Late Twentieth Century Postmodern Domestic Architecture in Inner Sydney

Late Twentieth Century Postmodern Domestic Architecture in Inner Sydney

Midcentury modern aficionados are becoming a notable presence across a range of media channels, including the popular Mid-Century Domestic Architecture Facebook group administered by Steven Coverdale, Tim Ross’ ever diversifying and blending of content formats (TV series, in-situ standup comedy, books, journalism, guided tours, radio) and a number of style-specific Instagram accounts. On my own Instagram account, posts of midcentury modern domestic architecture reliably get the most likes. Low pitched roofs, big windows, stone features embedded in the facade and/or interior, and a general sense of spatial economy are typically the most conspicuous characteristics when conveyed through photographs of the exterior.

It seems likely that it is only a matter of time before nuancing professionals and amateurs band together and begin to use the variety platforms available in the contemporary media landscape to advocate for what is the next in the linage of twentieth century architectural styles.

In this post I look at a possible candidate for the next in line: Late Twentieth Century Postmodern. In suggesting this style I defer entirely to the stereotype put forward by A Pictorial Guide to Identifying Australian Architecture (Apperly et al 1989). In comparing and evaluating a series of different buildings in this style it is my hope that I can express a point of view on aesthetic peculiarities for buildings of this type. I focus on a particular species of this style in a particular location: domestic apartment blocks, semis and townhouses in the inner suburbs of Sydney.

These buildings aren’t heroes of the postmodern movement. Far from it. They are watered down, relatively ordinary exemplifications of postmodernism in contexts where the initial radicalism that gave the movement its meaning is largely absent. This, in part, is what makes them interesting. The inaugurators of movements can rarely predict the trajectory to which their dogmas will lead. On this score I cannot do better than Heinrich Klotz in his The History of Postmodern Architecture: “Experience shows that theoretical maxims, even when buttressed by moral arguments, cannot stem the inherent striving of form to achieve complete autonomy” (Koltz 1988, 21).

Walker Street Housing, Redfern by Peter Meyers

The general consensus is that the redbrick walkups which emerge like incongruous tombs amid single storey suburban houses are an architectural crime: no balconies, typically surrounded by cement driveways and carparks, with jutting air-conditioning vents and TV aerials the only features breaking up the monotone blocks of red clay.

Imagine the colour of a redbrick walkup changing to blonde. Imagine the addition of a balcony featuring gelato coloured latticework (green, yellow, blue and pink) and occasional deco forms represented in the patterns of cast iron railings; imagine corrugated iron roofs painted green; imagine windows with curved arches and awnings looking a little like baseballs caps before it became customary to leave the brims flat; imagine cosy little gardens with some glossy leafed trees and bushes partially obscuring the facade. Now you have imagined the outside of late twentieth century postmodern architecture in inner Sydney.

Listed off in such a way, the differences might seem minor, however the effect it is not superficial. In particular, the sense of inside outside space afforded by the balconies and small frontyards, the comparative softness and vibrancy of the foliage, the playful detailing and colour, and variety of forms and shapes all make for a perceptual experience that is far richer than what is afforded by the comparatively barren, redbrick clumps.

The architect of one of the exemplars of this style, Peter Meyers (thanks to @kmarchitect for this reference), specialised in public housing and had a nuanced appreciation for the relationship between the specifics of the Sydney landscape and housing (https://architectureau.com/articles/the-third-city/). His houses on Walker Street in Redfern eschew the more obvious stylistic references to deco evident in the cast-iron fences in a similarly styled block next door. Instead Meyers’ housing features plain but appealing lightweight, sheet metal screens for balconies balustrades and fences, with the latter at a height sympathetic to the bodily dimensions of pedestrians, unlike the common colourbond of late twentieth century suburbia, and the epic bush screens and imposing brick or stone walls of larger houses in the east. The small but fitting front yards make a huge difference to the visual amenity of the street, particularly when compared with a cement carpark and roller door garage.

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The three storey blocks are narrowly overshadowed by the fortuitous presence of a relatively long avenue of Port Jackson figs. When combined with the smaller shrubbery in the front yards, the mutli-dimensional diversity of non-dominant scales work together to create an overall landscape effect that is at once open and intimate, a good enough exemplification of the “highest urban ideal” Meyers observed in the “close-nurtured forest” to the North and West while walking along Flushcombe Road from Blacktown station in his article on future housing, “The Third City.”

