The time has come for urban Australia to abandon the British Empire-based bungalow sprawl and follow a more collective European apartment model. By Elizabeth Farrelly.

Boulevard of open dreams

Two elderly women walk through a park in Paris.
The Coulée Verte nature walk in Paris.
Credit: Bernard Annebicque / Sygma via Getty Images

Paris is not a perfect city but it does do a very fine street. In particular, what’s remarkable about the Parisian street is how it manifests power – the tension between the individual and the collective. Somehow, these eight-storey, highly articulated and gloriously tree-lined corridors manage to both dignify and dominate the pedestrian, embracing the individual while insisting the collective wins.

This tension between the one and the many is democracy’s defining dialectic. All cultures choose different points along that spectrum. Paris, for instance, has had a socialist mayor for almost the past decade. Anne Hidalgo has energetically promoted walking and cycling, limited car dependency and improved air quality. These achievements, and the collectivist views that underpin them, are significant – but they’re not what makes these streets extraordinary. That balance of freedom and oppression is built into the very fabric of the city.

After the February Revolution of 1848, when Napoleon III’s Baron Haussmann ruthlessly bulldozed boulevards through the city’s huddled mediaeval structures, the motive was both to “clean up” the dingy city and to create straight shooting lines against the sans-culottes, or lower classes. Despite these authoritarian origins, however, the eight-storey Parisian street has become the ideal of walkable, lovable urban density.

So I wonder whether there is, after all, a link between these inimitable streets and an enduring tradition of intellectual socialism that has long given the collective its due. We often say, “We get the cities we deserve.” It feels somehow ominous: we’ve been thoughtless and greedy, so we get climate-destroying sprawl, that kind of thing. While there’s truth in that, perhaps there’s also a deeper way to understand the relationship between city form and world view.

Any city is an agglomeration of countless individual units. Separately, these units may seem no more morally resonant than a lifestyle choice. Villa or terrace, flat or house. How these units come together, in their thousands and millions, and what happens when they do, has huge ramifications for our psyches, our health, our power relationships and our planetary future. So perhaps the design of them warrants a moment’s thought.

Consider three typical dwelling-types: the European apartment, the London terrace house and the American bungalow. Compare those formal, eight-storey Parisian boulevards with the typical, two-storey, higgledy-piggledy, dogleg English high street, and then with the North American high-rise core surrounded by a spreading suburban mat of separate in-the-round houses, each on its grassy quarter-acre, serviced by black box malls set on expanses of asphalt. What do the differences between these three contrasting patterns say about us, about how we see ourselves as parts of a whole?

Let’s focus on Paris. In France, as throughout much of Europe, the aristocracy was traditionally urban, housing itself in splendid hôtels, or conjoined street-front palaces, often arranged around sequential squares and courts. In England, by contrast, the long and affluent peace of the Elizabethan era enabled the nobility to decamp to the countryside. There, assisted by architects such as Robert Smythson, they built the gloriously glassy Palladian mansions such as Hardwick Hall, Wollaton Hall and Longleat that, collectively, became known as the English renaissance.

In France, an urban aristocracy made urban living glamorous, even aspirational, so that, with the rise of the mercantile city in the 18th and 19th centuries, the hôtel was gradually superseded by the seven- or eight-storey baroque-fronted apartment house. Aspiration being what it is, these apartment houses, like those of architect César Daly (1811-94), were nevertheless designed to resemble those earlier urban palaces, thus forming the grand and unified facades of Haussmann’s Paris.

In England, meanwhile, the countrified nobility tended still to maintain a London townhouse. In 1630, on land vacated by the trashing of the monasteries, a young earl, Francis Russell, commissioned Inigo Jones to design a series of four-storey townhouses that became Covent Garden. These houses were modelled on the lovely Place des Vosges in Paris, which in turn emulated Palladio’s 1542 Palazzo Thiene in Vicenza, but with one critical difference: although articulated horizontally, with a grand first-floor piano nobile for reception, and servants’ quarters in the attic, Jones’s houses were subdivided vertically, into terraces.

These houses became prototypes. The series of London building acts that followed the Great Fire of 1666, and later evolved into Sydney’s first building legislation, banned balconies and timber windows, required pronounced party walls, thus creating the Georgian idiom, and established numerical ratios between house height and width and street-width. This elegant model could be scaled up or down according to wealth: one or two storeys and as little as 2.7m wide on narrow lanes, and perhaps five or six storeys in Belgravia – and three or four in Woollahra or Carlton. It could also accommodate ground-floor shops, to form high streets.

Thus, bourgeois French cities remade themselves as three-dimensional matrixes of apartments, often arranged around a shared but private courtyard, while England made neighbourhoods and high streets from serried terraces, sliced vertically like sushi rolls. To live surrounded, above and below, by your fellow citizens is a whole different experience from a narrow, tubular house with its own individual piece of ground and sky.

Whether this difference was cause or effect of cultural differences – France’s rationalist collectivism versus the empirical and pragmatic individualism of Anglo cultures – is moot.

Certainly a kind of socialism can be seen as implied by Cartesian geometry, with its infinite plane of equal points – quite different from the piecemeal, pragmatic and property-loving philosophy of John Locke, so deeply ingrained in English-speaking cultures and politics. But with Empire, this shift to expedient individualism went further. The bungalow both emerged from Empire, in India, and became its instrument, in colonising America, Australia and New Zealand.

The term derives from banggolo, a Bengali thatched hut as discovered by the 17th-century East India Company. According to Rudyard Kipling’s father, John, “the name and the thatch were all we took”. In its form and presumption, the bungalow combined the Anglo–Indian officer’s tent, a platformed rectangle of some 700sqm, with the all-too-human yearning for permanent leisure.

Based on the English belief that privilege implied a spreading country house as a personal Eden from which no neighbour was ever visible, Britain’s first bungalows were designed as seaside escapes. Then, as the instrument of Empire, the bungalow acquired the quarter-acre expectation that, even now with far smaller plot sizes, makes suburbia the most expensive mass housing ever invented.

Where does all this point? For more than a century Australian cities have rampaged headlong down the American path of bungalow-based sprawl. That’s why even now, in building apartments, we follow the atomised model – the bungalow stretched tall. Yet most of our cities have the sliced London terrace in their early DNA, as reflected in a recent business-based call to build “30 more Surry Hills” in Sydney. Better still, we could take the terrace to four or five apartment-filled storeys, and create for ourselves a more collective, light-drenched, zero-carbon model. Why not?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 9, 2023 as "Boulevard of open dreams".

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