Architecture

The SA State Library’s exhibition Lust for Lifestyle explores how mid-century Modernist architecture aestheticised the everyday. By Naomi Stead.

Lust for Lifestyle

The Cleland Waterfall Gully house, featured in Lust for Lifestyle: Modern Adelaide Homes 1950-1965.
The Cleland Waterfall Gully house, featured in Lust for Lifestyle: Modern Adelaide Homes 1950-1965.
Credit: State Library of South Australia

What is it about mid-century Modernism? It’s everywhere, and everybody loves it – from Eames chairs to Aalto vases, from Richard Neutra houses to Georg Jensen cutlery, MidMod mania is flourishing even after the Mad Men moment. The influence of social media is surely at play: it’s never been easier for fanciers to find one another and share their enthusiasms. The exhibition Lust for Lifestyle: Modern Adelaide Homes 1950-1965, at the State Library of South Australia, adds to the appreciation.

Co-curated by Adelaide University architecture academic James Curry and librarian Mark Gilbert, the show grows out of the State Library’s archive, which holds a trove of photographs and papers belonging to John Chappel, an architect and commentator prominent in Adelaide across four decades.

Chappel was the architectural correspondent for The Advertiser from 1956 until 1990, and there seems an obvious parallel between him and Robin Boyd, given they were contemporaries and both advocates for Modernist architectural ideas. Chappel dedicated himself to debunking “the long-held fallacy that [Modernist] houses are acceptable only to ‘cranks’ ” and – like Boyd and many others – pondered how new houses could “blend fittingly with the Australian landscape and help to develop an architecture which is not borrowed from another land, but which belongs to our own country, conditions, and time … laying the foundations for an Australian indigenous architecture.”

Boyd’s fame endures while Chappel is largely forgotten, and so the differences between the two are also notable. As a critic, Chappel ain’t no Boyd: his columns haven’t the wit, conviction, personality or the humour of the Victorian, who was, to be fair, an unusually gifted writer. A major contrast is that Chappel was able to parlay his prominence into architectural commissions, particularly for houses for prominent local families. In contrast, Boyd’s writing seems to have had a somewhat deleterious effect on his architectural career. As Philip Goad has noted, Boyd “was described by his professional colleague and erstwhile friend Roy Grounds as a ‘scribbler’ ” – which was intended as an insult.

It is around Boyd – and particularly his indelible association with The Age Small Homes Service – that an orthodox narrative has emerged: that the story of Modernist domestic architecture in Australia is a largely egalitarian one, where the provision of modest and thrifty dwellings for the middle classes was an instrument of social levelling, extending the universalist ideals of European Modernism.

In Adelaide this narrative aligns closely with the work of local heroes Dickson and Platten who, after 1958, produced a wonderful catalogue of buildings in their own distinct version of Modernism, which was influenced by the Scandinavian ethos of Alvar Aalto. Dickson and Platten completed significant public commissions, notably the Arkaba corner hotel and restaurant, and the Adelaide University Union Building. But they also made frugal brick and timber houses which, while they had a richness of space and materiality, were economical in every sense. Newell Platten is quoted in Lust for Lifestyle saying: “We used to watch John Chappel’s clients come in from our front window. They always seemed to arrive in Mercedes-Benzes and ours came in Volkswagens.”

What’s most interesting about Lust for Lifestyle is its complication and extension of earlier, well-accepted narratives. The exhibition features 15 houses designed between 1950 and 1965 (six by Chappel, and the rest by a range of architects, including Peter Muller and Boyd himself). It demonstrates that large, luxurious, even profligate Modernist houses were also being built at this time, some including provision for live-in servants. It shows how these houses meant something quite distinct within the social structure of 1950s and ’60s Adelaide, with its subtle interplay of taste, fashion, prestige and class distinction. At that time, certain local tastemakers, wealthy farmers and captains of industry wanted a Modernist house. The animating question of the exhibition is why?

What results is a show with a surprisingly forthright – if obliquely articulated – political stance, highlighting issues of status, social mobility and domestic labour. The plan of the 1966 Miller House by architect Brian Vogt, for example, is startling – it shows plainly in its parallel corridor design the separate circulation between the family and the “help”, who has a small bedroom next to the kitchen.

