Robin Boyd, The Australian Ugliness, 286 pages, Text Publishing
Robin Boyd wrote The Australian Ugliness fifty years ago. Our question is obvious: is that ugliness still with us?
EXHIBIT A: An Ugly Scene in a Beautiful Place…
A leaf blower whines as I write this. Mozart cannot be played loud enough to drown it out. No matter, it reminds me of a limpid Friday evening a few months ago. A ruddy sun sparkled on the leaves of the blue gums, the breeze was a gentle early summer whisper, an evening one could fall into like a calm sea. I could take it no longer. I traced the errant whine to the dead end of my street. After waving for a few seconds to catch my neighbor’s attention, he turned off his blower and removed his sensible hearing protection so we could have a conversation which went something like this:
“That’s an awful racket you’ve been making. It’s almost eight o’clock,” I said.
“I know it’s a bad sound. I’m sorry. But it has to be done.”
“You’re blowing all the leaves into the street. They’ll clog up the drain and Council will have to pay someone to clean them out.”
“I am not aware of the technicalities of what I’m doing.”
“I clear my place in fifteen minutes with a rake. You’ve been running that thing for almost an hour.”
“Fifty minutes, yes.”
“Then use a rake.”
He gestured, lord of the manor, “Look at my place. You expect me to use a rake? Just look at how big my place is — I have a cobblestone driveway.”
I began walking away, “Yeah, well it’s a horrible sound. It’s noise pollution. And I’m sure Council will be interested in the fact that you’re blowing them all into the drain.”
EXHIBIT B: A Trip Hazard…
From The North Shore Times, 9 April 2010:
RailCorp will face the Wahroonga community on May 15 to explain why and how it will erase 90 years of heritage from the station.
The plan to dig up five hills fig trees that date from about 1920 and are listed on four heritage schedules has been three years in the making and will come to fruition in weeks…
The trees, surroundings and station are integral to Wahroonga’s village character. Their imminent loss is being mourned by people as far away as Germany.
But RailCorp maintains the trees’ invasive roots damage platform bitumen and invade sewer pipes.
They pose a “trip hazard” and require regular costly pruning…
National Trust director Graham Quint said it was “a pity” to see the mature trees go but suggested RailCorp may have had no choice. “A lot of this stems from litigation insurance and it seems to be permeating all our lives,” he said. “Trees beside a railway line pose a greater risk if somebody trips.”
Robin Boyd was a fine architect and he based his argument on a keen observation of the way Australia builds, the kind of evidence which speaks for itself and cannot be silenced. For Boyd, “the failure of Australia to come to terms with herself” resulted in an ugliness which he calls Featurism, “the subordination of the whole and the accentuation of selected separate features.” By embracing Featurism, Australia has, with notable exceptions, eschewed what Boyd sees as the two legitimate paths to real architecture; one organic, bespoke and responsive to context, the other technological, repeatable and rational. The first tendency would include the Sydney Opera House, Fallingwater and all of Frank Gehry, while second road to Nirvana would be populated by Mies, Gropius, and vernacular examples such as the restrained, mostly demolished Georgian architecture of Sydney and Hobart. Featurist buildings, by contrast, result from an “unwillingness to be committed on the level of ideas” or more precisely, ideas about the complex and contradictory reality of Australia’s situation.
In the nation which invented brick veneer, the practice of cladding a perfectly sound wooden house in a respectable skin of non-structural brick, the continued triumph of Featurism is indisputable and often overt. In new dwellings, a single aubergine or chocolate colored wall in a sea of beige is thrillingly known as a “feature wall.” The new housing code for the state of New South Wales, intended to simplify planning requirements and speed approvals, enshrines Featurism in law by specifying controls for entry features, sun shading features and, just so you know where to put in an effort, “articulation zones.”
The Australian Ugliness, unlike many architecture books, is beautifully written and written about much more than architecture. Many of Boyd’s observations, such as his description of the Sydney Harbour Bridge “with its entirely redundant pylons” as “the crowning achievement of Australian Featurism,” are of a piece with the scathing banter architects to this day engage in as a coping mechanism down at the pub. The book veers from funny, nearly affectionate descriptions of disordered streetscapes and suburban gaucheries to truly disturbing passages such as this:
Cruel but kind — a precise description of one element in the pervasive ambivalence of the national character. Here also are vitality, energy, strength, and optimism in one’s own ability, yet indolence, carelessness, the ‘she’ll do mate’ attitude to the job to be done. Here is insistence on the freedom of the individual, yet resigned acceptance of social restrictions and censorship narrower than in almost any other democratic country in the world. Here is a love of justice and devotion to law and order, yet the persistent habit of crowds to stone the umpire and trip the policeman in the course of duty. Here is preoccupation with material things — note, for example, the hospitals: better for a broken leg than a mental deviation — yet impatience with polish and precision in material things. The Australian is forcefully loquacious, until the moment of expressing any emotion. He is aggressively committed to equality and equal opportunity for all men, except for black Australians. He has high assurance in anything he does combined with a gnawing lack of confidence in anything he thinks.
