Build­ing a cli­mate of change

A height­ened prose style only slightly marrs an oth­er­wise ex­cel­lent over­view, writes Giles Auty

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

Pic­tures: Shan­non McGrath Next Wave

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

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