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.
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.
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).
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.”
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.