In the next paragraph, Boyd really twists the knife:
Cruel again, but humorous at the same time: yet in fact Australia’s national failings are not as interestingly hateful as this. Thoughtlessness is closer the mark. The failings are most often the obtuse failings of adolescence, and as embarrassingly mixed and uninteresting as adolescence to outsiders.
Boyd harshes our mellow, but he does not hate Australia or Australians; if he did not care, and care deeply about this land and its people, then why would he have bothered to write such a perceptive and passionate book? As Christos Tsiolkas writes in his foreword to the new edition, “reading it is cleansing.” It is Boyd’s unwillingness to decouple the physical Australian ugliness from an ugliness in the Australian character which has made the book so controversial and enduring. This country cries out to be thought about. I can remember having lunch with a colleague in architecture school who observed that Sydney is either the best or the worst city in the world, never in between. Sydney at its worst obviously remains a few notches above Baghdad, but when a place is so unnerving — and when you desperately don’t want to be one of those Australians who says ‘the landscape is beautiful, the climate delightful, but the people, you know…’ — then it helps to read someone as fearless and wide-awake as Boyd.
Boyd acknowledges a counter-force to the ugliness, the “Non-Featurists,” who are undoubtedly stronger and more mainstream now than in Boyd’s day. Fewer intellectuals choose to expatriate themselves and, most importantly, Australian culture has benefited immeasurably from Asian immigration. As can be discerned from the widespread and vocal opposition to the state-authorised vandalism of Wahroonga railway station mentioned above, outrages seldom transpire unopposed. A federal government plan to ‘filter’ the internet; a proposal to fill in part of Sydney Harbour for a luxury hotel; the national economy’s continued reliance on a mining boom which is costing local communities their health and possibly all of us the the planet — all of these and many more daily causes for despair are eloquently and persistently condemned. Australia’s architectural culture — a high resolution, though inevitably telephoto, lens on any national character — is much richer now than in the 1960s. It supports strands ranging from the bush Miesianism of Glenn Murcutt, Richard LePlastrier and Peter Stutchbury, to the esoteric wit of Melbourne architects like Ashton Raggatt McDougal, as well as a mob of younger practitioners challenging all assumptions. Boyd would likely find Sydney and especially Melbourne’s downtowns to be much livelier and more urbane than they were in 1960. He would be pleased that at least some historic buildings, such as Sydney’s Queen Victoria Building, were spared the wrecking ball after public opposition. To perpetuate what Boyd and others have identified as the characteristic Australian need for reassurance, one longs to ask, ‘Mr. Boyd, what do you think of Australia now?’
To answer this question I wouldn’t be surprised to see the ghost of Boyd, after enjoying one of our nation’s reliably excellent coffees, board a slow, privatized bus for the outer suburbs, get off in some new housing estate, hold out his hand and say ‘Look, I was on about floral carpets and wood veneer, but I never would have imagined this. You seriously need to get your act together.’ Indeed, one look at the outer suburbs of Sydney or Melbourne will tell you that the sublime contextual harmony of a Murcutt house has not trickled down to the populist end of things; Australian suburbs are uglier now than then. The modest postwar suburbs of which Boyd despaired have been surrounded by a “mortgage belt” of ex-farmland which has sprouted a brooding harvest of McMansions, now on average the largest in the world.
One important difference between Australia and the United States, and a point which is under-emphasised by Boyd, is that there was a golden age of the Australian suburb. As a child visiting my grandparents in such a suburb, I remember being forcefully struck by the difference between this serene paradise and my instinctively pejorative New England understanding of all things suburban. In places like the aforementioned Wahroonga, leafy well-planned garden suburbs grew up along railway lines, especially between the wars. Though some of the houses may have been Featurist, they sat under a largely intact tree canopy and were surrounded by lovingly tended gardens. Because the railway was built before the houses, residents could walk to the train and shops. Kids played in backyards and substantial pockets of natural bushland. These suburbs were a kind of paradise, as demonstrated by the fact that you would be lucky to get change from a million dollars if you were to buy one of these older houses today. In 2010, as Sydney embarks on the fool’s errand of accommodating an extra 1.7 million people in the next twenty years, these neighborhoods suffer from an entirely new Australian ugliness. Under the pitiless gaze of urban planners, gardens and houses fall in twos and threes to soulless beige apartment blocks perched on a raft of basement carparking. This so-called medium density development, which Australian cities used to do beautifully in the form of attached, low-rise terrace houses, ought to be the central preoccupation of Australian architecture at the moment.
