big-A, little-h (a suburb without architecture)
There was no Architecture in the yawning suburban sprawl of my antipodean childhood. Big-A Architecture was this grand thing that happened elsewhere, this grand thing that scary-serious guys and girls in black roll-neck sweaters did instead of real work. In fact, Architecture as I figured it, was clearly the hot breadth of a dusty continent away where Jorn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House postured as some undeniable cultural achievement. Instead of all this unabashed high-status finery, Us simple suburban folk had houses—plain, simple, no-muss, no-fuss, little-h houses.
My family’s home—like my neighbors’ and pretty much everyone else’s in the ’burb—was an A.V. Jennings model. A locally owned company, the Jennings mob did a roaring trade throughout the seventies with their small range of brick types and bedroom and bathroom configurations. Hell, they even went so far as to offer a game room as a fancy optional extra for those who’d fork out a buck or two more. Built in 1974, ours was plunked down in the coastal suburb of Hillarys, about twenty kilometers or so North of Western Australia’s riverside capital city, Perth. It was, and remains for that matter, a sandy-colored number, featuring a green concrete driveway, a back patio with a painted white aluminum shade, three bedrooms, fiberglass batt insulation, clay roof tiles, a living area with adjoining kitchen, a lounge, rippled asbestos fences, one bathroom and eight foot high ceilings. Pretty impressive.
It seemed to do the job and the dinky spaces grew to have important meanings. What we called "the living room" was full of the horizon-expanding optimism of television. Cartoons and sitcoms had to be hastily switched-off when dad came back from work. The lounge was for "entertaining" or suffering (for one’s apparent betterment) the tedious drone of classical music. Bedrooms were places where, within certain frugal limitations, one could make one’s mark on the physical world through a semaphore of posters and whatever knick-knacks were handy. It was the same for all of my friends. Some places smelt better than others did, some looked a bit cleaner, some had more relaxed parents, but as structures, they sure as hell weren’t Architecture.
Not that this was a totally bad thing. After all, this state of affairs offered the opportunity for the exercise of certain freedoms. While our domestic living structures only catered to the individual needs of particular families, couples or singles by extreme fluke, they presented a lifetime’s opportunity for both substantial and minor tinkering. The intricately choreographed cadences of weekend adding-on, re-planting, re-paving, re-painting, re-wallpapering gave a kind of meaning to life as one of the few remaining forms of socially sanctioned self-expression in a culture of chaffing professionalism.
Now I fully admit to speculating here, but I think that Architecture—especially the crisp, clean modernist variety—intimidates this kind of prosaic creativity out of existence. In most cases, if we believe Architect-designed houses are machines made for living, their upkeep seems better left in the hands of capable experts. So, while Architecture might open up certain pleasures, some of them quite breathtaking, it doesn’t easily admit the uniquely private pleasures of hands-on, amateur experimentation and plain, old dicking-around. Instead, we somehow feel we should stand back and demurely appreciate, becoming in the process disenfranchised schmucks in our own homes. (I am of course, heavily projecting here. No doubt those more gracious than I, those folk born to Architecture will have a different take on the matter.)
Yet, Architecture could have offered us something that the happy amateur dabblers probably couldn’t make on their own. For one thing, thoughtful Architecture might have endowed our lives with at least a modicum of casual beauty and easy chic. How much more glamorous would it have been to take one’s afternoon nap on a Le Corbusier-styled deck sans soleile, instead of sweating to fitful sleep amidst the flies and bugs on the blisteringly hot patio? We would have been different people. In particular – inspired Architecture would have made us more open, socially generous folk.
I mean this. You’d swear our suburban houses were purposely designed to be as aloof and stand-offish as possible. Hidden by a labyrinthine arrangement of permanently dying native fauna (wattle, bottlebrush, withered gums, couch grass and wild wheat,) our houses rudely averted their eyes from the street. They exuded nothing but brick "go-away" vibes. The problem wasn’t just the rudeness; it was the insidious fact that whenever you walked down the street, you could feel a hundred eyes beading in at you from behind the curtains of their suburban panopticons—seeing but not being seen. Jeremy Bentham, Michael Foucault and Jean Paul Sartre would have had a field day.
In this context, adults became virtual shut-ins, never going anywhere except under the safe camouflage of the car. For us suburban kids it was slightly different. We biked in packs around the roads and sauntered through the vacant lots of our equally childish suburb, fooling around in water catchment areas, making cubbies amidst felled gum trees. There was safety in the company of a crowd. I reckon that our cultural clinicians might argue that the Northern ‘burbs of seventies Western Australia bred their own insidious variant of agoraphobia. To this day, grown-ups rarely go walking unless night has first fallen on their self-consciousness. In fact, when the sun goes down, the pathways are flooded with the otherwise alien life forms of power-walkers, joggers, strollers and dog walkers. Though this has partly to do with the heat (and needing to keep out of it), it has as much to do with avoiding the gaze of the judgmental eyes that follow you down the street like those hiding in the paintings in every episode of Scooby Doo.
What could have saved the grown-ups from these nocturnal lives is simple: properly constructed verandahs and amiably designed front porches. These would be places where people could comfortably sit and chat with friends or loved ones, have a beer, read the paper. The point is that these social outposts would have opened us up to each other and allowed a social exchange to take place in the form of a casual nod or two. This reciprocity of glances is no small thing. It is the very foundation of a generous, kind-spirited community. And I should add that this is no pie-in-the-sky daydream, it can happen. In the older areas of Perth where the Californian Bungalows and Federation style domiciles gather amidst the sociable shade of their porches such feelings are alive and well. I live in such a place now and I swear you’d be hard pressed finding a more chipper place to stroll.
So the solution is clear. We need some sort of casual, neighborly meeting between Architects and the everyday Joes and Jills of the Northern suburbs. Until that happens I guess I’ll find the streets of my childhood suburb empty. The only evidence of life being the unmistakable whine of power saws and the bang of hammering as strange structures and bizarre interior decorating is carried out safely, behind close doors, and with Architecture a world away.