A couple of other minor details set the Walker Street housing apart. The balconies extend back into the facade, rather than merely jutting out like scaffolding as they do in the comparably styled block on nearby George Street in Waterloo. Again, the effect is a further richness through contrast. 

Other examples of the style can be found in different formats along Walker Street, and on nearby Kellick, Phillip and the aforementioned George, which while perhaps not as architecturally distinctive as Walker Street does feature lush, well cared for gardens that envelope the building. 

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George Street Waterloo: nicely enveloped by different storeys of vegetation

Jones Street, Ultimo, architect unknown

The street atmospherics are vastly different along Jones Street, which lacks the avenue of large trees on Walker Street and, like a lot of Ultimo, feels very much a place of the car. Like Walker Street, it is a three storey, largely blonde brick, domestic apartment block. The fencing on the balconies and walkways is light blue, pink and yellow, and as is typical of the style, a bundle of superficial references are made to classical (segmental pediment), Victorian (gables and dichromatic brickwork) and Art Deco (stepped motifs). It lacks the reference to the rural vernacular made through corrugated iron, which is used in the awnings at Walker Street and the Glebe examples below.

Discretely perceived these references do seem superficial and the referential aspect is largely trivial. However, the overall impression lifts the building from just another brick walkup to something that is at least interesting to look at, for a while.

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But the Jones Street block is remarkable exemplar of its type due the pediment type feature that sits above the entrance, where someone has clearly had a bit of fun. The design features a stepped, pink pyramid, in painted steel that slots into a background of tiny, pixel-like, bright blue tiles. The motif is repeated in white outline on the well-made glass door, which is bordered above and to each side by glass bricks.

In an otherwise monotonous part of the city this little flourish irrigates the atmosphere with colour and style like a rare metaphor in Kafka.

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Various locations, Glebe, architects unknown

In terms of architectural history, Glebe is among the most interesting suburbs in Sydney to walk through. The abundance of churches and ancillary religious structures testify to its central place in the early days of the colony as a place for spiritual education. There is a both modest and grand expressions of Regency, Victorian (both Italianate and picturesque gothic) and Federation domestic architecture. This is the motley from which the architectural character of Australia emerged.IMG_6181

The architectural heritage of the suburb seems to have been acknowledged in some of the more recent apartment blocks. One variety references the churches and the picturesque gothic style evident throughout the suburb. As with the apartments above, blonde brick is the background against which the more expressive flourishes are executed. At No.4 Mt. Vernon Street these are witnessed in the steeply pitched gables, which feature in a curiously asymmetrical conglomerate, capped by corrugated iron roofing, nesting in behind some palm trees, no doubt riddled with nasty spiders. The redbrick trimming and arched windows lend further interestingness.

Another similar example can be found on Glebe Point Road. Again its a combination of yellow (this time orange tinged) brick, steeply pitched gables and corrugated iron. The awning beneath the gable, above the second storey window, is a showstopper: featuring three and two half gables of its own (I suppose that’s what you call them, in an awning?) painted in bright blue, displaying a triangular star via a series of circular perforations, emanating from the centre of each. Against the cherry red of the painted corrugations above the resulting impression is definitely more jumping castle than castle.

Down the slope towards Wentworth Park, on Mitchell Lane, there is another variety. This time none of the gothic references, but the patterned dichromatic brickwork running along the parapet and trimmimg suggest an attempt to reference the Victorian Italianate terraces common in the suburb. Once again corrugated iron is a feature, this time in curved light-green roofing and awnings (maybe a touch of Murcutt?) and in one example at least, a strikingly peculiar asymmetry prevails. Small rectangles of glass bricks (twelve in each) embedded in the side walls of the lower storey are a further quality to compute. 

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On the opposite corner block, there’s yet another example, the most distinctive feature of which are the lower storey awnings which skirt the entire block and the ornamental lattice work in the protruding balconies. Perhaps here we have the missing type to make the catalogue complete: the Queenslander?

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Laudable ideals to do with liveable, affordable, functional housing gives midcentury modern domestic architecture extra purchase beyond the aesthetic and symbolic. It remains to be seen whether the similarly laudable ideals of the postmodern movement—advocacy for play and diversity seem the most profound—will be resilient enough to transcend the context from which they derived their initial meaning. Though, with my postmodernist cap on for a moment, it would be wrong to assume that anything more than sheer frivolity is needed to guarantee enduring influence. 

