Neo-Modern Regionalism – Imporing and Exporting

Introduction

Architecture across the built environment is often referred to as an eclectic sampling of styles throughout a period of time. In a global market place, contemporary architecture styles and fashions have become easy to import and export, whether deliberate or an unconscious result of teachings. The architecture of Perth has varied dramatically over the past century. Federation architecture, which adopted waratahs and cockatoos as motifs, attempted to establish a distinct Australian style through use if “typically” Australian imagery. Post-war architecture diverged to accommodate a more European style. With increasing immigrant numbers, there was a push to adapt a more unified architecture, one which portrayed a sense of place to society.

This essay will attempt to address the notion of a neo-modern regionalism within Perth. It will also examine the idea of a ‘Perth Architecture’, where each change in architectural style is viewed as a response to the marketplace and becomes a piece of data on a timeline of local and imported building styles. In order to tease out the way in which import-export occurs, the paper interrogates some key architects in the post war era along with currently practising architects.

The planning process is key to determining how architecture responds to cultural context. The plan represents a means of expression of the style and values of the occupant; it depicts the relationships between the programs of the house and as a result the way the spaces can be occupied. When examining the planning of affluent houses of the 1960s or 1970s designed by European immigrant architects, or ‘imports’, the influence of a European style of architecture is clear with its effective, flexible open plan, much like the approach of Mies van der Rohe. Compare this with the planning of a contemporary project home, found in abundance throughout metropolitan Perth, designed with very rigid uses of space and excess circulation areas. The question can then be asked: has the typical Perth architecture advanced to address site context and cultural ideals?

Defining a Perth Architecture

Fig. 1: The early suburban house Weller, Richard. Boomtown 2050. Perth, WA: UWA Publishing, 2009

For the purpose of this paper, due to the limited time and scope of the study, research into a Perth architecture is confined to a number of influential factors: cultural, environmental, building materials and quality of workmanship. Perth’s architecture between the 1950s and 1970s was based around the ideal of a small suburban house on an expansive block providing intimate backyard space and a more open, inviting front verge. This typology set the standard for housing which began to stretch out along the coastal plain north and south from the city. As Richard Weller describes it:

“The front yard was both a zone of display and a social contract, a semi public space of neatness encoding a statement about individual personality in the context of community.”[i] (Fig. 1)

The addition of lawn provided a contrast to the surrounding bushland and meant that the sandy lot could be covered to produce something aesthetically pleasing while the facade of the house was a statement about the client/individual. This embodied the desires of a post-war society trying to re-develop a local architecture.

In the 1980s, when this style of housing was still being developed extensively in the metropolitan area, much criticism was expressed about the monotony of the design. This situation largely evolved due to the study and teaching of architecture in Perth looking elsewhere for precedence before examining the local condition. It is not unique to the west coast. Weller recounts Robin Boyd’s criticism of the direction of architecture in Australia:

…such development as the Australian ugliness condemning the small mindedness that he perceived as leading not only to the destruction of the landscape but also to the creation of inappropriate gardens. In his view little of significance could come from such a suburban wasteland.[ii]

Nationally it was a situation which reflected the outward focused teachings, even the arrogance, of the modern movement.

Environmentally Perth has very specific influences that need to be considered in design.  Its temperate climate, with hot dry summers and cool to cold winters, means the large annual variance in temperature requires effective passive design using materials with high thermal mass.  The large diurnal temperature range means that the heat gain or loss between night and day need to be considered. Perth’s proximity to the coast, influencing wind patterns year round, needs to be taken into account. The summer trade wind, known affectionately as ‘the Fremantle Doctor’, comes in mechanically almost each day due to the rising land temperature. This produces large scale convection currents where the cooler ocean air is sucked onto the land as the hot air over the land mass is forced upwards. Perth’s house design should maximise this natural air-flow as a passive means of cooling, taking advantage of nature’s free air conditioner. While summer is dominated by large high pressure systems, the winter climate is produced, generally, by a series of cold fronts that pass through or under the Central and South West region. Unfavourable north-west/south-west winds batter the coast on a regular basis meaning that winter airflow through a suburban home needs to be reduced as much as possible.

