Tag Archives: Robin Boyd

Melbourne’s Gothic Revival

Gothic Revival is mostly found on Melbourne’s late nineteenth century churches, law courts and banks. “The Gothic Revival in Australia was a fabric of myths” write Robin Boyd in The Australian Ugliness (The Text Publishing Company, 2010, Melbourne p.61) Boyd goes on to note that: “Australia is full of Gothicky churches of crashing structural dullness struck about with decorative features.” Boyd maintained that the idea that the Gothic Revival was based on the northern European gothic tradition was a myth.

ANZ Bank, Collins Street

ANZ Bank, King Street and Collins Street

Gothic Revival architecture in Australia had a great appeal as it was seen as both particularly British and patriotic, as well as Catholic because of Augustus Pugin. Pugin designed the interior of the Palace of Westminster is widely regarded as the father of Gothic Revival and was a convert to Catholicism. There are a number of Catholic churches in Sydney and Brisbane designed by Pugin who was invited to Australia by the first Bishop of New South Wales.

There are many kinds of gothic revival in Australia from the decorative to the austere. The five-storey Venetian Gothic style building at 673 Bourke St that was built circa 1890 and is now known as “Donkey Wheel House”. There is the gothic revival of decorative grotesques, including an image of Jeff Kennett amongst the gargoyles of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne or the austere gothic revival of peaked arches Coburg’s Methodist church. The combination of dark basalt walls and light sandstone is repeated in many of Melbourne’s older churches and cathedrals irrespective of their denomination, they all believed in the gothic revival because it referred back to their medieval heritage and created for them a hyperreal European medieval presence in a city on the other side of the planet.

ANZ Bank detail

ANZ Bank detail

As well as churches and universities Gothic Revival was favoured for banks building cathedrals of commerce. The English Scottish & Australian Bank was designed the architect was William Wardell. Boyd describes the English Scottish & Australian Bank as “probably the most Italian-looking thing in Australia until the expresso bars of the 1950s.” (p.62) The adjacent stock exchanged (both now the ANZ bank on Collins Street) was designed in the gothic revival by architect William Pitt and completed in 1883. It is an extravagant building both inside and out that is well worth a visit if you are in the city during business hours.

Interior ANZ Bank

Interior ANZ Bank

The rich sculptural ornamentation of  Gothic Revial buildings kept many sculptors and stonemasons employed. In 1888 the sculptor, Bertram Mackennal was commissioned for the spandrels of the Mercantile Chambers, Collins Street. However the borrowed ancient splendour of the gothic revival style did not protect the banks from the financial disaster of the Australian banking crisis of 1893 when several of the commercial banks and the Federal Bank collapsed.

Gothic Revival was the main alternative to neo-classical architecture in Melbourne, alternative not as a rival but another option for architects, just as Fanta is an option to drinking Coke. All of these architectural revivals, the Gothic revival, Babylonian revival and the other architectural revivals in Melbourne’s architecture is part of a Victorian revision of history. It is as if the upper class Victorians were playing an enormous game, like a strange kind of Cosplay or the Society for Creative Anarchronism, dressing up not just themselves but their buildings in ancient fashion to play at knights. And perhaps they really were, after all Queen Victoria’s favourite portrait of Alfred depicted him wearing armour (although I’m not sure which one as there are several that do).


Sewers and the City

Capitalising on fear of the bubonic plague in 1901 the suburb of Haberfield was built in Sydney. Australia’s first planned model suburb had limited height, there were no pubs and no back lanes. The back lanes were used for the ‘night-soil cart’; you can still see the low doors in the brick fences in some of the lanes in Fitzroy. We can assume from the absence of lanes that houses in Haberfield was connected to main sewers. (For more on Haberfield read Art and Architecture for more on bubonic plague and its effects on Sydney see the digital records of NSW.)

A lane in Brunswick

                  A lane in Brunswick

In his book The Australian Ugliness, Robin Boyd was appalled at the tangle of overhead wires but he doesn’t get beneath the surface ugliness to notice that although these suburban homes that were now connected to telephone and electricity had not yet been connected to the sewers. That Melbourne had a telephone system before a sewerage system is a striking fact. In 1880 a telephone exchange opened in Collins Street and seven years later, in 1887 the first Melbourne homes to be connected to sewers. Some homes in the suburb of Frankston were only connected to the sewerage in 1991.

Bootscraper in Carlton

Bootscraper in Carlton

The architectural evidence for nineteenth century Smellbourne’s muddy, shit covered streets and open sewers is still evident, not just with network of back lanes, but in the iron boot scrapers, a necessary architectural feature, built into the entrances of its older buildings.

