December 2009 - January 2010

Arts & Letters

Coming of age

By Peter Conrad
Robin Boyd’s ‘The Australian Ugliness’ fifty years on

In 1960, when Robin Boyd published his attack on the stylistic cowardice of our suburbs, it took courage to call Australia ugly. The country has never bragged about its beauty, as America loudly does in the hymn that celebrates its azure skies and shining seas and fields of waving grain, but the national spirit inculcated a smug self-satisfaction in the Australians of those days, enforced by their distance from and ignorance of worlds elsewhere. A culture, however, can only come into existence if it encourages critical debate and protects nay-sayers, and Boyd – along with Donald Horne in The Lucky Country and Barry Humphries in his early appearances as Edna Everage and Sandy Stone – belonged to the first generation of intellectuals for whom the denunciation of Australia counted as an urgent patriotic duty. Thanks to them, the 1960s turned out to be, as Boyd predicted, “Australia’s richest decade”. I remember his book with gratitude because, when I read it as a student in 1965, it explained and intensified my own discontent.

 The Australian Ugliness is actually a condemnation of the Australian prettiness. The vice it castigates is Featurism, which – according to Boyd – flinches from utility and camouflages everything in a layer of decorative kitsch that passes for beauty. A coffee table masquerades as a boomerang, and ballerinas sprinkle stardust on doormats. Suburban windows sprout gratuitous gables, and a pub passes itself off as a colonial relic with an overlay of “chintzy old-lavender charm”. Boyd saw this ornamental fussing as a symptom of our revulsion from the hot, dangerous, uninhabitable land that lies beyond the perimeter of our cities; it was evidence of our timidity, our preference for comforting illusions. I knew exactly what he meant because I grew up in a Featurist house in the Hobart suburbs, a weatherboard carton to which my father applied a second skin of brick veneer. I even remember him inventively featurising the shelf above our fireplace. First, he varnished the pale wood to give it the colour of tea rankly stewed in a billy. Then, using a snagged comb that once kept his Brylcreemed hair in place, he made an undulating pattern in the wet varnish. The room now had a feature, a talking point; the effect was, as more sceptical or bewildered relatives said when they visited, “something different”. More in sorrow than anger, Boyd defined ugliness as the by-product of such “attempts to beautify”; stooping down from the great height of the mainland to scrutinise our small world, he remarked with a sigh that Hobart might have been beautiful if it hadn’t chosen instead to be pretty. I immediately began to plan my exit strategy.

Back then, it was this parochial war on the ghastly good taste of our suburbs or the tacky chaos of our shopping precincts that engaged me. Going back to The Australian Ugliness now, I can see beyond the local gripes: the book remains remarkable because it has ambitions that are literally cosmic. Halfway through, Boyd seems to forget about Australia altogether, drifting off into a metaphysical outer space. He muses about the harmonic patterns that derive from Leonardo’s diagram of Vitruvian man, speculates about the existence of God (evoked by mathematical ratios and musical scales), and wonders how man-made structures will adapt to the new physics and “the ultimate law of the expanding universe”. At the onset of the 1960s, Boyd was already living in the age of Aquarius!

His excursions into the ether read oddly today, especially because they’re so shakily attached to the sections of his book that mock plastic flowers, velvet lounge suites and meals of tinned spaghetti slavered on toast. But these remoter, lighter-headed sallies demonstrate that, for Boyd, architecture means more than the fabrication of shelters: it is the art that most explicitly measures humanity’s relationship to nature and calibrates our position in space. When Boyd’s hero Le Corbusier first saw New York, he gaped with awe at the citizens who inhabited those sublime pinnacles and said, “They are gods.” If he’d seen Spencer Street or Kings Cross in 1960, he would probably have remarked, “They are pygmies.” It’s a pity that when Boyd wrote he couldn’t foresee the transforming impact of the single building that brought modernity to Australia, its design not a box but an assemblage of shells or a flotilla of wind-buffeted sails, showing architecture to be not “frozen music” (as Goethe called it) but music that moves in the air, flowing and metamorphosing as we walk around or through it: he mentions the Sydney Opera House only once, without voicing any enthusiasm for its “poetic expression”. I wonder how excited he might have allowed himself to be if he were writing later. As a Melbourne man, he had a grudging attitude to the rival city. He despised the Sydney Harbour Bridge, because its rusticated pylons were a featurist lie of “Goebbelian proportions”; unexcited by the geometry of the Opera House, he apparently preferred the Myer Music Bowl with its “parabolic arches” and “hyperbolic parabaloids”.

