2 November 2011 – Melbourne architect and writer Ivan Rijavec will on Thursday launch a major and startling exhibition* that focuses a searing spotlight on how we view Australian urbanism. With a starting point that challenges the long held sanctity of Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness, the exhibition is intensely focused on a single inner city block in Melbourne bounded by Johnston, Brunswick, Gertrude and Smith streets.
Is accompanied by a catalogue of the works and an long essay that tracks the way Rijavec came to reassess how he views Australian urbanism and his belief that Boyd has wrongly led Australian down a “self-flagellating” path driven by a sense of inferiority that has now contaminated our planning system and with it, views of neighbourhood character, heritage and planning regulation.
The photographic collage is exhibited in three iterations, with one row above the other for direct comparison, Rijavec says. “The bottom row comprises a speculation on what may have become had our economy been more stable and had the city planning authorities enforced a greater urban consistency from the Victorian. The middle row reveals the block as it exists today while the top row speculates on the development of the block to a higher intensity in a more relaxed planning environment.”
Following are some extracts of Ivan Rijavec’s essay, Boyd’s Error, Planning’s Curse.
Robin Boyd’s critiques still conjure vivid memories of my arrival in Melbourne in 1977 after having spent six years in the UK and Scandinavia. The long taxi ride from the airport, (then) along Sydney Road through Coburg and Brunswick past the idiosyncratic streetscapes of odd urban juxtapositions adorned with tram cables and advertising signs forged an indelible memory.
My first impression was that they were the ugliest I had seen and reading Boyd’s treatise shortly after my arrival provided consolation. In the years that followed, the way I saw Melbourne’s inner urban streetscapes changed massively.
Though I was still as charmed by European urbanism, I realised that I had also developed a taste for the robust collages of its Australian counterpart.
Early in 2002 in preparation for a lengthy VCAT appeal I undertook an extensive photographic survey of South Fitzroy’s neighbourhood character and discovered why my urban preferences had shifted in such a major way.
The survey revealed an essentially Australian character that was entirely different to that recognised and preferred by neighbourhood character planning policy, leading to my further re-examination of TAU and to the subsequent realisation that my conclusions contradicted both Boyd’s treatise and the very basis of neighbourhood character regulation.
As a result of the urban character interpretations I had proposed having prevailed in the appeal, Yarra City Council and other local authorities subsequently changed their Neighbourhood Character definition by inserting the word “preferred”. This had the effect of shifting emphasis away from other possible interpretations by favouring their preference and as a consequence led to my further reflection on Boyd’s treatise and to re-examine Fitzroy and other inner suburban precincts of Melbourne in those terms.
My observations revealed a schism between Boyd’s treatise and his architecture, where the latter was affirmative to the Australian condition while the former was an invective on Australian taste.
Some would argue that the concerns of both his treatise and his architecture are one and the same in so far as they both sought to raise Australia’s design consciousness. On the contrary, I would suggest that the gulf between these two polarities is one not easily bridged since the vilification of one set of aesthetic preferences doesn’t necessarily encourage the appreciation of those that might be considered their opposite.
These reflections are therefore confined to Boyd’s treatise, not to his architecture, which continues to inspire successive generations of Australian architects today. It also extends to planning regulation that now promotes a greater degree of urban consistency through neighbourhood character policy which for the most part averages differences between existing contexts and new construction.
Ironically this assessment in part agrees with Boyd’s analogy that Australian Urbanism is in fact “a dressmaker’s floor strewn with the snippings of style”, but without the invective embodied in this description. Instead it reinterprets Australian Urbanism affirmatively by reconciling it with the imbroglio of its new world origins where imitation and improvisation proliferated as our cities developed in fluctuating economic cycles.
It highlights the redundancy of the TAU brand and aspects of planning regulation that continue to judge Australian Urbanism in terms of European aesthetic idylls that are of peripheral relevance to contemporary challenges confronting our cities.
