This was originally meant to be a short piece in HOME Magazine’s urbanism & public space section, but won’t be published now that Bauer Media has closed HOME.I thought I may as well still publish it here.
A playground at Parliament was always going to be a difficult proposition, from a design standpoint. The idea conjures brightly-coloured plastic and rubber chip mats smelling as they deteriorate in the summer heat. These account for fun childhood memories, to be sure, but are not exactly congruent with the grey stone of our Parliament buildings, or Sir Basil Spence’s design for the Beehive.
Labour MP and Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard said a playground it was to be, as part of a push to make Parliament accessible and child-friendly. Studio Pacific Architecture was given the job. And they’ve responded with their own kind of fun: an architectural playground, say. The architects refer to a Brian Eno quotation—“Children learn through play, but adults play through art”—as a source of inspiration.
Materials are sensitively chosen, with cork matting and wood that blends in with the surrounding Pohutukawa trees. The centrepiece of the play space, a slide, renders first as sculpture and secondly as something to engage with. Alongside, wooden architectural constructions encourage climbing, crawling, sitting and touching.
Some of the wooden forms protruding from the ground seem to make children appear as giants walking through a Manhattan skyline of towers; or they remind one of the “Architecton” forms of Russian painter Kazimir Malevich. There are ideas at play here, as well as literal play—something for everyone in a project that could so easily have been a well-intended eyesore, but an eyesore nonetheless.
The play space represents a kind of political utopia, right on our politicians’ lunch break paths. Children and adults, the future and the present, ideas and fun, thought and laughter: a healthy set of reminders for those inside the building that stands behind.
How to define Antipodeanism in architecture? Michael Sorkin, who died tragically of the coronavirus two weeks ago, has probably come closest. Writing in the late ’90s of Patrick Clifford’s house in Remuera, he said that the house displayed “… a certain antipodean lightness that comes of the logical economies of the new. There is a balance to this house that shows both a certainty and a courtesy towards its setting in both culture and nature.”
That same could be said of most architecture that feels essentially Antipodean. I think of Glenn Murcutt’s many houses and precisely the same could be written with equal accuracy: of the Marie Short House, of his Magney House, and of his own house renovation in Sydney’s Mosman. Here in Aotearoa, it’s not just Patrick Clifford: I think of other architects’ well-known houses like Mitchell Stout’s Heke Street House, Stuart Gardyne’s Tiratora, Pete Bossley’s Island Complex, many of John Scott’s works—and I could write precisely the same of each of them as Sorkin wrote of the Clifford-Forsyth house.
I think Sorkin’s formulation is ultimately a little too easy. In the end it’s an American’s take on far-flung new colonial architecture, for only in the colonies is there an enduring tension between culture and nature (in cultural centres the salient distinction is between tradition and the new, not nature and culture). And “the logical economies of the new”? Well, it’s a kind of architectural determinism—a little like saying that the harsh clarity of our light defined our architecture (as was said about painting by our art-historical nationalists). If we all face the logical economies of the new, then must not all our architecture display that Antipodean lightness? It most certainly doesn’t, as a quick glance at the rest of Remuera shows.
To be fair, Sorkin does acknowledge that he risks sounding like he’s writing a “colonial travelogue” about a “house I have not seen in a country I have not visited.” It’s testament to his thoughtfulness that he could offer such an incisive comment at such a distance. But I think more must be said.
Maybe it’s easier to start with sources and then to consider the variations. When I think of Antipodeanism my mind leaps to Aalto and Scarpa and the Japanese tea pavilion. Natural materials, then, wood first and foremost, but without any qualms about technology. Calmness and elegance over impressiveness. A deeply embedded modesty. A noble simplicity, but never coming anywhere close to grandeur. “Serenity” as a style and an effect. Perhaps humanism, plain and simple, sums the idea up.
Japanese-Scandinavian design affinities have been well explored, but the triumvirate of Japanese-Nordic-Antipodean design hasn’t yet been to any great degree. Environmental similarities perhaps produce similarity in architecture. Even more productive, I think, is the way that each of these regions have had to define themselves in relation to both international tradition and deeply embedded local vernaculars. None have had the privilege of cultural centrality to avoid thinking about these dichotomies. And so Japan and Scandinavia presage the Antipodean response, providing guides and models to form and materiality. Out of it, our architects have created something that stands apart, yet with these sources clearly visible if one looks hard enough.
