Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Blame a Christian hangover when design prophets have nothing to say
ELIZABETH FARRELLY. Elizabeth Farrelly writes on architecture, design and aesthetic issues for the Herald.
Christmas is an especially homeless-conscious time of year. Partly because Boxing Day has a whole different feel if you’re living in a home. Partly because it’s the mobile season. And partly because the entire Judaeo-Christian tradition is, at root, so rootless.
It’s not just Judaeo-Christianity, of course. Most religions involve wanderings in wildernesses. Not just the middlemen, either, but the prophets themselves, who are so reliably peripatetic as to suggest some kind of meme. Siddhartha, for example, did the mendicant thing before settling into a permanent lotus.
But it’s Christmas. And Christmas is still – somewhere between its commercial ends and its pagan beginnings – a Christian deal. This makes Christian wanderings the wanderings du jour. And there’s no shortage of them. Jesus was not only born in a borrowed manger but spent much of his untold life loose-footed, if not fancy free. Add to that the wanderings of Israel’s tribes and the caravan of the Covenant, and the deep association between dematerialism, nomadism and nobility becomes undeniable. Which makes it especially ironic is that Judaeo-Christianity has not just presided over but fought and killed for the most materially obsessed culture in history.
At the same time, for the most sedentary people ever, we move a lot. As the Romanian-Jewish poet Andrei Codrescu wrote: “Nearly every American house I’ve lived in has long ago been demolished to make room for some other building. There is a delicious (though painful) paradox here: Americans long for stability, but all they get is stationary impermanence. No wonder then many of us long to become permanent nomads, snails with houses on our backs, Touareg tribesmen, and gypsies.”
Could we be overcompensating? Is it like parenting, where the infant’s failure to connect generates a lifetime of vain attempts at remedy? Or is it closer to old-fashioned hypocrisy? Whatever the reason, to those who advocate resuming hunter-gatherer nomadism as an antidote for rampant consumption, there are two obvious ripostes. First, the superstitious and fearful tribalism that seems a hunter-gather prerequisite and – a minor matter – the vast population cull such a shift would necessitate. Right back to ducking witches and drawing straws.
Architecture, watching – as we all do – from a position of helpless engagement, exhibits waves of conscience-strike. Again, there are two reasons. First, because building is an irreducibly material game, there is, as Glenn Murcutt said recently, “no such thing as a truly sustainable architecture”. Second, and reinforcing this sense of helplessness, is architecture’s frustratingly but increasingly passive role as corporate captive.
In response, like some neurotic teen craving redemption through dissolution, architecture starves itself. Generally, this presents as nothing more harmful than a certain minimalist gloss, the classic modern will to immateriality that brought us the glass building and the “feathered” edge, gutterless roofs, sill-less windows, detail-less openings and cantilevers with no possible means of support.
Once every generation or so, however, the neurosis tips into full-blown anorexia. Then architecture, no longer content to look famished, undergoes a prefabrication paroxysm. It’s a form of recurrent social conscience where in architects show a sudden obsession with system-built housing. Such housing, they presume, were it cheap, readily available and (of course) stylish would help solve, well, something. It’s architecture’s way of caring and for this alone it deserves applause. But does it change anything?
The last decade has seen just such a wave, in Australia and worldwide. The motives vary, from an urge to offer fast, short-term housing to people fleeing war or famine to a yearning for a more civilised alternative to Homeworld bloat.
The products vary, too. From the New York-based SYSTEMarchitects there’s the competition-winning kosovoKIT, a light-weight, easy-assembly kit of parts made from a foam-and-metal sandwich material. There’s Melburnian Sean Godsell’s award-winning Future Shack, a chic parasoled shipping container designed for emergency housing pretty much anywhere; Sydney’s Studio Internationale’s elegant Platform 1234, an eco-rendering of Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House; and Queenslander Gabriel Poole’s Takeaway, a built, factory-fabricated tent, erected in days from the back of a truck. In New Zealand there’s Bachkit and in California Greg Lynn’s cyber-blobbish Embryologic.
These are the cream. There’s also IKEA (you just hope they packed all the screws) and Toyota, applying car technology to systematising the Japanese house. Plus there’s a long and honourable history, from Buckminster Fuller’s grain silo-based Dymaxion house to Charles Eames’s glorious sardine can, Case Study House No. 8, at Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles.
There are dozens of elegant, intelligent, affordable, stylish and bankable solutions. Yet their biggest impact, then as now, is in the glossy pages of design mags, while the few brave architects who venture into mass-housing land rapidly get so dumbed down as to be indistinguishable from the rest.
Why? Is it that, as architects would have it, developers are too risk-averse to try anything new? Or are we still making up for our rootless past, wanting from our architecture not a brave step into immateriality but, on the contrary, a link with both tradition and the friable, fragile, loveable material world? An illusion, at least, of permanence?