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The Avis guide to Eating Out in Sydney 1975

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Different times

Leo Schofield’s Avis Guide Eating Out in Sydney 1975 puts the reader in touch with restaurants that not only conform to different culinary trends but to significantly different ways of organising society. Allen’s Cafe at 802 George Street, which is reviewed in the guide, was operational in the 1920s. Here the tea that comes with every meal is “thick and red brown” like “the Darling in flood” and diners could get Vincents and Bex powders from dispensers by the till. These cure-all analgesic medications were commonly sold over the counter until the 1970s and contained a combination of aspirin, phenacetin and caffeine, which was later recognised to be addictive and the cause of kidney disease.

In 1975 laws still existed that dictated bread couldn’t be baked on Sundays, which led Mrs Klein of the Junction Cake Centre (111 Oxford Street Bondi Junction) to up the sultana quantity in her bagels so they qualified as cakes.

Schofield’s prose also indicates a markedly different set of rules regarding what is permissible language in a publication like the Good Food Guide. There is a toe curling use of rape as an metaphor to distinguish the Australian approach to cooking fish from the French. It extends over the two seperate reviews for the Doyles Fish n’ Chip restaurants at Rose and Watsons Bay, which Schofield lauds both for their brash atmosphere and food: “The fish, of course, is wonderful and the French would poach it exquisitely, veil it in some cloud-like sauce and gently seduce one’s taste buds. At Doyles they’re not French and Australians prefer rape to seduction any day”. And if that weren’t bad enough, he continues, “If it’s inevitable, relax and enjoy it.” Then, on the next page, the review for Doyles on the Beach begins, “Rape as before, but this time on the beach.”

There are a couple of different tensions that will inform the way readers can interpret the use of such language. One perspective is to see such language as a product of the times, and no less regrettable due to this fact. According to such a view, it is possible to see this jarring use of a word that is now broadly considered to be anything but casual in tone as an opportunity to reflect on the subtle way the metaphorical connotations shift according to patterns of use. Rape is a word that by my judgement has become increasingly specific in its connotations, and something that could never be used ambiguously to denote the broader field of reference captured by a term such ‘violate’, for example, which is the French translation. If Schofield had chosen the less evocative ‘assault’ the affect would have been less disquieting. When the word rape is used today, it typically takes on a meaning that is distasteful and threatening in the extreme—and yet, perhaps we have not moved on so far: until recently it was not uncommon on my Facebook feed to see accusations of ‘frape’, an equally jarring use of the word to describe the practice of taking possession of another persons Facebook account (without consent) and writing hoax status updates.

Alternatively, readers might interpret use of this term as an expression, however fleeting in comparison with the bulk of his prose, of an insensitive attitude towards women, which ought not to be so easily forgiven. Of course men can be raped too, and statistics show this is a more common occurrence than one might think. However, when a heterosexual male uses the word it’s hard to believe they are imagining a man as the victim. Typically I wouldn’t be so brave as to speculate what exactly the author might have been imagining. However, in this case, it’s right there on the page. Schofield squeezed every last drop of descriptive force from the metaphor and clearly got quite caught up in the idea.

The mind boggles to think of the social media storm that would ensue if a current reviewer for the equivalent publication tried anything of this kind. Perhaps even the strong evaluative sentiment which I am expressing is only a relatively recent phenomenon, and the question of judgement about such uses of language is unlikely to have been as much of a bugbear during the period.

Nostalgia for nostalgia

If it’s possible to bracket the presence of such a howler, there is much to enjoy by escaping into the fantasy that there is a lack of contrivance, or naivety in contrivance, in the broader foodie landscape in 1975.

It begins with the book cover, which is right in the retro aesthetic zone of the immensely seductive title sequence to the successful Nexflix TV series Stranger Things. Other than the back and front cover, the publication lacks any of the photographic images which gradually began to creep into the publication after the mid-90s.

In the contemporary restaurant scene, trend and contrivance operate to such an intensified degree that there seems little room for the relatively casual eccentricity of the kind Schofield enjoyed at Allegro in 1975 (1 Porters Road Kenshurst). Allegro specialises in Dutch Home-style cooking with a set menu based around chicken dishes, the birds sourced from local farms, or “hare and rabbit trapped locally”. He remarks on the distinctive “bowls of boughs and branches and flowers tastefully scattered around” and the unusual and distinctive “big decorative platter” on which the bird is served, along with “buttered vegetables and a seperate dish of fruits to eat with it”.

The chance of experiencing the distinctiveness of this atmosphere seems unlikely in the contemporary dining scene evoked by the recent guides. It’s so difficult to escape trends now due to online image sharing services like Pinterest, Instagram and influential bloggers. This is the case both for proprietors and designers–who despite the increasingly large pool of ideas from which to draw, all seem rapidly to converge on aesthetic standards within a given trend cycle–or for the reviewer/diner, who is likely to have dined at enough imitation varieties of such eccentricity prior to experiencing the real version that their experience is inevitably tarnished.