The quality of light is also a feature specific to Perth’s local context. While natural sunlight in the home needs to be maximised for winter warmth, the harshness of Perth’s summer light means that direct sunlight needs to be eliminated or reduced through shading devices. The use of passive design has still not been fully addressed in Perth. Architecture needs to address the local context, taking into consideration all these points. This will inherently result in a design responsive to its local environment.

Fig. 2 Corbusier in Sunny Perth: Author’s alteration of original image

The Case Study – Perth Architects – Imports and Exports.

This essay compares a number of Perth architects who represent either ‘import’ or ‘export’ architectural styles. I have chosen to interrogate the work of Julius Elischer, a European-taught post-war architect, and MORQ, a currently practicing company, as ‘import’ architects, and Simon Anderson as a locally taught ‘export’ architect.

Imports

The importing, or borrowing, of foreign styles was not something specific to the built environment. Just as the early artists who depicted the Australian landscape modified their views and vegetation to reflect the familiar environment of their European homeland, the work of import architects referenced familiar European architecture. Figures 3 and 4 represent John Glover’s depiction of the foreign Lake District in Victoria and a landscape scene in Tasmania.

Fig. 3&4

Julius Elischer

Julius Elischer, born in Hungary where he also studied architectural engineering, became one of the first highly regarded imports to practice in Western Australia during the period 1950s to 1990s.[iii] Influenced by many European architects of the period, Elischer attempted to produce a regional architecture that he deemed to be thoroughly modern while ensuring the context of the site was considered in the design. Elischer’s use of symbolism was a predominant motive for his design process. He believed it was logically irrelevant in a design but culturally necessary, specifically in the case of his small churches where the addition of a cross or Christian motif on the facade was the only telling factor of its function. This, he felt, allowed for a more open and creative approach to design.[iv] Elischer believed that context should come first in design and was critical of work that favoured individuality over context.[v]

Fig. 5 Foulkes-Taylor Showroom, Broadway. Photograph by author.

One of Elischer’s earlier and most famous projects was the Foulkes-Taylor Showroom (Fig. 5) on Broadway, Nedlands, completed in 1964.[vi] His approach to the plan was derivative of Adolf Loos’ Raumplan, with interlocking volumes of varying size providing each space with a different experiential quality. Its purpose was to aid the quality and function of the space by providing the occupant/viewer with a distinguished path through the furniture displays. Rarely attempted in Perth designs, this approach the plan was regarded as a major innovative feature for the time. The key feature of the Showroom, grounding it in its site, was its orientation and response to sunlight, notably its deep reveals of randomly placed punctures in the northern facade. Elischer used these north-facing reveals to soften and filter Perth’s harsh light to a level suitable for the exhibition of furniture. Using rendered double brick for the exterior walls, he was able to produce these reveals embodying a similar aesthetic to many modernist buildings that used a rough concrete finish. The large cavity brickwork also provided high thermal mass, similar to that of concrete, addressing Perth’s large diurnal temperature range.

During his time in Europe, Elischer was taught innovation in the systems and materials used in building.[vii] This influence aided his transition to design in Perth enabling him to see a wider range of design possibilities that would also suit the context with which he was dealing. The use of large-cavity double brickwork and simple steel construction in the Foulkes-Taylor Showroom, for example, illustrates Elischer’s application of a local material with a borrowed idea, grounding it through his understanding of the influences of the site.

Another of Elischer’s projects from 1964 was Wollaston Chapel, on Wollaston Road in Mount Claremont (Fig. 6). This building bears a striking resemblance to Corbusier’s Ronchamp (Fig. 7) due mainly to its interior ceiling ‘hanging’ likes a piece of fabric, while appearing as if it is floating above the external walls. Although this feature was designed at the client’s request[viii], it would have appealed greatly to Elischer who spent time working under Corbusier’s protégé Ferninand Streb.[ix]  Elischer oriented the Chapel in its site to maximise the use of natural light. As with, ambient filtered light Ronchamp bounces off the ceiling through the gap between the external walls and roof volume. Deep randomly placed openings with coloured glass produce a mosaic effect the internal walls. The plan of the chapel is open, allowing the focal point to be on the altar.  It also allows the external walls to curve away from the regular grid in varying in size and proportion, giving them the subtle sculptural effect achieved in the chapel of Ronchamp. Reiterating the point of symbolism, Elischer treats the design of the building in such a way that only the reference to Corbusier’s building gives it the characteristic of a chapel or church. Its abstract design incites a curiosity in the viewer and only once inside is the building’s function determined.