For HOME Magazine’s 80th anniversary, Julia Gatley and Andrew Barrie were tasked with trying to pick the “best” home from each decade. They weaselled partially out of the impossible task by picking two homes from each decade—one from what they termed the “sugar cube” tradition of the International Style, and one from the “brown bread” tradition of regional modernism. Plischke’s Sutch House is then a “sugar cube,” and Athfield’s own house in Khandallah is of the “brown bread” tradition.
It’s a thoughtful approach; only, when I think of Antipodeanism in architecture, the houses that come to mind are impossible to place in one camp or the other. Many of Glenn Murcutt’s rural retreats, for instance, have all the interior slickness of a “sugar cube” urban apartment, yet with their monopitches and oversized downpipes they’re emphatically of the “brown bread” vernacular. Likewise with a house such as Stuart Gardyne’s own home, Tiratora: lined on the interior with plywood and keeping romantic remnants of a former tract house that stood on the site, yet also formed of glass cubes with seamless connections thrusting out towards the view. Or Bill Alington’s own house in Karori: included on the list as a “sugar cube” house, you nonetheless feel, when standing inside it, that it could just as easily be in the “brown bread” camp. To place these houses strictly in Gatley & Barrie’s typology is to dismiss what is most unique about them.
Antipodeanism, then, as productive avoidance of either the international or the regional? It’s as though houses in this style are far too knowingly aware of the traps of reproducing a staid internationalism, but also still aspire to a modernism that can be understood in international terms. They’re too learned to go in for any kind of vernacularism. This is why I’m not including New Zealand’s Group Architects in this Antipodeanism frame: their houses are concerned with New Zealand itself, and strove directly for a vernacular modernism. They have none of the lightness or even the internationalism of Antipodeanism as I have come to think of it.
To try another tack: where does Antipodeanism sit on the city house-country house scale? I can say only neither, and both. The houses I think of are baches in the city and city houses on the farm. They escape this typology, having both everything of the rustic bach and everything of the modernist box about them. Then: Antipodeanism as a style equally at home in the city, on the farm and at the beach? This seems to have something to it. In countries where European and American modes of dressing distinctly for city and country have never been salient, it’s logical also for our houses to escape entirely those same distinctions.
I’m aware that speaking of trans-Tasman currents in architecture is not exactly common. This is often for good reason, for without a larger rival, who could New Zealand ever measure itself up to? We have always defined ourselves by our differences, and I feel about as Australian as an Australian feels French, which is to say not in the slightest. And yet—and yet on a global stage we’ve always been more similar than we’ve wanted to believe, and there is something in our architecture that we share in common.
A Swede too feels different from a Norwegian, who feels different from a Finn. And yet despite this those nations have reconciled themselves to “Scandinavian” and “Nordic” monikers that emphasis the real commonality without (I think) overly obscuring national differences. Sverre Fehn’s Nordic Pavilion in Venice highlights how the larger grouping has worked to everyone’s advantage. And so why shouldn’t we, Australia and New Zealand, acknowledge our similarities; describe them and explore them; maybe, dare I say it, market them?
Antipodeanism brings together the under-appreciated similarities between Murcutt, Bossley, Leplastrier, Gardyne, Alington, Stutchbury, Clifford and so many others. To my mind, it captures a real style that has moved far beyond the “search for identity” that both Aotearoa and Australia undertook in the mid-century—and also moves beyond so many other architectural distinctions, whether it be city house/country house or modernist/postmodernist. The more I’ve thought about it, Antipodeanism is a term that captures something unique—it’s a term that is, to use consulting speak, mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive; it defines something that cannot be described any other way. Which is exactly why it’s worth talking about and exploring further.
For a long time it was fashionable to compare a nation’s cultural life with the journey through a human life—from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. (Of course, no one ever mentioned the decrepit old age and death of the fully-formed “adults” they were comparing to). If we were to continue the analogy—just for old time’s sake—we might also recognise the truism that you grow up when you’re not really watching. Personal growth and development is somewhat tortured when too self-conscious; it’s worked best when you look back one day and realise the real changes happened when you were busy living life (or busy having fun with postmodernism, as the case may be). Perhaps the same has happened with our architecture, art and much else besides: when we stopped trying to force the development of a style, that’s when it finally came about.
