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Australian Architecture : Regional Modernism

Updated on December 30, 2017

Regional Modernism in Australian Architecture c.1940-60's

The tyranny of distance that offers both help and hindrance to Australia’s exposure to larger international developments delayed, too, the arrival of the modernist International Style architectural tenets from Europe. Much of the social ideology, aesthetic dogma and theoretical rhetoric underpinning European architectural thought was either diluted on the delayed journey, or incompatible with the pragmatic, largely conservative Australian character, conditioned at the time to suburban ownership and largely ‘featurist’ tendencies. Modernism in Australia thus had a certain freedom of interpretation. As Robin Boyd has stated, there could be an ‘appropriation of particular overseas modernisms by Australian architects to image a particular notion of modernity.’1.

Distance acted as a hindrance in isolating the country socially and technologically, but also as help in allowing a sufficient remoteness for retaining an identifiable regional attitude. Adaptation to available technologies, resources and climate was necessary. In this way Australia’s exposure to modern architecture is comparable to that of Finland or the US West Coast, in so much as it allowed a modernist vocabulary to be adapted to a local way of life. 2.

With distance comes the ability to transform ideas into a new context, giving them new meanings.3.. From within the slow, often wary shift toward a modern architecture into the Australian context emerged the deeply contrasting ‘meanings’ from the two major cities, Melbourne and Sydney. A country of such variance in climate, history, topography and availability of natural materials would be expected to produce regional variations in its architecture. These distinctive conditions in turn produce cultural ‘attitudes’, which often result in exaggeration and the subsequent dominance of certain regional components over others, often resulting in imbalances and placing of arbitrary importance onto certain cultural precepts.4.

In the case of Sydney, this attitude is centered on the natural landscape and bush myth, while Melbourne has always dealt predominately with its man made institutions due to a generally dull natural setting. Sydney provides a setting for life, while Melbourne is concerned with more pre-determined ideas.5. Such stark separation of regions has a certain credence. However, these generalizations do not consider Melbourne’s coastal and bush carpentry traditions, nor adequately recognize the formality in some early Sydney School work of Sydney Ancher, or the structural determinism of W.E.Lucas.

Nevertheless a functional formalism in Melbourne and an organic, romanticism in Sydney, generated by their respective regional attitudes, largely determined each cities interpretation of modernism.

1.Winsome Callister “Dealing with the Sydney School…”, in Transition, Sept.1987, p.5

2.Francoise Fromonot, Christopher Thompson, Sydney:History of a Landscape, Vilo Publishing, Paris 2000, p.75

3. Rory Spence “The Concept of Regionalism Today”in, Transition, July 1985, p.4

4. ibid.

5. Rory Spence “Australian Regionalism” in, Architectural Review, December 1985, pp.27,62


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