The iconic, inspirational Poole house, Buderim
The Bond University Abedian School of Architecture held it as a full-day seminar – a series of presentations on the Queensland house: Dwelling in Queensland - influences, traditions, trajectories – on Friday, 6 October 2017. The event was well attended, with generations of architects who had been inspired as a lineage, learning from Gabrielle Poole and Brit Andressen, making presentations. Gabrielle Poole and Brit Andressen were both present as speakers, along with the day’s other presenters: John Mainwaring; Lindsay (and Kerry) Clare; Brian Donovan; James Russell; Stuart Vokes; Kernon Gait; and Matthew Eagle. Jackie Cooper and Haig Beck were there to overview the day in their influential role as publishers/commentators. There was no coffee and friands to start the day. Unusually, one was struggling to find a glass and potable water.
Gabrielle Poole and Elizabeth
Kerry and Lindsay Clare
Everyone kept saying how ‘historic’ the event was – “Take the photo now!” - emphasising how significant it was to have such a group of esteemed architects in one room at the same time. Many speakers and audience members were overflowing with superfluous thanks for the attendance of such exceptional professionals. The occasion was seen as historic, a landmark for this young university: that this fledging institution had been given such credence, an apparent vote of confidence by reputable local architects speaking at the university about their history in Queensland architecture, left the staff impressed, almost smug. It seemed to be just what the school was looking for: to be accepted as ‘real’ - relevant, not just an establishment for the wealthy, those who could afford to pay to attend Bond University.
The day was long – 10 hours with one, one-hour break. By mid-afternoon, one was looking forward to the close-of-days drinks, but these never materialised. What was a surprise was how the origins of the Queenslander - the term used for the traditional timber houses in the state of Queensland, Australia - were spoken about. It was as though this rehash of things commonplace in the general understanding of things, almost to the point of becoming a cliché, was new, important research; relevant, academic commentary; an invigorated re-interpretation. All the overview did was to regurgitate the ‘traditional’ understanding of the rationale for these lovely structures: light framing for climate; timber from plentiful local supplies; high timber stumps for termites, floods, breezes and terrain; adaptable, moveable structures; tin trims and timber fretwork for decorative economy; quaint verandahs for inside/outside sub/tropical life – open, lightweight living, with lattice, light and shade, all in timber and tin. The presentations were accompanied by attractive, beguiling images, some obviously pulled from very old files because the dirt and mould were immediately evident. It was clear that this story had been told many times before.
These explanations have all been a part of the understanding of the Queenslander for very many years, (see, e.g., Bal Saini’s book The Australian House: Homes of the Tropical North, Lansdowne Publishing, 1982). Cooper, seemingly speaking for Beck, outlined the ideas on the origins of these buildings without developing any deeper or different insights. Why have we not moved on from this? Science, with its conjectures and refutations, might have encompassed this explanation with richer and more complex revelations, better theories. Sadly architecture is not a science, not even the science of building - (see Ruskin and Pevsner who argued that a bicycle shed was not architecture; a cathedral was). Architecture is considered to be more than this rational world, something else vague and meaningfully ephemeral: perhaps poetic (Vokes).
