Federation architecture: a stylistic motley

Federation architecture: a stylistic motley

Many suburban streets in Sydney contain examples of what is commonly known as ‘Federation Style’ houses. Federation style is an architectural style with numerous sub-species, including ‘Federation Free Style,’ ‘Federation Arts and Crafts,’ ‘Federation Queen Anne,’ ‘Federation Romanesque’ and so on.

Federation Style indexes a period, roughly 1890-1915. During this time the previously self governing colonies of Queensland, N.S.W, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, and Western Australia came together to form a commonwealth.

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Relatively paired back eclecticism characteristic of the Federation style

Although the term Federation is commonly used to identify a style of architecture, this becomes tenuous once you burrow down a bit to uncover anything in the way of cohesive principles that set it apart from other styles. As suggested by Donald Johnson in his thesis Australian Architecture 1901-51, the writers who first applied the name ‘Federation’ to a style of architecture (Bernard Smith and David Saunders in the 1960s) don’t “fully argue the issue of stylistic autonomy.”

Erika Esau concurs with this view in her seminal study Images of the Pacific Rim: Australia & California 1850–1935:

“In reality, no clear set of architectural principles defined this so-called Federation Style. Instead, houses of the time increasingly combined several eclectic ideas, reliant on foreign sources with a few superficial Australian elements in ornamentation. A typical house of the late 1890s and into the early 1900s, built in the suburbs rapidly developing in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, and even in Perth out in Western Australia, often included elements associated with a British derived ‘Queen Anne’ Style, adding touches of Arts & Crafts or Art Nouveau inspiration; some local interpretation of Henry Hobson Richardson’s (1834–1886) American domestic architecture; and a bit of vernacular verandah and- tin-roof bush station often thrown in.” (160-161)

The term Federation might make sense retrospectively to mark out a period where architects along with the wider populous were attempting in some vague way to define who they were. However, in terms of the modalities in which practitioners were operating, the evidence we have today seems more persuasively explained with the theory that they were borrowing loosely held sets of principles shared in multiple contexts across the globe–California to name one important example. As Robin Boyd suggests, writing at a time before the term Federation was widespread, the Queen Anne Style, which I’m suggesting is among the strongest influences in what we now call the Federation style, was, as the name indicates, associated with mother England rather than an effort by Australia to strike out on its own (1960, 62).

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Classic Queen Anne in Enmore

At an impressionistic level, the mood and core features of the Queen Anne Revival in Britain and Federation style in Australia are similar: asymmetric massing, red brick with white trim and a general adherence to unpretentious ornamentation. In the Australian context there is the key addition of the verandah, but it seems a bit much to suggest, as Bernard Smith does, that this demands the declaration of a new style.

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The loose and perhaps arbitrary connectedness to history, Anglo-Dutch in the case of Queen Anne and reappropriated Medievalism in the case of Arts and Crafts, is part of what makes Federation houses an anathema to the modernist imperatives to seek out new forms of building true to contemporary materials, technological affordances and social needs. The asymmetrical, redbrick houses, with lead light panels and decorative wooden trimmings, often painted white, are remnants of Victoriana in its death-throws. Federation and the Queen Anne Revival styles arguably represent the last vestiges of an increasingly irrelevant past that would soon become usurped in the excitement of modernism. This turn of the century  architecture seems in hindsight to have been of mild ambition. As Mark Girouard has noted, Queen Anne revival at its worst “combined rather too neatly escapism with smugness” and at its best managed to traverse the moods of the “quaint,” “dainty,” “sensible” and “flashy” (1977, 227). These adjectives perhaps unsurprisingly mesh well with postmodern aesthetic criteria that sough to reevaluate the status of pop culture in the wake of the relative seriousness and austerity of modernism.

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Unlike the aesthetically confident, stark, cement or glass buildings we associate with modernism and the formal ornamentation of the Gothic, the Arts and Crafts or Queen Anne influenced Federation style seems to permit further ornamentation, a fact Boyd laments when he describes Queen Anne houses as “brimming with a bowl of features without leavening” (62). People seem happy to use the already busy facades and front yards to display their own fancies and cultural connections.

