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?
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.
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.
(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.
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?
In an article titled “The Golden Age of Planning” (1985) urban planner Karl Fischer mentions that Queanbeyan is sometimes known as “the ugly face of Dorian Gray” in relation to the more beautiful and energetic Canberra. Inevitably, once people make criticisms, a counter perspective also emerges which claims the derided thing is in fact authentic in comparison. Then you can’t tell whether the claims to authenticity are real or ironic.
Such is the discourse concerning the relationship between these two regional cities, between Canberra and other capitals, and it characterises the uncertainty and dynamism concerning taste-based judgements in general in contemporary society. As the cliche goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But what are consequences of such radical subjectivity when it comes to matters of taste, particularly when pretensions to universality seem almost unavoidable when we make claims about the aesthetic status of a place, thing or event. It’s beautiful for me, but I feel this compulsion ought to compel you too! These are big questions that will not be directly addressed in my account of Queanbeyan (largely focused on the city centre), which is one highly specific Queanbeyan among many, and something that participates in a regionally shared and in this sense universal idea of the city.
Queanbeyan is a small city pushing 40000, blessed with natural amenity: plenty of bushland for walking, dirt biking or riding horses, and a river close to the main part of the city.
The banks of the river could be far more sensitively incorporated into the shopping areas. There are snapshots of what could have or might yet be in this regard with the Riverbank and Mill House cafes making good use of the riverside, offering people a nice place to sit, socialise, relax and have a refreshment. By contrast, the massive Leagues Club and the main shopping centre are in significant debt to the streetscape if you believe that buildings ought to balance an economy between obligations to the people they house on the one hand, and landscape in which they sit, on the other.
Despite this, the Leagues Club is a bit of fun, at least if you’re not in the pokie room. They take their steaks seriously and there’s a nice view over the river from the restaurant. From the outside the building is a classic piece of expressionist post modernism, a clash of waves, boxes and cylinders in bluish reflective glass and light cement, seeming to float along with the street. There’s a bit of bare earth on riverfront below that’s being transformed into a community hub, which is a promising move to make better use of one of the prize features of the city.
In and around central Canberra (if there is such a thing), the government and residential architecture of the interwar and post war years of the twentieth century dominates the overall impression. In Queanbeyan the balance is different due to smatterings of pre-Federation and Federation Era red brick cottages that are more common in NSW towns. These older buildings sit alongside new apartment blocks and hulking civic buildings, such as the brutalist courthouse, built in the 70s by government architect Ian Thompson and the newer Queanbeyan Government Service Centre, designed by Bates Smart Architects. The Courthouse is made from chunky concrete and the Service Centre clad in rusted metal. Both are large enough to radiate an influence far beyond the space they occupy and fit in well with industrial and rustic stereotypes proper to the area–although, this stereotype is in good part fantasy, more than 20% of people in Queanbeyan are employed as clerical and administrative workers, 19% as professionals, 13.9% as trades workers and technicians and 7.6% as labourers. This combination of smaller, older cottages, peppered by large, newish civic architecture creates a sometimes unique feel at street level.
These bulky, vaguely menacing visions are in stark contrast to the Arts and Crafts whimsey of the Queanbeyan Business Council, with its stucco and red brick. What looks to be a more recent public toilet achieves some aesthetic continuity through replicating the crescent form used in the Business Council entrance. The Legacy Garden of Remembrance, where the building’s garden meets the footpath, is an unpretentious war memorial featuring fake turf and small plastic crosses.
The gateway to the Show Ground is a passage from the streetscape to a background with a different set of spatial and cultural characteristics. The Member’s Entrance and ticket booth, the old scissor gates and even the old lamp all add to the effect. Shame about the Security Warning sign on the new fence to the right but luckily the gateway overshadows it. The Show Ground encompasses a heritage listed reserve that was used a camping ground by the first Australians.
