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Featurism

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This introduction follows on last week’s post and segues into this one because I continued to think about why that particular treatment of old buildings so disturbed me.

If you remember, I preferred the treatment given to these buildings.

I think it has something to do with setting rather than context even though both can mean pretty much whatever you want them to mean. In the above four examples, the unique setting of the building still allows a sense of what the building still is whereas, with the two buildings I started with, there’s only a sense of facades and no sense of there even being a building anymore. This sense is stronger with the example on the left because its uppermost floor doesn’t have the limited three-dimensionality of the second. Both facades are features within the features of the greater facade.

In his 1960 book The Australian Ugliness, architect and writer Robin Boyd defined what he called Featurism as a national obsession with architectural features, more features, and features within features. He saw it as the root cause of the Australian ugliness. I was forced to read the book in first year architecture school and remembered the gist but not the details. In 2023, it’s pointless reviewing a book after sixty years old but, in some future post titled “Re-reading The Australian Ugliness”, I’ll write in detail about how prescient the book was, how well it has aged, and what sense it makes (to me0 now.

At the beginning of the book when Boyd is setting out his stall, is an anecdote about he and some colleague/compatriot in Barcelona marvelling at all that urban vitality and beauty of humanity effortlessly everywhere but totally absent in Australia. Upon hearing that, someone, presumably their guide, said “Hah, come with me tomorrow and let me show the outskirts of Barcelona!” By Boyd’s account, it had more in common with Australia than central Barcelona. This highlights the dangers of comparing an apple with a different kind of apple.

Boyd then goes on to identify the biggest feature of this Australian ugliness as features. He does so without irony because, in 1960, irony had yet to be invented. Boyd’s features were just features pure, simple. They weren’t the knowing features of “If some problem can’t be solved, then just make a feature out of it”, a notion that’s still with us even if it’s now interpreted as seeing a disadvantage as an opportunity. This may sound more honest and virtuous but it’s still about opportunities to show how clever one is. I digress.

I took this photo in the West Australian country town of Busselton last week. It reminded me of what Boyd was writing about but it also made me think of Las Vegas. For Boyd, every sign was an unnecessary feature. Boyd saw them all as not having any meaning whereas, within twelve years, Venturi was to see basically the same things and make us see them in a new way.

Boyd didn’t attempt to find any good in Australian featurism. He saw it as springing from a primitive [hello Loos!] attitude akin to “If something’s going to exist, then it may as well be a feature. At first this sounds like a very positive way of looking at life but, if we take paving as an example, it leads to crazy paving. This is the cover of the February 1960 issue of Home Beautiful, PACE-SETTER FOR AUSTRALIAN HOMEMAKERS.

Crazy paving was a 1950s style of patio and footpath paving where irregularly shaped paving stones were jigsawed into position. The photo agove shows the ideal effect with paving stones of different colours conveying the sense of relaxed informality that Australians of the time liked to see. However, the same intent could be shown with paving stones of irregular shape but regular colour by painting the cement on each side of the stone a different primary colour. This kind of crazy paving did not appear on the covers of national magazines.

Boyd mentions Venetian blinds where five or six muted 1950s colours repeated every fifth or sixth slat. I don’t remember these but can easily imagine. I don’t need to imagine automobile tyres vertically half-buried to indicate the edge of a lawn to stop people parking on it. Each of the tyres making up such a barrier may not have been painted different colours but they would have been painted. I seem to remember white being first choice, and multiple colours second. You don’t see this anymore either. Its sources and references won’t be written about. Let’s just say it was territorial demarcation meets recycling and the Dunlop bridge at Le Mans. This image shows the principle but everything else is wrong.

  • The historic tyres were buried to exactly half of their height.
  • They didn’t touch like these ones do but were spaced by a tyre-width. [This variation of The Renaissance Corner Problem could lead to a weak corner if the spacing was kept full, or a strong Alberti corner if they almost touched. Either way, they were never butted together like these.
  • The colour of these ones is more fizzy sherbet than jellybean.
  • The look was either all white or all primary.
  • The border wouldn’t be for a flower bed but for lawns and demarcating the property line, especially on corner blocks.

Boyd’s main theme was that Australian cities hadn’t yet developed a visual identity. He wasn’t talking about capital city skylines that mostly remain postcard picturesque, but about attitudes towards individual buildings. I finished re-reading the book and concluded that nobody read it or, if they did, never learned anything from it. My preliminary conclusion is that the features have changed but featurism still rules but without a name. It’s not that Australia hadn’t developed a visual identity. It’s just that it happened to be one that Boyd didn’t recognize.

Around 1970, a typical Australian suburban house would have been single story double-brick cavity wall construction with a tile roof. The front entrance would have been recessed in some articulation of mass and next to it would have been a feature panel containing many types of feature stone. This next example with a feature lamp on the stonework feature (with each stone with a different colour, pattern, shape, size and coursing) next to entrance feature is typical of the features embedded in features described by Boyd. The panel itself was referred to as a “freestone” panel, referring to no particular stone, rock or ore.

Other features are often nearby. The image on the left below is a good example of the look that was aspired to.

