Death of the Great Australian Dream

April 15, 2009

Victoria’s recent megafires prompt the question: should we still be living in the bush?

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As I write this, the shock waves from the recent bushfires in Victoria are still reverberating around the country and beyond, and the leaders of our profession – who doubtless will eventually find themselves having to deal with the implications – have yet to make any significant public statement or response. Yet it is already clear that, both in their terrifying speed and ferocity and in the scale and horror of the human cost, these were no ordinary bushfires, the catastrophic effects of which call into question Australians’ most cherished values and myths regarding the location and shape of their homes.

The Great Australian Dream of the detached house in the suburbs has deep roots in the Australian psyche and has taken many forms, most of them famously derided by Robin Boyd in the 1950s and 60s. More recently, however, the dream has acquired a new respectability, embodied in exquisitely designed homes nestling in the bush on the urban fringes, the most prominent of which have attained iconic status in Australian architecture. Lovingly published and republished in both the professional and popular press, spawning countless lesser variations, these dwellings provide the promise of living in harmony with nature while still enjoying the benefits of the nearby city and have drawn growing numbers of homebuilders further and further out into the receding forests.

It was always a risky proposition, but the full dangers of living in a tinderbox have only now begun to sink in, driven by a growing awareness that, unless drastic remedial action is taken, climate change can only make things, much, much worse in the future. ‘Life or lifestyle, warns fire chief’ proclaimed one headline , sweeping away any lingering pretensions that fringe dwellers may have had, that they could safely live among the trees in the increasingly hotter and drier Australian climate. Much of the press commentary has focused on comparisons between ‘Black Saturday’, as the latest tragedy is now called, and the earlier disastrous bushfires of ‘Black Friday’ in 1939 and ‘Ash Wednesday’ in 1983, suggesting an infrequent pattern of the most serious fires occurring every few decades – little comfort for current victims, but sufficient reason for more complacent minds to argue that they go with the territory and are therefore somehow acceptable.

As one astute observer has pointed out, however, the more accurate comparison is not with those earlier events, but with the much larger fires of 2002 to 2003, which swept uncontrolled for weeks through the south-east, devastating two million hectares of forest. Mostly confined to parks, the loss of life and property was relatively limited and so quickly forgotten; however, the conditions that created and aggravated those fires – longer droughts combined with high winds and temperatures – are the same as those that helped spread the most recent inferno, and will continue to threaten life and property as the effects of climate change worsen (note for sceptics: if there is one thing to be learnt from the IPCC, CSIRO and Garnaut reports and related studies produced over the past few years, it is that published estimations by scientists of the dire effects of climate change invariably turn out to have been far too conservative rather than exaggerated, and generally underestimate the speed and extent of the underlying causes ).

Neither would increasing the controlled burning of undergrowth in line with former Indigenous practice, as promoted by some, including Germaine Greer speaking from London – always ready to share her enthusiasm for native Australian culture from a distance – improve matters much. Professor Ross Bradstock, director of the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bush Fires, who surely knows more than most people about such things, argues that, while fuel reduction should be included in any comprehensive policy of fire prevention and control, other factors play a far more important part in the outcome: ‘Fires in extreme conditions… can develop their own weather, including winds of tornado strength. Weather becomes the dominant process governing the rapidity of spread and intensity.’ Bradstock’s diagnosis is echoed by Asa Wahlquist, The Australian newspaper’s rural writer, who likens the Victoria fires to the so-called ‘mega-fires’ experienced in California since 2000: ‘Mega-fires are typically formed from several fires, often covering a huge area. They exhibit complex behaviour, releasing atomic bomb-like amounts of energy. They create their own weather and defy attempts to control them’. In such conditions, the appropriate comparison for future megafires of this kind is more likely to be with the uncontrollable firestorm that destroyed Dresden in World War II, rather than with the more benign images of self-renewing forests popular with the controlled burning school.

As a professional critic and consistent advocate for a sensitive but modern interpretation of regional architecture since the early 1980s , I have admired the work of Australia’s leading house designers as much as anyone. It is not so much the quality of the architecture that is in dispute here, but the damaging and dangerous settlement patterns that have transformed the Great Australian Dream into a potential nightmare. Like many new immigrants – I settled in this country in 2004 and acquired citizenship soon afterwards – while I consciously chose to live in an urban environment, I also have relatives who migrated here earlier and who are enjoying the same precarious lifestyle on the urban borderlands that so many other Australians do. I take a guilty pleasure in visiting them in their tree-shrouded homes in the Blue Mountains and in Scotland Island, north of Sydney, while they brush aside my concerns with the hazardous nature of their surroundings with familiar but unconvincing reassurances: ‘The fire-station is close by,’ (as though proximity guarantees priority) or ‘Don’t worry, we will be evacuated well before we are in any real danger.’ Beginning with my first essay for this journal four years ago, ‘Too little, too late? The fatal distractions of “feel-good” architecture’ , I have also taken those concerns to a wider audience. In conclusion, I quote the closing passage from another critical essay I wrote on Australian architecture, in the hope that, late as it is, the trend setting designers of Australia’s homes will turn to alternative and safer models:

‘Sadly, the maturation of Australian residential architecture coincides with what looks increasingly like the end game in the long struggle to come to terms with the Australian landscape. The problem lies neither in individual projects nor in their designers, but in the detached dwelling type itself, and in the energy intensive infrastructure required to support the low-density settlement patterns it generates. After over two centuries of mostly reckless development, the habitable land and natural resources of Australia, which were always far more limited than the size of the country suggests, have been stretched to the point of exhaustion, with worse to come as the effects of global warming take hold. Most planners and environmentalists in Australia now agree that a sustainable strategy for development must include substantial increases in the density of the urban population, supported by a major shift from private to public transportation – strategies which directly challenge the Great Australian Dream so eloquently expressed in these houses. How the same architects will respond to the new challenge remains to be seen, but it will doubtless be worth watching .’

