Lovie House: “Flamboyant minimalism”

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Lovie House, Geoff Lovie, 1996

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?

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‘Flamboyant’ or ‘compromised’ minimalism?

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.

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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.

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Chris O’Doherty, View from the Hume approaching Campbelltown, circa 1985

(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.

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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?

 

 

 

Car Dealership Architecture & Dover Heights

Car Dealership Architecture & Dover Heights

Like car parks, car dealerships are spaces that need to juggle the twin demands of accommodating two types of body: that of the human and the automobile. These sometimes contrasting requirements result in architectural peculiarities.

Although humans must circulate among and move to and from cars, the space they move through is designed to accommodate the dimensions of an automobile, which are characteristically larger, harder and more heavy than humans. Doorways, walls and small rooms are less prominent features of these car ecologies.

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More than simply accommodating the body of a car, the car dealership must also inform and seduce shoppers through the display of their product. It is this aspect of car showrooms that leads D. Kooijman and R. Sierksma to describe them as a “confused experience of theatre, shop and church all in one”. In showrooms, cars are displayed as “scaral objects” utterly removed from the mundane experience of sitting in traffic.

Unlike car parks, which must obey the utilitarian demands of spatial efficiency, showrooms will ideally display cars with enough room for dealers and customers to promenade in-between in a leisurely fashion. Shoppers and dealers glide along shiny floors inspecting vehicles on spatially demarcated podiums and ramps, often in arrangements that are deliberately just a little bit off kilter.

As tellingly noted in this blog, it is often important that cars appear to be placed lightly on the ground (which is probably more accurately called, a surface), rather than growing out of it. Unlike a sturdy church, with splaying buttresses that give a sense of earthy permanence, or a stone house built into the side of hill, car showrooms retain a sense of being placed or inflated on their site, rather than emerging from the material conditions of their given surrounds, as in the case of vernacular buildings. Car dealership seem the antithesis of vernacular architecture in this sense.mercedes-benz-sydney-alexandria-car-dealers-mercedes-benz-sydney-sydneys-benchmark-mercedes-benz-dealership-4aee-938x704

Within these bright, transparent spaces, banal activities like paperwork and car maintenance are relatively inconspicuous. Neutral, usually silverly colours are favoured. Opaque, matt and heavily textured surfaces are absent or in the background. Instead, light reflects around the space, catching the glistening, smooth, curvaceous forms of car bodies. In short, the mood of the space takes its cues from the design of the automobiles it exhibits.

In addition to enticing customers once they are in the building, car showrooms must display their wares to car drivers outside, who are typically moving at a faster pace and further away than someone on foot inspecting a shop window. These twin ambitions lead to a further contrasting demand for the architecture to accommodate. Showrooms must not accomodate the bodies of cars and humans, they are required to communicate appeal to the completely different spatiotemporal perspective of the car driver in motion.

In order to maximise the display opportunities afforded by road frontage, car showrooms must be transparent, elongated and either built right to the edge of the block or include an outdoor carpark style showroom bordering the road.

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The contrast of an older style of industrial architecture with newer, brand-focused design is illustrated in the Larke Hoskins Showrooms, one half of which is built in the postwar international style, while the other features the kind of architecture common to most contemporary car showrooms. The branding imperatives have crept across to the older half of the building but it still retains it’s multi-pane steel window frames and the distinctive vertical louvres. The textured redbrick provides a harmonious contrast with the glass, unlike the newer addition, which is a more or less texturally homogenous smooth silver and glass.

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Seeing this kind of thing makes me glad of the work of the council heritage restrictions and ought to provide a reminder to architects that they needn’t make showrooms look like inflated cars.

The demands for the car showroom typically contrast the demands required of human living space, which ought to better fit the dimensions of the human body and be adaptable to a range of comparatively private, informal activities presumably inappropriate in the space of the showroom: sleeping, eating, having sex and a vast range of other peculiar rituals and leisurely pursuits.

