Contemporary Australian Architecture

Contemporary Australian Architecture

Ross Harley

Australian architects are a lucky lot. Really. Unlike many of their peers in other parts of the world, a good many professionals here actually get to build their designs. No small thing.

In Europe for example, architects can make or break their careers on blueprints for projects that have little chance of ever getting off the ground. Besides small-scale work or (at the other end of the spectrum) monumental urban redevelopments like Canary Wharf in the UK or La Defense in Paris, opportunities to build are comparatively rare.

Things are different here. Rather than sticking to the drawing board, theories are constantly put to the test. Consequently, to adapt an old Hollywood adage, architects are only as good as their last building. Never mind the plans, models, and superstars. Let’s look at the constructions.

The evidence is all around us: the high profile Parliament House in Canberra by Mitchell/Giurgola & Thorp; Philip Cox’s Sydney Football Stadium; the Yarra River Bridge by Cocks Carmichael Whitford; Guy Maron’s Adelaide Botanic Gardens Tropical Conservatory; or Forward Consultant’s Centre for the Arts in Hobart. The new buildings that have grown up over the past 20 years are as familiar as our neighbours — and often just as alien. Outside the architectural profession, most people have little idea about where they’re coming from, what they’re on about, who built them and how.

Enter “Contemporary Australian Architecture”, a handsomely produced publication by Sydney architect Graham Jahn (G+B Arts International, 1994, $95). Timed to coincide with the exhibition “Faith Hope and Construction: Australian Building Since 1976″ at the State Library of New South Wales (till 21 August) the book is an impressive overview of recent architectural practice. Starting with the buildings first, Jahn lays out the complex forces, meanings and ideologies behind a range of contemporary styles and forms that might ordinarily remain a mystery to many people.

Jahn’s selection of what he reckons are the most representative examples of key ideas in Australian architecture since 1975 will not please everybody. Such Top 40 projects (there are in fact 45 buildings featured) are bound to omit a few buildings some will consider essential, putting more than a few noses out of joint in the process I’m sure. But that’s beside the point. The importance of this publication lies in its ability to show our recent built environment as we’ve never seen it before, and to provide an argument about the distinctive traits of Australian architecture along the way.

Buildings, as Jahn points out, have two lives: the concrete forms we experience in everyday life, and their mediation through printed words and images. His publication is testimony to the power of representation to transform architecture into ideas — dare I say ‘discourse’.

Every building featured has been photographed by the keen eye of New York photographer Scott Frances, who is well known for his work with US architects Richard Meier, Helmut Jahn, and Philip Johnson. His colour photos brilliantly capture the sense of light, form and space so essential to the buildings he studies. These formally magnificent images combine with the author’s lucid running commentary, personal statements by the architects, and informative captions and footnotes in the margins to guide the reader through the different aspects of recent Australian architecture.

Jahn’s argument is simple and convincing. The last twenty years have seen an enormous change in the architectural landscape that resembles those experienced in the rest of culture. As with art, literature, music, film and theatre, architecture has been transformed by the substantial political, intellectual and artistic upheavals that commenced in the early 1970s. Perhaps surprisingly, these challenges did not result in a single Australian vernacular or even a commonality of style. Instead, a number of very different approaches developed simultaneously.

Even a quick flick confirms the point. The originality and power of the individual buildings featured has nothing to do with adherence to a jargon of cultural nationalism, international modernism, or even postmodern ‘deconstruction’. Pluralism reigns.

According to Jahn, there are three polemical extremes that form something like a ‘triangle’ of conceptual extremes: “reassessing the inherent values of the Australian landscape; identifying the Australian persona in suburbia; and high art abstract aestheticism”. The tips of the triangle are represented by Glenn Murcutt (the influential Kempsey Local History Museum), Maggie Edmond and Peter Corrigan (their utopian Athan House in Victoria), and Harry Seidler (his uncompromising Riverside Office Tower in Brisbane).

Between these vertices we find a multitude of other approaches. This is the real subject of the book, which is divided into three sections — public buildings, commercial projects and private houses.

All in all, the publication manages to capture something of the vital energy, purpose and enchantment that comes with all great architecture. Buildings such as Gregory Burgess’s Brambuk Living Cultural Centre in Halls Gap, Ashton Raggatt McDougall’s Drummond Street Offices, Nonda Katsalidis’s Deutscher Fine Art Gallery, and Roger Wood and Randal Marsh’s Krytsis house (all in Melbourne) well illustrate the scope of language and diversity of interest that characterises contemporary Australian architecture.

The 45 projects presented in this publication offer a view of local architecture that remains “remarkably silent and still, patient, forever willing to be glanced at, observed, judged, loved and hated.” What more could we hope for?