Today the term ‘organic’ surrounds us. A 21st century consumer would find it difficult to imagine a material world without it for it has become a marker of a consumer saintliness - a purity that points to a high-end, eco-friendly, guilt-free consumption sensibility and like an advanced yoga asana - something to aspire to, difficult to attain, but worth the extra time and effort. However, use of the term in the 50s, 60s or even the 70s threw up very different meanings indicative of the lunatic fringe, of the offbeat alternative and was certainly not a term used in conjunction with the built environment - unless of course you were speaking of yurts, geodesic domes or mud-brick houses.
However in the 50s and 60s there was a group of young Australian architects who were indeed very happy to use the term. Their work was inspired by the ‘organic functionalism’ of Frank Lloyd Wright and together, consciously or unconsciously, their modernist design philosophies can be loosely described as comprising the Sydney School of architecture. The story of how these young architects interpreted Wright’s utopian regionalism by placing them quietly within an Australian context is a remarkable one, not only for the fact that their story has remained such a secret, but also for the fact that for the first time in the modern era there emerged an urban design philosophy that was entirely appropriate for the Australian landscape. Harvard Professor Elizabeth Mossop, speaking at the University of Adelaide in 2002, described the emergence of the Sydney School as a, ‘yearning for a simpler life and a closer relationship with nature . . . a kind of urban adaptation of the great Australian myths of the outback and life in the bush.’ Robyn Boyd, writing in 1967, talked of a ‘grassroots movement,’ of ‘enlightened eclecticism... a tamed romantic kind of brutalism,’ describing the Sydney School as ‘the nearest thing to a regional style seen in this country for more than a century.’
The emergence of the Sydney School came at a time when the very fabric of Australia’s response to a rapidly changing world was being hauled and stretched across an inert and as yet unengaged cultural landscape. From sleepy colonial outpost to worldly modern metropolis is a fascinating story in itself, but the Australian architectural journey of the 20th century, like Australian history generally, with its fits and trepidations, was found not to be driven by any ideological concerns of great consequence, but rather through an enduring colonial umbilicus to Mother England. During the perilous period between the fall of Singapore in 1942 and the eventual atomic victory of the Americans over Japan in 1945, Australians were forced to face up to the sometimes dangerous complexity of a modern world that had little regard for those who clung to the past. Indelibly changed, Australia in the 1950s thus embarked upon the sometimes arduous journey of learning how to respond to the larger stream of world events with a new intelligence.
However change did not come overnight. Australian architectural history, for instance, proved to be one of reluctance, of fitful adaptation rather than of considered regional solutions. A pervasive spirit of pragmatic philistinism was deeply felt by a war-weary generation who, having just begun the confusing process of uncoupling itself from the certainty of mother England, would find the new cultural definitions emanating from the victory-confident United States difficult to digest. That small minority, who might have held the expectation that substantive change might come swiftly, misunderstood the entrenched cultural forces at work, for those who clung to the passing fiction of British hegemony spoke not of a unique Australian response to landscape, but rather an unimaginative urbanism straight out of a British pattern book. Consequently, the post-World War 2 Australian suburb was to be row after row of monotonous and austere fibro bungalows that not only looked very much like the army camp set up to resist the defeated WW2 invader, but ones that were utterly inappropriate for the Australian landscape and climate. Elizabeth Mossop makes the point: ‘The imported traditions of the British Empire did not offer the material from which to draw a new way of designing the landscape because of the inability of that tradition to engage with the indigenous landscapes of Australia.’
However by the 1950s other forces were at work - leisure time was steadily increasing and the standard of living was rising - white goods, automobiles, rock and roll - the promise of a modern technological lifestyle seemed out of step with the seemingly habitual government impulse to impose what very much resembled the wartime rationing of the previous decade. In her 2007 book, Iconic Australian Houses: 50/60/70 - Three Decades of Domestic Architecture, Karen McCartney describes Sydney Ancher’s 1946 attempt to build a flat-roofed house on North Curl Curl headland. Describing it as, ‘an affront to decency,’ Warringah Council’s objection demonstrated a moral conservatism that echoed the same pernicious squabble that raged over swimsuits on the beach at Manly in the nineteenth century. That they felt it their domain to decide the moral and aesthetic conditions under which Australians should live, demonstrated not only the deep-seated paternalism still prevalent in Australian life at mid-century, but also uncovered an urban population complicit in its willingness to cede authority to a banal and unimaginative municipal governance.
However, the young Sydney School architects like Bruce Rickard, Ian McKay, Ross Thorne, Terry Dorrough, Russell Jack and Peter Muller - with all their many and varied influences - began to express a very different aesthetic to urban Australians. Their philosophies of design and place represented a solution to the fear and angst of the war years by expressing what Elizabeth Mossop points to as their belief in, ‘the healing and restorative effects of the natural landscape.’
For this new breed of Australian architect, ‘the solution was not the total re-creation of a naturalistic landscape, but an evocation of its essential qualities.’
By the early 60s the Sydney School were transmitting a new and exciting set of aesthetic possibilities for living within, rather than against, their unique landscape. By simply exploiting the building site’s ‘genus loci’ and by using indigenous materials, a truly appropriate site-specific regional architecture was, they said, not only possible, but also preferable.
