Tag Archives: what is architectural history anyway?

Featurism

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 above, there’s only a sense of facades and no sense of there even being a building anymore. This sense is stronger with the first example 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 had to read the book in first year architecture school and remembered the gist but not the details. 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 me now.

At the beginning of the book when Boyd is setting out his stall, is an anecdote about Boyd and some colleague/compatriot in Barcelona marvelling at all that urban vitality and beauty of humanity that seemed to be 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 only 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 and 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 an attitude akin to “If something’s going to exist, then it may as well be a feature. This could be a very positive way to look at life but, if we take paving as an example, it leads to crazy paving. Here’s an example of crazy on 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 cemented into position. This cover photo shows the ideal effect with paving stones of different colours, intended to convey the sense of relaxed informality that Australians of the time liked to see in themselves. 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 it. I don’t need to imagine automobile tyres vertically half-buried to indicate the edge of a lawn to stop people parking there. Each of the tyres making up this 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. 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 greater 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.

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 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.

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 intended to be a feature but we don’t have a name for what results. 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 there being no great difference with contemporary featurism.

These examples are not as pure. Both has 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 has been fitted onto a corner plot.

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

Now 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 action is in the middle. What’s most likely the stairwell window is set in a wall of exposed brick framed by columns supporting a differently colored and textured gable and rendered a different colour. This facade acknowledges 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 a sense that some rules have been consistently if not consciously applied. We just don’t know or care to 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 alluding to quoins are 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 over and above 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.

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

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Contempt for History

Buildings come and go. Some overstay their welcome and some only appreciated when they’re gone. This post is about those buildings whose departure is protracted yet partial. All my examples are from the city of Perth, Western Australia but this post isn’t about Perth because every city will have its examples. Instead, it’s about history and its malleable meaning.

This building at the western end of St. George’s Terrace was built 1863-1866 to house the Enrolled Pensioner Force [!?] and was simply known as “The Barracks”. In 1904, the state government’s Parliament House was completed to its west but, with one war and another and a depression in-between, its eastern extension facing the city down St. George’s Terrace was only completed in 1964.

As early as 1961, the Barracks Defence Council was formed to oppose plans to demolish The Barracks and make way for the northern extension of The Freeway. The government was pro-demolition as it would allow the newly completed Parliament House to be seen from along Perth CBD’s main street. A messy and heated dispute ensued and the compromise was to retain only what is now known as The Barracks Arch on a sliver of land that also had no commercial value.

In 1970, some fountains were added to the east side of Parliament House to make people look at it and, in the evenings, people driving by would make a point of looking before 11:00 PM when the fountains and lights were turned off. In 1980, there was a proposal to make Parliament House more impressive by adding a land bridge providing a direct physical connection to the city as well as a considerable amount of additional accommodation. It didn’t progress but structural issues caused the fountains to be decommissioned in 2005, freeing up the space below for additional accommodation.

There was never any question of the freeway not going through. The only question was how much, if any, of The Barracks would remain. It was a completely emotional Progress vs. History argument with the government on one side and everyone else on the other. A little piece of history remains but it’s the history of the government’s desire for symbolic and physical dominance over the city and everyone else wanting to prevent that. Why the arch remains is the most interesting thing about it. I’ve no special love for the building or its distant history but I’m glad it’s there. Because of how the city and its road pattern developed, the setting of the original building and its remnant have been preserved and so The Arch still makes sense as a thing at the end of a street.

Not too far down St. George’s Terrace at No. 200 is another piece of history known as The Cloisters, built in 1858 as Perth’s first secondary school and for boys only. Apparently, [Wikipedia] “the Tudor embellishments tied the structure to the history of the English monarchy and signified the power and authority of England, while the gothic features signified the moral and temporal authority of the Church.” These virtuous ornamentations were powerless to prevent a 1960 plan for its demolition and redevelopment. At the time, the compromise of retaining and restoring the original building in exchange for being able to build a large building behind was seen as the best possible outcome.

The development was completed in 1971 and both The Cloisters building and the large Port Jackson Fig tree (to the right of the building) were listed in 1995. Unlike the story of The Barracks Arch, the story of The Cloisters is one of commercial interest vs. historic value. Or is it commercial value vs. historic interest? It doesn’t really matter for either way one corner of town is more interesting and richer than it might easily have been. The Cloisters is surrounded on three sides by buildings at a distance and so we can say that a setting has been preserved and the building left with its dignity intact. However, its interior was gutted to create more office space and so history or, in other words, what it is we like about old buildings has been reduced to a building shell and facades with historic references. There’s not much left to like, but facade+historic references was all that buildings both new and old had become anyway. The year was 1971.

In front of Perth Central Railway Station is a fairly recently pedestrianized street called Forrest Place. On its east side, buildings came and went but Perth Central Post Office was completed on the west side in 1923. The Commonwealth Bank of Australia building opened to the north of it in 19331. On the other (south) side of the GPO stood the Central Hotel which was converted from a hostel in 1901, traded until 1953, and was demolished in 1988 to make way for Albert Facey House.

