The other day I visited an exhibition in the lobby of one of Sydney’s finest office towers, Australia Square. Completed in 1967, it’s the work of Sydney’s most cherished C20th architect, Harry Seidler, and the exhibition was about his collaboration with one of the world’s best engineers, Pier Luigi Nervi, whose sports halls for the 1960 Rome Olympics had shown just how elegant concrete buildings could be. I’ve been in the lobby of this building several times and, as usual, I was struck by how beautifully the ceiling radiates out from the central core of the building and how gracefully the windows touch it. The original Le Corbusier tapestry that faced the entrance was replaced in 2003 by a mural by Sol LeWitt, a band of rich colour that further emphasises the glorious circular space. Even if I had no interest in architecture I am sure I would still be impressed by this place. Being held within a circle is kind of fun, after all.
Afterwards, I tried to remember which was the first building that made me want to learn more about architecture. I couldn’t remember. Instead my mind trailed through a whole host of buildings that had made an impression on me when I was a child. I don’t mean the places I saw in books but the buildings I actually walked into, the ones I was familiar with. As I ran through them in my mind, I realised it was a pretty broad selection. There was the beautiful Norman church where I sang in the choir (angelic little boy that I was), an assortment of traditional cottages, and the various houses, old and new, that my family and grandparents lived in. One friend inhabited a ramshackle sixteenth-century manor house, so sprawling that they had empty rooms they couldn’t afford to furnish. Another lived in a tiny Victorian terraced house, complete with ‘best room’ at the front and a dark scullery kitchen where washing hung from a rack suspended from the ceiling. Add to that the various stately homes and castles we visited on family jaunts and it’s safe to say that, by the age of ten, I’d already had quite a good architectural education, almost by default.
That got me thinking about how we learn about buildings. Who teaches us about architecture? At school we occasionally touched on buildings but only in oblique ways – Roman villas built around a courtyard, the motte-and-bailey of Norman castles, the great hall of medieval villages and the half-timbered houses cantilevered over city streets. I don’t think we ever touched on the difference between Classical and Gothic buildings, or why skyscrapers could be built so tall. It was left to me to work that out.
Even if you think you’re not interested in buildings, you can’t help experiencing them, and the more you travel, the greater variety you experience. Every town and every street is an education. Everyone’s experience is different. If I’d grown up in Australia then maybe I wouldn’t have been familiar with so many old buildings but I’m certain my interest would have been piqued by the imposing Victorian government buildings and different sorts of housing. Simply being around buildings is an act of learning. You develop favourites. If you look up then you will usually find a detail that will charm you.
It seems, in many ways, incredible that we are not taught about architecture when it affects so much of our lives, from the homes we grow up in to the buildings we work in. How amazing it is that we simply inhabit what we are given. It’s natural that we develop an opinion of them, whether it’s a dislike of tiled floors or a love of concrete. A lucky few get to design their own living space, but as TV’s Grand Designs has amply demonstrated, that’s rarely a smooth road.
Before I moved to Sydney in the late 1990s, I ran a couple of evening classes in Brixton on the history of modern Western architecture. This was before Google and Powerpoint and I had to borrow slides from the Architectural Association and supplement them with my own slides. That meant I had to race around London taking photos of relevant buildings, everything from the first public housing blocks of the 1890s to the new towers rising in the docklands area. Every week was a different decade and the people who attended were from all walks of life, young and old. Some knew nothing, a couple worked in local planning, but Monday evenings became a lovely, lively two hours as the group of fifteen shared thoughts and impressions. The best moments were seeing people’s eyes light up when I showed a building they’d never seen before, or when we talked about the pros and cons of brick.
In an ideal world, I’d love it if architectural history was taught in schools, even at the most basic level. The only question would be: why? Why does it look that way? Why do some buildings work and others don’t? Why use those materials? It might help us to understand that architecture is about all buildings, not just the ones by famous architects. It’s about the house next door and around the corner, the shopping strip, the new school. Maybe this is wishful thinking but surely, as informed citizens, we might then start to demand something better of the built environment. It may stop builders from constructing houses that don’t address local climatic conditions, and to always address noise and privacy and all the other things that should be non-negotiable. In the end, we might have a built environment that is still gorgeously muddled and interesting, but with suburbs and towns and streets that showcase different ideas rather than a mindless repetition of whatever everyone else is building. That muddle is a treasure trove. It’s what drew me to architecture in the first place, after all.
Who or what taught you about architecture?