“It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.. “ The famous quote of Churchill’s could apply to many things but one in particular stands out: the Australian house. What makes the puzzle more perplexing, and more intriguing is that our houses are not something separate from us: we create our houses, and as Churchill would have also said, they create us. We are part of them and they of us but their nature still remains unclear.
If you spend a little time considering it, perhaps imagining how the fresh eyes of a first time visitor to our shores might respond, there is not much that makes easy sense. Why, for the most part, have we ended up with boxes of brick, capped by tight roofs of tiles or tin, sealing us off from the threats of rain, wind, dust, noise, heat, cold, and anything else in our imaginations, all well spread out from each other, as if touching might contaminate, for the most part laid out in neat rows and connected to largely hidden life-support systems for energy, water, waste disposal and ever increasing conduits of entertainment and communications?
Our houses appear as hard and uniform, yet we have constructed our suburbs to satisfy our desire for independence, our freedom to choose how we live, including the face or façade that we present to the world and the internal spaces that we identify with, unique to ourselves, with colours, shapes and aspects that please us. Some of us have places purpose built for our needs, while others inject personal preferences into the softening greenery or new comforting colours for the fence and façade, not to mention the near constant reimagining of the more private spaces, either inside or at the rear.
We seem relaxed about this complex mixture of the particular and personal, with the robust and the regular. Yet our imaginary first-time visitor might wonder at this compromise. Is this only an illusion of independence, with most of the critical parameters defined by others, including the curious cabal of governments and developers who layout the places? Why do we compromise at some point on the independence that we choose? If it is only affordable independence, not the true type, why buy at all?
Perhaps we recognise how forced we are into regimented housing, needing to constantly stand in formation with an acceptable face to the street. We have no choice in this and so over-react, over stress the particular personal distinctive where we are able, possibly in the colour scheme for the façade, or some distinctive combination of features, but more likely in the interior, the furnishings and the fittings.
Bricks, why bricks? Why amongst all the options available to us, did we choose bricks to clad our suburban redoubts? Why the almost universal supremacy of bricks? Why more bricks on more houses over more years? True, bricks are fire-resisting as the country burns with increasing frequency and ferocity. True, bricks are durable and will outlast most home-builders, needing little care and maintenance. And, true, this durability and its heaviness perhaps provides a passing sense of permanence. Owners and occupants may feel anchored and firmly established in this sometimes harsh place with our precarious lives. Perhaps as the climate turns further against us, we will respond with ever more layers of ever stronger bricks bound even more strongly together. We might seek truly impregnable walls.
But the images of fire-ravaged parts of the country show that bricks along offer little defence against fire: twisted iron sheeting laying over collapsed walls of brick with the smoking embers of the once-structural timber frame somewhere further below. More importantly, there are more practical, cheaper alternatives that could fulfil the role that brick plays more readily. Durable steel sheeting was almost invented for modern Australia; a place that is almost uniquely among parts of the world, a complete product of the industrial age . Galvanised corrugated steel sheeting is light, easily moveable on any transport, industrial trains or even pre-industrial animal-drawn wagons. It can provide quick and convenient rain protection, used on industrial scale for factories or for more humble farm or backyard sheds.
But it was not used not for houses or at least not for their walls. We could have had all steel suburbs, but we didn’t. Steel sheeting is cheaper to build, requiring no heavy footings to take the loads, and being thinner cladding, allowing somewhat smaller roof areas. And it can be as durable, lasting at least the lifetime of any owner. It is more flexible, able to be unscrewed or un-nailed replace as necessary, extend and change, or indeed heavily screwed to combat cyclonic winds. For the past half century or more, it could be bought in any colour, or at least the offered range. Just like the pressed panels of our beloved cars, the range of forms and profiles could have been as great; think of all that car styling and how these could have been translated in our houses: a truly lost opportunity. But for most even now, it would be a shocking thought to have a tin house. Any such steel suburbs would be viewed as little better than a mining camp, such is the stigmata attached to a mere cladding option.
