Australia's architectural history has been poorly served by synthesizing narratives. J. M. Freeland's Architecture in Australia appeared more than half a century ago; Jennifer Taylor's Australian Architecture since 1960 was published in 1986. Even the individual states, all with their own distinct colonial histories and formidable layers of indigenous past, have largely missed out on those books that attempt to work beyond specific periods of time. Robin Boyd's Victorian Modern (1947) offers a model that has not been taken up later, or elsewhere. The Encyclopedia of Australian Architecture, edited by Philip Goad and Julie Willis (2012), sows the seeds for all this unrealized work but is itself necessarily limited by its own typological constraints.1 Funding has rewarded penetrating paper-length studies over the books that would attempt to make sense of it all, and we here are largely out of the habit of writing longer narratives about the architectural history of the Australian continent.
This morning, as I write, the Guardian reports that the mining juggernaut Rio Tinto consulted with its legal team three days prior to destroying, in May 2020, the shelters in the Juukan Gorge in Western Australia, with their 46,000-year-long history as a setting of dwelling, ritual, and art, which placed them among the world's oldest cultural sites. Some artifacts were removed and stored in shipping containers nearby. (“The traditional owners can access their material at any time by request,” read a company statement.) As for the shelters themselves, counsel advised Rio Tinto that it was protected from the repercussions of blasting the site.2
I mention this incident at the outset because it offers compelling evidence that the true depth and complexity of Australia's architectural history is barely appreciated in the nation's own territory, let alone in the world beyond its borders or in the minds of those for whom building is a question of pragmatism and amenity. Australia presents a challenge not only to the scale of historical time—a scale with which no architectural history has yet adequately grappled—but also to the concept of architecture as a subject of that history. For as long as we wring our hands about how to locate a site like the Juukan caves in our field, such sites will stand outside the narratives that otherwise capture what we value in any given moment.
This is not the start of a description of the book that I would prefer to have read. Rather, my point is that any history of Australian architecture presents the problem of comparing what it could cover with what it chooses to say. The temptation offered by a series like Reaktion's Modern Architectures in History is to treat the present as something discrete and modern architecture as something conventional therein—a temptation most of the books in the series have, thus far, resisted. In this regard, however, Harry Margalit's Australia does what it says on the cover, more or less. As a work of architectural history, it tracks key figures and works and faithfully follows the preoccupations of Australia's architects over a long twentieth century, represented by the loudest and most prominent voices celebrated by the Australian profession and its discourses. It is self-consciously materialist to the extent that it is arranged around questions of labor and professional mobility and the heavily foregrounded legacy of an Arts and Crafts movement in the advent and consequences of a local modernism. History is here the backdrop for architectural history, however. Political events, economic developments, population change, cultural forces: Margalit's pattern is to offer summaries of the contexts in which professional architects work before turning to the buildings and the professional debates, as though events—such as the historian can recount them—are not shot through with architecture, and vice versa. Instead, Australia's modern architects respond to history while standing beyond it.
The limits Margalit places on his topic are telling. Australia is a hard border. It was founded in 1901 (with the federation of the nineteenth-century Australian colonies); it is a nation of immigrants. Architecture is (overwhelmingly) the work of a formalized profession, in which the capital A is always to be inferred. Architectural history takes place in the big cities of Sydney and Melbourne, with their concentrations of media, population, investment, and architecture schools. Its material is the realized work, or the resolved intention. Its questions are the ways, means, and motivations that determine the work, and its guiding question—what happened—is directed toward the profession and its instruments. And this despite the meager volume of the nation's modern building stock realized by architects, and despite the breadth of the field of architectural history described in a journal like this one.
