate “communities” like Mirvac’s Newbury and Stockland’s The Outlook; aisle after aisle of off-the-shelf homes, right beside the store-bought communities into which they plug.
So why would anyone gloom out over the touch-and-feel availability of big houses at basement prices to those needing a leg-up in Sydney’s untame property game? What could be wrong with sating market desires?
Conformism. And, as it happens, ugliness. The u-word. Leaving aside the environmental downsides of the suburban dream; ignoring the gobbling of greenspace and the greying of air; forgetting the sad irony of filling our transportless fringes with those least equipped to fund their way out of them; saying
nothing of the spiritual aspects of such a plight. Even minus that bigger picture stuff, the objects themselves leaden the soul. Why?
Flip the telescope. Say you’re the one youngish and breeding (or oldish and retiring), mildly income-deficient, needing habitat. In Sydney. You want something nice, architectural even. Something with an idea in its head. But the idea of formulating your tastes sufficiently to brief an architect is jellifying, even without the extra 20 grand it’d add to the price. You decide ready-made is the way to go. Your options include: vacant Hyde Park tissue-box; smart standing-room-only in Darlo or Glebe; four-bed double-brick-and-garage from Kellyville. Like, there’s a contest?
But wait up. It’s when you get to Kellyville that the moodometer plummets. This has nothing to do with mass production per se. On the contrary, the off-the-peg house has a long and heroic provenance in architectural thought.
For modern lions such as Jean Prouve and Le Corbusier the idea that a house might roll from the assembly line like a Spitfire or Model-T perfectly embodied the ideal aesthetic, an aesthetic derived from ethics. Mass production combined visual with moral virtue, bare-minimum styling with everyman affordability. Corbusier’s 1920s Fordist house-assemblage proposals and Prouve’s mobile pods for the homeless (1937), followed by his celebrated Maison du Peuple at Clichy (1939, first curtain-wall) inspired moderns from Frank Lloyd Wright to Buckminster Fuller, as
well as a surprising range of current gurus from Renzo Piano and Norman Foster to Jean Nouvel, Jan Kaplicky and Rem Koolhaas.
Even in Sydney, whose cultural waters have always been muddied by shameless free-marketeering, the idea of mass production carried a certain austere mid-century cache. Sydney, of course, had spec-built pattern-book terrace housing since the mid-19th century, and commodity houses in the ‘burbs since the burgeoning of the great Australian dream post-WWII. For architects, though, one such venture stands out as an item of serious local cult-lore: the Pettit and Sevitt houses of 1960-75.
Targeting the young-professional niche market, Pettit and Sevitt’s first exhibition centres caused regulation-altering traffic jams on Mona Vale Road. Stung into existence by Robin Boyd’s 1960 rant against the Australian ugliness, Brian Pettit and Ron Sevitt commissioned Ken Woolley and Michael Dysart to design a number of smart little house-types whose open plans, exposed beams and flat or skillion roofs set them apart from the typical Jennings, Masterton or Hooker. It was cult, even then, but it was happening.
Then came post-modernism. In legitimising the popular, post-modernism trashed the idea of design discipline. And in popularising historicism, it impelled Pettit and Sevitt’s proto-yuppie clients towards renovation in Paddo over pioneering in North Rocks. Bowing to the inevitable, Pettit and Sevitt closed their project-home doors in 1975.
Since then the market, touted as our guarantor of choice, has proved staggeringly conservative. Especially, it seems, in Sydney. In Queensland, Gabriel (Tent House) Poole’s , steel-framed and clad, was available and for a couple of years widely admired. In Western Australia, James Grose’s prefabricated BHP-steel house shaped similar ideas around a two-storey format. In South Australia and Victoria, Delfin Lend Lease has established a funky house-type with its “warehousing” precincts at Adelaide’s Mawson Lakes and Melbourne’s Caroline Springs.
But in Sydney surprise it’s all conspicuous concupiscence. You would be forgiven for thinking Sydneysiders aspired unanimously to life in some lugubrious American sitcom, judging by the ostentation and unashamed obesity of Kellyville’s serried exurban megafauna. With dozens of house types at Homeworld alone, and multiple sub-options for each bringing additional billiard rooms and interchangeable facades (would madam prefer provincial, renaissance or cottage?) there’s no lack of choice. But all the choices are bizarrely, terrifyingly, the same.
All are brick (rendered if “contemporary”), with irruptive roofs and in-yer-face double garages. All emulate wealth, feign complexity, fake sophistication and desperately crave bigness. One or two modest little numbers still lurk, say 140 square metres for about $80,000. But the Kellyville averages 400 square metres (including garage) for around $200,000. Plus land, which scarcely extends the area but doubles the cost.
Still, it’s pretty cheap, considering you get half-a-dozen lifestyle spaces living, dining, games, family, study (read screen-games) and rumpus (read TV), plus four or five bedrooms, including a “master” ensuited and dressing-roomed to match a small battlefield. If you’ll forgive the analogy.
Nice, you might think. My kinda house. Never have to go outside (can’t anyway, since the neighbours are half a metre away). But there are downsides to all that bigness. Even without the irony of accommodating the shrinking Australian family in these ever-vaster palaces; even without the sheer cost of furnishing the beast, much less keeping it clean. Even so, you’re still stuck with the simple aesthetic effects of greed.
Call me a Calvinist but greed must be the proper name of this apparently limitless longing for personal stuff. It’s not an easy thing to prettify. Even the most talented architects, shed-designers of incomparable sweet-as-a-nut refinement, fall apart on a fat budget. This is not simply a scale thing, but a result of the truism that in a house, perhaps, especially size brings ostentation, and ostentation is ugliness by another name. Exceptions are few. Combine this with the absence of either site or client, and the possibilities for architecture almost disappear. Pettit and Sevitt may have aspired to offer the VW of house design; all you can get now is the six-cylinder sedan. The urgent question becomes: have these fine exemplars of obesity cornered the market through genuine market preference? Or simply through developers’ risk aversion causing them to stick blindly with the proven seller?
Architects need to believe the latter. There is a glimmer in their favour. Capital city research conducted by Delfin Lend Lease (DLL) suggests the market is changing, however slowly and slightly, and that people are looking for living-shells with marginally more grit. DLL’s “warehousing”, in which you choose your tough-ish urban style for placement along one of several designated mews-type lanes gambles on this insight. It has paid off in Adelaide and Victoria; this time next year, after testing at Nelsons Ridge (near Parramatta) we’ll know whether Sydney is up to speed.
Either way, Kellyville should be a shrine of required pilgrimage for architects, students and aesthetes in want of spiritual muscle. Know thy foe may be the principle. But the question, for mantra-like iteration as you shuffle dazedly through those hundreds of marbled and gouty Seinfeld interiors, is how can we still be so wrong?
TWO ILLUS: Not so Kellyville .
a test for the market is the more ”gritty” urban style warehousing planned in Nelsons Ridge, above and below.
Photos: Phillip Hayson