In their exemplary architectural history of the Canberra region, Tim Reeves and Alan Roberts use the term “flamboyant minimalism” to describe architect Geoff Lovie’s Lovie House, in Jerrabomberra.
On the one hand, the term is an oxymoron (if something is flamboyant, then it’s not minimalism), yet on the other hand, it makes sense of the contradictory forces at work in a good deal of postmodern architecture and in a lot of the generic apartment architecture in places like Green Square and Zetland. For example, many of the new apartment blocks in the Green Square Urban Renewal Area combine minimalist principles with the trivial flashiness necessary to distinguish one facade from the next. Perhaps compromised minimalism is a better term in this case?
From the pages of Reeves and Robert’s book, I’d judged Lovie House to be an architect’s folly. In particular, the wiggly yellow addition to the balustrade. Although Matisse’s cut-outs are cited as an influence, 1990s Nickelodeon cartoons, such as Rocko’s Modern Life, Aaahh Real Monsters and Rug Rats, struck me as a more compelling precedent. The off kilter, zany line work makes it seem both fun and unfun in a way that recalls these cartoons and the moods with which I associate them. That the house supports analogies to both high and low culture makes it a successful example of postmodernism.
Alongside the other houses in the book, I judged the house as a gaudy, pretentious pet project, insensitive to its context and seemingly built to amuse the architect. It’s a different story after travelling through the backstreets of Jerrabomberra, past the countless brick bungalows with the twin and sometimes triple carports. It’s these houses that seem insensitive to the landscape, at least the natural landscape, which is fortunately still such a prominent part of the area. Some leave a decidedly mean impression, their neat forms and features remote echoes of an Anglo American history with little sympathy for the peculiar scraggliness of the Australian bush.
By contrast, if you look at a painting by Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan, or more recently, William Robinson and even Chris O’Doherty of Mambo fame, the twisted, zombie forms of trees and shrubbery are captured compellingly: eccentric, brash, empty and yet somehow full, with none of the grand impact of an American canyon or waterfall and none of the bucolic neatness and formality of the English landscape.
(My characterisation of the Australian bush in this way is a convenient caricature. There’s the pretence of homogeneity and threat that is typical of the colonists gaze. Yet for better or worse–worse, certainly for the first Australians–the colony exists, and the variously homely and unhomely renditions of the landscape in artworks and literature in the relatively recent history of the country represent a valuable insight into the way outsiders have attempted to express their relationship to place.)
Lovie House belongs somewhere in this laconic yet vaguely crazed aesthetic tradition I’ve cobbled together from these few reference points. I was surprised by how much it suited its semi bushland context. Although it stands out, it stands out like something that belongs where it is, an example rather than an exception. The combination of humble materials and the straightforward boxy bulk of the building don’t compete with its relatively loud colours and peculiarly angled window frames. It’s sensitively sited, with a garden full of native plants that looks like an extension of the bush.
Reeves and Roberts note that the house caused a stir in the neighbourhood: “Some locals petitioned against it, others loved it.” Since then there’s been an unofficial request for heritage listing, which Lovie turned down.
To my eye it’s hard to make an argument against the house on its being too visually incongruent. There’s plenty more nearby that seems equally though more half assedly eccentric, certainly less sympathetic with the bush and no more sensitive to the built environment. What’s more, it’s refreshing to see an architect offering a reminder of the possibilities available to builders and homeowners in terms of line work and colour and the differing moods these aesthetic decisions might provoke.
To see Lovie House in the backstreets of Jerrabomberra reminds me of the way John Ashbery described the writing of fellow poet Gertrude Stein: “These austere ‘stanzas’ are made up almost entirely of colorless connecting words such as ‘where,’ ‘which,’ ‘these,’ ‘of,’ ‘not,’ ‘have,’ ‘about,’ and so on, though now and then Miss Stein throws in an orange, a lilac, or an Albert to remind us that it really is the world, our world, that she has been talking about.”
Perhaps the otherwise monotonous suburban streetscape is the perfect viewing context for a piece of flamboyant minimalism after all? Perhaps Lovie House needs a context of relative austerity and colourlessness in order to offer such a abundant refreshment? Or is suburbia less austere than this view might have us pretend?