My own suburb of Coburg, in Melbourne’s inner north, contains many examples of nineteenth and early twentieth century suburban development, most with back lanes but a few without. Lincoln Street and the adjoining street have a single house block, instead of the usual double blocks with a laneway down the middle. In “Lascelles Park” development there only a lane between the houses on Jamieson and Lascelles streets and two very short lanes behind the four larger lots at the Reynard Gosling Road ends.

Over last century suburban planners were turning against lanes as more suburbs were connected to sewers. In the nineteen-eighties and nineties the Moreland City Council was sell off several of the lanes in Coburg as they were no longer used except for fly-tipping and discreet access for burglars. The bluestone cobbles are expensive to repair and make traversing the lanes uncomfortable, difficult or even impossible especially for people with disabilities, cyclist and even ordinary pedestrians.

In spite of all of this the inhabitants of Moreland now want to preserve the lanes. After a 2,400-signature petition was presented to Moreland City Council in September 2013 the Council resolved to maintain Moreland’s bluestone laneways and there is now a plan to preserve these lanes. The Council explains on it web page devoted to bluestone lanes that “Moreland values the network of bluestone laneways as a community asset which is an important part of Moreland’s heritage and urban character.”

Unlike the lanes in the inner city Melbourne that are famous for their street art, little bars and boutiques these back lanes are amongst the least attractive features of the suburb, generally backing onto old rusted corrugated iron fences and old sheds. Maybe someone is hoping that their historic ambience of Coburg and Brunswick before sewers will add to their property value.

Coburg lane painted

                   Coburg lane painted


The Australian Ugliness

Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness was first published in 1960. It is mostly a complaint about Australian suburban taste and its insecurities. It is an angry rave against ‘featurism’; Boyd’s word of complaint about the myopic focus on features without an overall aesthetic consideration or design. Basically is a rejection of the previous generation’s love of decoration and patterns, as well as, a rejection of the superficial modernism that Boyd identified as American.

Victorian Artists Society - Romanesque Revival building

Victorian Artists Society – Romanesque Revival building

Parts of the book are still, unfortunately, a very accurate description of Australia, even prescient in spite of being written fifty-five years ago. Boyd’s critical view of Australian culture is accurate and psychologically astute from arborphobia to insecurity, however he appears psychologically inept, telling an insecure population that they are unable to produce good design because they are too insecure. But then, much of late modernism was appears totally psychologically inept imaging that everyone would adopt their utopian vision.

Some of what Boyd was writing about has been, in part, rectified particularly with the planting of trees in the suburbs and better urban design. Although not by his snobbish dislike for American culture that has perniciously grown in Australia. Australian arborphobia has some practical reasons with many eucalypts shedding not just leaves and bark but whole branches making many Australian trees unsuitable for a city.

Cherry picking evidence to support his claims Boyd fails to mention the first ‘garden suburb’ was built in Australia. In 1901 the Garden Suburb Movement established  Haberfield in Sydney. It was Australia’s first planned model suburb with no lanes, no pubs and Edwardian homes with height limits. (See Art and Architecture.)

Many architects and designers, along with Boyd have dreamed of a unified aesthetic but he stumbles at the first hurdle. How to adapt, rather than simply replace, the entire history of European architecture in Australia. Boyd is a modernist hoping that “…gradually, the family itself would become the designers of its own pattern of standardised units, as suggested by Walter Gropius.” (p.137) However, he is practical enough to realise that know that there are not enough designers and architects to complete his vision.

Boyd and other architects who write about aesthetics are like astrophysicists writing metaphysics, both are only playing at philosophy. Playing in that they have no training or experience, imagining that it is as easy as they think. Boyd has an underlying belief in “universal” objective aesthetics of design. When he finally gets around to trying to define ugliness (p.235) we quickly find that featurism doesn’t fit his definition, announcing on that “if beauty were all there is to architecture, Featurism would be enough.” (p.239)

Boyd’s ugliness is not what I think of Australian ugliness? In contemporary architectural design the pastiche of patterns and textures has returned to feature in both suburban homes and urban tower blocks. Some of Boyd’s ugliness is simply a difference in taste. For me the Australian ugliness is the empty, run down waste-land, a pattern of aboriginal genocide, detention camps and environmental destruction on an industrial scale that leaves the land denuded of any natural features, exploited and abandoned like the mullock heaps of the former goldfields.

Although Boyd believes that aesthetics and good design is independent of culture, politics, and the beliefs of the population because he believes that it is objectively good. It is Australian politics that planned and created the vast suburbs that Boyd dislikes, it is the politics of inequality, the exploitation and destruction of the natural environment that created the Australian love of features.

The Australian ugliness is more than just skin deep as Robin Boyd claimed, it goes, if I can continue anthropomorphising the amorphous entity known as Australia, to its heart and soul. Boyd knew this, his contempt for the White Australia policy and the treatment of Aborigines is clear throughout his book.

All quotes from Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness (Text Publishing, 2010 Melbourne)


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