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It’s difficult to look at the stock Federation house with fresh eyes. It’s also difficult to appreciate their connectedness to the long, dialectical history of styles that in part explains the way they appear. To see the honest eclecticism of the Queen Anne revival style evident in the Federation house as a reaction to the Gothic penchant for archeological accuracy and religious reference would make little sense to most people today. We just see such houses as rather quaint references to a particular moment in history, a kind of preset or background for Australian suburbia against which minor, though perhaps not insignificant, differences emerge.

WLV’s Muscular quaintness

WLV’s Muscular quaintness

In the final chapter of exemplary book on the Arts and Crafts movement in Australia, Pioneers of Modernism, Harriet Edquist discusses a number of architects who helped define the urban landscape of the country in the first decades of the twentieth century. Included in the list are Robert Haddon, Walter Butler, Robin Dods, George Sydney Jones and Walter Liberty Vernon.

It is the last of the names on this list that concerns me here, in particular, a collection of Vernon’s buildings that employ the “chunky Romanesque forms” (233) that Edquist attributes to the influence Henry Hobson Richardson, an American architect who pioneered an idiomatic version of the Romanesque style. The chunky, rustic characteristics of the Richardson Romanesque means that in the wrong hands it often teeters on being misshapen and ugly in the striking way that dumpy and irregular things can be.

 

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Richardson Romanesque gone wrong: The Starkweather Memorial Chapel in Ypsilanti, 1888, George D. Mason.

 

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A more compelling but no less stout iteration of the Richardson Romanesque: Muskegon Union Depot, 1895.

Of Vernon’s many impressive buildings, the Darlinghurst Police and Fire Station, the Surry Hills Police Station and the Marrickville Police Station are my present focus. Each brings together contrasting styles and irregular forms to evoke a mood that is most accurately described in contradictory terms. As Edquist suggests, in these buildings, the lighter, humanistic sentiments of the Arts and Crafts movement meet with a bolder, “muscular” (233) style that makes them appear at once quaint and menacing.

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Darlinghurst Police Station, Walter Liberty Vernon, 1899, Image: John Poulton

Both the Fire Station and Police stations are on triangular sites, one at the Kings Cross end of Victoria Street and Darlinghurst Road, the other near Taylor Square, on the corner of Forbes Street. Both buildings have a distinctive conical roof that evokes a medieval mood and feature a combination of oxblood brick and sandstone dressing. As Edquist notes, despite being smallish buildings, positioned in dynamic, built up parts of the city, both hold their own (234).

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Front elevation of the Darlinghurst Fire Station
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Darlinghurst Fire Station, Walter Liberty Vernon, Floorplan, 1911

The Surry Hills and Marrickville Police Stations are perhaps better described as peculiar rather than impressive. In the case of both, the best I can do is speculate as to whether Vernon’s “residual fascination” with Richardson Romaesque (Edquist, 233) overrid his better judgements regarding scale or whether they are deliberate effort to challenge our expectations. Considering the quality and confidence of his buildings in general and that a police station ought to be an imposing sight, I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt and read these weirdly scaled facades as provocations.

Rustications are the rough textured, often chunky pieces of rock that mark the lower floors of larger buildings. You don’t often see an entire facade of rustications, but at the Marrickville Police Station this is on show to startling effect. It’s a statement in Sydney sandstone that as one blogger has ventured, “is the most unusual police station in the city.”

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The former Marrickville Police Station, Walter Liberty Vernon, 1895

The (former) Surry Hills Police Station features a combination of sandstone and redbrick characteristic of many other Romanesque revival buildings. Like the Marrickville station, it scales down the romanesque style to fit a street front of domestic facades and the effect is a strange gravity in smallness, as though a large building had been condensed but still retained the same degree of force.

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The former Surry Hills Police Station, Water Liberty Vernon, 1895