No one mentioned it, but Neville Lund's little book on Queensland Architecture tells it all, even stretches things into Dods and modernism: to Hayes and Scott and Jim Birrell, (a co-author, along with E.J.A. Weller: see Buildings of Queensland, E.J.A. Weller; J. Birrell; N. Lund, Jacaranda Press, 1959). No one even mentioned Neville Lund’s important study on Robin Dods, (although Dods was mentioned). This remarkable original research was presented as his final-year architectural thesis. Why are we happy to repeat clichés, and ignore the past work of our profession? This book was, and remains a landmark. It is a real disappointment that it is neglected. It is a terrible shame that Lund – Neville H. Lund - is forgotten too. No one mentioned Lund, or Hutton, or Newell; Hurst, or Morton, or Paulsen, or Ryan. John Dalton was spoken about obliquely, as was Rex Addison, (more personally by Keniger); but not one individual from Lund Hutton Newell and Paulsen, previously Ford, Hutton and Newell, was spoken about. This firm, originally established in Brisbane as Chambers and Ford, seems to have faded from the collective memory when, for many years, over a period many years, it was doing some of the best work in Queensland. It was Lund who brought a love for things Japanese into his home state. He was an enthusiastic educator as well as a practising architect; an inspiration. He built beautiful, tranquil houses - see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/04/lund-haunting-place-memory.html He was a gentleman who loved his work. His name does not even appear on Google apart from being mentioned in one real estate advertisement; and in the firm’s name in a listing in the University of Queensland’s archive. Peter Newell worked hard to develop the public’s interest in Queensland’s heritage. He wrote many books on the subject, illustrated in pen and ink by Unk White, and others, all published by Rigby, Adelaide. Morrie Hurst and John Morton brought a vibrant modernism from Britain into Queensland, along with their special skills and indefatigable ebullience for architecture. As a working pair, they signed off their drawings ‘JMMH.’ Hutton loved detailing buildings; Paulsen brought an inspired rigour into specification writing; Ryan was the master of office management: and this firm has been forgotten? Is architectural debate only interested in fads and fashion?
Maurice Hurst sketch for a residence
John Morton's George Street Government Offices, Brisbane - now demolished.
Ours is a brutally bitchy, self-interested profession; or is it merely ignorant, lazy, unconcerned with the work of others? Dare one suggest both? So when it came to the end-of-day attempts to comment on the future Queensland house, what it might be and become, there was no surprise to find a muddled view about very little: maybe it will be the same (Clare); maybe not too different (Vokes); maybe it will be the shop-house, as in Penang, a multi-use dwelling (Mainwaring) – see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2011/04/living-design.html and http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2011/04/streets.html Beck, in his few words for the day, suggested the obvious truism: that “typologies relate to their era,” like everything does. It seemed that the impressive word ‘typology’ just had to be used and knowingly repeated: he seemed to be referring to ‘planning.’ His short statement made after a day of silence said nothing new, and suggested nothing new: just that things change with time – don't we all?
But what of the future? There was a quiet agreement, a latent buzz in the chat that suggested higher density, low rise dwellings might be the new solution to Queensland’s housing. No one seemed certain enough to say this with any commitment. This raises an enigma. On arriving early for the talk, time was ‘filled in’ by a drive around to explore some nearby areas that are rarely frequented; the new developments by the water beyond Bond. There is no lack of higher density apartment living here – just look: but there is an appalling lack of quality work that can inspire life, bring meaning back into it. Planning and building all seem to grasp at some fashionable bits and pieces to offer a new urban clutter that might look good in promotional magazines – for a week or two. There is a strange, ad hoc, but self-conscious quality about these places beyond any ‘coastal shack’ theme – an array of blue board, steel, glass and timber battens. It seems to have something uncertainly fuzzy about it, to do with flimsy, commercial intent and random, stylistic modes; clichés scattered willy-nilly into the planner’s pattern and to the planner’s rules. The proposition is that something else is needed beyond an increase in density. Might it be ecology? The emphasis was that green spaces should be linked to provide connectivity for flora, fauna and humans (Andressen). One has to be careful of the ‘architect and ivy’ joke becoming a reality.
Poetics was mentioned, and things spiritual too, (but not too religious, as if the mystery might be useful, but not the meaning); and some interesting projects were shown to support this vision (Vokes). Bachelard’s book, (Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space), had been noted previously. It was suggested that David Malouf, (Johnno, UofQ Press), must have read it. Could this parallel have been an Edison/Swan, Newton/Pascal situation? What was rarely illustrated was the work in its context, although context was frequently mentioned as being important, indeed, an inspiration. The words appeared to frame a matter that the work, and its presentation as an idea, an ideal, avoided or ignored. Photos were mostly cropped carefully to isolate the reading of place, limiting the range to nothing beyond the immediate subject – see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2017/10/the-need-for-street-view-in-architecture.html Neighbouring buildings could only been seen as snippets, if at all. It reminded one of McCloud’s Grand Designs – see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/02/grand-design.html When the region was illustrated, which was rare, the new work stood out like a sore thumb. Now this is too extreme; it is too careless, too casual an analogy. Let’s just say that the work stood out; that it looked strangely isolated. One wonders: how can we build to embody quality and meaning without glaring difference and forced distinction; without any declaration of ME; without any demarcation? Is all new architectural work in some way a protest?
