Tuesday 26 February 2019


Driving into ‘Port,’ Port Macquarie in New South Wales, along the southern coastal road on a clear sunny morning, one can only be amazed at the beauty of the bush. Banksias fill the roadside edges along with various varieties of melaleucas and gums, eucalypts with stunning trunks, peeling colours shimmering with an interlacing of branching light and shade. It is astonishing how gloriously wonderful it is. In season, Christmas bells fill the fields, and flushes of gorgeous flannel flowers, the ‘May Gibbs’ gumnut blossoms, flourish too, offering a vista so amazing that the heart stops, pausing at the wonder before its little leap.^ One can feel such things in this joyous world where one hopes for aboriginal sensitivity and awareness to endure - if only; alas, we can only come to know it before it is all gone, smashed by developers who brazenly put up the bold sign, ‘New Land Release.’ One wonders, released from what if not its beauty? Yet, in spite of this activity, we continue to get the politically correct acknowledgements of the original owners by politicians and other self-promoters, as if we care.

This glorious, magical world goes on for kilometres, with its fine, grey-green and olive textures fuzzing, fusing finely into delicately shaded hazes that ooze love, with the gaze of the bush asking to remain when we know its fate is otherwise. This future hangs heavily with a solemn sadness. Eric Bogle’s As if he knows* echoes in the emotions, tearing the heart; it is as if the bush knows too. Bogle’s lyrics make one of the most poignantly sad songs ever written, wrenched with critical meaning. Here, on this drive, we can only despair in the delight of the wonder we know will disappear into a void of numbed transformation that gives us such depressingly disappointing outcomes - the housing developments. These areas are all filled with new structures, shaped boldly with a brazen self-certainty in all possible styles and manners without any care for each other beyond the desire for a better display, to out-do the other; to stand out more than the neighbours; to be differently impressive; alternatively expressive. Such is the common intent with the stark efforts, that all the houses end up looking, feeling the same, tortured into self-consciously smart, indulgent display homes, ‘as seen on TV;’ houses promoted in a raffle by the spruiking, catwalk-styled presenter of an art union, a lottery that has nothing to do with art or any union. The classic ‘art union’ home seeks to look new, slickly desirable, displaying the very latest in every enviable cliché in home and interior style in order to sell tickets for the ‘prize home.’ All the new homes seek to be to same too, ‘prizes’ for the occupants, since they have been developed and promoted by commercial firms building places for sale, designed to look attractive, desirable, ultra-fashionable, with every buzzword in style and form that might be possible, plus anything that is be likely to become something like this - ‘parents retreats, media rooms, cellars, studies, breakfast bars,’ etc.; now ‘self-closing everything, ‘new-aged’ by the digital world’s gizmos,’ name it what you will – as seen everywhere in the media writing about ‘the future that is now.’

It is a startling world of undesirable diversity that projects difference as an ambition. Everywhere is the work of non-architects: ‘designers,’ whoever these identities might be. Yet these are our new environs, our suburbs, our futures. Why are there so few architects involved here? Architects would not design one percent of these places, not even one percent of our total built environment. Yet the profession bumbles on arrogantly, self-importantly referring to itself in smart, glossy, professional publications, exploring ideas and theories, as though architects controlled the centre of the meaningful universe, mocking the ordinary world as rubbish, cliché-ridden trash; foolish, ignorant, mundane, naive, not worthy of any consideration beyond a dismissive sneer or a snort. This is the world that is used as the basis for contrast, to highlight ‘what art and architecture’ should, by its stark difference, be.

Yet this is our world today, our environs. In spite of all of the architectural mafia, the architectural press and professional chat, this is suburbia; this is the CBD; this is our built environment: just look around. We all share these places in our lives, in our living, but the architectural camera always cuts it out to isolate the only important image, the ‘architecture,’ that is not to be spoiled by the neighbours, even when context is a boasting point. What to do? Surely the aim, the challenge, has to be: how to make the everyday world rich and meaningful, beautiful for all; a wonder in itself? How? We must start taking ordinary things seriously; start looking at simple matters, basic elements of habitation, making value judgements with money and facts, with real lives, rather than mere fanciful aesthetics. We have to overcome the problem of architects being conceived as a waste of time and money: “We could’ve got the swimming pool for the fee.” Architects need to seek good design solutions for everyday everything. We need to be seen to be essential, to be the first port of call for a question on habitation and function and performance, for problem-solving, rather than the last; or one never even contemplated.

Making a statement

How? By earning respect; by doing it. Alas our profession continues to delight in the extravagant, the grand and bespoke, the self- indulgent and special, all in the name of new ‘art;’ of things personal, as MY expression, unique and individual, put out in MY name, rather than being, as of old, put out for the good of the community; of society; of the outcome, rather than the individual performance.

Standing out from the neighbours

The bubble needs bursting, not by educating the masses to understand the architectural world, but for the architectural world to understand the masses and ordinary living: see - https://voussoirs.blogspot.com/2019/02/outrageous-trumps-everything-everyday.html  Until architecture becomes ordinary and everyday, it will stumble along in the surreal world of things different, special, grand and bespoke where architecture is perceived as art, as the special, personal expression of an architect who has, perhaps, become a popular brand, or wants to become this. We need a non-branded world, an impersonal world shaped for community, reflecting social ideals and framing functions for the common good and goodwill; anything more is less than architecture.