  • cityofsound@gmail.com May 6th, 2009 1:15 am

    You mention a “maturation” but Australian residential architecture never matured at all while it continued to build in the bush, or build free-standing objects in the landscape out of sight of the cities, except in a limited technical sense. We don’t need bushfires to point out that problems with these houses, which are at first glance beautiful but profoundly anti-urban (and thus it could even be argued uncivilised?) and broadly unsustainable across any measure you care to mention, particularly economic or cultural. Bushfires may now make the whole thing seem ludicrous of course, but the signs were already there. It was just too easy for Australian architects to focus on the bush – it’s difficult to be genuinely impressed by those houses, once the initial seduction wears off – the real challenge always lay elsewhere, in the cities. That we’re only talking about this now – and only talking about it here, on an architecture/design website – as opposed to it being a broader cultural theme (inventing a new Australian dream, just as living in the bush was a manufactured 19thC ‘dream’ and living in the suburbs a manufactured 20thC ‘dream’) is a poor reflection on our collective thinking and practice over the decades. I wrote about this in slightly more considered fashion almost 2 years ago, here: http://www.cityofsound.com/blog/2007/09/in-every-dreamh.html (quoting part of your essay in A+U).

    And of course, it’s not about forgetting the bush as a place for the average punter to live, either – the form of spawling cities, in places like NSW, Vic and SA, as well as California, also places people in danger: http://www.cityofsound.com/blog/2007/10/the-city-as-des.html

    Let’s move the discussion on to how we are going to help imagine that New Great Australian Dream. There are numerous strategies and tactics we could deploy. From this angle, perhaps AR could run a new iteration of The Age Small Homes Service? … From other angles, we need to deploy visionary strategic thinking to shake people out of their (gently smouldering) conservative torpor.

  • Chris Abel May 7th, 2009 2:17 am

    I may be preaching to the converted in some cases but its equally clear to me that the Great Australian Dream still exerts a strong hold on large sections of the professions, as well as the public. You only have to look at the professional and popular media to see that (take a look, for example, at the April 23 issue of ‘Essential’, SMH’s regular Thursday supplement, which yet again features another dream home in the bush completely shrouded by carefully preserved trees). Sad to say, it is probably going to take a few more disasters like the recent fires to compel people to let go of this particular fantasy. Neither has there been any shortage of alternatives. Harry Seidler did his own fair share of designing homes on the edge of cities, but he was also amongst the first to recognize the need to increase the density of Australia’s cities, and promoted models of low-rise, high density housing, as well as the high-rise buildings for which he is better known. Amongst other architects, Alex Popov has also being doing excellent work along the same lines, as has Troppo, who have moved on from their earlier focus on detached homes. New compact regional centres like the Rouse Hill new town in the north-west of Sydney also offer great promise – provided of course, the infrastructure they depend on ever gets delivered!
    For my own part, as well as promoting alternative approaches through my writings, I have been busy working for many years at the other end of the scale, exploring radical models of high-density living with my Vertical Architecture Studio, which I am currently running at UNSW. So, yes, the discussion is already moving on in some quarters, but it would be foolish to underestimate the fascination that the Great Australian Dream still has for both architects and householders in this country, or the very real dangers ahead for all those countless fringe dwellers who already committed themselves and their families to living out the Dream.

  • cityofsound@gmail.com May 14th, 2009 5:13 am

    Thanks Chris, appreciated. I’m not suggesting we “underestimate the fascination with the Great Australian Dream” at all, but engage with it and ‘bend it’ in new directions. I guess I’m saying the Dream was manufactured to a large degree, and we have a responsibility to help manufacture – or perhaps shape – a new one, now it is inappropriate, and even dangerous. I think some (not you) assume it to be some mystical, almost inherent basic human desire, akin to an invisible hand shaping the market. I think it’s more malleable than that, and it behooves us as designers to create more compelling articulations of it, more suited to today and tomorrow. (btw, I heard about the Vertical Architecture Studio from a colleague yesterday; sounds great.)

  • Chris Abel May 28th, 2009 12:50 am

    If you are interested – or anyone else reading this – the work of the current Vertical Architecture Studio at UNSW will on display in an exhibition of students’ work next Monday at the Architecture Faculty, Kensington Campus. The studio is focussed this year on the design of a Vertical Garden City for the Barangaroo precinct. The exhibition will be held in the gallery on the ground floor of the Red Centre from 2.30pm till 7pm. I hope you can make it.

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