Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Who are you calling ugly?
We’ve let architects have their heads and we’ve tried imposed planning. But, until we learn to be true to who we are, the cringe of Australian Ugliness is here to stay.
It’s something we’ve all done. Arrived back sassed-up from some overseas jaunt to that familiar mix of delight and dismay. Delight at the bare-armed, open-faced, eucalypt-spiced up-beatness of the joint; dismay at the general crudity of cultural product.
Australians, when we see ourselves afresh, look healthy, lean and likeable and badly dressed, badly shod and badly housed. In ourselves, as in our cities and in our industry, we are gifted in the raw material department. But when it comes to adding value, we persistently underperform. It’s that heart-sinking feeling of seeing a beautiful pair of Italian shoes, just so soigne, copied faithfully in every detail except for the crucial one that anchors the entire design. And concluding, however reluctantly, that it must be a local job.
This is not stuff we want to know. When the likes of Donald Horne point to Australia’s “lingering Puritanism . . . triumphant mediocrity and . . . sheer dullness of life” (The Lucky Country), we wrap them in benevolent misunderstanding and, missing the ironic intent, proceed as before. Mercifully, too, since the dismay survives only a few days before succumbing to habituation, it can be written off as a combination of jet lag and cultural cringe.
So, is there a peculiarly Australian ugliness as distinct from the Parisian, Californian or Guatemalan variety? The Australian cultural critic, Robin Boyd , thought so. His influential 1960 rant, The Australian Ugliness, flitted fearlessly across our cities and suburbia, our cultural and intellectual life, our manners and customs, before settling on our architecture. Boyd’s analysis was discursive in the extreme, but his broad diagnosis of Australia’s design disease from city planning to landscape to architecture to product design was collected in his special coinage, “featurism”.
Featurism was “a nervous architectural chattering . . . and evasion of the bold, realistic, self-evident, straightforward, honest answer to all questions of design and appearance in man’s artificial environment”. It was, in a word, kitsch.
Boyd wasn’t alone. In 1958, English-born John Pringle, between Sydney Morning Herald editorships, noted that “the natural ability of Australians is extraordinarily high”, but also that if “culture is to be judged by the general standard of education and the arts among the population, once again it must be said that Australia has little or none. Indeed, there is a terrifying crudity in the manners and pursuits of the masses, whose intellectual interests seem almost entirely limited to the study of racing form.” Australian writers, observed Pringle, lead lives as lonely and isolated as the early explorers, with “no Bloomsbury or Left Bank, no life of the cafe or the salon”.
When it came to built form, Pringle was positive, in a negative way. Describing ours as “some of the ugliest suburbs in the world”, he noted, nonetheless, that “architecture, rather surprisingly, is the modern art which seems to appeal most easily to the Australian public”. With a touch of the terra nulliuses, he put this down to the “lack of good buildings of an earlier period”, so that “no sentiment hampers the sweeping away of old houses to make way for shining rectangles of glass and steel and aluminium”. How right he was. And how reviled for it.
But Pringle, and most of the rest, were foreigners. Boyd, on the other hand one of the Boyd art family was, like Horne, home-grown . So we are obliged to at least ask: was he right? And have we changed?
Most of us would probably answer yes to both. But if so, why, how and how much? Was the Australia we were making at mid-century really ugly if “really ugly” means anything or was it a matter of perception? Whose perception ours or theirs? Was it a cringe thing? And since then, has the product changed so profoundly, or just the way we see it? Unanswerable, but all the more interesting for that.
Wordy but eloquent, Boyd saw Australia’s “devastating combination of unconcern with essential form and over-concern with features”, our “engrossing desire for conspicuous wealth”, as direct outgrowths of our convict origins reinforced by each social wave since.
Thus the “fabric of myths” of Australia’s Gothic Revival period were based on the ostentation of gold. The Queen Anne (or, in tamer form, Federation) “strange hybrid domestic style of red bricks, turrets, gables, bay windows and pointed spires”, was based on the desire for suburban-puritan respectability. Then there was Moderne, “a fidgety sort of iconoclastic, Beatnik aberration” that was nonetheless “as Australian . . . as spaghetti on toast”, representing an eclectic vogue for eye-catching conformism.
The common thread is denial, the desire to camouflage reality. “Well-adjusted people,” writes Boyd, “whether peasants or princes, who are content to appear what they are, scorn display and are not tempted by featurism.” Visually alert people may be tempted, but know they mustn’t. We Australians, neither well-adjusted nor visually alert, and suffering “a slightly neurotic condition brought about by loneliness”, scarcely register how much and how often we indulge. Featurism is not solely Australian, but is more pronounced here because of our visual illiteracy and cultural insecurity.
Strong stuff, all right. Brave man. But Boyd’s polemic presumed a privileged, waspish viewpoint that seemed to imply a grasp of truth. The logic was simple: ugliness was not the absence of beauty so much as the absence of truth. Kitsch, or featurism, was the radio designed to look like a tomato, the hypermart that looked like a temple.
For us, though, truth itself is a vexed notion. It is no longer adequate just to point the finger at fake brick and plastic bougainvillea; at castellated carports, witchy turrets and stolid suburban Doric. Take St Mark’s Darling Point, or any of our treasured Blackets. Boyd’s sham Gothic Revival is our genuine sacred heritage. One era’s fake is another’s authenticity. One era’s kitsch is another’s art.
But, in these relativist times, candour is still meaningful. We no longer believe in canons of beauty the classical Orders, the golden mean, Le Corbusier’s “modulor” proportioning system. Contemporary culture has deregulated both beauty and ugliness to a point where everything is perfect.