Fig. 6 and 7: The real versus the import. Ronchamp in comparison with Elischer’s Wollaston Chapel Google Images and Author’s photograph

Julius Elischer’s office and residence, also on Broadway, Nedlands and completed in 1969, was seen as an innovation in architecture for that period in Perth. This building, probably more than his others, borrows extensive features from his European architectural background; from the Pilotis lifting the first floor off the ground, to the series of detached planes defined by negative details emphasising the separation and thickness of each plane.[x] The planning of this building is much more refined; it contains a symmetrical series of spaces denoting the architectural offices, while Elischer’s private residence is located behind this building, connected directly by a small foot bridge.[xi] This small building has a decidedly European feel about it. As you walk down Broadway, the design appears very alien to its surroundings, even in today’s more contemporary setting.

 

MORQ

The work of Italian firm MORQ most likely falls in the category of minimalist contemporary architecture. It sees itself as an architectural practise promoting design in response to site.[xii] Now based in Perth as well as Rome, MORQ has provided a refined style of architecture to several areas in metropolitan Perth – such as Fremantle, City Beach and Dalkeith – and further south in Margaret River. It is clear that its style of design is imported. As director Andrea Quagliola agrees, it is a style that MORQ’s architects have been taught and practised in Rome and brought to Perth with the intent of applying it to a wholly new context, both culturally and environmentally.[xiii] Quagliola’s understanding of the Perth environment has influenced his passive design approach, taking into consideration the requirements of the site, the existing condition, and the surrounding landscape or buildings for each project.  MORQ’s Courtyard House in Margaret River (Fig.8) and its Cut Hill competition entry in York (Fig. 9) are examples of how the designers have applied their style in response to the local context; Quagliola’s earlier project, the South Fremantle addition, on the other hand represents a design closer to MORQ’s work in Rome.

Fig. 8 The Courtyard House, MORQ. The modernist box, broken by the contemporary solar system on the roof. image by MORQ*
Fig. 9 Model of the Cut Hill House; a ‘transformation of the existing landscape’ Photograph by author

The South Fremantle addition, known as Danny’s Extension, conveys a strong response to an existing condition, the limestone wall. Expressed as a major feature throughout the design, the existing site wall provides the canvas for which the programs of the extension are laid out. This design maximises the use of courtyard space on a small site so that it appears as the primary function, divided simply by a minimally designed room with operable glazed doors.[xiv] The roof volume appears to hover over this fluid space while resting on the limestone wall. This notion of the internal/external courtyard has been explored by MORQ through several of its projects in Rome and demonstrates an importing of design style to a new context. This earlier Perth work, while still responding to the site constraints, appears foreign and less adapted to a Perth style of architecture than some of their latter projects.

The Courtyard House was an evolution of an earlier MORQ project in Rome, the Sami Flat.[xv] It represents a European or Mediterranean design approach with a direct response to the local context. The design considers Margaret River’s climatic condition, the quality of its sunlight and its surroundings by introverting the design to focus on a central courtyard around which the programs of the house are connected. Strangely enough this type of housing has not yet been embraced in the Australian context given its appropriateness to the climate.[xvi] The austere cedar timber panelling on the exterior, the warm oiled red timber of the internal courtyard, and the highly polished concrete floor are an expression of the work of a quality craftsperson, which, Quagliola notes, is hard to come by in Perth and the South West. This project won MORQ an award for timber design. MORQ does not tend to focus on local materials for construction in the same way that Simon Anderson, for example, .does. Quagliola believes that “Perth is not very strong with the use of materials…[and finds that] the palette of materials is very limited.”[xvii] MORQ is more concerned with the aesthetics of design and the quality of the space by providing flexible open planning and a material palette that compliments the simplicity in the appearance of each design.

