Opinion

(Un)Loved Modern

July 21, 2009

Ian Kelly describes how collective indifference towards Australia’s mid-century modernist house could mean we lose a vital part of our architectural heritage.

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All architecture goes through a period of being unloved. The decline in admiration begins to set in after about 15 years. The sense of newness has faded, the innovative elements have been tested and either absorbed into mainstream design or found wanting, the glossy finish of the materials has dulled, wear and tear is evident and the services require an upgrade or replacement. Besides, new buildings to praise, inspire and emulate are constantly being constructed.
But the real period of unloved architecture comes after about 30 years.

Widespread feelings of affection and comfortable familiarity are replaced by indifference or, worse, disregard. The next generation of designers simply don’t recognise or understand what made a building or place significant and therefore have little reason to value it. It usually takes another generation to rediscover and appreciate the inherent historical significance of the older architecture, but in this interim period – the unloved phase – these buildings and places are vulnerable to neglect, often subjected to unsympathetic modification and too frequently demolition.

This is not a new phenomenon. Each generation tends to extol the virtues of an earlier period of design that closely reflects and reinforces its own design values and aspirations. Early twentieth century Modernists abhorred the excessive historicist decoration of Victorian architecture, while admiring Georgian simplicity; 40 years later Post-Modernists in rejecting Modernist minimalism celebrated the colourful exuberance of Art Deco.

Within this cycle of changing design values it is the built environment of the post World War II period that is currently enduring its unloved phase. The reaction is perhaps more pronounced because the post-War period presented a dramatic break with the past and the results are more widely evident. The technical advances in the use of structure, form and materials, coupled with shifts in our social behaviour, produced radical changes in the built environment. Progressive government policies, backed by an expanding economy, enabled architectural and planning theories developed in the inter-war years to be put into practice.

Traditional concepts of architectural form and urban planning were surpassed by the increasing availability of the motorcar, the spread of suburbia and the introduction of the shopping centre. It was an exciting time for designers, but the public response was mixed. They experienced what Robert Hughes aptly described as the ‘shock of the new’. And now, faced with government, professional and public indifference and even outright dislike, the unloved Post War Modern places are particularly vulnerable to neglect and destruction.

The small single house of the mid-twentieth century, for example, is under threat. Rapid population growth has prompted government planning policies that favour urban consolidation and challenge the urban character of our cities. The modest spatial dimensions of post-war housing no longer satisfy contemporary expectations. The desire for quantity of space rather than quality, combined with a preference for some distinctive historical style, means that many highly acclaimed homes of the 1960s and 1970s are at risk of demolition to make way for new McMansions. The heritage significance of award winning project homes built by Merchant Builders (Vic), Pettit and Sevitt (NSW) and Corser Homes (WA) designed by leading architects of the period, including Graeme Gunn, Ken Woolley, and Peter Overman (respectively), has only recently been recognised but few have been listed by local councils and State heritage agencies. The retention of these houses is reliant primarily on having sympathetic owners.

There are, however, some clear indications the unloved Modern is gradually becoming loved again. Restored Featherston chairs, Snelling furniture and Parker timber sideboards are increasingly being offered for sale in ‘antique’ shops. Broadhurst’s florid wallpaper, Marimekko fabrics and classic Modernist furniture appear in trendy interiors. Exhibitions and reference books provide academic reinforcement of the historic significance of this period, while the popularity of 60s period TV programs, such as Mad Men, are likely to further encourage the early adopters to follow the lead of the innovators. Therefore it might not be too long before the houses for which these furnishings were produced will also once more be widely valued.

Our challenge is to ensure that the truly significant heritage places survive their unloved period so that when the broader community’s awareness and appreciation emerges the better examples of a particular period of time will have been retained and conserved, rather than subjected to unsympathetic modifications or the demolition ball.

Ian Kelly is a heritage place manager in Sydney and Organising Chair of the (Un)Loved Modern Conference 2009. He previously worked at the NSW Heritage Office and the Heritage Council of WA, and prior to this lectured in architectural design, history and building conservation at Curtin University, WA.

(Un)Loved Modern Conference 2009
Register now at www.aicomos.com for the (Un)Loved Modern Conference 7-10 July to join an international group of experts conserving 20th century heritage places. Speakers at the conference will include Theo Prudon (US), John Schofield (UK), Philip Goad (Australia), Leo Schmidt (Germany) and Susan Macdonald (US). The Conference, to be held at the Sydney Masonic Centre, includes field visits, welcome function, conference dinner and closing event.

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