Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Future shock is muzak to the ears
Our homes are becoming as obese as our bodies, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Hegel was right when he said that we learn from history that man can never learn anything from history.
George Bernard Shaw
Don’t get me wrong. As a holes-in-the-pockets modernist myself I’m not looking for corks round the brim here. It’s just there are things we’re not seeing – not because we’re stuck in some elsewhere history, but because we refuse to learn from it.
Modernism, as a movement and an era, was passionately pro-future and, just as passionately, anti-history. Like they were two sides of a single truth. Even at the time, though, the combined wisdom of the Georges (see above) showed that any future not rooted in the past condemns us to an eternal muzak present. What is history, after all, but everything-to-date? And what is learning from history but learning, period?
Yet here we are, busily recycling modernism in all its unreconstructed amnesiac glory, as if it were the key to some shiny alfoil future. How weird is that? This seductive idea of a perfectible future seems such a quaint, old-fashioned notion – all brillo smiles and Barbarella furniture. Which gives Houses of the Future – particularly the six now showing at the Opera House forecourt – just the kind of nostalgia appeal that modernism was bent on precluding.
The ironies don’t end there. Modern might be the look, but while modernity proper rode a rising graph, these are houses for the cosmic down-slope. Designed around standard noughties parameters of land scarcity, shrinking family size and dwindling resources, these houses of the future are briefed to be affordable, sustainable, prefabricable, materially innovative and, of course, futuristic. In a retro kind of way.
Imagined futures, though, retro or otherwise, tend to feature us as completed humans living generic, fair-weather lives; no crumbly bits, no neuroses. We design for those blessed creatures, then wonder why we can’t make ourselves fit. The goals, then, are not meagre. So it is hardly surprising that these houses rather under-deliver on their promise. Government commissioned and industry sponsored, each house involved a different architect reworking a selected material – clay, concrete, steel, timber, glass and cardboard – from first principles. As one does, in a history vacuum.
And there are lots of likeable moments; grass roofs and concrete womb-rooms, cardboard structure and glass floors, internal reed beds and underfloor water tanks. Interesting yes; provocative maybe; shattering no. Nothing that’s likely to shock or scandalise in the way Robin Boyd’s House of Tomorrow did at the Melbourne Exhibition Building in 1949. Then again, maybe it’s the audience that’s changed, being no longer shockable.
Either way, the Government Architect, Chris Johnson, predicts the six will have enormous impact on the future of housing in Australia. Which is curious, in view of the very un-Australian accent in which these houses speak. Four of the six cite arch-internationalist Mies (less is more) van der Rohe as prime precedent. Why? Are we anticipating a future yet more generic than the present? Are we regurgitating modernism’s universalising impulse, along with its look? Or are we still not over that old convict-denial thing about being here in the first sorry place?
Is this why we think the future needs to be prefabbed, so we can up stumps at a moment’s notice?
If, on the other hand, we choose to recognise and run with the place imperative, we see that one thing a head needs in this country is a hat – not a fez or a skullcap or a backwards baseball job, but a dinkum brim-equipped hat. And one thing a house needs in Australia is a roof – not a butterfly or a slab or a rakish glass skin, but a dinkum opaque roof, with eaves. In part this is obvious sun, rain, veranda stuff. Sometimes I think we need only ban air-conditioning and the entire housing catastrophe would right itself, putting eaves, ventilation, high ceilings, insulation, awnings and verandas back on the agenda.
Behind all that, though, is the psycho-symbolism of house. That the Sanskrit root of house is keudh, to hide, signifies our bare species need for spiritual in-ness, for some shade to inhabit, especially in a big, brown, un-lidded country like this one.
As the Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki notes in his famous essay In Praise of Shadows, in making for ourselves a place to live, we first spread a parasol to throw a shadow on the earth, and in the pale light of the shadow we put together a house.
In this regard, paradoxically, it is Peter Stutchbury and Col James’s Cardboard House that is most successful. Structural cardboard isn’t new; Japan’s Shigeru Ban has been doing Issey Miyake showrooms and Rwandan refugee housing in it for years. But this A-frame in a condom uses the matrix rigidity of cardboard wine racks to produce an interior that is part-tent, part-cubby. You might feel that, at $35,000 for 30 square metres, it’s an expensive armature for a tent, but it’s good to see the material being explored. Otherwise, the houses are mostly boxes, focusing on technical rather than spatial inventiveness and sacrificing real-life liveability in the process. Carl Masens and James Muir’s glass house, for instance, is not just glass-walled, like Mies’s gorgeous but uninhabitable Farnsworth House, but glass all over. And although there’s talk of push-button nanotech opacity, it’s not actually doable as we speak.
Peter Poulet and Michael Harvey’s concrete-pipe house is appealing but rigidly unfurnishable (the bookshelf test); British archi-team Modabode’s Steel House looks cute but adds little to Sean Godsell’s famous Future Shack from a few years back (personally I’d stick with a shearing shed); and Innovarchi’s Timber House is so clever it’s dumb, its self-described incredibly complex geometry being computer-configured and based on a Moebius strip (with reference to Escher). The thing about the Moebius strip is, it has no interior. That’s its point. Really a bit of a problem in a house. Environa’s Clay House, although spatially unexhilarating, intelligently rethinks the suburban brick and, being courtyard-centred, is the only one of the six capable of agglomeration into medium-density housing.
All of which makes you wonder whether the right questions are being asked. The problems of today’s houses are not excessive simplicity or material backwardness. They are obesity, greed, unintelligence; our all-too-human presumption that having three ensuites and a games room now is more important than clean air later. The project homes of Kellyville and the rest can be made environmentally responsive, but most people choose the double garage and the granite sinkbench instead.
Can we change? Sure, but it means pulling in our consumer horns and listening intently to history’s lessons – on modernism and on old lady Australia. The lessons of modernism are: less is not more (it is simply a bore); prefabrication usually ends up being handcrafted; operable walls and built-in furniture don’t work; houses, as nests, must have depth as well as openness; and material innovation isn’t the point. Titanium or teflon would contribute little to humanity’s housing dilemma (though any improvement on the standard Aussie brick is welcome). And the lesson of Australia is that the sophistication level of our response to this spare, dry continent has been lamentable. Needed, a Murcutt of the great Australian urbs. We can learn these things. But current portents go the other way. Resist, or learn to love muzak.
PHOTO: Rooms with a view … an artist’s impression of a house made of glass walls and roof.