It is just like a circus to have bright colours all spread in a circle. Arthur Circus in Hobart is attractive because of its simplicity, smallness, otherworldliness, or even antiquity: a small slice of another world as you wiz past in a tourist coach. Or perhaps it is something out of fairy tale or a childhood story book, certainly not of 21st century suburbia.
But the bright and various colours applied in recent decades hide the plainness and uniformity of the houses themselves. Nearly all the houses have the same simple look. They are about as simple as can be: a box with door placed centrally, balanced by a window each side and capped with the steep pyramid roof. To a modern eye, stripped of colour, this is plainness to the point of dullness. Compared to a contemporary housing estate whose houses display elements poking out and up in all directions, perhaps making reference to multiple housing styles of the past, often within the same house, these are austere, bare boxes.
If you look beyond the colour, the puzzle is why they should be so plain and why they should be so similar. Plainness could be an indication of the relative poverty of the times. These houses are single story and very small, scarcely able to accommodate a couple of people with the comforts that they would now expect, let alone any sizeable modern family. Propping some roof rafters and tin sheeting off the perimeter brick walls is building about as cheaply as it is possible to do. The brick walls are the only thing that suggests unnecessary costs to a modern eye but at the time (before modern forestry and cheap timber) this may not have been so.
The uniformity of the houses could also reflect their low cost either because there was something like modern volume building or estate development happening (they were built in a relatively short period around 1850) or any variation with decorative elements would add unnecessary costs. But if the owners had wanted to distinguish their house from their neighbours, stamp their personality on their abode, or simply happened upon some attractive design in a book or magazine, their house could have looked very different. Without upsetting things too much, a door need not lead directly from the centre of the house to the street: a visitor could be confronted by a wall of windows, and a path leading to a side door. Or, roofs could be gabled not hipped. Provocatively, windows need not be evenly spaced. And, decorative elements need not add much cost, perhaps a recession or advancement of some brickwork would be the only thing necessary.
But this is casting a modern sense back on the times. Van Diemen’s Land was a small hierarchical society at the edge of the British Empire where deference would be shown to those higher up the rungs. The aristocracy of England set the standards, and in most arts, these remained broadly Classical from the early 18th century. House design was about the subtle adjustment and refinement of some well-established concepts not an idiosyncratic exploration of ancient English or other styles, nor some attempt to return to a wholesome state, promising freedom and simple living, nor many the other twists and turns that were to come later in our history.
This is a way of thinking that is foreign to most of us now. Rather than pursue spectacle, quirkiness or just individuality and distinctiveness, Classicism is about restraint, rationality and the repeated use of essential forms and decorative elements. Instead of inventing new shapes and complex relationships, for the Classicists, beauty is about getting close to the fixed ideal forms of nature. This pursuit of an ideal alone ensures a consistency to buildings within a city and continuity over time.
Classicism attaches an overriding value to harmony (above other notions) because this was the essence of the world. Classicism was an attempt to go beyond the randomness and the arbitrariness of the world as we see and experience it, and look for something deeper and more continuous or permanent. Any reliance on emotional responses could simply not be trusted because it was only an engagement with the ephemeral that is the random elements floating on the surface. Space had to be formed on a primarily rational basis: a coherent arrangement where all elements have a consistent and considered relationship.
While this may sound very dry – building only produced by mathematicians or historians -, and to a modern person, a recipe for dull urban and suburban spaces, nevertheless it could produce buildings capable of great expressiveness, even innovation and variety. In a famous radio lectures more than 50 years ago (and subsequently a book), John Summerson demonstrated the power and structure of this language (The Classical Language of Architecture). Not surprisingly he dealt with the grand buildings of Europe in its prime not the humble old cottages of then disintegrating British Empire.
But these cottages of Hobart use this language despite their humility. As everyone knows, to have a Classical building you need columns, usually a row of them at least. But these cottages have none. Other grander houses on the island may have columns regularly spaced across their street facades or they may not (see third set of photographs). If there are no such columns, you can easily imagine where they would be, or in other words the columns are implied, and it is these columns (and the accompanying order, including bases and entablatures) that provide the organising principle including proportions and spacing. The three openings on the façade of the cottages suggest a division into three parts, with the hint of a column location between the openings and at the ends. There is a three-way division not four so there is a central bay containing the door, and two windows balanced or in symmetry about this door. Mostly the openings do not jamb up against the roof eave or anything else but occupy their own space, with a pedestal implied at the base of the imaginary column providing the height for the window sills and the suggestion of a column capital & lower parts of the entablature making space required above all the openings.
To have a good proportion, a cottage requires a roof of a size that a double depth (two-room deep) arrangement would provide (this makes the roof span from front to back bigger and so the ridge of the roof higher). A single depth means a lower ridge and a smaller hip on each end and a much less satisfactory arrangement: a feeble insubstantial cap – something closer to a merely functional 20th century house (see first image on first set of photographs). Equally a cottage needs to be longer than it is deep, that is not square in plan, so that a sharp point to the roof is prevented (see second image on first set of photographs)
A substantial roof with a small ridge implies an overall rectangular form of a proportion (height to length) perhaps approaching one of those found in Nature. Such proportions (around the golden mean give or take) are to be used in all parts of any composition, from window to room to decorative detail sizes. The facades of grander houses of two levels, with more bays, can more easily achieve such regular or desirable proportions (see third set of photographs). Chimneys positioned at the centre of the rear of each side room would complete the arrangement: provide a little further vertical accent, positioned as they would be just off the ridge ends. Chimneys on the outside walls break the composition apart too much.
Unlike modern houses, these cottages were not meant to be read by themselves but are part of a broader approach. Ornamentation need not be left off small houses simply because of a low budget. The smaller spaces and surfaces involved cannot carry the extent of detail of a larger building. While many of the cottages in the circus have little surviving applied decoration, the decorative elements that do seem to work are limited to the fanlight above central door, possible architraves around openings and quoins (expressed large blocks) on corners. Modern painting of the lintels over windows and doors add another decorative element to what we now see. So a small house is not just miniaturised version of a large one but forms and details need to vary to adjust to the differences. An excess of decoration overwhelms such a house with the decorative forms appearing as obvious add-ons failing to support the overall form (see final photograph)
But of course this was not destined to calmly continue neither in the expanding suburbs on this island nor on the mainland. Just as these cottages were being built, Classicism was being killed off at the centre of the empire, at least for our domestic places. We did not manage to create rows of simple, disciplined houses of refined elegance leading to coherent suburban spaces.
(Some photos from Bennett, A, and Warner, G, Country Houses of Tasmania. Allen and Unwin, 2009)