Such judgements hardly matter, because Boyd’s quarrel with the nation’s builders, decorators and planners was merely a pretext. His book is less a work of architectural criticism than a scathing literary satire; it belongs in a tradition inaugurated in the eighteenth century by Pope and Swift, who also scourged ugliness and considered it a moral flaw as well as an aesthetic failing. Pope ridiculed the gaudy exhibitionism of nouveau riche villas in his ‘Epistle to Burlington’, and Boyd deals with a smaller-scale antipodean equivalent, recently nicknamed McMansions. One aspect of his polemic that always appealed to me is his assault on Australia’s “arboraphobia”, the massacre of trees that is our revenge on the choking bush. I share his belief that the pioneers possessed a “psychopathic fear of the gum or the wattle”: how else can we explain the zeal with which bulldozers levelled the ground before suburbs like mine were built, or Tasmania’s continuing determination to churn up ancient forests and sift them into woodchip? This vendetta was noticed in advance by Pope, whose poem sourly jokes about the “inverted Nature” of Timon’s park, with its “trees cut to statues” and “statues thick as trees”. Depressingly, Boyd proposes that “Australia’s main contribution to civilization during the twentieth century is in the experimental development of … the suburb.” In that case, civilisation amounts to a mechanised desecration of the Earth, and satire, with its righteous fury, is the only way of reminding humans that they have no right to destroy the nature to which they belong.

Pope laughed at beautification; Swift’s satire – harsher and seamier – drew attention to the ugliness and ordure that civilised conventions cover up. He rubbed the noses of his victims in the filth their bodies produced, and Boyd too, in his milder-mannered way, shows that the genteel suburbs have their foundations in the cloaca. He sees the sewerage pipes beneath the streets, just as TS Eliot’s Webster saw “the skull beneath the skin”, and he takes a Swiftian delight in pointing out that the Doric temple built on the outskirts of Hobart by Lady Jane Franklin acquired an annex during the 1950s, “a public lavatory, painted green and black”. He grimaces at the way our society once euphemised the lowly necessities of our personal plumbing: at the State Theatre in Melbourne, “the male convenience was originally labelled, in old Gothic type, ‘Gentlemen’s College Room’.” Ah, so this is what the neo-Oxonian Gothic architecture of the university colleges in Melbourne and Sydney hoped to evoke – the camaraderie of the urinal or the studious privacy of the bolted monastic stall!

Boyd’s satire can be heavy-handed: why vilify the Sydney Harbour Bridge by associating it with Goebbels? And his distaste for the present depends on a fuzzy, deluded notion of the past, which makes him pine for the “old dignity” of colonial buildings or wish that Australia had some “unspoilt peasant villages” like those he remembers in Italy.

Looked at in retrospect, The Australian Ugliness is startlingly conservative; this is the book’s undoing, because the 1960s soon reached an ironic accord with the mass-produced roadside eyesores that made Boyd wince. Hence the supermarket wares silk-screened by Warhol or Ed Ruscha’s inventories of gas stations or of the bland façades along Los Angeles boulevards. In Learning from Las Vegas, Robert Venturi admonished his fellow architects to look again at strip malls and tract houses, and implicitly vindicated the Featurism that Boyd assails: Las Vegas casinos were, as Venturi admitted, “decorated sheds”, but the same phrase could be applied to the Parthenon or to Chartres Cathedral. Books that quarrel with the way things are inevitably lose their point when things change. But it’s no disgrace to retreat into history, and The Australian Ugliness testifies to a confused and uncertain period in the national life that, with a little help from Boyd, we happily outgrew.

I’m most impressed, 50 years on, by the first two pages of his book, which have nothing at all to do with architecture. Here, Boyd describes an Australian rite of passage in reverse: our necessary escape into the wider, larger world is followed by the homecoming, when we look with newly opened eyes at the place we left and see for the first time its strangeness, its savagery and its abstract, inhuman beauty. Boyd watches through the window of a returning plane as the sun comes up on a continent that unravels slowly below like a newly discovered planet. Around Darwin the land is ochre and puce, further south it resembles sunburnt skin, blood-red and blistered. Trees are present only as shadows, sketched in “dark crayon”. A long, white zigzagging line, ruled by a draughtsman, not designed by errant nature, hints at the possibility of human settlement. The scene is “hard, raw, barren, and blazing”, yet not malevolent (though I have my doubts about this fond qualification). At last, as the plane descends towards Sydney or Melbourne, the colour green reappears on the palette. Soon enough, our homemade ugliness is on view: a glance at the garish airport terminal makes Boyd wish he were still aloft, heading in the opposite direction. This little prelude is a vivid poetic survey of a continent so incommensurably large and so immitigably tough that we have had to prettify some marginal bits of it to make it bearable and habitable; it balances the power of nature against the valiant but meagre cravings of culture, and in doing so restates the eternal, as yet unsolved, Australian problem.

Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad’s most recent book is How the World Was Won. His Myths of the Day, based on a BBC radio series, will be published in 2016.

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