They are a child’s concept of a house: a single box with simple cap on top, possibly two eyes sometimes balanced high above the central opening. The windows are inevitably multi-paned and the door multi-panelled, just as they were in older, more certain, times. There is an obvious instructive connection to the human body, if not simply to a human face. There is an immediate instinctive sense of a dwelling: a place to live a settled contented life. Perhaps these houses reflect something that is prior to, or beyond, any elaborate thought or widespread discussion, something innate to humans, an intuitive unconscious response to the need to build, or even intrinsically natural. What could be more basic or simple that laying out a rectangular floorplan, putting the opening in the middle of the main length, and poking in a couple of square holes for light centred in the space remaining each end, before finishing with a roof with rafters resting on the perimeter walls?
These are the small houses of Battery Point in Hobart, built early in the 19th century and now provide one of the earliest examples of suburban development In Australia. These are much photographed; attractive for their smallness and apparent simplicity. We might try hard to imagine ourselves living in them, like some return to an easier less complicated state, if only somehow we could squeeze our materially expansive lives into such confined spaces. Perhaps the renunciation of the abundance of goods that we surround ourselves with is part of the attraction.
But contrary to first impressions, the houses themselves were the result of years of extensive thought, debate, consideration, or distillation. They were centuries in the making. They are one small part of a much wider picture: from the apparent simplicity of a humble cottage to the comfortable solidity of a middle-class house, all the way through to mansions, villas or palaces that are grand and complex.
When the English arrived on this island at the then extremity of their global empire, they brought their own notions of beauty, comfort and how they should live well. Building on ideas elaborated several centuries earlier in Renaissance Italy, they pursued an ideal of beauty linked to proportion and symmetry. Beauty was to be found in the proportions that resided in nature, particularly nature in its highest form: the human body. For any building to be pleasing and satisfying to the human eye, it had to conform to these proportions. Buildings would be clear geometric forms, typically rectilinear, that could capture carefully distilled mathematical ratios, with all the elements necessary for habitation brought within this system of proportionate relationships: from the size of rooms, to the position and properties of door and windows, down to the decorative details of mouldings around the innumerable edges. It was a long road from the Renaissance Villa, with its precise mathematics and complex comprehensive relationships between elements, to the simple antipodean cottage, where the sense of proportion might be more customary than calculated, and decorative schemes more practical than expanded. But there is a clear road nevertheless.
Why the English adopted such a disciplined approach to building and took this with them as they expanded their empire is somewhat a puzzle. On face if it, it was an odd decision and unexpected direction for a competitive free-wheeling mercantile society to take. In such a society, you would think the dominant and most dynamic group, the wealthy entrepreneurial families, would build their mansions and trading houses as statements of their position and power, with little regard for anything else. The biggest impact would be made by drawing together whatever is most impressive or new at the time, and as the empire expanded, the new sensations gathered from newly conquered lands could have provided the inspiration. With such wonders available, why bother with order, system and hierarchy? Just as that other grand mercantile empire before them did – the Venetians – the English could have consumed the artistic and architectural ideas of the world they came in contact with, not necessarily repeating but capturing the mood or emotions of a place, and providing a new twist on local features and forms. Or failing that, for those lacking all imagination, wealthy merchants could simply make buildings that were larger and grander that what has gone before.
But instead of that, the English took order and symmetry with them as they put together their empire, just as they constructed their cities as coherent streets with well-calibrated rhythmic assemblages of bricks and mortar. That was of course until the reign of Queen Victoria, at which point old ideas of architectural order collapsed. But that is another story.
Partial explanations of the Georgian pursuit of order may lie in the nature of the society. It was not simply mercantile, but aristocratic, with wealth and influence already heavily concentrated, when empire-building began. Aristocrats maintained their influence and role during the 17th century partly by becoming part of the commercial revolution, while at the same time deepening their commitment to broader European culture which valued the example of the ancient world of Rome and Greece: order and hierarchy in buildings just as in human relations. Wealth allowed them to complete a leisurely European Grand Tour as well as plunder the continent for art treasures. The ways of the continental Europeans were to be emulated but not those of other parts of the world.
Or, perhaps there were broader forces than the aristocracy at play. The gathering of sufficient people with enough education, time and interest to discuss, debate and appreciate ideas meant many minds inevitably focused on the rational order of classical architecture. When explained to an open enquiring mind, the strength and benefits of Classicism may have become apparent: all the relationships in a space would be considered, allowing forms to be assembled into coherent wholes reflecting the principles of beauty thought to be inherent to nature. Perhaps such a mind had previously never seriously considered that there could be any underlying principles to beauty, art and even urban spaces, and when properly explained the force of the argument may have been compelling. In the coffee houses of London and elsewhere, it may not only have been the breakthroughs of science and the latest literary work that were discussed.
Or possibly it was the ready-made simple formulaic nature of this architecture that was suited the military mind or the practical impatient empire builders. The form or three-dimensional appearance of a building could be easily imagined from a floor plan. There was no need for complex instruction manuals or legions of expensively-trained architects. Books circulated around the empire showing floor plans and perhaps the occasional single façade or picturesque illustration. The blanks could be easily filled in. At the extreme, such as in the bleak antipodean outpost of Hobartown, plans were not even necessary. A house could be described as three or five bay, single or double storey or single or double depth and the form would almost fall out. Imagining a building could become so routine as to appear almost instinctive.