Building a climate of change
A heightened prose style only slightly marrs an otherwise excellent overview, writes Giles Auty
FACED by Davina Jackson’s dazzling new book on emerging talents in Australian architecture, I cannot help wondering about the potential market for such books. At one level it could be argued that, of all the visual arts, architecture affects our daily lives more than any other. Today many spend their days in environments defined almost entirely by their buildings.
Even on a domestic front, however, few buyers of this particular book will probably aspire to having a house designed and built specifically for their needs or whims. Availability of suitable blocks is one issue here but a greater one is the widespread intransigence of Australian local councils. Both need serious consideration before we even approach the matter of cost.
Whenever I see an example of well- considered, recently built domestic architecture I realise, after speaking with owners, that such successes have generally been achieved only after prolonged arm wrestles with local councils. Perhaps the true function of this book is thus simply to encourage us to dream.
Maybe one day we will be able to afford a brilliantly designed and located house just like the ones it showcases.
For the 16 architectural practices featured in this book it is hard to imagine a more effective advertisement. Not just domestic architecture but a host of commercial, academic and other multiple- occupancy buildings are photographed dramatically from their most flattering angles. Photographer Shannon McGrath is as much an artist as any of the talented architectural practitioners she promotes.
From panoramas to details of finish or design, wonderfully clear pictures of scores of buildings
Next Wave: Emerging Talents in Australian Architecture By Davina Jackson Thames & Hudson, 255pp, $ 65
emerge. Generally the only thing missing to make the experience complete is any accurate notion of scale. Plans, where they exist at all, are generally minute and lacking entirely in any scale or dimensions: one must assume this is to prevent their possible pirating. Inevitably, however, such lack of detailed information diminishes the interest of the book for the passionate enthusiast or its usefulness for a serious student.
I recall buying my first book on art from Thames & Hudson exactly 50 years ago: a monograph on the Swiss artist Paul Klee. Not the least notable feature of the book was a sober and scholarly text, translated from Italian, that was integrated fully with the host of illustrations on offer.
In terms of cost and quality, colour printing and related technologies have improved out of all recognition in the half- century since this book on Klee was published.
Writers on art can also access their material much more easily through improved ease of travel and other equally vital forms of communication or research. Only in one respect, in fact, have books on fine art and architecture not generally improved.
Today I regularly encounter texts even from reputable publishers that are rife with mistakes, omissions and misunderstandings. How or why these slip past editorial control is a mystery to which I have no answer.
Perhaps we approach a time when books on visual subjects will attempt to dispense with texts altogether. Maybe this is all that will ultimately be asked of coffee- table books.
Both in their intelligent siting and creative use of sustainable materials, some of the domestic projects shown in Next Wave remind me of similar examples from Britain that are examined in depth in my favourite television program, Grand Designs .
Unfortunately, in Next Wave such depth of examination is not possible. We thus get generalisations about extensive use of glass and open plans, and of the clever blurring between indoor and outdoor spaces that is made possible by the Australian climate.
The putative cream of Australia’s emerging architects do, indeed, show an acute awareness of Australia’s varying climates and make sensible nods in the direction of issues such as future maintenance, running costs and sustainability. This is as it should be, but I began to part company with the author of Next Wave because of her unquestioning expectations of imminent climate change, ‘‘ a grassy Antarctic, new Sahara, great galloping glaciers’’.
My main cavil against an otherwise rewarding book lies, in fact, with the generally breathless and sometimes over- egged nature of its prose: ‘‘ Photographically, antipodean buildings sparkle under eucalyptus- punctured skies that
appear impossibly blue to denizens of smogged cities above the equator.’’ London’s last recorded great smog was in 1952.
Or try the following paragraph for future curiosity value: Educated in the early 1990s, when lecturers worldwide were promoting postmodernist theories based on the writings of French and German philosophers like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, this firm now ( in practice) sees little in Derrida of relevance to, say, designing delightful experiences for children as part of alterations to their family home. The author tends to equate newer to better a bit too unthinkingly, whether aesthetically or morally. Indeed, though postmodernism has been with us for 40 years at least, part of her thinking harks back to Le Corbusier and the familiar mantras of modernist utopianism.
This said, I applaud the choices of practices and buildings she has made for Next Wave.
The book is a visual feast.
More than a dream: Clockwise from above, the Dekker residence designed by Richard Kirk; Melbourne’s VCA Centre for Ideas by Minifie Nixon; and Mount Hawthorn House in Perth, designed by Iredale Pedersen Hook