Antipodeanism: The Architecture of Lightness in Australia and New Zealand

Clifford-Forsyth House, Remuera, Auckland NZ. Patrick Clifford / Architectus.

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.

Antipodean Architecture Australia New Zealand
Clifford-Forsyth House
Murcutt architecture style Australia
Marie Short House, Glenn Murcutt
Stuart Gardyne NZ Architecture Antipodeanism
Labone Cabin, Stuart Gardyne
Bossley NZ Architecture Antipodean style
Island Complex, Pete Bossley
Peter Stutchbury Antipodean Architecture
West Head House, Peter Stutchbury
Mitchell Stout Heke Street NZ Architecture
Heke Street House, David Mitchell and Julie Stout
Fireplace NZ Architecture Antipodeanism
Heke Street House, Mitchell Stout
Murcutt House Australia NZ
Fredericks White House, Glenn Murcutt
Wellington Architecture Style Stuart Gardyne ArchitecturePlus
Tiratora, Stuart Gardyne
Leplastrier House Antipodeanism Architecture Style
Angophora House, Richard Leplastrier
Bill Toomath NZ Architecture Modernism
Bill Toomath House
Gardyne NZ Architecture
Labone Cabin, Stuart Gardyne
Clifford Forsyth House NZ Architecture Modernism
Clifford-Forsyth House
Leplastrier Australian Architecture Antipodean Style Mid Century
Tom Uren House, Richard Leplastrier
NZ Rural Architecture Modernism Antipodeanism
Otoparae House, Mitchell Stout Architects
Bossley Antipodeanism Architecture
Waterfall Bay House, Pete Bossley
NZ Bathroom Architecture Style Antipodeanism
Waterfall Bay House, Pete Bossley
Treetop Peter Stutchbury Antipodeanism
Treetop House, Peter Stutchbury
Antipodeanism Japanese Architecture
Angophora House, Richard Leplastrier
Murcutt Antipodean Architecture Australia New Zealand
Fredericks-White House, Glenn Murcutt
Herbst Antipodean Architecture NZ
Great Barrier Bach, Herbst Architects
Rural NZ Antipodean Architecture Modernism
Island Complex, Pete Bossley

Modern Architectures in History: A Review of Australia, by Harry Margalit

Harry Margalit History of Australian Architecture

In Sydney recently, browsing the wonderful Architect’s Bookshop in Surry Hills, I came across this new history of Australian architecture. Strictly speaking, it’s just about Australian modernism—part of a Reaktion Books series on “Modern Architectures in History.” Margalit chooses the federation of Australia in 1901 as his point of departure, so there are no discussions of terrace housing or “Old Australian Houses” here.

The book is engrossing: a perfect mix of architectural description with discussion of the wider forces in Australian society that contextualises architecture. Margalit’s social history approach is masterfully executed, blended together into a narrative that never segues awkwardly or drags on too long, as is a risk of these kinds of histories.

There are descriptions of all the key buildings and personalities in Australian modernism, and from what I can tell (being a newcomer to Australia’s architectural history) the book is spread geographically across all states, not just concentrated in NSW and Victoria.

I thought it would be useful here to draw out some of the moments when Margalit’s analysis proves incisive to all modernisms outside Europe and America. For instance, writing early in the book about different interpretations of modernism immediately after Federation, Margalit describes how three architects “represent three parallel streams that have been constants in modern Australian design”:

“The first stream, typified by Wilson, is that of the nativist, a position that emerged surprisingly early and shows the quick remaking of English social conventions within a generation of colonial founding. As it matured it viewed the experience of Australia as unremarkable, but its paradox lay in seeking validation of the local through news and comparisons from beyond its borders.

The second stream is that of the globalist, in modern terms, whose loyalty is to the most advanced experiences available, regardless of provenance. This had its roots in the concept of Empire, where loyalties have a transnational character, and it seeks validation in good sense… The paradox here is that this imperial vision must be realised locally, a source of some frustration.

The third stream is that of the immigrant or outsider, like the Griffins. This view continually sees Australia afresh, adding its interpretation as the same time as it accepts the limited appeal of this material to the historical flow it attempts to join. This stream has added enormous interest to the country, but its products serve as repositories of possibilities, rather than viable broad alternatives.