It is not too melodramatic to say that Australia’s tragedy is that those in charge of her act as though they are immune to her charms. While the best thing to have happened since Boyd’s time has been the nation’s transformation into a successful multicultural society, the powerbrokers — politicians, property developers, mining company executives — still tend to be a dreary coalition of, to use E.M. Forster’s spectrum, the pinko-grey. A politician might express outrage at the recent shipwreck on the Great Barrier Reef while his own policies’ reliance on the coal inside that ship helps condemn the reef to a slow death by bleaching. The environmental movement was in its infancy in 1960, and it is through the imperative of sustainability that we are now able to see the consequences of an unwillingness to deal with the landscape, and the ecosystem, on its own terms. Boyd’s ugliness was not just aesthetic, and the stakes have become very high. Even a hack architect is now acutely aware that McMansions and all they represent — ‘what people like’ — are endangering the one thing people need — a functioning planet.
The rise of sustainability as the dominant subject matter of architecture only strengthens Boyd’s argument. Architecture craves ideas and sustainability is a very big idea with major formal consequences for buildings. Boyd’s advocacy for “wholeness” as the essential quality of good architecture may have sounded old-fashioned after Robert Venturi wrote my very favorite architecture book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), but Boyd’s emphasis on the importance of honest problem solving in architecture would be advice well taken by the vast majority of architects. As Christos Tsiolkas points out in his foreword, Boyd’s theories were challenged by Pop artists and postmodernists within a few years. The theoretical argument between wholeness and complexity is fascinating and ongoing in the world of architecture, but the problem on the ground is that Venturi is a mighty hot potato, while Boyd’s stance in favor of functional and aesthetic wholeness is much safer ground. In other words, complexity and contradiction only works in the hands of a genius, otherwise it too easily slides into facile acceptance of whatever strip mall detritus the market can get away with. Cities are made up of foreground and background buildings, or as Boyd beautifully puts it, gems on black velvet. As I learned in a discomfiting stint in the urban planning game, the vast majority of buildings are part of that backdrop. Most of any city’s fabric is cotton, not silk. The average house, apartment building, warehouse or office block has no business pretending to be “iconic,” and it is these buildings which are most responsible for the ugliness, both aesthetic and environmental, of our cities. If all background buildings met some basic standard of sustainability and “pleasingness” as Boyd puts it, then our cities would be much better places. Just make the windows open, face the sun, chuck some golden ratios up there and don’t try too hard, OK?
Australia’s ugliness is unique because ugliness hurts more here. Building well in this context ought to be easy; the climate is mostly benevolent and the landscape is dramatic. It is odd how few buildings have been inspired by, for example, eroded sandstone cliffs which make Zaha Hadid look as austere as a Shaker farmhouse. The catch is that bad buildings, heavy buildings, buildings which replace trees, are especially destructive. While North America has enough boundless plains to support many large cities, Australia’s capital cities cling to a green and delicate coastal fringe. Much of the flora and fauna cannot be found anywhere else; gone from here means gone for good. Every eucalyptus coldly labeled as “To be Removed” on an architect’s drawing is a palpable step on the way to losing something irretrievable. Preservation of this natural landscape ought to be Australia’s contribution to the world. People quite understandably come here to see koalas, kangaroos and the Great Barrier Reef. My guess is that they are not particularly impressed by our McMansions and coal mines. The starkness of the conflict between an irreplaceable landscape and a “cruel but kind” sensibility — which, incidentally, is tailor made to inspire all kinds of art — provoked Boyd’s sharp and readable book. To dismiss it as a whinge, as too many loving criticisms are, would be deeply unfair.
It’s hard for me to say since my first impressions were over long ago, but I suspect that a lot of visitors to Australia have a lovely, but naggingly skin-deep, time. Like most travelers anywhere, they sense there is something more to the place. Boyd’s fears of British and American influence, “Anglophiles and Austericans,” were mostly unfounded; Australia is a mixture of other places only at the most superficial level. I don’t pretend to understand the place myself, but it seems clear that such a singular country is best understood on its own singular terms and that Boyd’s guidance — cantankerous, witty, erudite and emotive — must be similarly contended with. In considering Australia it is so easy to list contradictions — “cruel but kind,” well-governed but profligate, safety-obsessed but undisciplined — and so hard to take the next, synthetic, step. It somewhat contradicts Boyd’s observation of an unthinking nation that so many Australians in various fields have been preoccupied by the national character since he wrote, but let this then be another contradiction on our list, for none have been more productively preoccupied than Boyd. For Australians, Australiophiles and -phobes, and certainly for anyone planning a visit, The Australian Ugliness is essential reading.