Of course framing the difference between the past and the contemporary in such a way is misleading to the extent that it suggests a radical departure rather than an evolution—no doubt one might have made the same claim about the rapid spread of trends in the 70s compared to the 20s.

Schofield mentions a couple of trends often enough for them to stand out: the ubiquity of a certain style of French provincial cooking and coloniana, which is referred to in the review of Argyle Tavern: “Colonial coevalescent homes, Colonial delicatessens, Colonial motels—Australia is on a Coloniana kick and we eagerly await the opening of the country’s first Colonial laundrette.” In the case of the Argyle this includes: “rafters, hurricane lamps and menus printed like colonial newspapers. And Steak-and-Kidney-Pie-type food in the Australian manner.” There was a lot more steak and kidney pie being served back in the 70s.

French restaurants outnumber the next most common cuisines by some way. There are 45 French listings, 16 Italian, and, perhaps the biggest surprise, the now defunct category of Anglo Saxon comes in a close third with 15. German, Balkan, Dutch and Swiss are more of a presence than they are in later guides, and there is no mention of the soon to be common Thai, no Vietnamese, and only one Japanese listing, which according to Schofield, is a cuisine still exotic enough to leave little room for ambiguity of preference. He baldly remarks: “You either like Japanese food or you don’t.”

The arrival of Latin America

The 1975 guide includes reference to the first South American restaurant in Australia, cryptically named, Latin America, at 225 Oxford Street Darlinghurst. As mentioned in my previous reviews, the evolution of food culture in Sydney shows an unmistakable trend towards regional specificity. Today foodies expect cuisine that is associated with specific regions within countries, as evidenced in Terry Durack’s recent review for the recently opened Mexican restaurant Chula, in which he remarks on the “strong regional spin to the menu” and a focus on “Oaxacan street food”. Not in 1975!

If it hasn’t already happened, I’m tipping a few new restaurants in the coming years that deliberately play to the now seemingly counter cultural International, Pan-European, Pan-Asian or Airport culinary aesthetic—kind of like the sentiment that informs the fashion trend normcore. This cuisine would need to lack the markers of regional and historical specificity that inform contemporary foodie trends. The clincher will be whether there’s enough to distinguish such a style from Contemporary Australian. So maybe Asian, Colonial, South American, European or Soviet is the right scale at which to aim.

Crowd sourcing

Contrary to what is often said about the power of consumers in contemporary culture, the crowd sourcing in the older guide is far more explicit. Schofield commonly invokes the “letters and telephone calls” of readers, whose appraisals he sometimes quotes verbatim in his reviews. For example, he begins the review of Moro Restaurant on Parramatta Road with the description given by a Mosman reader: “A small Italian cafe in the heart of Italian delicatessen territory with the cooking done by the owner and his family.” He then includes her judgements of “very good” and “reasonable” agreeing with the latter. The review for Laddies at The Spit begins in the same fashion, only in this example Schofield pits his own review against the reader’s enthusiastic evaluations. While the reader describes the food as “excellent”, the helpings plentiful, and “presented well”, Schofield regards it as “reasonable”, the helpings “dauntingly large” and the presentation “average”.

There’s something lacking in the absence of a sense of a genuine dialogue with readers in the reviews of more recent guides, despite the penchant for an amicable, chatty tone. No doubt the editors have their reasons, but it’d be great to see a bit less polish and a bit more openness, hesitation or boldness, when witnessing the formation of taste based judgements in the guide. All the cozying up these days in the weekly SMH publication and the guide more generally is with chefs rather than punters–apart from Richard Cornish’s wonderful Brain Food section. I suppose there’s plenty of space for the punters to chat on Instagram or reviewing websites. 

The changing fortunes of Kings Cross

It seems change has been the norm for Kings Cross. In his review for the Buona Sera Restaurant, Schofield notes how in the fifteen years from 1960-1975, The Cross changed markedly from a “chic if faintly recherché place where you could stroll leisurely through leafy arcades and past elegant buildings to a poor copy of 42nd street where you have to tip toe through the hookers”. Again, the use of language grates. But it’s interesting to know the old cross that has recently been mourned has been around for little more than a generation. I suppose that’s all it takes.

(This post is dedicated to Alison Byrne who kindly sent me the copy of the guide after my last blog post)