Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Shoebox or gingerbread house?
ARCHITECTURE & DESIGN
The cure for our epidemic of architectural flab doesn’t have to be chilly, pitiless minimalism, writes ELIZABETH FARRELLY.
There’s nothing like a new year to put you into a quo vadis frame of mind. At the same time, there’s nothing like Christmas to bring out your inner ascetic. Nothing like the laying on of too many gifts, too much packaging, too much food and way too much to drink to make you crave a little old-style, thin-lipped puritanism. And it’s tempting, at first take, to put the two together: to propose a new minimalist tonic for our gouty, overindulged culture.
It’s not just the bulimic cycle of buying, getting and getting-rid to which we seem so helplessly addicted. There’s also the aesthetic of it all – carol services modelled on league matches, midnight masses modelled on pop concerts. Everything jazzed, hyped, trilled, amplified and sequined to within an inch of its life. It makes you wonder whether we’re so used to surfeit that we can no longer tell the difference any more.
That’s plausible. We’re wealthier than ever. We live in houses more than twice the size of our parents’, in families not much more than half as big. This is not a luxury. No way. We need big houses, to fit all our extra stuff. And once we have them we decorate and redecorate at the drop of a hat, just to stay on the acquisition treadmill.
It’s enough to make you vomit it all up. But this is just the kind of reaction that gave us puritanism in the 16th century and minimalism in the 20th: two of the least enjoyable creeds in human history, both of them distinctly lacking in jokes.
For me, there’s another problem, too. Minimalism so rarely has any visual or spiritual appeal. My vote for the best Christmas services in town, for instance, (and I say this after extensive shopping around) went to St Mary’s Catholic and St George Antioch, Syrian Orthodox. Nothing to do with content, which I regard with all due suspicion, but everything to do with dignity, drama and a sense of ineffable mystery (call these, collectively, beauty).
To some extent, this relates to human perception. Most of our basic cultural systems – politics, law, religion, even marriage – work from a fundamental oppositional dualism. Why? Because that’s how our senses work. We perceive light in relation to dark, heat in relation to cold, good in relation to evil and order in relation to chaos. It’s not just that these things are relative. We actually need the tension of opposites to see or feel clearly. Without that tension, it’s all just soup.
It is here that puritanism and minimalism let us down. In removing all trappings, they stripped the diagram of its poetry. That much is both obvious and deliberate. And yet both puritanism and minimalism are still hanging around like the class bore. Especially (and this is particularly odd) in hedonist Sydney, where the baggy old Church of England has been snap-frozen into neo-puritan aridity, and where every design mag is filled with the same old pitiless minimalism: white walls, clean lines and nowhere to put the books, the piano or, for that matter, the kids.
In architecture, this insistence that “smart” must be pitiless seems market driven. But why? It’s not that we see ourselves as smooth-skinned, neat-living androids. On the contrary, it’s because we know the perfection picture is false, but want it to be true. We were sold the quest for perfection with the modernist dream, and we’re still buying it.
Just as every bus-side advertisement woos us with the soft porn of perfect bodies and faux sex, the design mags show us the soft porn of perfect environments, implying the kind of faux immortality for which we used to look to religion. If we inhabit – and, more importantly, are seen to inhabit – places of perfect order, reality will follow appearance. We’ll live lives free from disorder, disease and despair. That’s the promise.
But people are only half convinced. In reality, the obesity epidemic is peaking, in direct parallel with the worship of thinness. We adore skinny, but we do fat. We may admire minimalism, but what we buy – for the kids, the parking, the size, the garden, the extras, the price – is the bloated project home, swollen with as many extras as possible. Games rooms and home entertainment rooms, gold taps and marble, and electronic security systems. We call it smart architecture. Smart, like jellybeans and marshmallows and sprinkles.
For architecture, as a profession, this is a serious problem. Architects know they have the tools to improve people’s lives. Many of them yearn to do just that, with more architects than ever engaged in the quest to show that “architect-designed project home” is not an oxymoron. They’re following the footsteps of the great moderns. Everyone did a prefab: Le Corbusier’s 1914 Domino house, Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion house of 1946, Jean Prouve’s Meudon houses of 1950. But, like the moderns, today’s architects are designing off-the-shelf, mass-producible or kit housing for a market that, on the whole, doesn’t want it. And the more interesting the design, the less popular it turns out to be.
Corbusier and others, undaunted, tried to educate the masses into loving their work. They failed, and Corbusier’s houses at Pessac in France stand as a monument to that failure, the clean lines and flat roofs now so embroidered with gables and flower boxes they look like Hansel and Gretel’s gingerbread cottage. In Sydney, Pettit and Sevitt built elegant, Ken Woolley-designed project homes at St Ives and elsewhere. Within the profession they are cult heroes to this day but the inhabitants are suing, even now, for permission to remodel or even demolish.
It comes down to this: for a large proportion of our society, architect-designed buildings look like shoeboxes or chicken coops. For architects, on the other hand, popular project homes are, in general, environmentally irresponsible, spiritually flabby and visually illiterate.
Is there any hope of bridging this taste chasm? Can architecture be authentic and popular? Is it even conceivable?
For Mies van der Rohe, minimalism’s all-time maestro, authentic architecture had to be rooted in its time to express its particular zeitgeist. So, what is our zeitgeist?
It’s impossible to say, but one thing is for sure: these are times of flux, when old certainties are daily being shredded. Even so, the retreat into gingerbread is a cultural failure, directly parallel with the retreat into xenophobia.
The truth, as the dominatrix said to the vicar, is that everything you want hovers on the other side of fear and discipline. Turning the late Western epidemic of architectural flab into lean, meaningful, muscular, optimistic buildings won’t be easy.
It certainly can’t be achieved by architects alone, and in the absence of a sudden rash of self-discipline and visual literacy, out there in the “fatburbs”, we may need some sort of pending enviro-catastrophe for a kick-start.
My recommendation, then, by way of new year’s resolution, is this. Let your fingers do the walking, find an architect, appoint him or her as personal trainer and get ahead of the rush. And have these words tattooed across your, ahem, threshold: fear and discipline.