The chapter divisions of Margalit's Australia speak to the tension between history beyond architecture and a sense of Australian architecture's searching out, fulfillment in, and dispersal from its postwar modernist apogee. Following an introduction that lays out the book's premises and intentions, the first chapter gets us from Federation (1901) to the eve of the Great Depression, focusing in particular on the question of a national architecture for a new nation. Chapter 2 carries this forward to the end of World War II—though the extensive and varied work done by architects during the war (in Sydney and elsewhere) is not covered. The chapter considers a period of urban self-consciousness anchored to war memorials, office towers, and a tentative embrace of popular modernisms. The third chapter extends from 1946 to 1961 (the logic of this precise division is not explained in the chapter itself), and the fourth runs from 1962 to 1980. These together account for the modernist moment and reinforce the importance first of the domestic house (especially the so-called Sydney School) and second of commercial and institutional building. Chapter 5 tackles the advent of Australian postmodernism and the uptake of regionalism as an operative idea, through to the turn of the century and the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000. (Melbourne's 1956 Olympics, by contrast, offer no such turning point.) The final chapter addresses the era of increased globalization and mediatization extending up to the middle of the last decade.
The work described in the last chapter will perhaps be best known to a global audience, distilled as it has been through those magazines and websites that present architectural work as it happens. In the chapters spanning from the postwar decades to the end of the century, such familiar figures as Jørn Utzon, Boyd, Harry Seidler, and Glenn Murcutt are likewise well represented. Readers will find the periodic commentary, in those same pages, on such “regional” figures as Iwan Iwanoff and James Birrell enlightening. The book as a whole serves well as an introduction to the subject, especially for those looking to figure Australian work (or, more accurately, the work of architects from Sydney and elsewhere in Australia) into their knowledge or teaching of architectural modernism.
When Henry Parkes, then premier of New South Wales, declared the Australian centenary in 1888, he met resistance from Western Australia, Victoria, Queensland, and elsewhere across the continent and its islands for presuming that the history of the “mother colony” of New South Wales, with Sydney at its center, stood for the history of the Australian colonies in their collective entirety.3 In this account, Margalit has made a comparable error in his overreliance on Sydney architects and on buildings in and around Sydney to account for the country's modern architectural history. The reader could be forgiven for concluding that the twentieth century's first three decades marked an intense period of debate and building in that city, with repercussions and resonances in Melbourne, while there was nothing to report in any of Australia's other cities or regional towns, or in its countryside. I have had my students read this book, chapter by chapter, because it offers so much material on their own city—that is, for those not Zooming in from cities and towns that are barely mentioned, if at all (certainly, the city from which I myself write, and from which I Zoom into class, is overlooked completely). And both for those students forced into a form of distance education and to help those Sydney-based students to appreciate their topic beyond the limits of location, I must (to use a photographic term) bracket wildly.4 As anyone writing any book will quickly declare, one cannot cover everything. Still, one reads in these pages a proof of former prime minister Paul Keating's oft-quoted maxim: “If you're not living in Sydney, you're camping out.”
It is easy to point fingers, of course, but it is also important to strive for greater balance in a subject as rich as Margalit knows this to be, both by drawing on the intense scholarship attending to Australia's architecture and by considering historical contingencies beyond the processes of cause and effect.
J. M. Freeland, Architecture in Australia: A History (Melbourne: Cheshire, 1968); Jennifer Taylor, Australian Architecture since 1960 (Sydney: Law Book, 1986); Robin Boyd, Victorian Modern (Melbourne: Royal Victoria Institute of Architects, 1947); Philip Goad and Julie Willis, eds., The Encyclopedia of Australian Architecture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
Lorena Allam, “Rio Tinto Condemned by Shareholders for Seeking Legal Advice before Blowing Up Juukan Gorge,” Guardian, 8 Sept. 2020, https://tinyurl.com/yxlg2nhy (accessed 21 Oct. 2020). Rio Tinto's actions have since been the subject of a government inquiry and a degree of very public accountability, but the damage has, nonetheless, been done.
Jasper Ludewig, “Securing Territory: Grey Architecture and the German Missions of the Cape York Peninsula, 1886–1919” (PhD diss., University of Sydney, 2020), 2–4.
The term limits of location refers to the early extent of permitted colonial occupation in New South Wales.