Architects still spoke mostly about ‘their’ work and ‘their’ inspirations – sometimes identifying other inspirational projects that were similarly illustrated as detached ‘gems.’ Is isolation the issue here? One struggles to recall a project that sits as beautifully in its context as does the toilet block at Lerwick – see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/05/the-mareel-new-arts-complex-for-lerwick.html - a small building that respects everything around it without apology or any concession to function or expression.
Analysing Gold Coast shacks and using the set of distinguishing notations as rules for action (Eagle), is really only an academic, intellectual game: interesting, but contrived. It will guarantee nothing but the attendance to rules, and a good talk. The approach has very little to do with real contextual outcomes.
While everyone was talking earnestly about architecture, meaning and context, no comment was made on the school itself. The day was held in the Abedian School of Architecture ‘Archigram’ open, concrete and glass ‘forum’ space which is not really a good auditorium or forum space (see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/10/exploring-definition-edge-condition-of.html ) Even the custom-made chairs are uncomfortable, but they maintain the arty theme of all the joinery. The multi-purpose lecture space overlooks the nearby carillon that, at twelve o’clock, burst out into a bizarre, bell-ringing “When the saints come marching in.” Why? As with the awkward problems of the space that everyone was in, there was not one comment on this absurd intrusion; not one grimace; not one smile: nothing. It just so happened that it welcomed Brit Andressen to the lectern, with perfect timing: dare one say it - “the saint arrives”? This coincidence in context was accepted as though it meant nothing. With such a lack of sensitivities, one wonders at the future of architecture and our environment. It has to involve more than clever intellectual games and particular skills seeking attention: humour and self-criticism have a role. Brit did comment of the space later, noting how the students leaning over the third-floor balustrade observing the events were predicted by Peter Cook in his early drawings of the building.
But there are other matters that are a problem with our attempts to create a better environment – both built and natural. These could be described as ‘ecological,’ involving a broad understanding of wholeness. The concerns are more than any theoretical and emotional commitment. They have to do with planning and enforcement – with real outcomes and how these are achieved. Why might the profession bother with anything but outcomes? A short street, with about a dozen properties side by side on only one side of this road, comes to mind by way of example. Here planning rules and building regulations have been handled helter-skelter. Built elements break rules that all seem very clear, and no one cares, not even the local Council that formulated the laws. It seems that one can do whatever one likes: build out two metres plus onto the footpath; construct decks to the front boundary; build to whatever height one wants; erect four-metre high fences; paint houses black; purple; whatever, all when specific colours have been identified in the LAP; and more.# On questioning these circumstances, these outcomes, it is discovered that these ‘solutions’ have all been ‘approved’ by private certifiers. Local Council is keen to wipe its hands of these matters, wanting nothing to do with them. Why is this so when Council sets the rules for others to enforce? What are the ambitions here; the intent? Why have rules? It is this loose, ad hoc carelessness that makes it seem anything is possible; the outcomes appear to confirm that this is so. Just look at our cities and despair. Visions need to be specific, achievable and enforceable. Defining ‘typologies’ becomes an intellectual game, perhaps just a legal exercise, when they have no relationship with everyday results. But what are the rules that will best serve our future? What is the vision?
