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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

What is contemporary Australian architecture?

Special to The Japan Times

The Glenn Murcutt exhibition at Tokyo's Gallery Ma is one of the first ever to showcase Australian architecture in Japan. So what, exactly, is "Australian architecture" today?

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Despite its image as a land of strange animals and wide-open spaces, Australian society is very urbanized. Nearly half the nation's 20.5 million citizens live in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Each city has its own architectural culture, and their differences form the major tendencies in the nation's architectural identity.

Sydney is about the smooth and the elegant. A legacy of transplanted Modernism and even some Japanese influences combine with an upbeat hedonism, yielding buildings of simple shapes and clean lines that open up to the outside air and voyeuristic eyes. Two distinct orientations can be identified — "city slicker" and "nature lover." Architects of the first category (for example, Ian Moore and Burley Katon Halliday) produce work that is minimal and sleek, and is favored by the city's black-clad inner-city set. The "nature-lovers" (such as Glenn Murcutt, Richard Le Plastrier and Peter Stutchbury), in contrast, trace their lineages back to Jorn Utzon, the Danish architect of the Sydney Opera House, which was completed in 1973, and make houses that are like hand-crafted musical instruments set among the eucalyptus trees of Sydney's lush hinterland.

Melbourne lacks the blessings of Sydney's ravishing natural landscape and warm climate. This underlies the Melbournian belief that an enriching environment is not given by nature but rather must be fashioned by man. An intellectually adventurous urban culture is the result, fueled by earnest conversations in hidden back-alley bars. Notions of beauty are up for grabs as the diverse aesthetic languages of a multicultural suburban population are reworked into eclectic combinations that often jar rather than soothe. The colorful kitsch of Peter Corrigan's buildings and the tortured forms of Ashton Raggatt McDougall's works are characteristically Melbourne. Complexity trumps simplicity; the difficult is valued over the easy. These qualities can be found in Federation Square, the city's new urban heart, designed by Peter Davidson and Donald Bates using geometries borrowed from advanced mathematics.

In Brisbane and other settlements in Australia's warm, wet north, architects are exploring how far the boundaries between inside and outside can be erased, creating a subtropical architecture of platforms, broad roofs and lattices. The work of these architects (Brit Andresen, Donovan Hill and Troppo Architects springs to mind), resembling nests more than boxes.

While Japan might just be discovering the talents of Australian architects, their work has not gone unnoticed elsewhere. The Water Cube — the new swimming center for the Beijing Olympics — with its extraordinary bubbles-in-an-inverted-fishtank design, was designed by the Sydney firm Peddle Thorp and Walker.

Julian Worrall is an Australian architect and assistant professor of architecture and urban studies in the School of International Liberal Studies at Tokyo's Waseda University.

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