It might seem contrary to our general understanding and interpretation of things architectural, but architects have achieved this before in the everyday of history, and more recently. Frank Lloyd Wright’s first Jacobs House# comes to mind; and his Usonian House built for a client on an income of 5000 dollars a year. These are the issues, the challenges that need to be attended to consistently so that our everyday might become special in an ordinary way. The Pettit and Sevitt project homes designed by Ken Woolley come to mind as being a local example; they endure to this day.

Jacobs House Street View
see: https://voussoirs.blogspot.com/2019/03/architectures-two-remote-islands-too.html

In spite of this ambition, the Jacobs House seen in Street View is the odd one out. The context is still very commonplace; the house stands out as any new architectural home might today: but at least Frank Lloyd Wright tried. It will take an equal effort from others to achieve more, but the cry for ‘education’ is too tall a task; too rude an assumption; too arrogant. Somehow architects need to develop some common ground with ‘the public,’ where the need for betterment on each side is understood and desired. Just where this starts is unknown, but it will not hurt for architects to bite the bullet and turn their attentions away from the dilettante outcomes of Gehry et.al. to things ‘ordinary,’ many, and shared, so that others can understand, be enthused, and encouraged to seek architectural assistance even for the simplest of issues: “What should I do?” Then the ball might start rolling, to be inclusive of things truly architectural; but it will take rigour, skill, and commitment, not bullshit and ‘arty’ PR. Architects need to become much better with facts, to become as engineers, knowledgeable in things essential and factually necessary rather than just indulging in being ‘feely-touchy’ and 'arty-farty' with particular preferences. Then the profession might prosper, and the community too. Architecture must shatter its bespoke bubble and become far more substantive, responsive to inclusion rather than remain a uniquely exclusive profession.

Macedonian gold

We can still have our opera houses, but we need to understand the hierarchy of place and circumstance, to include all, great and small with equal attention and care. We currently concentrate on the one percent ‘great and grand’ design, while ignoring the remainder; and when we do involve architects in things small and potentially insignificant, the proposition is treated just as the great and glorious might be. This is fine in one esoteric aspect, but it involves an elite, bespoke everything and big budgets, excluding the ordinary, the many, leaving this population to the developers of bushland. We need to learn by comparing our world with that of old Macedonia, where the gold was for kings, and the identical objects in more economical metals were mass-produced for everyone else; the same item, exact in every detail except materials. One can compare our costume jewellery made for popular, cheap display, with the Cartier one-off, made-to-order jewellery for the billionaire. Today we concentrate on and expect the ‘one-off’ for everything, for everybody, as commonplace, creating the current competitive chaos of our cities and suburbs. We need to learn how to produce the other ninety-nine percent of our built environment so that it can be constructed economically and responsibly, while still carrying meaning and enrichment in its ‘ordinary’ beauty - and contentment.

In the same way, and with the same commitment, we need to find a way, not of bulldozing the bush, but of living with it in all of its stunning beauty, allowing the Christmas bells and flannel flowers to bloom in the bankisas, the melaleucas and eucalypts, with us, instead of in spite of us and our carelessness. We might eventually get to show our ‘first people’ that we do really recognise them and respect their homeland.

^ The experience of the flowers in the Australian bush, their quantity and delight, is not unlike Wordsworth’s discovery of the daffodils:

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud

William Wordsworth

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

*As if he knows

Eric Bogle

It's as if he knows
He's standing close to me
His breath warm on my sleeve
His head hung low
It's as if he knows
What the dawn will bring
The end of everything
For my old Banjo
And all along the picket lines beneath the desert sky
The Light Horsemen move amongst their mates to say one last goodbye
And the horses stand so quietly
Row on silent row
It's as if they know

Time after time
We rode through shot and shell
We rode in and out of Hell
On their strong backs
Time after time
They brought us safely through
By their swift sure hooves
And their brave hearts
Tomorrow we will form up ranks and march down to the quay
And sail back to our loved ones in that dear land across the sea
While our loyal and true companions
Who asked so little and gave so much
Will lie dead in the dust

For the orders came
No horses to return
We were to abandon them
To be slaves
After all we'd shared
And all that we'd been through
A Nation's gratitude
Was a dusty grave
For we can't leave them to the people here, we'd rather see them dead
So each man will take his best mate's horse with a bullet through the head
For the people here are like their land
Wild and cruel and hard
So Banjo, here's your reward

It's as if he knows, he standing close to me
His breath warm on my sleeve, his head hung low
As he if he knew

# The Jacobs House is interesting as it one of the few homes that Frank Lloyd Wright supervised himself. The site was passed on his way to the Johnson Wax Office project, so he called in on his way. The house has generated many anecdotes. One tells of the six-metre long wall that flexed until it was stiffened by the shelving. The other was the argument over flyscreens, a subject that would bring any project down to earth. Jacobs wrote to FLW complaining that the completed house did not have the agreed flyscreens. Wright paid for them to be installed out of his fee. In spite of the ‘architectural’ stature of Wright, he got involved in people’s ordinary lives. There are not too many architects who would respond to to a child’s letter asking for a dog kennel design.

Images from Google Earth and Street View