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.


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


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.

darlinghurst police station photo
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).

Darlinghurst fire station
Front elevation of the Darlinghurst Fire Station
floorplan dalinghurst fire station
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.”

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.

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

Daceyville maintenance depot: A forerunner of late twentieth century postmodernism

Daceyville maintenance depot: A forerunner of late twentieth century postmodernism

The first postmodern building in Australia was the Daceyville maintenance depot, in Dacey Gardens. According to chronology, the building would be identified as being in the Federation Arts and Crafts style. If you pull apart that appellation it contains a period (roughly between 1890-1915) and, as noted by architectural historian, Joseph Mordaunt Cook, an attitude, rather than a style (“The Arts and Crafts Movement involved an attitude, not a style [1987, 226]).

However, in terms of likeness based on visual appearance alone, it clearly belongs to the family of late twentieth century postmodern architecture, the representative figures of which include Michael Graves, Terry Farrell, and in Australia Peter Corrigan and the less obviously flamboyant work of Philip Cox, among many others. The buildings of these architects tend to favour bright, contrasting colours and make irreverent references to history that are open to interpretation as reverential or ironic.

Cedar House, by Michael Graves
Riverside Sanctuary, by Michael Graves
Boathouse on the Thames at Henley, by Terry Farrell
Corrigant RMIT
RMIT Building 8, by Peter Corrigan

Daceyville was the first large scale public housing scheme in Australia and is among the earliest examples of ‘garden suburb’ ideas being deliberately realised in the country. Construction began in 1912 and the last residential property was finished in 1920.

The houses are for the most part bungalows, often with irregular roof extensions. The front yards don’t have fences, which is unusual in Sydney, and the suburb is characterised by a gelato colour scheme of light blue, cream and pink, to which the maintenance depot also conforms. The softness of the colouring, the combination of materials that usually evoke whimsy and the fancy roof vent are in stark contrast to its assertive solidity.  The firm four-sidedness of the building can be fully appreciated because it’s in a park and shoots straight up, unobtruded out of the flat lawn. The four gables are brought together in a relatively tight form, so there’s clash of different diagonal planes as well as symmetry. It’s a prop forward of a doll house and the unusual form is reminiscent of some of the weird scaling that’s often evident in postmodern works. Rather than looking like a building that’s meant to be the size it is, it looks like a smaller building that’s been enlarged.

One of the low pitched roofs of a Daceyville Bungalow

It is false to claim that the architect of the maintenance depot had access to the same set of ideas as the postmodern architects listed above. Whoever it was wasn’t working in a postmodern modality, whatever that might mean. It’s hard to imagine they were challenging modernist stylistic and idealogical principles. Nonetheless, the distinctiveness of the building is inarguable and along with the Greg Lord Pavilion at Kingston Oval, it ought to become a cult favourite. Should postmodern architects in Australia be in search of a model that might readily support their intentions and stylistic adherences this is surely a good place to start.

The Greg Lord Pavilion at Kingston Oval in Canberra





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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.






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.



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.


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


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



Much has been written about the architectural history of Glebe. There’s the great website, Glebe walks that allows you to curate your own route through the streets with a good knowledge of the landmarks. And there’s the exceptional book, The Architectural Character of Glebe, by Bernard and Kate Smith, which offers a comprehensive account of the various architectural styles that characterise the suburb, as well as a decent enough insight into its broader history. As a side note, Bernard Smith claims to have coined the term ‘Federation’ as applied to Australian architecture.

Shadowy, dank, enclosed Glebe/Open, bright Glebe

The route I took through Glebe seemed divided into two distinct chapters. The first, beginning on St Johns Rd and following the back streets along the west side of Glebe Pt Rd was characteristically dark, damp and, for those who are sensitive to these kinds of things, claustrophobic. This section of the journey includes Bridge Rd, Woolley St, Hereford St and Mansfeld St. The buildings in this part feature a greater concentration of the Regency and Post Regency Style than the second chapter. The Italianate Style is prominent in both chapters, while Federation is more common in the second. There is a smatterings of Gothic across both areas, but the more impressive examples are perhaps towards the mid section of Glebe Pt Rd around St Johns and Bridge St, including the well known Reussdale at 160 Bridge.