MORQ’s most recent design work, the Cut Hill competition entry, while still a residential design, addresses a larger scale of programmes in a rural context. The abstract appearance of this design contrasts with MORQ’S previous projects and demonstrates the progression away from the influences of its much earlier works. The architects describe the way it responds to the site:

            “The articulated roof aims to blend with the landscape and to complete the skyline of the hilltop. Evocative yet subtle, the house is designed in a synergistic relationship with the topography of place, materiality of the site, social changes and environmental cycles.”[xviii]

But has this house responded to the site in a way that is culturally accepted or is it simply a reflection of MORQ’s European roots? Quagliola states that; “we do not design an ‘object’; instead each design is a transformation of the existing condition.”[xix] In the case of Cut Hill, this may be the crucial point of MORQ’s design ethic that sets its work apart from a Perth, or Western Australian architecture.

 

Export

 Simon Anderson

Architects are renowned for offering criticism of architectural styles that appear to be borrowed from previous decades and countries. In Perth, from the 1950s to 1990s much of the emerging architecture appeared to be imported with little response to local context. Whether this was the case or not, there is currently a strong push for the development of a defining architectural style which addresses both site influences and cultural context.

Local architect Simon Anderson has been pivotal in the dissemination, and to a certain degree historicisation, of a distinct Perth architecture providing a new direction in the way we look at our local context. He suggests that Perth should start designing houses with the same intent as factory buildings using cost effective and simple construction methods[xx]. It is an approach not dissimilar to that adopted in Charles Eames’ Case Study House in which a simple shell was constructed as a base for adapting to suit the individual and the site.

Anderson’s own work responds to local context, taking into account the building material, orientation and spatial quality of a site as well as social influences such as affordability, in an attempt to create a ‘regional’ Perth architecture. Since Perth is listed as one of the most unaffordable cities in which to live, he promotes the use of new building materials, or alternative ways of using current materials, in an attempt to reduce building costs.[xxi]

Examples of his work, such as Where House and Long Weekend House, appear to reject the accepted aesthetics in ‘modern’ design, of comfort and beauty, by responding primarily to the site and social situation providing a shell in which to inhabit. In a sense this approach could be seen as a pure architecture – a shell to be fitted out as the inhabitants desire. This offers a cheap housing solution that could provide Perth with the option of cost effective, architect-designed homes.

The Where House, designed for himself and completed in the early 1990s, was the result of applying industrial building techniques on a residential-scale project.[xxii] It proved that a functional, architect-designed home could be achieved within the same cost per square metre as an industrial warehouse project. The house was constructed using affordable materials throughout; simple cavity brick walls with in-situ concrete floors and even in-situ concrete bench tops. It was designed with an open and flexible plan within a simple shell, and the various internal spaces engaging with one another. Anderson describes his work as: “inviting different relationships between domestic activity and space, recognising that occupants are likely to change the way they live as time passes.[xxiii]

This house, while not as aesthetically pleasing as, say, a high art European style of modern architecture, considers the circumstances of occupants and their varying lifestyles. It considers how the occupants might live within a space, and how they might relate to their houses. This crude box suggests that architecture might be more than just creating luxurious spaces, but might also address the more fundamental issues of a place such as affordability. Anderson’s play on words, the ‘Where House’, suggests that it is an architecture for no specific place. On the other hand, Anderson has tried to create a housing typology specifically for the place of Perth using the Where House as an example. This, he feels, could be something that is designed once, then mass produced using local materials at an affordable price; an architect’s house accessible to everyone.