About Melbourne, “The Featurist Capital” Boyd wrote
“Every block down the entire length of every street is cut up into dozens of different buildings, cheek to cheek, some no more than 12foot six inches wide, few more than 50 feet, some only two storeys, some now days over twenty storeys and growing higher. And every façade is a different colour, differently ornamented, and within its two dimensional limitations a different shape. It is a dressmaker’s floor strewn with snippings of style”.
Persuasive invectives like the one above have made TAU the mordant cliché it is today; one that has plagued the Australian psyche for over half a century. In Boyd’s terms, “the dressmaker’s floor” was a consequence of Australia’s lack of reserve and judgement. Though the legacy of his treatise still thrives today in predictable quarters of our design professions, the evidence of our cities is that his teaching failed.
Despite the proliferation of planning regulation since the 70s Australian Urbanism is still relatively far less constrained than its European counterpart.
It continues to be a work in progress and we have long passed the possibility of an urban reformation.
If supported by regulation, Australian Urbanism will continue to absorb the aesthetics of each new epoch by replacing or modifying old building stock in layers of deletion, accretion and expansion.
TAU brand is but a drop in the ocean of urban ugliness worldwide.
Much more virulent species of it can be found in far greater quantities in other parts of the world, including the outer reaches of exemplar European cities such as London, Barcelona and Paris, in the United States, South America and Asia.
Therefore, our small claim to such a brand seems a pointless identification of our national character in which, on the one hand we foster a sense of national inferiority, and on the other a counterfeit elitism for those who critique it.
This serves no other purpose than flagellating the national psyche in masturbatory cycles of self masochism that distract our attention from more relevant contemporary cultural issues.
In those interstitial post war years of our urban becoming, when Boyd rallied like-minded individuals to the cause, his treatise may have fuelled the possibility of an urban idyll. However, if Boyd was resurrected to reassess Melbourne and other Australian cities today, he would cringe at how much further TAU has spread.
Signage has multiplied exponentially in a world where advertising prevails and graffiti proliferates. Melbourne has often been referred to as a graffiti world capital consequent of the exemplar street art along its rail routes, on the walls of its inner-city laneways and side streets where murals, many sponsored by councils and local businesses, have become the seminal narratives of the expressive young.
Now the whole world screeches for our attention, everywhere and on everything, highway billboards, vehicles, sides of buildings, Tshirts, tattoos, TV sets, mobile phones, the net etc: And if this wasn’t enough, Boyd’s heart would have sunk at the sight of the signed boxes in tilt slab construction, that extend to the outer limits of Melbourne’s and every other Australian cities’ burgeoning urban sprawl.
These primitive sketches of urban intention, emblazoned with corporate logos and advertising signs make the “snippings of style”, in our inner urban precincts look sophisticated by comparison.
Posing as buildings, these commercial sheds have proliferated in our highway shopping centres which are in turn surrounded by McMansions of faux architectures comprising “The Australian Dream”. In suburbia this low density featurist carpet now stretches in all directions as far as the eye can see; a relentless becoming of all that Boyd most hated.
Yet despite his and others’ criticisms that have for generations been poured like water off the duck’s back of TAU, the majority of suburbanites enjoy the leafy low density ambience of their suburbs, where they grew up, went to school, formed friendships, fell in love and got married. In their terms these critiques simply champion the preferences of the inner urban elite.
Neighbours, the most popular and longest running TV soap in Australian television history, reaffirms Australia’s suburban culture. Shot in Vermont South, 29 kilometres from the city centre in suburban Melbourne, Ramsay Street around which it was focused, became famous.
This suburban theatre championed lifestyles whose aesthetic was embodied in the homes, accents and costuming of the characters portrayed.
It captured a mass audience and launched super star careers both here and in Britain and despite the chagrin of the cultural elite, warranted the inclusion of an original kitchen set from the soap in a prominent exhibition in the Melbourne Museum for over a decade.
This exhibition was calculated to attract tourists on pilgrimages from Britain, who packed bus tours to Vermont in search of the Australian dream they had been so drawn to on TV. Neighbours paved the way for numerous other suburban soaps whose popularity legitimised the aesthetic sensibilities of second and third generation suburban families in Australia.
