Emma Letizia Jones revisits Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness, and asks whether it is ever possible to give valid form to a displaced culture in an alien landscape
The cover of Australian comedian Barry Humphries’ 1958 EP Wild Life in Suburbia depicts a housewife peering malevolently from behind curtains. The face belonged to Edna Everage (later, a Dame), and the EP was her first recorded appearance. By way of a premonition, perhaps, of her stellar career, the inside sleeve carried a warning: ‘for domestic consumption only. not to be exported on any account.’
The phrase, written by Humphries’ friend, the Australian architect Robin Boyd (1919-1971), was prefixed by a paean: ‘Humphries…has the modern Australian way of life stretched out and pinned down with needles…the ghastly proprieties, the crazily clumsy genteelness of brick-area suburbia.’
Boyd knew what Humphries was talking about. He grew up in Edna’s Melbourne of the 1930s, amid what he called ‘the greatest revolution in architectural history’. As might be expected, however, the revolution in Melbourne was not quite as heroic. With the Australian’s characteristic ambivalence, he noted laconically: ‘In Europe the opposing sides were clearly black or white. Here there were several shades of grey.’ Relief came in 1948 when Boyd was offered a scholarship that allowed him to visit Europe for the first time, and the experience transformed him. Much later, having been invited by an elderly Walter Gropius to take up a visiting professorship at MIT, he encountered Saarinen, Wright, Mies, Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Paul Rudolph and Maxwell Fry.
It was presumably this experience that furnished Boyd with an anecdote in his most popular book, The Australian Ugliness (1960). Boyd recalls looking from an aeroplane as it flies over Darwin on a return trip from Europe. He describes in ecstatic terms the sun rising over the colour-streaked void of the desert, and the union of a quiet ocean with a silent continent. But when he steps off the plane Boyd’s rapture turns to revulsion, as the majestic landscape gives way to a tawdry airport, with its ‘brilliant plastic chair coverings, richly polished wood trimmings, spun light fittings of bright copper preserved in lacquer, black wrought iron vases shaped like birds screwed to the wall at eye-level and holding bright little bunches of pink and orange flower heads.’ Faced with this scene, Boyd has the overwhelming desire to jump back onto the plane.
The name Boyd chose in his book for this phenomenon was Featurism, a ‘nervous architectural chattering’, and he identified veneer as its most deplorable weapon. Veneer was the skin-deep ugliness, Boyd wrote, that stemmed from ‘applying pleasing cosmetics to the sick patient’. He took the skin analogy even further: ‘This is a country of many colourful, patterned, plastic veneers, of brick-veneer villas, and the White Australia Policy.’
For Boyd, there were two kinds of veneers. The first was the simple cover-all: brick veneer house construction in the suburbs, brightly coloured or wood or marble imitation plastic veneers in the home, veneers of advertising in the streets. The second, more insidious kind was the veneer of camouflage: the disguising of the reality of an environment by means of introducing arbitrary distractions. In a Featurist city, each building fought for attention over the other, resulting in a plethora of ‘features of interest’ (Gothic style churches, Classical style town halls, English style Gardens) but no cohesion.
It is not difficult to recognise Humphries’ Edna as the Featurist building constructed in human form. As convinced of her own superiority as she is obsessed by what others think of her, she is as prone to self-aggrandisement as she is to insecurity. Edna wears her self-conceit as armour and revels in the double entendre, masking the obscene or grotesque with the puritanical and polished. Boyd too saw the contemporary city as possessing two faces, one romantic and one diseased: ‘The Sydneysider’, he wrote in The Australian Ugliness, ‘pictures his city from the Harbour or the Bridge, its new white offices piling up against the sky they are trying to scrape. He does not see nor recognise the shabby acres of rust and dust and cracked plaster and lurid signs in the old inner suburbs.’ In response he dredged up the location of the hydraulic pipes beneath the streets. He looked gleefully beyond the manicured lawns to pick out where the vents of the sewerage lines rose gothically up past the windows, clambering over the tangled power lines and television aerials.
Attempting to explain the hold of Featurism, Boyd speculated that ‘the greater and fiercer the natural background, the prettier and pettier the artificial foreground: this way there are no unflattering comparisons, no loss of face’. The great misfortune of the Tasmanian city of Hobart, he quipped, was that it might have been beautiful if it hadn’t chosen instead to be pretty.
The Australian Ugliness seen in an international context might be considered the Antipodean equivalent to Ian Nairn’s Outrage (1955). Boyd’s book appeared five years after Nairn’s, followed by Donald Gazzard’s Australian Outrage in 1966. All form part of a wave of criticism calling for a contextual urbanism with more attention paid to ‘visual planning’, led in Britain by the AR during the years of its Townscape campaign − toward which Boyd himself contributed a number of articles.
Yet only a few years after the revised 1968 edition of The Australian Ugliness appeared, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown would publish Learning from Las Vegas (1972). Ugliness, Boyd noted sadly in his new foreword, was now ‘in’. In light of these Post- modern developments, Boyd appears to us now as an almost unfashionable traditionalist, for his ideal of nation building through architecture was already becoming old hat. He remained preoccupied by the proper articulation of a Modernism that could be intrinsically Australian rather than simply imported and tinged ‘with a new colour’. But it is here, for the first time, that Boyd’s book fails us, because at the end of it we are still not sure exactly what this regional Modernism should look like.
For that, one must seek out his built work. Around Melbourne there exists a constellation of Boyd houses that together form a kind of theory by design. Boyd’s own family home in Melbourne’s South Yarra suburb, for example, was a rigorously formal yet nuanced, site-responsive opposition to Featurism. Known as the Walsh Street House, it was widely published and featured in the AR in both 1960 and 1963. Boyd’s anti-Featurism takes on a figurative tone in this house, as its rooms wrap a central courtyard that becomes the core of family life: a lightly clad, jewel-like open-air sanctuary that contrasts with the heavy outer walls keeping the city at bay. It is tempting to see the interiority of the house as an expression of Boyd’s desire to develop an Australian architecture, free of external influences.
Taking up building at the point where the limits of his prose failed, Boyd switched between writing and practice as one might switch between two different languages stemming from the same root. He used them interchangeably, to tease out that problem characterised not only as eternally Australian but also implicit in the very contingency of the modern experience: can it ever be possible to give valid form to a displaced culture within an usurped, alien landscape?