So ugliness is not just pretence, but pretentiousness: pretence in the service of self-aggrandisement. This is not class-specific, though it does appear to be liberated by wealth. Affluence has spread ugliness around our suburbs like, well, effluence. From Bellevue Hill to Balmain Shores, from Newington to Kellyville, the nonsense levels in our architecture I use the word loosely show direct dollar-proportionality.
Let’s go back a bit. The Greek villages, Tuscan monasteries and Sicilian hilltowns we so admire for their unity of form and material were moulded by poverty and oppression. Their serfs and peasants had no greater skills or education than we probably less and yet their collective product has an enduring beauty that we admire but cannot emulate.
Though goodness knows we try. Siena, for example, as a rare instance of beauty resulting from town planning by local government, is the subject of endless research. How did they do it? Why, with our infinite resources and surgically enhanced IQs, can we not make anything a 10th as beautiful? How can wealth destroy taste?
Freedom, is the short answer. We take freedom, most especially freedom of choice, as an unmixed good and a God-given right. Perhaps it is. But the freedoms of democracy have done less than nothing for architecture or town-making. From Mykonos to Paris, traditional towns and cities owe their beauty to the combined corsets of technological deprivation, material limitation, ignorance, poverty and social rigidity. That is, the absence of choice.
Conversely, the blousy cacophony of modern suburbia is a direct result of democracy as the crummy outskirts of all those picturesque European towns attest. Never mind the propaganda. Cities cannot be effectively planned, much less made beautiful, by democratic government. Indeed, the democratic process, and the given power balance, make effective planning impossible (for which, a heartfelt prayer of thanks). This is another thing we don’t want to know.
Denial of this kind becomes a survival mechanism. The selective blindness noted by Boyd in 1960 and still present, is a simple evolutionary adaptation for surviving the modern suburb. As capitalism gradually off-loaded power from the centre to the individual, as we became freer to do as we pleased, Galbraith’s famous dictum of “private wealth and public squalor” grew increasingly apparent.
Selective blindness is the collective lens that allows us to travel the modern urbanscape, from home to cafe to shopping centre, without slitting our wrists at the unrelieved ugliness between. Mentally, we move from interior to interior, without ever crossing a threshold. Street? What street? Public space? Where?
So, what to do? It’s not just a matter of tidiness. All the urban housework in the world all the grassed verges, granite paving, underground power lines will not relieve us of Australian Ugly. Nor will the rule book, much as it is tempting to think so. This is where Boyd went wrong. He was right to pinpoint the ugliness of pseudo-culture; wrong to suggest a solution lay in closer copying of better models (European, not American).
Boyd lamented that the “homogeneity that is the elementary aim of the art of town planning” was especially difficult to achieve in Australia because of our deep-grained variety habit. But variety is part of our essence. The myth that urban ugliness can be banished by rhythmic application of Euro-style uniformity streetwalls, perimeter blocks, prescribed materials has merely spawned the petty tyranny that now passes for urban design, as practised by local, and even
state, governments across the nation. There are some wonderfully comic side effects (as in the current battle for the spirit of the metropolis of Gosford: Paris versus Perth like there’s a choice), but it has done little or nothing for architecture, or for cities.
Why? Because there is no recipe for either beauty or ugliness. Templates, as we know them, are not prescriptions for beauty, but descriptions of it, formulated after the event to allow transfer from one context to another (Classical Athens, say, to Asia Minor). This means they can only be imposed from without, whereas beauty must grow from within.
Australia’s ugliness, then, is not about who we are, but about our efforts to hide it behind layers of who we are not. The real Australian ugliness is not the bare fibro shack, nor even the brick-and-tile ‘burb, but the greedy, jostling pretentiousness designed not to accommodate but to impress. It is the death-struggle for the gaspable view, the bedroom suite bigger than entire mountain villages, the vacant proliferation of games rooms, ensuites and studies, the hypocritical pursuit of minimalist designer wrapping for hyper-indulged maximalism.
Kath and Kim, for example, however kitsched-up, are lovable precisely because of their unflinching, if exaggerated, candour as to who they (we) are. This is not to advocate parochial “she’ll-be-rightism” any more than imitation. We are not a nation of Crocodile Dundees any more than we are European or American. The truth, as ever, lies between. But Australia’s beauty, if we do find it, will be a thing discovered, not bussed in; a discovery requiring clear-eyed apprehension of where we really are and what we really need.
Of course, Australianness in architecture has been tried before, most notably in the nuts-and-berries school of the 1970s and the subsequent work of Richard Leplastrier , Glenn Murcutt , Peter Stutchbury and others. That’s fine, but the lone pavilion, however gorgeous, is doomed to remain something of a minority game. It’s the great Australian plight the endless struggle to fit an exclusively rural mythology onto a reality that is overwhelmingly urban. Banjo Paterson image; Henry Lawson reality.
What, then, might an urban Australian mythology look like? Maybe the hugger-mugger terraces of the Rocks or Surry Hills; maybe the soaring modernity of DCM ‘s Governor Phillip Tower or the planar liquefaction of Ed Lippmann ‘s Andrew (Boy) Charlton Pool . I’d like to think it might draw on Australian strengths: openness, directness, a deep intolerance of bullshit. And that it could accommodate Australian weaknesses such as our materialistic tendencies without indulging the urge to pigout on carports, boudoirs and marble-lined bathrooms.
Australia’s beauty, when we find it, will look particular, maybe even strange, but it will grow directly from what we really, deep down, collectively value. And, however it looks, I’m betting it’ll be a close urban relative of that bare-armed, open-faced, eucalypt-spiced up-beatness of the joint.
FOUR ILLUS: One era’s kitsch is another’s art .
Sydney’s diverse styles versus the beauty of Siena, far right.