The point is: why does Council only appear to enforce its rules as a matter of spite; political convenience? Council harangued one individual who painted a house a non-LAP-approved orange, with a persistence and commitment that would be admirable if it was applied more rationally and consistently. We need better environments, but Councils are too flexible; too accommodating: they lack rigour in planning. Developers trade off density for simplistic issues, as if, e.g., a slim public pathway might equate to three extra floors in some value trading system, with no guarantee that the path will not be gated off at some future date, or indeed, constructed. If we are to build a better place, a more meaningful environment, a more vital and vibrant place, we need an inclusive embellishing, an enrichment of multiplicity, not a horse-trading of qualities for singular one-by-one, one-for-one exclusions. It is not a matter of either/or, but of the many-fold within the guiding parameters, and having these implemented.
The core problem with this rogue trading is that Town Planners write plans that seem deliberately structured to be open to multiple interpretations, left vague, defining whatever, nothing, all to allow for the negotiated resolution – see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/05/town-planning-visions.html Agreements are made in private to avoid court cases where judges, apparently much to the chagrin of Council officers, decide planning matters. Approvals are written just as obscurely, full of conditions that respond to, quash, all objections, formulating matters that are frequently subject to further secret agreement with Council officers at a later time and place beyond public scrutiny: ‘as to be agreed with . . .’ Even the approval conditions are able to be renegotiated out of the public eye. Conditions are sometimes implemented or not, but no one in authority seems to be bothered. This careless approach leaves the future uncertain, open to abuse.
It does not help when some architects rise to tell they they have cheated too, but cleverly; being secretly proud of this smarty-pants ruse that tricked authorities into approving something that was not allowed (Vokes). This activity sets an example for developers to follow, using different criteria with varying ambitions.
Then there is successful suburbia: it is everywhere and growing, but architects bleat on, complaining about how bad it is, responding with individual designs to show how suburban solutions can be better managed; life more meaningfully accommodated. Yet the development mess continues. How can this be changed? Educating the masses will never work; it would never be accepted, just as educating architects would never be considered an answer: and having a couple of good, ‘understanding’ builders has done nothing to modify anything but the architects’ stories. People keep wanting suburbia: and why not when the issue is cost and fitting in, the ‘norm.’ When a project house of over 300sqm with a swimming pool can be erected for something like $300,000, why should ‘the man in the street’ want to use an architect when one might struggle to provide 100sqm or so for this money, with the cost of the pool going on the fees? It all becomes a difficult issue to resolve. Is it the ‘plasterboard’ phobia that turns architects away from this challenge? This sheet material was mentioned a few times throughout the day, disparagingly, with a mocking delight and silent applause. One presentation promoted the open stud wall, complete with exposed bracing and outer weatherboard lining as being superior to this sheeting product, in a bathroom. It might be ‘arty,’ but it becomes a hard sell. Why is there this protest against the common products; ordinary items? Can beauty not be embodied in things simple, cheap and everyday? Is architecture just an elite, intellectual enterprise?
The matters are indeed complex, for when one begins to hear that architecture is about poetics and things ‘almost’ spiritual – (one never wants to get too close to religion in these matters, but using some of the words is okay) – then a complex set of subtle issues is raised. Individuals are challenged personally; architects too: but are we engulfed in this period of quantity, unable to know or be interested in anything but amount; seeing everything rationally, as numbers? The ancient craftsman was said to have concentrated before beginning his work. What is this stance? What is the experience that allows an architect to see beauty in his own work; to be surprised by it? (Vokes). Things personal, yes, religious, do become involved – but how can this be raised today beyond a few ‘poetic’ words that sound acceptably subtle in the academic discussion that seeks recognition in self-promotion seeking self-promotion? Self- praise is the concern, along with many other things that become difficult to articulate today when logical, reasoned thinking holds fashionable sway with things ‘scientific’ getting involved in matters ‘poetic.’
These issues are not easy to discern, let alone resolve. The one matter that needs to be raised is very unfashionable, not PC at all: what if the caste structure is an inherent part of society; that there are essential differences in people? This era finds it more and more difficult, is increasingly reluctant, to define any particular gender, let alone any other apparently less explicit differences in people. Some years ago, there was an exhibition of Macedonian art in Queensland. What was impressive about this show was not only the magnificent, beautifully detailed, delicately intricate gold diadems, bracelets and necklaces of the kings and queens, but also the pieces of jewellery for the remainder of the population. These ‘lesser’ works were similar in form to the golden pieces, but were made in cheaper metals, using various forms of fabrication that allowed mass production: some moulds were displayed; and some presses. It was clear that there was the golden world of the upper class, and the more mundane pieces for the others, the commoners. It will be an awkward matter to raise, but one has to ask if architecture is inherently structured similarly, by and for classes.
