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Built to Last

11 February 2012 1,174 views No Comment

THEY may not be as lauded as chefs, but architects have helped shape the world we live in. So it’s timely that they have their own encyclopedia, which will help them and their buildings achieve at least a modicum of the sort of fame that the likes of Neil Perry and Matt Moran have achieved for feeding people.

Commissioned by Cambridge University Press, The Encyclopedia of Australian Architecture – the first undertaking of its kind in this country – contains more than 1000 entries from 225 contributors, a number of whom provide multiple entries. Painstakingly edited by Philip Goad and Julie Willis, respectively chair of architecture and associate professor in architecture at the University of Melbourne, this lucidly written compendium of architectural knowledge also boasts 500 superbly reproduced drawings and photographs in colour and black and white.

For the general reader – and for whom is any encyclopedia aimed but the general reader? – this highly accessible account assembles material from our indigenous beginnings to the present day. As the editors make clear, it includes a wide array of building types, from houses to motels, from building materials such as timber and concrete to elements of architecture such as flywire and louvres. There is also considerable focus and attention on different architectural styles and on a wide array of architectural firms and individuals.

The process for selecting entries and contributors was collaborative and inclusive. Goad and Willis wisely assembled an advisory board of academics, architects and heritage professionals who had expertise about one or more of each Australian state or territory. It is no accident that the entry NSW Architecture is one of largest in the book, as befits the importance of Australia’s oldest and most populous state. At the same time, some entries about architects of little known provenance — who nonetheless produced significant buildings — are quite brief.

As with most volumes of its kind, this stylishly produced encyclopedia is organised with all entries arranged alphabetically and with cross-references to other entries highlighted in bold. This may seem bleeding obvious but it’s important for navigational reasons. At the end of each entry there is a brief, but helpful, list of references indicating the sources of information and which enables the reader to pursue the subject matter in more detail. Importantly, the Encyclopedia of Australian Architecture contains an extremely useful index.

The first, and highly controversial, entry in this fine book, Aboriginal Architecture, provokes a key question: How can there be an Aboriginal architecture if Aboriginal peoples traditionally occupied only simple huts and windbreaks?

Paul Memmott, director of the Aboriginal Environment Research Centre at the University of Queensland, provides some compelling answers. Historically, the Aboriginal-built environment ranged from traditional dwellings and camps to associated engineering structures such as weirs and dams as well as various ceremonial structures and installations, all of which responded to the complex problems of living in the Australian continent with its enormous range of climatic and geographical extremes.

As Memmott explains, architecture is a selected, arranged and constructed configuration of environmental properties, both natural and artificial. These are all contained within a cultural landscape and combined with patterns of behavioural rules and meanings, as well as incorporating cultural constructs of space and time, to result in human comfort and quality of lifestyle. Aboriginal architecture is thus seen to be supportive of domiciliary lifestyle, social organisation and associated human needs, resulting in a cultural congruence between behaviour and environment.

It is certainly true that the mobile hunter-gatherer lifestyle resulted in largely impermanent architecture for many Aboriginal clans and bands who formed camps that they occupied from a single day to several months. Although such camps were usually bases for 10 to 25 people, they sometimes included several hundred people, or more.

It is also the case, as the encyclopedia’s editors write elsewhere, that to the British mind, the lightweight shelters of the Aboriginal Australians could not be classified as proper housing, let alone be regarded as dwellings suitable for Europeans. Thus like subsequent settlements, the colony of New South Wales was literally built from the ground up, especially as when the British colonists arrived in Australia there seemed to be no permanent indigenous villages. Thus the colonist invaders began building dwellings and towns in an image, or, at the very least, in the materials, that approximated those at home. Temporary shelters, usually in the form of tents, were the first European structures built in NSW, but as soon as possible more substantial structures were created, first for the governor and then for other leaders of the colony.

The important entry Women in Architecture, written by Willis, explains that Eliza Darling, wife of NSW governor Ralph Darling, drew plans for a number of houses in the late 1820s, as well as submitting the winning entry to the competition for NSW Government House. Unfortunately it was not built.

A decade earlier, Elizabeth Macquarie, wife of NSW governor Lachlan Macquarie, had exercised considerable influence over architectural taste in the colony by choosing or directing design decisions, such as the Tudor gothic design for the Government House stables built by the remarkably prolific ex-convict architect Francis Greenway. As his own entry in the book explains, in March 1814, only a few weeks after he arrived in the colony, Greenway was granted a ticket of leave, which enabled him to earn a living by so assiduously serving governor Macquarie and the built environment of NSW.

Willis rightly stresses the importance of Marion Mahony Griffin — only the second female graduate in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — who in 1914 had moved to Australia with her husband, Walter Burley Griffin. This was the result of their win in the competition to design the federal capital, Canberra. As her excellent entry, by Anna Rubbo, points out, it is only since the late 1980s that Marion, who practised in Australia until 1937, has been accorded her rightful creative role in her own right and in partnership with her much more famous husband.

Yet even now female architects seem not to receive their proper acknowledgment.

In the mid-90s, although women formed about a quarter of newly registered architects, they accounted for only 10 per cent of registered architects in Australia. Indeed despite projections that then suggested a significant upward trajectory of the number and percentage of women architects, the level of prominence of women architects in Australia remains relatively low. As Willis concludes, this suggests women architects “still face significant extra hurdles” in the profession.

The final entry in this fascinating and easily accessible encyclopedia is Zoological Gardens. The earliest zoo in Australia was the Melbourne Zoological Garden, created in 1861 at Royal Park, its first collection having been moved from the Melbourne Botanic Gardens. As Goad explains, thereafter there were two architecturally important later stages. The first involved following the influence of the German zoo showman, Carl Hagenbeck, whose approach was to simulate nature with moats and very few bars on animal enclosures. This began in 1913 with the Giraffe House, whose concrete structures were planned to replicate a realistic environment based on photographs of a rock formation on Mt Buffalo in northern Victoria.

The second important stage, in 1937, involved a new entrance structure designed by leading Victorian architect Percy Everett, which employed exemplary art deco details. Stylised period lettering spelt ZOO, while fluted classical columns were topped by sculpted kangaroos. An important recent development occurred in 1985 with the construction of a butterfly enclosure that enabled visitors to walk inside a glasshouse amid hundreds of thousands of butterflies.

In contrast to Melbourne, the Hobart Municipal Zoo did not open until 1922. Sadly it closed in 1953 for financial reasons. Even sadder still, it was home to the last thylacine (commonly known as the Tasmanian Tiger). It died in 1936.

The Encyclopedia of Australian Architecture. Edited by Philip Goad and Julie Willis, Cambridge University Press, 796pp, $150 (HB)

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University and author of 35 books. The Weekend Australian February 11-12, 2012, REVIEW, Books pp 24-25