Reading The Australian Ugliness by Robin Boyd

The Australian Ugliness is one of the most iconic books on architecture in the Australian context. The author Robin Boyd, one of the most notable Australian architects, discusses the concept of Featurism – “the subordination of the essential whole and the accentuation of selected separate features (p.19) – in relation to the architectural evolution of the Australian cities. 

It is such a densely packed literature, weaving the historical, social and cultural meanings of the Australian architecture together into a critique of the superficial, inconsistent cities consisting of “isolated, competitive grain of beauty” (p.31).

While I could take days and weeks to unpack every single discourse in this book, here, I picked several concepts that made great impressions on me.

Featurism in Australia

While Featurism was not initially invented in Australia, Boyd argues that “in no other country is it more apparent, all pervasive and devastating in its effect” (p.46). Boyd explores the establishment of the Australian cities one by one. The colonial settlers proclaimed the individual, independent ownership of the land, imposed their ideal on the Australian landscape, appropriated historical styles such as Gothic Revival as a means to represent their wealth and social status. The “love of display… to impress upon his neighbour a due sense of his previous circumstances” (p.60) is unique to Australia, the country with a majority comprising immigrants, not having a clearly defined, unified cultural identity. Australia took a wide range of inspirations from European countries, America, and other oriental nations, only to “add snippets from one or more, or all, … and to feature each snippet against an uncontroversial background” (p.73). 

It appears that Featurism is rooted in the deep psyche of the development of the Australian cities rather than something like a formal proposal of a new style. Boyd points out that “everyone feeling his duty to create a feature, no one unanxious enough to make a plain statement of fact” (p.67).

The innocent era

However, Boyd also suggests there was “the innocent era” when Featurism did not exist:

“There was a time when Australians appreciated seeing their own reflection in the eyes of their own artists, actors, cartoonists, comedians. And there were times without salesmen, without urgency or anxiety or special policies and products to be put across, without market surveys or home-magazines or any other sources of compulsion on the maker to divert the way which things fell naturally in response to requirements. At these times there was no Featurism; just sensible construction.” 

(p.159)

Based on the examples Boyd introduces, the non-Featurist buildings could be characterised as functional yet beautifully balanced; modest yet harmonious; consciously designed and well-controlled. 

On a community scale, Boyd suggests that homogeneity through materiality, “easy acceptance of nature, mutual respect and a common artistic aim” (p.184) the more mature and sensible future of the development. While current residential planning codes may indirectly respond to Boyd’s claim, there seems to be a tendency that the requirement for consideration of neighbourhood characters is interpreted as limitations, not opportunities. A typical housing development may have ‘homogeneous’ look, but I do not believe that equates to the homogeneity that Boyd is discussing here.

According to Boyd, roofs’ shapes and materials are the factors providing distinctive qualities of Australian buildings. Originated in the functional needs such as shading and collecting water, the corrugated galvanised iron roofing has become the iconic Australian style found on a country house in Alice Springs to a suburban cottage in Melbourne. It provides a fresh perspective on the houses of the current age; After 60 years from the first print of this book, the corrugated iron roofs still prevails, as if the very essence of the Australian architecture continues to exist in our everyday life, unnoticed. 

Australian suburban life and Featurism, and now

In the late 1830s, the ideal Australian suburban lifestyle was established. Boyd describes its essence as “unreality: frank and proud artificiality” (p.173). It soon found its alliance with the bottomless consumerism that sold the idea “you can never afford a good home but you can always afford another nice feature” (p.174). The “attempts to beautify” (p.179) and the focus on the superficial look immensely contributed to the Australian ugliness. It suggests that the increase in favour of Featurism took place against the backdrop of social and economic shifts. 

Right now, capitalism and consumerism are still prevalent in our society or even exacerbated by the overflow of media online. The presence of visual-based online contents continues to induce a desire to possess ‘that look’. Buildings that stand out in the environment and look unique would never leave our public discourse on architecture. Occasionally, they are particularly favoured, for the same reason as Featurism is supported. Boyd’s concern is still applicable to the modern architectural climate.

Importance of idea / motives as a driver of design (key takeaway for students!)

Boyd shifts the discussion towards the importance of committing to ideas, and the danger of pursuing the concept of beauty. Boyd emphasises that the clarity of the ruling idea “which recognises all the practical and psychological problems connected with the building and synthesises the solutions to all of them in a single driving architectural theme” (p.264), is the key to achieving “an ordered and clearly directed complexity” (p.196).

Rather than the addition that Featurism promotes, Boyd suggests that “the main ingredient of many designs is subtraction, the effect of hollows, voids, and spaces on elementary forms” (p.196).

A strong idea that “crystallises or typifies the complex function” (p.196) can also cultivate viewers’ analytical perspective, allowing “an image [to] build(s) up in the course of time as the observer passes round and through” (p.195). 

Testing design

Developing design is not a single moment of spark or “a floundering spring… in search of spectacle” (p.197). To avoid designing like a Featurist, Boyd encourages developing design “from a wide background knowledge of general technical potential and from the specific information which has been gathered on the problem in hand” (p.197), and testing design “whether the shape, new, second-hand, or antique, is in fact the ruling motive of the entire building or whether it has been applied like a feature” (p.197). The relevance of forms, spaces, structures and materials to the core idea becomes a factor for evaluating the design and moving forward in the process.

“Beauty”

Boyd considers that the notions of beauty, including proportion, “depend on the association of ideas, not an abstract reason, and are relative to the beholder, his nature, his time and his place” (p.223) and therefore cannot be a single answer. By discussing well-known architects’ attempts to define architecture’s beauty and essences, Boyd warns of the risks of being obsessed with defining and pursuing beauty: “When beauty is the sole motivation in design, it has a tendency to die at the moment of birth” (p.193). Creating and appreciating “the real thing, the whole thing” (p.264) involves considering the design’s appropriateness in the specific contexts of the human experiences, culture and society, which ultimately leads to “the increase of awareness of realities” (p.241).

“A less frivolous approach demands that any architectural sensations should stem from the use of the building, that the occupiers should be presented with a sense of space which is attuned and sympathetic to the activity of the building and its environment and, as an artistic ideal, that the architectural character should heighten the experience of the phase of life being sheltered. If beauty were all there is to architecture, Featurism would be enough.”

p.239

It does not mean all features are evil.

Through the case of Wilson Hall, Boyd explores how the combination of all three kinds of architectural ornamental features (“gift from the architect’s heart, descriptive extrinsic art or symbol, and the architect’s admission of his own indecision” (p.157-8) could enhance the spatial experience and elicit an emotional response. Wilson Hall is identified as having “sensitively selected elements which strengthen the motive”, which is different from Featurist buildings that have “featured colours, textures, or patterns which are deliberately made insistent enough to captivate the eye.” (p.263)

Power of architecture 

The question one has to ask is, “what can architecture do for an occupant that a non-commital building with a nice couple of features can’t do?” (p.199-200). Boyd defines architecture as “the art of shaping the human environment, is an intellectual, ethical, and emotional exercise as well as a means of expression” (p.265). Boyd’s perception of architecture allows us to critically examine the built environment we live in and speculate on how architecture could create positive impacts through embracing who we are.

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