Late last year an exhibition entitled ‘A Century of Architecture in Victoria’ was held in Melbourne. It was the first public architectural show for twelve years and notable above all others ever held in this city because of its location: the National Gallery of Victoria.
By invading the home of an indubitably ‘fine’ art, the ‘useful’ art of building invited judgment upon itself as a fine art, and by people who should know the difference.
Looking over the photographs, it did seem that there were, after all, quite a number of presentable buildings in Victoria. It is only necessary to look out the nearest window to correct this impression, but a hundred or so works of some intelligence, isolated from the million bad buildings of the century, did seem to make an entertaining show of artistic endeavour.
Judging by some of the press reviews, however, even the best works did not convince most normally appreciative laymen of their qualifications to be considered seriously as art. There can be no doubt that the normal, sensitive, art-conscious layman, patron of music, painting, the theatre and various other forms, still does not consider architecture seriously, is out of sympathy with its aims and unappreciative of the few sincere works which are infrequently built. It may surprise some laymen to know that quite a number of architects take their work very seriously, even to the extent of approaching the problems of building at times with a somewhat precious attitude which would result, if permitted licence, in works which could hardly be finer or less useful.
Because permission is never granted, many a young architect has become the spiritual artist-starving-in-a-garret of this country, and enough frustration neurosis to fascinate any psychiatrist is prevalent to-day in younger architectural circles.
There can be no doubt that many of the architects represented in this exhibition were working at building with as great a devotion to art and almost as little interest in utility as a composer or a poet has.
They are open to criticism on this denial of what most conservatives would consider the first requirement of architecture. But though their interest in function may have been slight, it goes without saying that they had to be concerned with it, however grudgingly.
If their buildings sometimes fail to function with mechanical perfection, it could be said that their technique in the art was poor. It should not be said that their art was fine but that they were ‘impractical’ (which is often said). As the building fails in function, so it fails in intellectual achievement, as art. But many people would persevere with the Victorian conception of a schizophrenic culture, insisting that the requirement of function is somehow different from the other limitations on any art, an attitude which forces a great gap in any philosophical concept of human activities.
No one doubts that some media have a greater creative potential than others. No one expects a fountain pen, however finely designed, to have the depth of quality apparent in a finely designed painting. But it may have a little of the same quality; we should all be able to reach agreement on that.
If the discipline of function seems to any artist to restrict intolerably his freedom of expression, surely this artist’s muse is easily frightened?
Function is certainly a terrifying master if it escapes control; there are thousands of architects so overawed by it that they never attempt creative effort at all.
But if it is controlled, it is no more to an architect than an intellectual stimulation, a challenge, as the limitations of pigment are to the painter.
Architecture certainly has its limitations as an expressive medium, but perhaps too much is made of the discipline set by function, and by economy, site and so on. For every art medium has its acknowledged limitations in its own field. For example, it is of idle amusement to consider the revolution in painting in the forseeable future when a permanent luminous pigment is invented which will triple the present maximum potential contrast between black paint and white, or between complementary colours. Perhaps some purist painters will at first disdain to use such a new paint. Many people will be sorry to see the end of the flat paint era and as reluctant to accept the new as, say, Chaplin on the advent of sound film. The limitations of palette, of instrument, of material, of language, are at the basis of the attachment of every creative worker to his chosen medium.
In a similar way architects are content with the limitations of their medium, believing that the restrictions on free expression imposed by function are in fact spurs to creative desire.
If the functional anchor is weighed, architecture usually drifts off into a rather ridiculous form of sculpture. Examples of this are all around us, in war memorials and various other monuments. The amateurish showing of architects on commission or in competitions for non-functioning works is apparent to all. No more absurd and irreverent creation can be imagined than a war memorial designed in the general form of a grecian temple, unless it is one designed in the form of a modern skyscraper.
The reason these things seem so ridiculous is that the functional anchor is never raised high enough. It drags on the bed, seemingly in desperate hope that it will catch on something. The monuments are free only of the minor functions; they are still considered essentially as shelter for human beings or their momentoes. Walls and roofs are provided, windows and doors and downpipes to carry away rainwater so that it will not splash on the hats of those who come to view. Such buildings finish up in the same unfortunate half-world as Picasso’s pottery jugs, which arrived there from the opposite direction. When the painter Picasso drops his functional anchor he expects to be slowed down a little, but he does not want it to hold on to anything. He deliberately lets it drag over the bed.
But it is possible to imagine a valid architecture without function, with the anchor raised clear of utilitarian considerations: an assemblage of planes, slabs, beams, supports; in concrete or brick or glass or copper; composed at the discretion of an artist without a thought for sheltering his audience from wind or rain. And it is only by trying to imagine such a structure that we can appreciate the essence of architectural form.
It may be argued that the thing thus created would not be architecture but sculpture; in fact it might be said that Calder, Moore and others have been working in non-functioning architecture for some time. Perhaps they have; if it matters what subdivision an artist comes under.
In any case there need be no confusion about the position of the dividing line between architecture and sculpture. The architect may be part sculptor when massing his external form but he is in his own private field when he enters the outer confines of his building. He then begins working in the medium of space enclosure, a field yet barely explored and not directly related to any other art. There are those who may argue further that the sort of non-functioning building described would be absurd, without reality; a wasted effort. This may be so, but in that case most sculpture, painting and music must be condemned for the same reasons. Such an argument leads logically to the elimination of all visual arts except architecture (functional) and industrial design. A state of such high culture is too remote to contemplate now.
Nobody looking back upon this past century of Melbourne building, as sketched by the exhibition, would be so foolish as to suggest that all the architects of note worked with selfless devotion to their art. As a matter of fact, knowing the predatory habits of the profession at some stages, it seems remarkable that there were so many presentable buildings to be collected.
There can be no doubt that Australia was one of the very last countries of the Western world to begin to recover from nineteenth century confusion. But there were artist-builders in every generation; and to-day, because of the natural acceleration of recovery, there are more, than ever. It is fairly safe to say that about ten per cent of the young men who now leave architectural schools throughout the nation have sincerely and seriously dedicated themselves to the development of architecture; in spite of, and perhaps stimulated by, a sure knowledge that that an apathetic and sometimes hostile reception is assured them.
One of the chief problems that concerns these young men and women, apart from the difficulty of obtaining work at all, is wrapped about this question of function. Their advice from the acknowledged masters overseas is contradictory and confusing. The worship of functional appearance which marked the early ‘International Style’ of fifty years ago has long passed. The European pioneer Functionalists are working in America with greater facilities and wealth than they considered possible when first they dreamed about the day of the revolution in design. Their work stands as a taunt and spur to all modern architectural mathematicians.
Frank Lloyd Wright continues his long life’s work spent in twisting function round his little finger. His work remains the inspiration of every modern romanticist.
Between the two, the young Australian architect tries to find a theoretical basis for his work on which romance may have sufficient scope while function is faithfully served. He tries to find it in a society which cares nothing for building (except for its individual’s separate homes), and in an atmosphere of shortages, delays, poor workmanship and wild costs; all of which is hardly encouraging to the muse.
Probably the young Australian architect of to-day will not find a satisfactory resolution of the conflict. That, of course, is not important. But while he searches for the way to blend everyday human activity with creative individualism there is considerable ground for optimism about the future of our architecture.
Indeed there are people who will go so far as to say that this search is of far greater importance than the success or failure of the efforts of many distinguished individuals to express their own personalities in some esoteric and very fine art.
Robin Boyd (1919 – 1971) was an Australian architect, writer, teacher and social commentator.