Architecture in Australia: A Texas Counterpart

When I was a boy in Houston, I was told that a hole dug deep enough straight through the center of the earth from Texas would eventually reach China. It was a lie. The other side of the world is actually Australia-a place which bears some striking and even uncanny environmental similarities to Texas, its geographic counterpart half-way around the globe.

The international stereotype of both Texas and Australia conjures images of endless wide-open spaces dotted in one instance with longhorns, jackrabbits and cowboys and in the other with kangaroos, dingoes and sandgroppers. Both places can easily prove such popular myths in isolated spots, but currently are better epitomized by brash, dynamic cities with sprawling green suburbs. In the universalized 20th century, Texas and Australia retain a strong and tantalizing imagability which is a complex confluence of frontier toughness and intemperate progress. Their parallel but independent formulation of so many environmental similarities suggests a near inevitability of character drawn from kindred climates, geographies, periods of growth and economic influences. A quick comparison of their environmental development both affirms and brings into question current environmental directions in each place.

When the first major influx of colonists came to Texas in the 1820s, the British had just begun widespread settlement in Australia, founding four of the six capital cities in the period 1825-1836. Both Texas and Australia began as farm country, the richest, most fertile land being claimed first. The climates were similar. (Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth cluster from east to west around 30-35 degrees south latitude in much the same way that Houston, Dallas/ Ft. Worth, Austin, San Antonio and EI Paso are strung along similar north latitudes.) Temperature, rainfall and fertility of land varied widely within each region, and settlement distribution was checkered to match.

The colonists’ first structures in both places were primitive timber cabins or stone huts built from available materials and fashioned with crude frontier craftsmanship. Simple gabled roofs sheltered plain boxes which contained one or two rooms, a door, a fireplace and a few small windows. It did not take the Yankee settlers in Texas or the British colonists in Australia long, however, to embellish the building prototypes which they had brought from their more temperate climates with extensive, deep porches to protect against the hot sun. The dominant “front” porch in Texas was occasionally utilized in Australia, but a complete wrap-around verandah providing outdoor shady areas on all sides of the house was more common. Open central halls sometimes cut through the houses, providing an additional place to catch some shade and breeze, as in the familiar Texas “dog-run.”

By the mid-19th century, growth of population in both Texas and Australia spread settlement to less fertile areas with lower rainfall where self-sufficient farming was impossible. The independent homestead producing a wide variety of crops and animal products to meet all its inhabitants’ needs was replaced by extensive cropping and grazing. In Texas, cotton and cattle became the mainstays of progressively larger farms and ranches. In Australia, it was wheat and sheep which formed the economic backbone of station life. The introduction of mechanized transport facilitated specialization, and the locations, sizes and layouts of towns and cities came to reflect the impact of railroads and the commerce which they nourished.

Country towns flourished as collection and distribution points serving large districts. A straightforward street architecture developed in both places, consisting of simple building volumes with deep front porches, once again, as the major embellishment. Broad, lively main streets bustled with Saturday business from farm families. The continuous verandahs on either side became shady spots for meeting “neighbors” or just watching the passing parade.

As farms, ranches and stations prospered, homesteads and towns came to reflect a greater affluence. The occasional pure examples of architectural “styles” which had been imported early on- not only by Anglo-Saxon colonists, but also by the Germans, Spanish, Dutch and French – were now combined with the more common and pragmatic local vernacular to make new hybrid buildings. A Georgian derivative (Greek Revival) was popular in both Texas and Australia from 1840 to 1870, probably because of its adaptability to porch forms and its ease of simplification. Tudor and Gothic sources were also common in Australia during the same period.

After 1870, the flamboyance of Victorian architecture found a natural home in each place. The opulent Werribee Park near Melbourne crowned an estate that could have been the set for Giant except that sheep filled its paddocks rather than cattle. Rich, earthy colors, exotic patterns and textures and unbridled eclecticism characterized preference in both places. Richardsonian Romanesque with its robust solidity and playful exuberance was particularly popular for public buildings. Queen Anne was favored for residential work. Towers, turrets, ornate eaves and, of course, highly decorated porches encased complex, articulated plans.

Outstanding local architects emerged as leaders in their regions – Edmund Blackett and George Temple Poole in Australia; J. Reily Gordon, Alfred Giles, and Nicholas Clayton in Texas. Affluent and stylish living became more common not only among the older cattle and sheep barons, but also among newer mineral-rich families who reaped profits from the Australian gold discoveries in Victoria and Kalgoorlie and from the Texas oil boom. Entire districts of late and belated Victoriana developed in Galveston, Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio, as well as in Bendigo, Melbourne and Sydney.

The early 20th century saw a return to a greater purity of style in both Texas and Australia. A revived classicism produced the similarly ornate Scottish Rite Cathedral in Dallas of 1914 and the Town Hall in York, Western Australia, of 1911. Spanish revivals with red tile roofs and local buff colored stone were deemed appropriate both for the University of Texas campus in Austin beginning in 1908 and for the University of Western Australia campus near Perth beginning in 1914. But revivalism had lost much of its energy, and by the 1920s new ideas had emerged on a global scale which began to influence building even in the Texan and Australian hinterlands.

The 1912 international competition for a city plan for Canberra had been won by Chicagoan Walter Burley Griffin, a young and enthusiastic disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright. His architectural practice in Australia, beginning in 1914, introduced a modified Prairie Style which had immediate impact. Similarly, architects such as Trost and Trost in EI Paso brought the idiom of Wright fairly literally to Texas as illustrated by the Trost House of 1908. The original, intact imports of Wright’s style were modified freely. Their deep eaves, low-pitched roofs, horizontal lines and organic massing were fully integrated into local vocabularies.