In Queensland, there was a time when this proposition could be refuted, when architects were documenting ordinary, tiny timber and tin cottages using the standard pieces, parts, and methods, while also designing grand public buildings. There appeared to be no differentiation in effort between the simplest and cheapest, the modest home, and the most flamboyant and civic of structures, other than in outcome. They were from the same hand.
Today this is rare. While the masses reside happily in the developers’ suburbia or sets of apartments, others, the few, search out different dreams and architects who will provide the preferred divergent schemes, complete with the rationale, the storyline to embellish the stand, the stance – for it does end up looking like some sort of exhibitionism. It might be analogous to the exposure of the model on the walkway asking, begging to be looked at; or the clever gymnast doing likewise on the wires.
The logic and necessity of the caste structure has been argued, even though it is awkward for us to comprehend this today. The profession seems to find it difficult to extricate itself from this hierarchical pattern of social space, place, of dwellings and other complexes, their unique expression. One only has to look at Street View to understand how our cities are a confounding complex of buildings of all importances, from the shambles of the shack and ruin, to the elegant grandeur of the opera house or a parliamentary complex (see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2017/10/the-need-for-street-view-in-architecture.html ) Everything is assembled in this ad hoc sprawl, with only a very few buildings being isolated for magazine publication. The vast majority of structures get erected without fanfare and fans: the admirers are very few. Just look at New York and ponder the number and variety of buildings. Yet, ironically, it is this insignificant infill that makes our cities what they are; such is their extent. What would New York be without these? Suburbia is like this, no matter how we dislike it. It is our city and this conglomerate building mass gives it the character that we know, in spite of any protest that might be expressed as an intruding architectural masterpiece proving that there is a problem, (or does it become one itself?), suggesting the solution. Our cities are really commonplace: lower caste efforts that are interspersed with the upper class highlights – the golden diadems glisten as wonders in the ordinary world of the everyday leaden forms, dulled by repetition and lesser, copycat styling in cheap materials. Is this the way it has to be? History suggests not - just look at the old villages: but something more is needed; something apparently beyond us today. It is not only density and multiple levels.
So the future of the Queenslander? One might hope for a greater involvement from the profession in all the very broad aspects of design and planning, (which is design too), but much has to happen to achieve this. Humility has to become a core principle of action, as does concentrated commitment, care and concern in all matters, an involvement exercised with true skill. Traditional art created some astonishing things that amaze us still; the artist was irrelevant; the ambition was social and shared, and was known. The work was nothing individual in any way; nor was it individually expressive. The artist, as Ananda Coomaraswamy pointed out, (Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art, Dover), was not a special kind of man; every man was a special kind of artist.
We will have no real improvement in anything but self-importance in self-expression until we again reach this situation. The pathway to it is seemingly unknown to us, and uncharted. Exercising those subtle, simple emotional stances of the artist of old may be a good beginning, but it will demand a core change in society even for this to be understood, encompassed. It is certainly a difficult path, but it is one that has to be taken eventually: when, one does not know; how, likewise; if, . . . One might assume that such an change is out of our hands – but we can try. Being what one might wrongly call ‘honest’ in everything we do, (for want of a better word not pre-loaded with other meanings and associations), will be a good start – honest with ourselves and with others, (not that there is rampant dishonesty in the profession), while diminishing the easy, indulgent effort of self-promotion and tempting self-congratulations, even with the very best intentions: a knowing of what one is doing when doing it would be a good beginning, as the Buddhists recommend.*
The day finished as it started, unfortunately without any of the usual hors d’oeurves and champagne. These little things were missed and took the edge of the usual welcome. Is the school suffering from budget problems? It is really a simple matter to offer refreshments, especially when the place is so keen to lap up the accreditation it gains from these days when the profession freely shares its time and offers its support.