I think this analysis is fruitful for New Zealand and other English settler societies with burgeoning modernisms. It shows how approaches to the nation itself informed architectural style, and I can imagine “Griffins, Wilson and Taylor” being replaced by three archetypal New Zealand architects in a slightly later period. Of Harry Seidler, Australia’s arch-International Stylist, Margalit says “[his] reception in Sydney exposed the layering of architectural influences along the dual axes of internal self-definition and international validation…”

Some of the most interesting moments in Margalit’s history are when he focuses on geographic differences in Australia, exploring how different states responded to the three trends I quoted above. On Sydney and architect Peter Muller, for instance:

“Muller’s early works in Sydney are thus among the earliest examples of that distinctive coalition of geographical awareness and anti-modernity that has been identified with the architecture of the time [1950s]. It nonetheless arose within an architectural tradition espousing craft as a critical component in opposing mass production, a value that can be traced back to the Arts and Crafts movement. Thus a recurrent anti-modernity in the English tradition, remade in Australia through cultural transplantation, re-emerged in the guise of a local movement centred on the Sydney region.

Peter Muller House Sydney 1955 Margalit Australia
Peter Muller, Muller House, Sydney, 1955.

There are elsewhere brilliant passages on the contortions of “authenticity” in modern architectural style, a phenomenon that I think still needs to be explored in the New Zealand context:

“The sentiment for authenticity was nationwide and has sometimes been so loosely identified with the Sydney School that it is possible to identify representative buildings in all cities. This is the result of conflating an intention with its manifestation, and while Sydney may have been an incubator, the same three tendencies can be found across the country. It was occasionally identified as regional, as in the assertion of a local identity over a national, or international, one, but the fracturing of national identity into progressive and conservative camps undermined any expectation of a cohesive cultural voice…

My only gripe with the book? The photographs are all printed in black and white, and colour would have made a big difference.

Who will write the New Zealand account of our Modern Architecture in History?

Valls Calls Down Under: Another World Leader Woos the South Pacific

Which country wouldn’t want to be a Pacific nation these days? It was a sign of the times when Manuel Valls, the French Prime Minister, declared during a visit to New Zealand on May 1st that “I also come as a neighbour, as France is also a nation of the Pacific!” One could almost picture the notes his aides had prepared on the flight over, suggesting, one suspects, that Mr Valls emphasise France’s deep ties and connections to the Asia Pacific. His visit to New Caledonia, Australia and New Zealand comes at a time when many countries are dispatching leaders to the South Pacific to strengthen economic and political ties with friendly countries in the region.

France does indeed have colonial-era ties to the Pacific. New Caledonia, an archipelago roughly 1,000km from Australia’s eastern coast, remains a “special collectivity” of France. France also counts as possessions the islands collectively making up French Polynesia in the central South Pacific, as well as the tiny Wallis and Futuna. Yet this, too, is changing. Part of the reason for Mr Valls’ visit to the Pacific was to discuss with New Caledonia’s leaders details of the islands’ 2018 referendum on independence. As a vote nears, France looks to be seeking continued influence. While in Noumea, Mr Valls announced a $240 million loan to help Societe Le Nickel, a New Caledonian producer that has been struggling with low nickel prices.

But Mr Valls’ need to quite literally exclaim his country’s ties to the Pacific seemed to emphasise the insecurity behind the statement. He is not the first world leader to emphasise the ties. In a speech to the Australian Parliament in 2011, President Obama declared that “Our new focus on this region reflects a fundamental truth—the United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation.” As with France, the statement is not untruthful. But the circular logic in proclaiming a “new focus” with reference to a “fundamental truth” of history does show the urgency with which these pivots to the Pacific are being undertaken.

These declarations of Pacific identity may nevertheless help to give the impression of friendliness, which is useful for countries hoping to tap into economic opportunity in the Pacific. Much to Japan and Germany’s dismay, Australia announced on April 26th that it had chosen France to build its new fleet of submarines. The A$50 billion ($38 billion) contract was highly prized, and explains Mr Valls’ last minute addition of Australia to his Pacific tour.

Pacific countries seem to be rather enjoying the flirtation. The French leader’s visit gave John Key, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, an opportunity to make former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark’s case to be United Nations Secretary General, as well as argue for a long sought-after New Zealand-EU trade deal. Mr Valls may also have encountered Pranab Mukherjee, India’s President, on the tarmac in Wellington — Mr Mukherjee was calling on New Zealand’s political and business leaders, the first ever visit to the country by an Indian head of state. He, too, brought the possibility of some large cheques, announcing the agreement of direct flights between the two countries.

In the end, it is deals like that which mean countries are unlikely to pay much attention to the historical or geographic accuracy of claims to Pacific identity. In the world of global trade and security nothing is either true or false, but declaring makes it so. Mr Valls’ over-eager exclamation might have been worth it after all.