From left to right below are the Commonwealth Bank building, the GPO building and Albert Facey House as they appear today. We can see a bit of lining through happening with floor levels and various cornices. On Albert Facey House we can see columns that aren’t Ionic, paired or as beefy but have approximately the same height and spacing. We can even see a modern take on dentils – or rather, a postmodern take on dentils. The year was 1988.

This corner view better shows what’s going on. Hollein’s Haas House in Vienna wasn’t to open until two years later in 1990.

What we have is a building trying to reconcile development gain and perception management by deploying a set of historic references – a strategy known as postmodernism and applied to the periphery of a building to a depth rarely exceeding one metre.

It’s not as if the commercial buildings of the 1920s were any different. All their ornamentations are applied to the outer one metre of what would have been a ruthlessly commercial building for the time.

Central Hotel can’t have been sufficiently pretentious. And nor was the very real and neighbouring historic building around the corner on Wellington Street. It wasn’t worth acknowledging.

I’m only mentioning Albert Facey House as a built example of postmodernism’s core selling point of allusions to other people’s historic buildings being preferable to preserving or reusing ones already there. Postmodernism as a style may be history now but this attitude towards history is still with us. The Barracks Arch, The Cloisters and Albert Facey House are all different ways of acknowledging history but the approach taken at The Cloisters would probably not happen today. Instead, the facade would be retained or, if doing so would make it structurally unsound, then it would be demolished and rebuilt. Either way, the effect would be something like this next building at the corner of Wellington Street and King Street, two blocks from Forrest Place. It’s not horrible. I read somewhere that the tower is student accommodation so, being kind, we can say there’s a continuity of sorts with its former life as backpackers’ hostel. More details here.

This architectural strategy of retaining the facade of a old building in order to win some development gain is also deployed by architects not generally regarded as postmodernist champions of representations of history. It is what Foster+Partners did with their 2006 Hearst Tower in Manhattan and, more egregiously, what BIG did with their King Toronto project set to complete this Year of the Rabbit. I have increasing respect for Mario Botta borrowing from and building on history with his 2010 Galleria Campari in Milan.

The ground floor coffee shop of the student accommodation building has exposed ductwork and conduits, recycled bricks. There is cement render on the newly inserted columns. All of this is meant to represent a sense of authenticity and of things being what they are.

The facade of the building has had work done. It’s difficult to tell if it was kept or rebuilt but it may have been kept, given that the outer rows of columns are about three metres from the site boundary.

Like I said, I don’t hate it. I can see something similar happening to the building on the corner of King Street and Wellington Street one block to the west.

A few blocks over to the west is an example of how not to do it. It’s already difficult enough trying to reconcile perception management and development gain and think about the difficult whole at the same time. It’s still early days. Going for the appearance of hovering seems likely to produce better results but perhaps that’s just me.

Back in the centre of town and one block to the east of Albert Facey House is the Royal Hotel, built in 1882 on the corner of William Street and Wellington Street and renovated in 1906 to basically what we see today. I was thinking it might be another contender for a similar vertical stack development and that it’d be a shame to lose those sheet metal mansards with their filigree cast iron decoration.

Others must have thought so too because a closer look shows the parts of the building along the street corner (and beneath those mansards) have been kept in their entirety, and everything else demolished to enable the Raine Square development to the rear and sides on both William Street and Wellington Street. In other words, The Royal in the corner L of the site was retained as a sweetener. Below left is a view five metres from the footpath. The part of the building seen from the street is a “deep facade” about as wide as a bar. In November 2019, The Royal pub, reopened in what was left of the building. That new steel framework looks like a response to some changed structural condition.

The Wentworth Hotel on the other corner of the block was retained in what looks like its entirety.

However, the buildings either side of The Royal weren’t as charming or fortunately sited. All that remains are their facades and even those look slightly plastic – as if they’ve been over-zealously restored or, most probably, demolished and rebuilt. This is what’s left of Glyde Chambers (b. 1905) along Wellington Street.

And this is what’s left of Commercial Buildings (b. 1894) along William Street. There’s been no attempt to retain a setting. The historic fragment now looks as tawdry and arbitrary as what surrounds it. I don’t think any of these fragments will survive the next redevelopment in 30 or 40 years.

I was wondering about all those other buildings that didn’t make it were like but these next photos are all I found. Anything could have happened between 1925 (for William Street; left), and circa. 1960 (for Wellington Street: right).

It’s never good to get too upset over what happens in cities. Main Street was never almost all-right and it’s less all-right now. Messy vitality was supposed to look better. If this is how historic facades are going to be preserved then it’s not worth the effort. What was once a building with purpose has been reduced to a length of incongruous cladding. The most poisonous legacy of postmodernism’s reducing history to representations of history is that actual historic buildings were dragged down with it, their worth as historic buildings reduced to the ornamental worth of their facades.

Here’s a more benign example of˜postmodern acknowledgement –circa. 1990 if I had to guess. The building on the right seems stuck in some sort of property appreciation limbo, as if waiting for the CBD or the office or the student housing market to expand westwards a few blocks more. But who’s to know what will happen? Next time I visit perhaps both will fronting some future mega development?

I’ll give it ten years.

  1. https://www.museumofperth.com.au/forrest-place

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