True for many, if not most, bricks represent settled reassuring permanence. But most of the brick walls that wrap our houses are just that: a wrapping material. They are a veneer only and modern Australia is famously not a land of solid masonry, it is the land of the Brick Veneer. Our houses are mostly timber-framed boxes with bricks hanging off these frames. So if you are looking for reassurance, it is only skin deep, looking a little deeper, stripping off some internal plasterboard, or simply viewing other houses going up around you, your seemly immutable walls will reveal themselves as mere frauds: an impression only, not the real thing. To have the real thing, two rows of solid bricks bound together, able to stand upright on its own account, not relying on a timber crutch or frame is beyond most budgets. Even more intriguingly, thin cladding material that appeared as brick has long been an option, but stubbornly, it is a skin of a single solid brick that is much preferred. It seems, this is the real thing.
In choosing bricks, we have opted for the most inert stolid square chunky material, capable of expressiveness but only with great effort and some ingenuity. Bricks control and limit any design, representing a constraint on the options. The use of bricks needs to be considered from the beginning and restrict the choices of wall shape and form. We have in choosing brick, selected the thing that would most limits ourselves, including our ability to easily modify a house. We want change and variety but we impose this control.
It is not that bricks are not useful. They are just not used to their best advantage, and more usually placed in the wrong location. In the current quest to reduce energy use, bricks could be more usefully placed on the inside of any wall, with their cooling qualities protected from the heat of the external air in summer, and providing useful heat storage capacity to smooth out temperatures in winter.
And bricks have weighed us down. Back in those heady decades after the end of the last world war when everything seemed possible, we fluffed our future. The stars were aligned as astronauts headed into space, and other mere mortals jetted through more earthly atmospheres. All the burdens that we had wrestled with since time began were sudden lightened, if not lifted, as we now had everything we could possibly want on tap, not only water, but heating, cooling, entertainment, and communications conveniently embedded in our walls, floors and roof, popping out just there where we needed it, and able to be connected to whatever shiny piece of equipment we desired. And there was an architecture that could package all this up, enhance the sensations and offer us even more in the spaces we lived: light, views, space, connections, with a sense of simplicity and freedom: Modernist Architecture, downloaded directly from seemingly more enlightened or progressive parts of the world..
But contrary to the expectations of many, our houses did not suddenly elevate into the air, becoming shiny metallic forms like some tethered flying machine, nor floating white boxes like some philosophical abstraction previously only existing in the imagination of professors (and briefly in the minds of their unenthusiastic students). Houses remained firmly anchored to the ground, perhaps held down by the burden of the bricks and the jangle of shiny machines inside. Others might blame our lack of imagination or just be some natural reticence or caution. Perhaps we lacked the internal strength and fortitude to leave earthly constraints, preferring to stay down on the cold comforting earth not up there is the clean, clear sunlit air. After all we had now had our soft lives, with an increasing array of life-support systems attached to our house, which is the most that all of us really wanted. So why throw out the comfort of the old? We could retain the old and the new together and not get carried away with any rush to the future. The future as represented by some bright new modernist architecture was a step too far and too quickly. We preferred smaller steps and would not be rushed by the advocates of change.
And space, all that space that suburbs provide: why did we want that space? Why spread out over all that land, seek all that space with the inconvenience and costs that the expanse entails? What is the quest about? Is this simply about freedom, being sufficiently far from anyone else that we can do what we please? Is it about security and control, having land that is “owned” presumably with a sense that we cannot be removed from it or it from us, or at least not easily. Is it a return to nature, or at least a partial one, one on our terms where we have all the best bits and none of the bad? We can appreciate all the birds and the bees and soft undulating greenery but without the need to scratch a disparate living from it as in olden times.