 
A similar approach to design led Simon Anderson and Kate Hislop to build the Long Weekend House in Gingin (Fig. 10). Located about 85 kilometres north of Perth on the Dandaragan Plateau, the house adjoins the local Gingin football and show grounds.[xxiv] It is a comment on the country vernacular architecture of the region, in particular with its reference to the double colonnade of brickwork in the local Civic Centre (Fig. 11) and the widely used local Toodyay stone. The rear wall of the house has been built more cheaply in ‘randomly’ laid brickwork of various types to give it the appearance, from a distance, of a stone wall in its bid to reference the use of local stone which is not always affordable. The term random is used loosely, for while it appears this way, there has been careful consideration given to the number of bricks of each type used to achieve the desired look.

It is this clever play on materials that the architects create in order to produce an architecture that is specific to its place.  It was designed by Anderson and Hislop to use as their holiday residence and office outside of the city so did not require the luxuries of the ‘normal’ suburban home. The Long Weekend House was the first to be erected in a newer subdivision in Gingin town. If you block out the surrounding houses being built, you can visualise the vernacular of the urban/rural home that the architects were trying to create – one that is grounded in its site in a physical and aesthetic sense. It demonstrates that there can be a Perth Architecture by designing with what we have and appreciating our own cultural values.

Simon Anderson, similar to and influenced by Venturi, sees the architecture of a place not a thing for the elite and wealthy, a luxury for the minority, but reads it based on the culture of a place. Where Venturi understood Vegas as a centre of an architectural style, created by the mob culture of money and power, Simon sees a ‘Perth Architecture’ as a result of an abundance of local materials and the cultural values of the people.

Conclusion

This essay aims to look more deeply at architectural approaches in Perth and expand on the lack of local architectural theory. By understanding the local typologies, a more cohesive framework can be established. The research provides a link between the teachings of overseas architecture and its application in the local context. It helps to bridge the gap in our knowledge and provides a way forward, encouraging critical assessment of our architectural motives and practices.

While architecture has always been about sampling from other works to a greater or lesser extent, for too long Perth architecture has relied on imported design rather than responding more directly to its local environmental and cultural context.  This is largely a reflection of the local teaching of architecture which has looked beyond our own accomplishments for influence and precedence. The result has been architecture that is often alienated from its context through the architect’s greater understanding of another marketplace. Importing of styles and ideas will always have a profound effect on the appearance of a design, often sitting it uncomfortably in its environment. Architects should apply their local cultural knowledge of place to create something that is a response, not aesthetically but contextually, to the given site.

The range of architectural styles, both imported and local, suggests that there is not yet a fully developed architecture for the place. The very specific nature of Perth’s context demands a design style that responds effectively to this context.



[i] Weller, Richard. Boomtown 2050. Perth, WA: UWA Publishing, 2009. Pp.24

[ii] Ibid pp.27

[iii]  Simon Anderson and Michael Bradshaw. Julius Elischer, Architect: Selected Projects 1958 –  1985. Perth: Faculty of Landscape and Visual    Arts: University of Western Australia, 2003.  pp. 76

[iv] Ibid

[v] Ibid p.76

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Ibid p.77

[viii] Ibid p. 30

[ix] Ibid p. 76

[x] Ibid p. 46

[xi] Ibid p. 46

[xii] Andrea Quagliola, Interview by author, Perth, WA. November 2, 2010

[xiii] ibid

[xiv] Monteduro/Roia/Quagliola. “Morq.”  www.morq.it.

[xv] Westbrook, Nigel. “Outside the Square.” Monument 83 (2008) pp. 85

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Andrea Quagliola, Interview by author, Perth, WA. November 2, 2010

[xviii] Monteduro/Roia/Quagliola. “Morq.”  www.morq.it.

[xix] Andrea Quagliola, Interview by author, Perth, WA. November 2, 2010

[xx] Ibid pp. 405

[xxi] Geoffrey London, Simon Anderson. Take 7

Housing Australia: How Architects Can Make a Difference. ACT: Australian Institute of Architects, 2008. pp. 12

[xxii] Warn, Geoff. “Wherehouse: Simon Anderson Architect.” Architect, W A : the official journal of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, W A Chapter 33 (1993): 20-21.

[xxiii] Ibid

[xxiv] “The Long Weekend House, Gingin.” Architect W A : the official journal of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, W A Chapter 41 (2001): 26-27.