Despite TAU’s critique of both our inner urban precincts and our suburbs, it is a sweet irony indeed that elements of TAU have captured the imagination of English audiences whose exemplar urbanisms were the preferred model.
The approximate metaphor that equates the city to a book written in stone is relevant here, in so far as it invites us to re-evaluate Australia’s urban writing as a palimpsest. The incremental nature in which our cities have responded to the vicissitudes of successive epochs will continue
to develop, relegating utopian urban visions to fantasy. However, irrespective of this, we are destined to persist in the hope that new forms of palimpsest will revitalise our urban text.
This urban writing should contemplate a future unbridled by the outdated aesthetic visions of TAU and the compromises that our contemporary planning process encourages.
“The descent from the sky to a close view of Modern Australia is a visual descent from serenity and strength to the violence of artistic conflict.”
So wrote Boyd describing his anticipation of the psychological assault of Australia on his sensibility as he flew in from abroad.
His language conveys the anxiety of his anticipated re-immersion into Australian culture; an anxiety Boyd was not alone in suffering. Despite his and his colleagues inspired efforts, they failed to suppress the influences of Venturi, Corrigan, Rucha and Arkley, to mention a precious few, or the spirited pell-mell of Australian Urbanism that plummeted on irrespective of their protests.
“The violence of artistic conflict” may strike ire in the hearts of some however, in reality it is no more than an urban evolutionary process in which different architectural genres (and all they represent) compete robustly for a stake in Australian culture. Aside from popular tastes, it is important to recognise that even though architects’ promote a united professional front through their institutes and associations this nevertheless belies the diversity of the aesthetic and philosophical difference in their membership.
Our architects express themselves in numerous different architectural genres and compete in hotly contested competitions where polar opposite practices are often selected as finalists.
DCM and ARM for example, are two firms that could not be more contradictory in their architectural approach yet have often appeared on the same competition shortlists.
The work of these two exalted Melbourne practices appears to have originated from different solar systems, not from designers who practice under the same cultural and economic influences in the same city. Their work is emblematic of the stylistic and philosophical contrasts embodied within the architectural profession as a whole and it is contradictory to recognise their respective “snippings” as exemplary, whilst simultaneously labelling the complexities and contradictions in Australian urbanism as TAU.
Had Boyd survived to the turn of the century, he would have witnessed the emergence of a strong Australian urban culture and the massive urban expansion for which Australia and the world at large was destined.
However, in the post colonial hangover from which he and his generation emerged, paying homage to Empire was more than respectable. The Australian voice of authority that he and other cultural and political powerbrokers of his generation used was spoken in British tones and was listened to in our universities, at the theatre and on the ABC; it still lingers today.
Accepting that Boyd was a product of his time, it is perhaps unfair to fossilise him in an intellectual prison he might have otherwise escaped had he survived his illness and been fully exposed to post modernism and all that followed. On the evidence of the passion in his invective, however, it would seem more likely that Boyd would have stood fast and ministered to the many who have upheld his treatise in the half century since its publication. This underlines the necessity for a re-examination of his views which might begin by comparing Boyd’s “dressmaker’s floor” with other affirmative analogies to see how it fares in its comparison.
Analogical comparisons: a “dressmakers floor strewn with the snippings of style” or urban jazz?
The process by which both jazz and our urbanities are composed has more than a few similarities; so many in fact that our cities could be described as compositions in progress. Here, successive city administrations become the erstwhile composers of the urban ensembles they preside over, choreographing their own contributions into an urban composition that has for the most part already been written by history: Different players enter and exit over time riffing over or collaging with their predecessors’ urban contributions in a gargantuan urban jazz ensemble.
Successive governments, their administrative institutions, the economy, cultural influences, and authorities that preside over the city as a whole are its composers. Their compositions comprise an improvised collaboration that operates on the founding geography of the city, expressing the dominant influences of particular instruments of government and culture, and new technologies as they emerge across respective epochs.
