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.