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.