Despite this, many homes appear to be build according to imperatives that are comparable to the theatre-shop-church triad characteristic of the showroom. The suburb of Dover Heights in Sydney offers some brilliant examples in this regard. The building below is a standout. Known as Butterfly House and famed for its lack of any straight lines and Feng Shui, it’s like one big pair of sunglasses perched on the side of the hill. Utterly free from texture, it’s shiny, neutral colours are unmistakably reminiscent of the contemporary automobile and car dealership showrooms.

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Although I’m doubtful the building would have been constructed after Steve McQueen’s 2011 film ‘Shame,’ it’s entirely possible whoever conceived the thing had something like the memorable sex scene from that movie in mind when they were imagining the performative possibilities of the structure. It’s a pornographic building, like an airport control tower, everything about it is to do with looking and being looked at. You can just imagine people gliding around the shiny floors inside administering pleasure.

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While the above building is a standout, a good number of corporate fantasies have been realised on that favourably situated hill, with views back across slithers of the harbour to the bridge and CBD skyline beyond, or in the other direction, out to the east, where a wide blue 270 degree ocean churns with sublime force.

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Maximising the view out to the west comes with the difficulties of reducing heat from the afternoon sun. This is achieved with air conditioning, various kinds of heavy shutters, or zinc cladding.

Jutting from the side of the hill, secluded from each other by walls but sharing the same sun worshipping desires, these rows of houses bear some reference to the La Tourette monastery built by Le Corbusier and its inspiration, Le Thoronet in the South of France. Here the residents are not bound by a shared sense of obligation to the religious divine but to the visual amenity itself and perhaps the sense of security that they may perform profane acts before it undisturbed by intrusions from the public.

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For those seeking older charms, Dover Heights still has a number of buildings in the functionalist style, fashionable in the interwar years. The stark, cubic minimalism of these structures is a welcome contrast to the busy, bulging, glossy lot that otherwise typifies the area.

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Of course, these buildings can no more lay claim to the vernacular than the recent examples of car showroom architecture or their domestic equivalents. Just like the newer examples, this architecture is generic, relatively insubstantial and perhaps sterile. The key difference is that this building now bears a reference to history, despite the intent of the proponents of functionalist and internationalist styles in their time, who sought to create an architecture that wasn’t mired in the mess of archeological references to classical or medieval orders characteristic of the 19th century. However, now we recognise this once modern style as belonging to a particular time and this quality of temporal situatedness informs the way we respond to the building. Post modern architecture sought to adapt to this inevitable becoming-history by inviting the past back into buildings in a way that contradicted the ambitions of the earlier modernist architects.

For the sake of objectivity, historians work hard to elude the influence of nostalgia for particular styles, but the notion of a style is itself almost impossibly mixed up with the identification and classification of things for the sake of posterity.

It seems almost inevitable that the showrooms and ostentatious gloss of todays pornographic residential architecture will at some point, for better or worse, become available to the delusive tendencies of the melancholics for whom the past is the best and perhaps only resource for reassurance and fanciful speculation–that’s if they’re not demolished.

It seems the absence of rusticity was too much for one resident, where whoever is in charge saw fit to obscure the otherwise white, texturally uniform surface with a tangle of sticks ornamenting a curious rust clad protrusion. An utterly bizarre sight that makes me hesitant regarding any demands made of contemporary buildings to jazz up their anaemic facades with a bit of texture. The politically naive, insensitive, but in this case irresistibly apt expression, ‘full retard’ comes to mind. image

References

D. Kooijman and R. Sierksma, “Showcase and showroom: automobiles and experience architecture”, Journal of Design Research, 42, No.1 (2007): 509-522.

92 City Rd, Art Nouveau Terrace

92 City Rd, Art Nouveau Terrace

One of the few genuine examples of an Art Nouveau terrace in Sydney. An impressive sight: distinctive Art Nouveau detailing, porthole windows, shingle awnings above the bay window on the first floor, sandstone carvings on the facade that run down the building like viscous droplets of water, spherical sandstone finials, semi enclosed porch and a small turret. Next to the relatively spindly federation terraces its an imposing sight and well worth a detour.

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