Modernism, Austerity and the Queensland Housing Commission, 1945-59

By Hollander, Robyn | Journal of Australian Studies, June 1998 | Go to article overview

Modernism, Austerity and the Queensland Housing Commission, 1945-59


Hollander, Robyn, Journal of Australian Studies


In recent years, the 1950s have attracted renewed scrutiny from historians and political scientists and provided the substance for ongoing debates in the letter pages of newspapers. The arguments have spanned a host of issues from delinquency to domesticity. The physical artefacts of the decade have not escaped this reappraisal; while popular style magazines enthusiastically feature retro interiors, the architecture of the period has been roundly condemned in some quarters. In a particularly scathing attack, columnist Michael Duffy denounced modernist architecture as a `perfidious foreign idea [representing] an attack on the past, on domesticity and on women'.(1) He likened the demise of the `Functionalist shoe box', commonly associated with postwar public housing, to the fall of the Berlin Wall.(2) Moreover, Duffy argued that the abandonment of this `despicable' style in the latter part of the 1950s marked the triumph of popular taste and good sense over cold intellectual elitism.(3)

While Duffy's caricature does not warrant detailed assessment, other commentators have argued over the impact and interpretation of modernist precepts on domestic design in the Australian context. Did the austerity of postwar Australia foster an acceptance of modernist elements or did it merely force modifications to more traditional styles? In part, the debate stems from attempts to provide a definitive national assessment either by dealing with archetypes or by generalising from geographically specific examples. However, through an analysis of the work of the Queensland Housing Commission (QHC), this paper contends that the debate needs to be recast to accommodate regional variation in the interpretation and diffusion of modernist elements. This case study of postwar design in Queensland, where the spread of a developing local vernacular was limited by institutional conservatism and austerity, is a contribution to an elaboration of a more complex picture of acceptance and resistance.

In his landmark Architecture in Australia, Freeland dismisses any authentic connection between the average postwar house and the innovative designs of young architects such as Robin Boyd, Roy Grounds and Harry Seidler.(4) The design simplicity and efficient use of space which characterised their work reflected an effort to make tangible the modernist precepts of `purity, light and progress' and an attempt to connect function with form.(5) While the average house shared modernist trademark elements including an absence of ornamentation, minimal internal circulating space, utilisation of new materials and techniques, and a low pitched roof, their inclusion was motivated by attempts to minimise costs rather than any design philosophy. Without the underlying vision, the house of the 1950s was `an unlovely thing'. The new materials were treated as shoddy imitations of their traditional counterparts, their limitations being concealed beneath cheap paint. The internal layouts, while economical, proved to be impractical and uncomfortable. Without the verandahs, eaves, porches and fireplaces characteristic of earlier Australian dwellings, the 1950s house had, according to Taylor, few redeeming qualities.(6) Freeland saw it as a simple structure which, `because it was handled insensitively ... was utterly sterile'.(7)

While Freeland and Taylor focus on the `typical' dwelling of the period, Pickett searches for evidence of modernist influences on owner builders in New South Wales and finds direct links between the modernist themes propagated by magazines, newspapers and well attended exhibitions and displays and the houses people built themselves on Sydney's suburban fringe. He concludes that modernist design elements found widespread acceptance because they were in accord with the economic constraints of the time. While Pickett rejects the snobbery implicit in Robin Boyd's 1949 observation that the contemporary home builder `tends to do the right things for the wrong reasons', he elaborates the link between austerity and modernism. …

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