Introduction to a selection of Australian modern work

The following selection of twenty buildings represents a cross section of Australian modern work ranging across most states and territories, a variety of building types and the various strands of modernism which developed in Australia in response to location, climate and building pro- grammes. The selection does not necessarily represent the ‘best’ twenty modern buildings but each of the buildings has achieved the status of icon in the Australian architectural community.

Architectural modernism in Australia, as elsewhere, encompasses a broad spectrum of attitudes and techniques which probe the possibilities of cultural and economic modernity. Whilst modernist trends existed from the beginning of the century recognizably ‘modernist’ buildings emerged in the middle of the 1930s. These early examples inhabited a landscape of eclectic styles, where a minority of architects such as Walter and Marion Griffin were note- worthy for their integrity in welding architecture to belief. A small percentage of practices with a deep interest in the ‘new architecture’ left a legacy of fine schools and hospitals from the same decade, which for many years were held up as representative of Australian modernism generally.

As the full extent of economic depression unfolded across the country in the early 1930s, large numbers of Australian architects travelled abroad, with many working in England on the eve of the Second World War. Others gained experience in circumstances as diverse as Frank Lloyd Wright’s office and the housing programme in Soviet Russia. This experience exposed architects to European modernism and large-scale planned and rationalized production. Impressed by its possibilities, and radicalized by the effects of the Depression, a generation of architects emerged from the war committed to remaking Australia along equitable, progressive lines. Modernism was promoted for this work, with its capacity for rationalized solutions to problems abstractly formulated. The Georgian buildings of New South Wales and Tasmania, with their minimal ornament and dignified proportions, were pressed into service as modernist precursors to lend historical legitimacy to the movement.

The impetus for post-war reconstruction, aided by a widespread Fabianism, propelled mod- ernism to the heart of the political agenda. A lack of resources, though, hindered building until the early 1950s, when a dramatic turn in fortune thrust Australia back into the rank of affluent nations. The austerity of the post-war programme soon gave way to the demands of suburban consumption and the making, along ‘modernist’ lines, of a progressive corporate world now hand in hand with an expanding welfare state. Through the 1950s and 60s modernism proved its malleability across a range of office towers, shopping centres, sports stadia and highly wrought individual houses. It also showed its hectoring tendencies in schemes which rehoused inner-city inhabitants in mid- and high-rise blocks on the sites of their demolished late-Victorian neighbourhoods. From 1955 onwards city cores began their modern transformations, as the prevailing Melbourne and Sydney building height limits were exceeded by curtain-walled office towers.

The earliest challenges to post-war modernism came in the mid-1950s, at roughly the time it coalesced into an orthodoxy. The link between a new architecture and a spiritual yearning in the face of modernity had been exploited by the Griffins many years earlier, and they had garnered a loyal following. In the 1950s the recent work of their teacher Wright became widely known in Australia, and the charm and responsiveness of his houses from the interwar and post war periods struck a chord with those architects looking for ways to revive the craft- centred tradition of an architecture which was pointedly not commodity housing. Japan, too, was discovered and visited by a generation eagerly searching for poetic alternatives to functionalism. Numerous Californian examples of distinctive houses built at modest cost, such as those by Neutra, Schindler and the Case Study houses, added momentum to this counter- modernism, and the 1960s saw a blossoming of individual houses throughout Australia which were modernist in conception and regional in execution. Queensland and the Northern Territory provided opportunity for tropical and sub-tropical variants, while Perth worked with Mediterranean antecedents. Melbourne’s more politicized and urbane cul- ture produced contrasting results to Sydney, where scenic but difficult sites in the city’s expanding north and south bushland suburbs gave rise to the distinctive textured houses of the Sydney School.

In the spirit of this divergence, DOCOMOMO Australia is committed to documenting and conserving a wide range of buildings, repre- sentative of many modernisms. The divide separating modernism from non-modernism in Australia has not traditionally run between a cosmopolitan internationalism and an intro- spective nationalism. It runs, rather, between a colonial identity forged in Victorian times, represented by the dark axial interiors of the turn-of-the-century house so vilified by early modernists, and one concerned with adapting architecture to the vicissitudes of modern history and the demands of ancient place. Despite the eager embrace of post-modernism in the 1980s, the legacy of modernism remains strong throughout Australian architecture. Climatic and cultural differences across the country continue to drive architectural experimentation formulated on modernist thinking: it could scarcely be otherwise in a country ill at ease with irony, and with an enduring sense that architecture should strive to be widely accessible.

Jennifer Hill
Noni Boyd
Scott Robertson
Harry Margalit

 

[the introduction and the fiches are published in the volume “DOCOMOMO – The Modern Movement in Architecture” Cook. C. and Sharp. D. (edd.), 010 Publishers, Rotterdam, 2000]