The west side of Glebe Pt Rd is seemingly stuck in a saddle, there are few points that offer views of significant distance. Even though the density is nowhere near that of somewhere like Elizabeth Bay, it feels more claustrophobic. The steepness of the slope down to the harbour in Elizabeth Bay and views across water give the suburb a sense of openness amid the clutter of buildings.  The large apartment buildings (six storeys or more) set against the sandstone cliffs add a further vertical element that is lacking in this the dank, suburban area of Glebe.

Despite these mildly negative affects, the architectural enthusiast could hardly hope for a more interesting region to explore, with numerous well-preserved examples of mid-to-late nineteenth century buildings, ranging from the grand (Glebe Town Hall on Bridge Rd, Ruessdale and Kerribree) to the humble (the Post Regency terraces and cottages on Derwent Street, the Post-Regency cottages on Hereford St, and Tranby on Mansfeld St).

As Mansfeld St transitions into Avenue Rd on the Northern side of Toxteth Rd the mood changes entirely and if I could offer one reason to explore the suburb it would be to undergo this subtle but affecting change. The previously enclosed, dark, damp atmosphere gives way to a sense of openness as the ridge slopes down to Jubilee Oval and the water at Blackwattle Bay. The styles of the houses change alongside this change in landscape, with the Post-Regency and Italianate examples thinning out to Federation Style, which to varying degrees displays its Arts and Crafts and Gothic influences. The area around Jubilee Oval is an uplifting clash of amenity and beauty: the light rail, the picturesque oval and its white clad cricketers and picket fence, and the view across the water to ANZAC Bridge.

I’ll limit myself to the discussion of one house along this remarkable stretch. Though I might have just as easily talked at length about the peeping parapets on Arcadia St, the distinctive, contemporary house on the same street that adopts the unmistaken form of a Japanese Pavilion, with a surrounding wooden verandas and floor to ceiling glass walls, or one of the many Gothic inspired Federation houses on the same street, with their prominent candle snuffers.

Instead I will focus on Wynchwood, 4 Avenue Road, in particular its impressive three-quarter moon entrance porch, which Bernard and Kate Smith suggest is most likely a motif borrowed from Japanese architecture (1973, 115), and its wood-ornamented boxy casement windows. As Bernard and Kate Smith note, it is a “bizarre” and original dwelling (115) and shows that there is a good deal of stylistic variation within the Federation Style.


Confronted with such houses, and many neighbouring houses along Avenue Rd, Arcadia St and Allen St, it seems that, as Erika Esua argues, there is “no clear set of architectural principles” define the Federation Style (2010, 160) and it is adequately understood as a motley of varied influences including elements from Britain, Europe and America. In light of this characteristic diversity of influences, Esua suggests that the Arts & Crafts Style—perhaps it better called an attitude—which was defined in part by an informal combination of Olde English Styles and an emphasis on mixing materials and textures, is perhaps the greatest influence and the most appropriate category to use in describing these kinds of buildings. With reference to the work of Harriet Edquist, Esua argues “instead of using the loosely defined ‘Federation’ term, the houses built in this period in Australia can most specifically be labelled as products of a local adaptation of the Arts & Crafts movement itself” (161).

Twentieth Century Post Modern Blonde Brick Apartment Gothic

Glebe also features at least two striking examples of Twentieth Century Post Modern Blonde Brick Gothic. As the name suggests, this style is unique in its combination of gothic elements and the blonde brick associated with less salubrious apartment or townhouse dwellings. The gothic elements are usually limited to clusters of shapely pointed gables which are sometimes finished in bright, garish colours. The style evokes none of the imposing, ominous or terrifying feelings associated with the best of Victorian Gothic. Its most obvious antecedent is the 19th Century style, rustic or picturesque gothic. In Sydney the most stately examples of the picturesque or rustic gothic are built from sandstone and feature ornate, white bargeboards. Unlike the 19th Century style, the Twentieth Century buildings usually feature corrugated iron rather than slate roofs and do not employ bargeboards.

One example is visible from Glebe Pt Rd, with the cluster of blue and cerise gables peeking out over the trees. Other architecture writers have called the style Jumping Castle Gothic.