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?