Dating at least from ancient times, living beyond the city was long a superior good that anyone with enough wealth would want. Originally only the very wealthy, those not needing to work or abide by regular hours or being able to afford expensive carriages, might live beyond the city, but affordable mass industrial transport systems changed that. Increasingly through the later part of the nineteenth century, we wanted to escape the constraints of the tight urban existence with all the intense noise, dust, smells and smoke that came with that in the pre-electrical, pre-bitumen, pre-mechanical days.
We sought a return to nature and all that genuinely implies: the informality, chance, spontaneity, whimsy, and sheer untamed wildness. Surrounded by the mysterious complexities of nature, most of which defy easy mechanical understanding and encourage a constant response. So a source of stimulation and escape from more mundane cares. And the very opposite of the regimentation and control that work and the all the other systems deemed necessary for living represented. To be a genuine suburban experience you would have thought that some sense or feel for this true nature would be necessary; otherwise why give up the conveniences, low costs, and even the simplicity of urban existence, that dense vertically stacked living?
True, there is a shallow sense of security in a name on a property title, but in these days of ever increasing mortgage debt, with many of us willing to push this to the very brink, it is not obvious that security is our overriding concern. More of us seem comfortable with putting our ownership at a considerable risk and increasing our dependence on the whims of banks and the ups and downs of the economy. We do not need to have houses surrounded by buffer zones of grass and other greenery to have this same security; the quality of any property title is not diminished by being on an elevated apartment or by sharing common walls on boundaries.
And, substantial financial burdens themselves alone limit our freedoms. Put this together with the ever increasing complexity and interconnectedness of the world, leading to ever rising intrusions on our scope for independent action, and the freedom that any piece of suburban land provides is very diminished. Municipal planning rules and building regulation limit not only the form and arrangement of any building fabric on our land, but often the very look and feel of our homes.
A desire for a small snippet of nature, not matter how poorly realised, must drive the suburban quest. But if this is the core desire, why make so many compromises, until we have compromised so much that there is little left? Why do we not demand to have what we want since we go to so much trouble? Possibly it is our weak imaginations: a poor concept of what nature really is and can offer to use and what it would take to provide this well. The problem starts at the beginning, in the position and posture of the house: houses address the street rather than the land; the lines of the arbitrary division of the area rather than the undulation and shape of the terrain. Houses are almost always set square to the allotted block of land, with an obvious front and a door addressing the street. This is the very opposite of some easily imagined house, hut or retreat embedded in nature, adjusting to the location of the sun, the fall in the earth surface, the flow of water over that surface, the need for wind protection, or simply the desire to capture a view.
Tight parcels of land obviously limit the possible options, but designers have created numerous examples of ways to create some sense of a natural setting under the most harsh of constraints, including high densities. Instead of a concerted pursuit of nature, we have accepted houses setback by a regulated distance from the street, creating small zones of public display or simply buffer areas of grass or concrete parking surfaces at the front. On the sides, the small offset from the boundaries lead to dead zones, on one side perhaps service alleys with room for air-conditioning units or the storage of garbage bins, on the other, the all-important driveway to the rear garage, leaving uniform lines of favourite shrubs. Or alternately, the car space is brought forward, up the house front, and door & driveway dominated the street front. If there is any scope for personal flare or a substantial satisfying dash of nature, it is the backyard. Here the land has traditionally been deep, offering the greatest possibilities for productive gardens or large spreading trees, but so often utilised instead for the storage of work and play equipment, mobile or otherwise, more an industrial space any anything else.
Perhaps we have long since forgotten what we want and why we want it. The suburban house is just a common commodity, regular and repeated, without debate or thought and the options for buyers are as increasingly as narrow the new blocks now being produced. Our houses, hemmed-in by the systems designed to produce these affordable commodities (but in reality by our failure of imagination), appear as brusque, rude, sharp and sour. If the lineage of our houses is from rustic cottages set in ample greenery with all the softness and even friendliness that that represents, this linkage is lost in the tight spaces and forms now evident.