“Vulgar beauty from beyond the burbs”, The Australian, 11-12 Dec, 1993.

Australian Vernacular

In the vernacular of Glenn Murcutt, one of Australia’s most celebrated architects, our cities are a “whole gaggle of junk and rubbish” . For those inclined to such a view, the present state of our urban centres is largely the fault of kitsch developers for whom greed is the driving force. Hard not to agree really.

It’s no surprise then that people like Murcutt have shunned the idea of working through all the constraints and compromises associated with urban design. Though hardly in the majority, such architects prefer to put their energies into designing highly individual rural and suburban projects instead.

Two publications recently drove this home for me. One focuses on three Murcutt houses in New South Wales, while the other chronicles the work of Melbourne-based architects Maggie Edmond and Peter Corrigan. Together they put a new spin on that most perennial of debates about place and identity. How can we be global and modern, yet still retain our regional uniqueness?

It’s an unwinnable debate really, but these two “case-studies” certainly throw in more than their two cents worth. They’re also great introductions to the work of these renowned architects and the general state of architecture in and beyond the burbs. Mixing descriptive photos with well-researched critical texts, they demonstrate the complex interplay of vernacular and international architectural styles that currently compete in contemporary Australian architecture.

Although both architectural practices have gained considerable local and international reputations on the strength of small-scale buildings they have created outside of metropolitan centres, that’s where most of the similarities end.

Conrad Hamann’s meticulous critical account of the Edmond and Corrigan partnership unravels their sustained attempt to “represent society in buildings”. Regardless of what that ultimately means in terms of their design practice, Hamann manages to analyse many of the complex influences and ideas that inform Edmond and Corrigan’s sometimes controversial work.

On some projects they played with aspects of Federation style while other architects were still hankering after Georgian conservatism. On other occasions their lively designs have challenged the moral superiority of snobbish architects who deigned to bring the message of modernity to the suburbs.

Hamann: “It seems the pro-Georgien Rule of Good Taste, at the core of Australian architectural attitudes since the 1920s, had a consistent hold on architects’ thinking. If the values of symmetry, plainness, simplification, fine materials, or uniform emotional repose were sought, the[ir] … buildings were unlikely to satisfy.”

I’m not so sure how much things have changed since the 1920s. Edmond and Corrigan are.

Rather than patronisingly trying to “save the suburbs”, they show how much we can learn from them. The so-called great Australian ugliness (made so popular by architectural critic Robin Boyd in the 1960s) actually contains riches of patterns, character and form. Even a cursory glance at Edmond and Corrigan’s regional churches, schools, halls and recreational centres reveals an aesthetic that derives directly from what is often considered vulgar, transient, popular and culturally debased.

Like the American architectural iconoclasts Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown “who taught us how to learn from Las Vegas, and with whom Corrigan had some association during his years in America” Edmond and Corrigan have invented new ways to work with vernacular forms. Striped brick patterns, gazebos, rotundas and bay windows are not exactly popular amongst ideologues of modern design, yet their successful incorporation in Edmond and Corrigan’s highly praised RMIT building on Melbourne’s Swanston Street has done much to challenge preconceptions of modern taste, style and architectural expression.

Elizabeth Farrelly’s monograph is also concerned with testing popular myths about architectural commonplaces. What are we to make of Murcutt’s seductively rational and regional, some might even say rural, buildings? Often looking like futuristic shearing sheds landed from outerspace, Murcutt’s distinctive corrugated iron curves fit the regionalist bill while remaining unabashedly modern.

Yet as Farrelly has it, this fusion of simple modern form with a populist bush vernacular shouldn’t be taken at face value. What she calls the rustic theory “quickly loses plausibility in the face of the uncompromising plan discipline, refined steel detailing, and remarkable formal consistency” of these buildings. Murcutt’s houses don’t blend in with the landscape they confront it.

Against all this the city remains a monumental testimony to short-sighted bids for concrete demonstrations of power. For Murcutt, it is domestic-scale work that offers the “chance to challenge the ordinances. It permits me to conceptualise and build many more ideas than is possible in one large project. The design of individual houses represents, therefore, a platform for exploring solutions to specific problems… In the countryside I am able to draw more fully on the special character of the land.”

Maybe our suburban and rural areas aren’t the piles of junk and rubbish some architects have imagined them to be after all.

E. M. Farrelly, Three Houses: Glenn Murcutt, Phaidon, 1993.

Conrad Hamann, Cities of Hope: Australian Architecture and Design by Edmond and Corrigan, Oxford University Press, 1993.

photos: Ball-Eastaway house, p 59 (Property section has book)
RMIT facade at end of colour plate section (I have a copy if you don’t)

Next Week: Gordon Andrews; Australian Design Legend