So far so seventies. Next is a contemporary house that has features upon features within some facade feature. [As in any other place or time, the entrance is the default feature of many a facade.] Features lose their individual meaning when everything is a feature but we don’t have a name for the result. However, if I took a selection of architectural motifs from across the past five hundred years of architectural history and applied them to a building facade, it would probably be called post-modern classicism or some such despite it being much the same animal but meaning much less to more people than contemporary featurism does now.

These examples are not as pure. Both have feature of differing masonry cladding that are functional in the sense that the different colours, materials and textures are there to highlight arbitrary articulations and so make the maxxed-out footprints look more three-dimensional, less ruthless.

Or consider this next example. We know it’s been purpose designed for the corner block because the long side of the plot doesn’t have the row of bedroom windows that occur when a typical long existing plan happens to be on a corner.

We also know this is the front of the house because that’s where all the features are concentrated. The rear has none for, as per regulations, its length of more than nine metres is set back one meter from the boundary and the upper floor set back to lessen overshadowing and has only high-level windows to lessen overlooking.

Now that you have a sense of the sides and corners, let’s look at that front facade. The upper floor corners have become features with feature supports and feature railings top come, but the main aesthetic action is inbetween. What’s probably the stairwell window is set in a wall of exposed brick framed by columns supporting a differently colored and textured gable rendered a different colour. This facade alludes to no known architectural motifs and obeys no rules other than the unwritten ones of the feature. It does look a bit strange but there’s still a sense that some rules have been consistently if not consciously applied. We just don’t know what they are.

This is my final example of Featurism. I won’t call it the New Featurism because it’s been around for at least the past sixty years. This concrete block wall has been a feature from the day it was built. The corner features alludes to quoins and is nothing new but the polychromatic concrete blockwork is-ish. I like this wall. It’s an example of what I called The Misfits Challenge many posts ago.

As for 1), nothing’s changed as far as the thermal and acoustic performance performance of this wall goes.

As for 2), there are the two colours of the same type of concrete block and (assuming they are the same price) the only additional expenditure is the bricklayer picking up a block of one colour instead of another.

As for 3) and whether this feature wall is beautiful, I think it is. However, Boyd would have dismissed it as Featurist while many a contemporary architect would think of it as postmodern. This suggests the existence of an aesthetic approach that’s not as naïve as Featurism but also not as over-aware as Post-modernism.

When I was searching for an image of the cover of the first edition, I saw that a book of essays titled “After: The Australian Ugliness”* had been published. I bought the book but finished this post before opening it because I’d seen on the back cover some words of praise from Denise Scott Brown. I’m obviously not the first person to have made some sort of connection between the thoughts of Robin Boyd and those of Robert Venturi beyond them both happening at roughly the same time. In this post I’ve only mentioned my first thoughts.

Denise Scott Brown may just have been being diplomatic. I don’t remember Boyd writing in any part of “The Australian Ugliness” that the use of architectural or decorative motifs with (shall we say?) “popular meaning” was a good thing.

“It may be possible to imagine that some future Utopia could produce a race so cultivated and rich in creative talent that all of its buildings could be designed at leisure by fine artists, but there is no practical lesson for the twentieth century in this dream.” [p131, 2012 edition]

In Boyd’s perfect world, responsibility for the built environment was split between Artists for premium buildings and Functionalists for everything else. In The Australian Ugliness, Boyd observed the built environment created by those who were neither and didn’t like it. Now in 2023, I think Boyd was ahead of the curve in identifying Featurism but, from the beginning saw only what he didn’t like. Maybe he should have tried a bit harder to find some beauty in it. Call it what you like, but it’s not going away.

  • After: The Australian Ugliness”, by Naomi Stead, Tom Lee, Ewan McEoin, Megan Patty; Thames & Hudson; 30th March 2021, ISBN: 9781760761899

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Comments

  • Only discovered your blog last week and am working my way through it. Very refreshing. Realise you are joking about irony being invented in the 60s but reminded me of the excellent A brief History of Irony on the BBC with Joe Queenan. On iPlayer and Soundcloud etc. Lovely quote from it I have not seen repeated: ‘irony is a weapon not a look’. Well worth a listen.

    • Thanks Nick! The blog’s about twelve years old now and, as you’ll see, consistency and quality varies when I suddenly find some other topic I feel I have to say something about. I agree with that irony quote and tend to see what’s labelled ironic in architecture as jusg as kind of elite posturing – in other words a weapon. I think this year will be a good year. Best, Graham.

  • I very appreciate ending with a subtle nod to SITE and James Wines! Looking forward to what’s next in this trajectory…
    And the coin finally dropped for me as I connected this post with some of the great spatial analyses you’ve done in the past: there’s a building type from the 60s onward in Los Angeles called the ‘dingbat.’ It’s supposedly named after the similarity between the font of the same name and the “artistic” *features* tacked onto the front facades. Dingbats are mid-sized two-story-over-parking apartments which maximize the zoning envelope in plan and are restricted in their height by the cost of having to add extra fire code protection above two stories. I’ve long thought they are the diagrams of their economies – I think you’d enjoy them greatly as well!