The 'Queenslander' has been idealised as a model for regional housing. This rose-coloured perspective of the form and the life-style it supported seems to have been transported into our daily lives as a hopeful guide, a model of excellence. These old photographs should help us understand the reality of life in the era when the houses were built. The majority of these homes were kit homes, built from catalogues as a package deal that came with a variety of options. Stories tell that after one week, the gutters were ready to be installed.
Critics point out that, in spite of the interpretation of these structures and their lifestyle as being a perfect model for their climate, these houses were hot in summer and cold in winter - poorly insulated both for sound and temperature, poorly ventilated, and poorly lit: they were poorly planned, and used space inefficiently, diagrammatically. The kitchens were rudimentary, as were the bathrooms that sometimes were an infilled add-on, either on a portion of the verhandah, (enclosed), or under the house. The toilet was an earth closet in the backyard. The openness that is so praised in the vision let the house exposed to flies, midges, cockroaches, ants and mosquitoes. The buildings were constructed in an era when folk could leave their houses unlocked; when families were large and kept together; when one knew one's neighbours. Frequently verandahs were enclosed as sleeping areas to accommodate the numbers.
The promotional praise for this built form ignores the fact that these houses were plonked anywhere and everywhere - cheek-by-jowl in suburbia, and alone in the open paddock of the farm; in the cold highlands as well as the hot and humid tropics and the dry and dusty west: they were a universal kit for all locations and occasions. One could make an argument for them as being the equivalent of the suburban house today that ignores its context. This is not a popular view, as the Bond day revealed. There was no criticism of the model, apart from that of Russell, whose rationale for all of his work was to cut out the dark, poorly ventilated core of the home and make the verandah the dwelling, open, flooded with breezes, sunlight and moonlight.
Matters of privacy and security sought today were ignored in the 'Queenslander.'.
Envisioning this model as an ideal only isolates any critique and perpetuates the problems of understanding how needs and forms and typologies should to be responsive to functions, location and context; that they frame, encompass a lifestyle. Interpreting other eras through our experience is always dangerous, as we layer our understandings with only good, better and best perceptions all together, seeing nothing else but gold when it is only sunlight on tin.
The picturesque seems to have more to do with the positive viewing of these places than anything else. The Joyce images in Saini's book are truly delicious, wondrous, and promote these places in rich, mysterious colour and decorative, luminous light and shade. The power of photography is able to isolate, to create new images and different readings of forms and lives that would be a real challenge for us today. Still, it is very fashionable to drool on about the 'Queenslander' in spite of its many failings. Things 'poetic' dramatise the readings on all levels and develop a desire to be there - if only: ahhhh!. We do need to be both, rational and poetic if we are to truly understand.
THE DREAM REVIVED
It is interesting to note how the revival has become mere stylistic invention. Not one of these images shows any people, any life. It is all about appearance.
The illegally constructed carport in another location also needs noting. This structure, built without any approvals, is about 1900mm high, and only about just as deep. Any vehicle other than a very small one projects out onto the footpath. Items on a roof rack project out further. Council could not care less. Nothing has ever been done about this shambles. Such a lack of care leaves our cities with the same conditions - a lack of rules - that create the slums.
NOTE 17 November 2017
Amos Ih Tiao Chang sums up the position at the end of his book, The Tao of Architecture:
Intangible content gives life-quality to architectonic form; creative forgetfulness gives life-quality to architecture; and spiritual being gives life-quality to life itself. Of these three aspects of non-being, intangible content in architectonic form is the subject of this investigation. Creative forgetfulness and spiritual being are mentioned because only through the integration of the three does knowledge acquire its significance.
The life-quality of architecture, like the life-quality of humanity itself, exists not only in the realm of the material but also in the realm of intangibility, the realm that each man must find and conquer for himself.
Amos Ih Tiao Chang, The Tao of Architecture, Princeton, 1956, reprinted 2017: p.72.