Along with the Show Ground entrance, the Oliphant building, designed by Ken Oliphant in the mid 1930s, is another example of Art Deco heritage in the town. It’s recently been repainted and rebooted so the clock now tells the time. Unlike the kind of visual information that screams at you from the advertising splashed along awnings and jutting street signs, a street clock asks you to look but offers something back in return: the service of telling the time. There’s something in that.
Elements of the town are developed with a sensitivity to the same Garden City principles evident in Canberra. Morriset Street is a tree-lined boulevard that runs between the river and what perhaps the city’s best amenity, Queanbeyan Park, a multifunctional combination of formal and informal recreational and leisure space. The park features an outdoor velodrome that runs around the outside of the always immaculately kept oval. The informal park at the shoulders of the oval features well developed trees, a landscaped garden complete with a little footbridge, water feature, rock sculptures, a memorial podium and a fountain. There’s also a number of shelters with tables and benches and two stages for public events, one a curious quarter sphere form. Conforming to the picturesque tradition, the formal area within the park is flat, while the garden is situated within undulating terrain. It’s got all the right contrasts: shaded and open, formal, semi-formal, informal leisure and recreational spaces, rugged and landscaped. The park is well serviced by dog walkers, I’ve seen a few cyclists on the velodromes and a big group play casual cricket on the oval. There’s a footpath you can take from the park to the main street through the courthouse which invites some of the greenery into the perspective of the main street and has a kind of pleasing secret passage feel.
More pleasures for the pedestrian are in store down on the riverfront, with the 78 year old suspension bridge that joins the east and west banks of the river. A previous bridge was built on the same site in 1901, coinciding with the construction of the weir. It was washed away in floods in 1925. Prior to that, the mill workers of Severne Mill and later the nuns of St Benedicts and pupils of the first local school made their way across the river using stepping stones laid down in 1861. For this reason it was known as ‘the nun’s bridge.’
The 1938 structure was built as part of a work for the dole scheme, led by James and William Pike and Henry Hungerford. It cost 400 pounds to build. Painted white, it is at once minimalist in its use of materials and tensile building principles, and reassuringly strong.
Bridges have been meditated upon by philosophers such as George Simmel (“Bridge and Door”, 1994), Martin Heidegger (“Building, Dwelling, Thinking”, 1951) and Michel Serres (“L’Art des ponts”, 2006). They are mediating structures that connect previously disconnected places while allowing the natural landscape to persist in an uncompromised condition. In this sense they are a model for all architecture and the Queanbeyan footbridge is no exception, long may its presence continue.
Elsewhere in Queanbeyan there are Howard Arkley esq mid to late century suburban homes, often immaculately kept though rarely with signs of activity out the front. An abundance of heavy duty window shutters suggests some hot summer days. One of the greatest aesthetic tragedies of the modern suburb is the Colourbond fence and there’s a few of those. I’m sure I’ll live but these fences seem to sum up all the bad aspects of suburban design: an often very understandable but zealous desire for privacy; emphasis on speed of construction, price and function; and a complete lack of sensitivity to visual amenity for the landscape outside your own patch. Having said that, the things are so pervasive whacking one up is in continuity with the landscape in general, so maybe it’s a gesture of neighbourly fidelity after all?
One thing that you could say for certain about Queanbeyan is that it fulfils the sometimes laudable, sometimes paranoid Australian predilection for not appearing pretentious. There’s a lot to like about the place, as the signs into the city say, it’s a place with ‘Country living, and city benefits.’ Hopefully the right mix between these two different lifestyles is retained in the future. There’s certainly scope for developing the urban services so that the natural amenity is multiplied at the same time. The ease with which the pedestrian can transition from a busy main street to a secluded park, show ground or river bank ought to be maintained as the city grows. And the large scale shopping precincts will hopefully behave themselves and limit their spread in the areas alongside the river. There’s no need for a giant windowless lump to be right on a river and it impinges on the scope for smaller businesses and recreational facilities to capitalise on the atmosphere.