Houses like this align less with the socialism at the heart of European Modernism and more with the style’s mass uptake in the tract housing of suburban America – what architectural historian Mark Jarzombek called “good-life Modernism”. Jarzombek describes a style easily identifiable through certain features – the use of natural materials, light construction, integration of indoor and outdoor space, floor-to-ceiling picture windows, separation of private and public functions of the house, and the dramatic prominence of a fireplace often centrally located and built of rustic stone.

These houses were explicitly mass-market commodities – the architecture at one with the modern furniture and appliances within, the whole working to signify comfort, spaciousness, leisure and entertainment. This phenomenon is what cultural theorists call “lifestylisation” – the aestheticisation of everyday life, its styling, via consumer goods understood and displayed as signs of identity and social differentiation.

In many ways this is the subtext of Lust for Lifestyle: Curry speaks of the moment when “citizens” became “consumers”, and of the influence of building material manufacturers as well as popular media in constructing and advertising the “allure of the modern”. It’s a fascinating meditation on when and how architecture became an instrument of such lifestylisation – which today is utterly pervasive.

The exhibition is strongest at this conceptual level, interrogating the histories that we write about architecture and the selective stories that we tell about its meaning. It’s weaker at the level of exhibition design and installation – illustrated primarily with photographs and drawings from Chappel’s archive, it is subject to both the blind spots and limitations of that collection itself. Chappel’s own architectural photographs are technically proficient but rather benumbed – highly stylised black-and-white views, mostly devoid of people or signs of habitation. The curators have sought to counteract this by using more lively, vernacular forms of photography – family photographs and snapshots from the houses’ occupants, alongside contemporary video interviews. And the show is enlivened further by an ambient soundscape – birdsong, the rhythmic hiss of a sprinkler, a stovetop kettle whistling, the music of a garden party.

But it remains a text-heavy presentation that struggles to be a fully spatial and immersive exhibition. The interpretative text is turgid in places, and sadly the archival drawings are all presented as reproductions, which is a loss. From cyanotype blueprints, to hand-drawn ink sketches complete with blurs and smudges, some hand-coloured, some annotated and drawn-over, most on fragile and cracked and sellotaped paper, these drawings would have been engrossing to see as real artefacts.

The exhibition includes full-scale reproductions of newspaper spreads containing Chappel’s commentary. I whiled away a happy hour reading his columns, alongside the 1960s “handyman” advice – how to build a seesaw, how to remove a rusty screw, how to prolong the life of your paintbrush. Likewise the advertisements induced a weird historical estrangement in their exhortations to build with Asbestolite (“fire-retardant, white-ant proof, permanently durable … it improves with age”) and instructions on how to deal with burrowing insects (“a new insecticide, dieldrin, is effective against borers in flooring, furniture, and decorative woodwork”).

In recent years the nation’s state libraries have recognised that architecture can offer a window to larger social and cultural histories. In major, sometimes big-budget shows they have drawn upon their own collections, supplemented with significant new primary material. It’s exciting to see the State Library of SA getting in on the act, with the more modest but highly absorbing Lust for Lifestyle

Lust for Lifestyle: Modern Adelaide Homes 1950-65 is showing at the State Library of South Australia, Adelaide, until June 5.

 

ARTS DIARY

INSTALLATION Van Gogh

The Lume, Melbourne, until June 30

EXHIBITION Making Place: 100 Views of Brisbane

Museum of Brisbane, from March 5

VISUAL ART I Will Tell You My Story

UTS Gallery & Art Collection, Sydney, February 8–April 1

EXHIBITION Pamela and the Duchess: Life on the Last Windjammers

South Australian Maritime Museum, Adelaide, February 13–April 29

VISUAL ART Undertow

Fremantle Arts Centre, until April 25

Last Chance

INSTALLATION A View of Newcastle: Postcards and Panoramas

Lovett Gallery, Newcastle City Library, until February 5

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 5, 2022 as "Domestic ar t".

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Naomi Stead is The Saturday Paper’s architecture critic and a professor at RMIT.

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