Our architects and urban designers, engineers, landscape architects and transport engineers, etc, are the performers who, like jazz players, collaborate (sometimes competitively) in its composition. In jazz, qualities such as swinging, improvising, interactions between players, developing a distinct sound, and being open to different compositional possibilities, are all cited as defining characteristics. Both jazz and urbanism are made in collaboration between composers and performers, and though this might be said of all varieties of world urbanism it can also be argued that some ‘sound’ more like classical music and others more like jazz.
In his book Touching the Rock, John Hull recounts some of his experiences of blindness, describing the satisfaction he felt on that rainy day when he learnt to see his front yard for the first time. He saw by interpreting the rain’s various pitter-patter sounds on his driveway, the car, his front lawn, a tree etc.
Listening to urban jazz so that one might see it, is a parallel experience. This could be done by taking each architectural type in a streetscape and ascribing a particular sound to its period and scale which, composed sequentially, might translate into a score; sounding each building in a variation of improvised rhythms and sounds (ie with small groups of repetitive beats for a row of terraces for example, interspersed with sounds of a different kind for buildings of a larger scale and differing architecture and so on).
Taking this brief as a point of genesis sound designers two4k were commissioned to translate the streetscapes of Brunswick, Johnston, Smith and Gertrude Streets into a musical score.
Their composition shuffles the sound of each building such that a given sequence is never repeated, playing on the randomness of these inner urban architectural ensembles. The composition will be played at Pin-up Project Space as a sound-scape in which the installation comprising photo-montages of the streetscapes will be set.
Like the majority who considered jazz an affront to established musical traditions when it emerged, some might not like the sound of two4k’s compositions or the analogy that inspired them any more than what they see in Boyd’s “dressmaker’s floor”. However this doesn’t invalidate its analogical affirmation of Australian urbanism any more or less than Boyd’s invective validates its damnation.
Hip hop urban jazz or hip hop?
Sampling, a technique used in composing Hip Hop, conjoins samples, or to use an equivalent term parts, of different songs into a continuity to form a new composition. Comparing “the dressmakers floor” to Hip Hop is possibly a better analogy than jazz since the collage of different building types comprising Australian urbanism are more like samples (or “snippings” if you prefer), of different conjoined architectures.
By transposing different buildings and runs of similar buildings with segments of different genres of music, a streetscape’s composition might sound like sampled electronic music; and if as Johann Wolfgang van Goeth suggested, architecture is frozen music, then a streetscape of different architectures might be considered as a collage of different compositions.
These collages, composed by sampling different architectures and placing one against another is done by many different composers in a composition that can only end when the city dies. Unlike musical sampling however which is choreographed by an artist or sampler who selects the samples and composes joiners or transitions connecting different pieces, our urban compositions have been choreographed by history itself.
Urban analogies whether they be “the dressmaker’s floor” or the musical ones proffered above are more or less equal in their approximations. Although the jazz analogy appears a better fit for Australia’s syncopated urban rhythms, the sampling analogy has more veracity because it comprises sequenced samples of different architectures whose sound better matches the look of Australian urbanism.
Nevertheless, aside from their respective veracity, both musical analogies are affirmative, suggesting a wilful collaboration in our urban compositions, where each fragment has been sampled by the players of its time, with both deliberation and purpose.
By contrast “the dressmaker’s floor” is pejorative, suggesting discarded “snippings” presumably from the cutting tables of architectural couture in Europe.
In my view the musical analogies are closer to the truth of Australian Urbanism, however irrespective of what approximate truths we might apply here, their contemporary relevance depends on their capacity to assist us in further understanding and recalibrating Australian urbanism.
Ivan Rijavec is director, Rijavec Architects & Urban Designers
Boyd’s Error, Planning’s Curse will show at the Pin-up Architecture and Design Project Space, The Compound Interest Centre for The Applied Art, 15-25 Keele Street Collingwood, Melbourne pinupprojectspace.com
Exhibition dates: 3 November to 26 November, Preview Thursday 3 November 6 pm and a limited edition catalogue will be available for sale.