However, their rather romantic notions about the kind of architecture suitable for the Australian landscape would not be enough, for design is not just emotional, it must also prove functional. Peter Muller’s 1953 Audette House in Castlecrag, along with his own ground-breaking 1955 house at Whale Beach, were early examples of possibilities ‘organic functionalism’. These wonderful buildings, set amongst the ancient sandstone and angophoras typical of the Sydney region, represent some of the first conscious attempts to create an ‘organic’ union between domestic structure and setting. Flat roofed with projecting horizontal lines intersecting harmoniously with the surrounding bush and rock platforms not only exposed Muller’s Japanese minimalist influences, but also his intention to build for, rather than in spite of, the striking bushland sites. Although it is a bit of a stretch to claim that these early Muller houses represented a conscious attempt to create an Australian regional style, they certainly did demonstrate a denial of destructive technological solutions concerning the difficulties of site. The overt use of natural materials coupled with the almost complete absence of unnecessary site clearing points very much to what architectural historian Steve Woolard has claimed was ‘a complementary balance between shelter and site’ - one that allowed the site to ‘dictate’ the building’s form rather than the reverse.
Frank Lloyd Wright once told his readers, ‘the citizen, properly citified, is a slave to the herd instinct and vicarious power as the medieval laborer.’ Following his lead and perhaps echoing an escapist sensibility in the 1950s, Muller, McKay, Rickard, Jack and the others began to design and build with a primitive, almost religious spirit that that echoed the regional utopianism of Walter Burley-Griffin. Decades earlier, out upon the wooded sandstone bluffs of Castlecrag, one-time Wright disciple Burley-Griffin had built around 15 ‘organic’ dwellings of local sandstone and timber, many of which still stand today. By the late 1950s and early 1960s the emerging Sydney School had begun to express an architectural regionalism that was, according to Robert Irving, ‘a backlash against the technological buildings that were altering the inner cities.’ Milo Dunphy describes Bruce Rickard’s 1963 stone and timber house at Warrawee as being, ‘simply and sensitively related to the bushland... [and] a mature solution of a problem to which the automatic response fifty years ago was to lay bare the site and plant European trees.’ Ross Thorne relates the tale of a house he built on a rocky outcrop amongst the scribbly gums at Castlecove in 1960 as a ‘naive attempt to “improve” design standards’ that had no effect on the houses subsequently built in the same street. ‘They excavated, bulldozed the trees, built boxy bright coloured houses that made no consideration for the distinctive site, and brought in truckloads of imported soil to level out new gardens of exotic trees and flowers.’
Today one only has to experience the enormous metropolitan complexity of Sydney to understand the sheer naivety and folly of such a romantic design philosophy as expressed by the Sydney School. As a portal to the rest of the world, as a complicated 24-hour cultural transmitter, Sydney serves many functions and resists vehemently those definitions that seek to pin it down in singularity. Of the many stories that make up the architectural and cultural history of Sydney, the Sydney School is just one of the many competing narratives that have had to elbow and jostle for a place in its history. Not only did those idealistic young architects do battle with a deeply entrenched design conservatism, they even fended off the scorn of leaders of their own profession. Harry Seidler asked, rather cuttingly at the time: ‘Does not this [organic] architecture seem rather weak, subservient and not very proud of itself?’ And although such a comment is understandable historically, for by the 1950s modern architecture had split into two distinct schools— one being the International School influenced by Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, the other the ‘organic’ school driven by Frank Lloyd Wright– it shows just how misunderstood and subversive the Sydney School designs were. Tellingly, Milo Dunphy in 1962, described the Sydney School as a collection of unemployed and unrecognised young architects. ‘It is the ‘Australian Ugliness’ which most frustrates him . . . he makes no complaint about the Australian landscape but loves it as a harmonious and entirely acceptable ingredient and setting for his work.’
But despite all of this, by the 1970s many fine examples of Sydney School architecture had settled successfully into their unique landscape. With some notable exceptions— Ian McKay’s Tocal College in the Hunter region being one stunning example – many of the Sydney School houses were to be found amongst the valleys and plateaus of Northern Sydney. In this primeval landscape the human idea of place is an intuitive one – sensed rather than understood, where the lived experience of summer is filtered through the shrill drone of cicadas, where a searing light promises the primordial likelihood of a marauding bushfire that shapes by destroying, and where in winter, ancient seabeds interrupt projections of fog-obscured sandstone bluffs, where eucalypt-hidden moraines littered with eons of sandstone tumble-downs under and through which secret watercourses follow lichen speckled ravines all trickling and pouring into the blue-green shimmer of the Hawkesbury - and this is where some of the remaining Sydney School houses can still be found today. As an organic, site- sensitive attempt to construct an architecture that spoke to the landscape as if some mutual agreement had been made concerning the transplanted nature of Australian modernism, these unpretentious dwellings stand as monuments to this visionary group of young architects.
Set against the current roaring, transmogrifying excesses of metropolitan Sydney - best exemplified perhaps by a new-urbanist flight back to the city centre, a ‘flight’ that has unknowingly conspired with a development-lead charge to cover everything with poorly built boxes devoid of any complimentary aesthetic or sense of place - the Sydney School experiment lays hidden - a quiet, beautiful victim of its own success.