Still, in the end, have I come any closer to a definition of Antipodeanism? I want to say it’s a certain lightness, maybe a certainty and a courtesy towards—yes, towards both culture and nature. OK, Michael Sorkin probably still came closest. And why should we be surprised? It usually takes a foreigner to point out the blindingly obvious.
Credit to individual photographers for the images below.
On the day when I first visited, stepping out of that dark southerly wind into her home [Katherine Mansfield’s], the house where she was born, there immediately was the Victorian presence of old New Zealand to greet me. How close it pressed in.
Late last year I viewed the Alexander Turnbull Library‘s copy of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili . This is Aldus Manutius’ most famous and most technically difficult book. Spanning three languages (sometimes on the same page), extensive woodcut illustrations (every one worth a day’s looking) and interesting typographic layouts, the book is often thought to be one of the most beautiful ever printed. But its real achievement is only understood when we realise that every page was hand-printed, making the typographic challenges immense.
The Hypnerotomachia is fascinating, even exciting, to see (and to read, thanks to a recent Phaidon-published translation, and with the wonderful descriptions and discussion in Andrew Hui’s The Poetics of Ruins). But as a book I felt about it the way one generally feels when seeing Manet’s Olympia, or any other artwork that has become a stand-in for an artistic period. It represents something important, but its own impact has been dulled through its ubiquity.
Last week, again at the Turnbull Library, I saw some books by another printer-publisher who has been called “The last of the great classic printers.” These books, unlike the Hypnerotomachia, left me thrilled. Far from being solely historically interesting, these books were contemporary, emphatically modern and of the twentieth century. They spoke directly rather than through the lens of history. And yet everything about them demonstrated that they are a continuation of Aldus Manutius’ printing tradition. Everything about them represented Aldus’ motto of “Festina lente”, or “make haste, slowly”—or to use a New Zealand poetic analogy, these books knew that “One foot is for holding on, and one is for letting go.”
The books I saw were all printed by Giovanni Mardersteig at his Officina Bodoni. Born “Hans”, Mardersteig founded his hand press in Switzerland in 1922, moved it to Verona in 1927, and ran it from there until his death in 1977. The move to Italy came about when Mardersteig won the Italian government’s commission to print the entire works of Gabriele D’Annunzio.
The Officina Bodoni printed books both under its own imprint, and for other publishers. Faber&Faber, for instance, had Mardersteig print a small edition of T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. He also printed a run of Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party, illustrated by Marie Laurencin. Later, around 1950, Mardersteig also set up a mechanical press called the Stamperia Valdonega to publish more books that did not aspire to the art of his hand press.
Just slipping Mardersteig’s The Tempest out of its custom-made box says so much about the classical modernity of his books. It’s bound in vellum, that remnant of medieval manuscripts, yet is coloured in an almost outrageously modern lime green (see image at top). The colour is straight from an abstract painter’s palette (though anachronistic, I think of Imi Knoebel’s colours). And the vellum marbles it, gives it a depth and variety that glows.
Mardersteig’s printers’ device itself is classical, but with a flourish—he changed the orb to horns. Looking briefly, it’s unnoticeable, but the more you look and compare it to classical devices it even elicits a laugh.
If anyone is interested in learning more, I’ve particularly enjoyed the 1980The Officina Bodoni: An Accountof the Work of a Hand Press published under the Stamperia Valdonega imprint after Mardersteig’s death. The Officina’s typography deserves an essay on its own, and this book includes examples of almost all the printers’ types.
If I could have just one of the Officina Bodoni books to own? It would have to be the 1969 De Aetna, his version of Pietro Bembo’s account of the ascent of Mt Etna with his father. The original edition was published in 1495 by Aldus Manutius himself, and was the first time Aldus used the Roman type crafted by Francesco Griffo. For this book, published in separate English, German and Italian translations of the Latin original (each in an edition of 125), Mardersteig revived the “Bembo” type that Stanley Morison had worked on. It’s a wonderful book speaking across countries, across traditions, and across time from early modernity to perhaps its last great flourishing.