But it was perhaps the work of Californians Charles and Henry Greene which had the most impact on residential building in Texas and Australia in the ’20s and ’30s. The popular bungalow style dominated residential building, particularly in moderate and lower price ranges. Its exposed wood framing used as minimal ornamentation, its loose asymmetrical composition and, of course, its ubiquitous overhangs and porches were all natural solutions for both climate and lifestyle. Australian versions incorporated local preferences for red brick, whimsical white trim and tile or metal roofs. Texas versions favored narrow clapboard siding with occasional brick piers or posts, classicized wood trim and shingle roofs.

The period between the wars was a time of significant expansion for both Texas and Australia. Sizable towns turned into real cities. Communication and transportation links unified disperse districts. Pride and identity evoked an impulse toward independence and assertiveness. An indigenous architecture began to be identified and pursued in both places. Architects such as Walter Burley Griffin in Australia and David R. Williams and O’Neil Ford in Texas sought a conscious expression of local climate, landscape and building tradition in their work. A great many other buildings were produced by now-forgotten firms which incorporated bits and pieces of pioneer simplicity, pragmatic sensibility, Georgian grace, Victorian flamboyance, organic freedom and bungalow modesty into what could be broadly identified as 20th century Texan and Australian vernaculars. Unlike their more self-consciously regional counterparts of the same period, they are without identifiable style, even in individual parts. They are original, sensible and, perhaps, ordinary. They exude a quiet sense of place and a sort of timeless amicability with their surroundings.

Since World War II, building in both Texas and Australia has responded to phenomenal growth. Each has doubled in population since 1945, reaching roughly 13 million in 1978. The growth in urban centers has been even more striking. In Australia, the most rapidly urbanizing country in the world, 85 percent of the people now live in cities. In Texas, the most rapidly urbanizing state in the United States, 80 percent of the population are urban dwellers. The population of Sydney now bests Dallas/ Ft. Worth by only a few hundred thousand. Melbourne and Houston run neck-and-neck, while Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth are reasonable matches in size for San Antonio, EI Paso and Austin. Even among secondary cities the parallel continues with Canberra similar in size to Corpus Christi, Wollongong to Lubbock, Newcastle to Amarillo and Hobart to Beaumont.

Love affairs with the car and the single-family house prevail in all Texan and Australian cities, producing interminable sprawling suburbs which engulf bustling, tower-filled downtowns. The influence of international modernism is strongly felt. Mechanical air-conditioning, high technology and an image of sleek, clean perfection have transformed the hot rugged prairies into modern metropolises.

Texas, in particular, has responded strongly to the forms of modern architecture and has even invited some of its leading lights (Wright, Mies, Johnson, Kahn, SOM, etc.) to build here. Due in part to an initially abundant presence of cheap energy, logical considerations of local climate, geography and traditions largely have been surmounted by seductive nation al and international movements. The dominant trend has been to ignore regional conditions.

Australia also has espoused modernism enthusiastically, but a hard-headed Aussie individualism has compelled a constant questioning of both its credos and forms. What has been adopted, by and large, is a modified modernism adjusted to local conditions and, to some extent, integrated into longstanding traditions. The thin-skinned glass box never has been accepted intact for Australian skylines. The desire for sensible and visible sun control could not be compromised that far.

Virtually every tall building in Australian cities exhibits some overt consciousness of the sun. John Andrews’ King George Tower in Sydney is encased in a shroud of tinted solar screens. Mc Connel, Smith and Johnson’s Law Court Building in the same city uses recesses and awnings. And both systems are varied according to orientation. Cameron, Chisholm and Nichol’s Allendale Square in Perth is stepped in plan to avoid east-or west-facing windows altogether. Even Harry Seidler, perhaps the most doctrinaire modernist practicing in Australia, balances structural and sculptural expression with practical quantities and placement of glass.

Concessions to local conditions are common in high-rise Australian office buildings – a genre which itself is a product of international modernism. In more longstanding and tradition al building types, regional considerations wield even more influence. John Andrews’ student housing near Canberra, for example, recalls common 19th century porch construction in its curved, corrugated roof shapes. The adjacent Cameron Park in Belconnen Town Center, also by Andrews, is encased in modernized loggias and verandahs similar in function to those attached to the earliest Australian town building.

More literal interpretations of tradition exist as well. Gus Ferguson’s Murdock University campus outside Perth has the feel of a bush farm with stark, simple shapes and colors that are reminiscent of local shearing sheds. The Guild Building (student union) at nearby University of Western Australia by the same architect recalls 19th century pubs In its deep, double-decker porches, but alludes to the Victoriana of an adjacent landmark house in its decorated eaves and to the Mediterranean revival of earlier campus buildings in its red tile roof.

Continuity with appropriate and well developed traditions relating to climate, landforms and history are by no means universal among new buildings in Australia, but they are common. Similar gestures in Texas to an equally rich and sophisticated regional background exist, but are not as common. They have played a bit part to the overwhelming lead of national and international trends of style. Perhaps there is a lesson to be relearned from our own past and from both the past and present of our counterpart down-under. Design trends and awareness in building can be convincingly assimilated into an evolving vernacular architecture. New buildings can continue to draw, through all eras, on an appropriate sense of place. Herein lies the basis for continuity and intrinsic quality in the built environment.

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