thirst for lifestyle | The Saturday newspaper
What about mid-century modernism? It’s everywhere, and everyone loves it – from Eames chairs to Aalto vases, from Richard Neutra houses to Georg Jensen cutlery, the MidMod mania is flourishing even after the Mad Men moment. The influence of social media is surely at stake: it has never been easier for enthusiasts to find each other and share their enthusiasms. The exhibition Thirst for lifestyle: Modern Adelaide homes 1950-1965at the State Library of South Australia, adds to the appreciation.
Co-curated by University of Adelaide architecture scholar James Curry and librarian Mark Gilbert, the exhibition comes from the archives of the State Library, which contains a wealth of photographs and papers belonging to to John Chappel, a leading architect and commentator in Adelaide for four decades.
Chappel was the architectural correspondent of The advertiser from 1956 to 1990, and there seems to be a clear parallel between him and Robin Boyd, given that they were contemporaries and both advocates of modernist architectural ideas. Chappel has dedicated himself to demystifying “the longstanding error that [Modernist] the houses are only acceptable to ‘nuts'” and – like Boyd and many others – thought about how the new houses could “blend appropriately with the Australian landscape and help develop architecture that does not is not borrowed from another country, but belongs to our own country”. , conditions and time…laying the foundations of an Australian indigenous architecture.
Boyd’s fame lives on while Chappel is largely forgotten, so the differences between the two are also notable. As a critic, Chappel is no Boyd: his chronicles lack the wit, conviction, personality or humor of the Victorian, who was, to be honest, an exceptionally gifted writer. A major contrast is that Chappel was able to parlay his notoriety into architectural commissions, particularly for the houses of prominent local families. By contrast, Boyd’s writing seems to have had a somewhat deleterious effect on his career as an architect. As noted by Philip Goad, Boyd “was described by fellow professional and erstwhile friend Roy Grounds as a ‘doodler'” – which was meant to be an insult.
It’s about Boyd – and in particular his indelible association with age Small Homes Service – that an orthodox narrative has emerged: that the history of modernist domestic architecture in Australia is a largely egalitarian history, where the provision of modest, low-cost housing to 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 magnificent catalog of buildings in their own distinct version of modernism, influenced by the Scandinavian ethos of Alvar Aalto. Dickson and Platten completed major public commissions, including the Arkaba Hotel and Corner Restaurant and the University of Adelaide Union Building. But they also made frugal houses of brick and wood which, although they had a wealth of space and materiality, were economical in every way. Newell Platten is quoted in Thirst for lifestyle saying, “We used to watch John Chappel customers come in through our window. They always seemed to come in Mercedes-Benz and ours came in Volkswagen.
What’s most interesting Thirst for lifestyle is its complication and extension of well-accepted earlier 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). This demonstrates that large, luxurious, even debauched, modernist houses were also being built at this time, some including provisions for live-in servants. It shows how these houses meant something quite distinct in Adelaide’s social structure of the 1950s and 1960s, with its subtle interplay of taste, fashion, prestige and class distinction. At that time, some local tastemakers, wealthy farmers, and captains of industry wanted a modernist home. The animating question of the exhibition is Why?
The result is a show with a surprisingly frank – albeit obliquely articulated – political stance, highlighting issues of status, social mobility and domestic work. The 1966 Miller House plan by architect Brian Vogt, for example, is surprising – it clearly shows in its parallel hallway design the separate circulation between the family and the “helper”, who has a small bedroom next to it. from the kitchen.
Houses like this align less with the socialism at the heart of European modernism and more with the style’s mass adoption in American suburban housing – what architectural historian Mark Jarzombek has called “modernism of the good life”. Jarzombek describes a style that is easily identifiable through certain characteristics – the use of natural materials, the lightweight construction, the integration of interior and exterior space, the floor-to-ceiling glass windows, the separation of the private and public functions of the home and the dramatic prominence of a fireplace often centrally located and constructed of rustic stone.
These homes were explicitly mass consumer products – the architecture was one with the modern furnishings and appliances within, all working to mean comfort, space, leisure and entertainment. This phenomenon is what cultural theorists call “lifestylization” – the aestheticization of everyday life, its stylingvia consumer goods understood and displayed as signs of identity and social differentiation.
In many ways it is the subtext of Thirst for lifestyle: Curry talks about when ‘citizens’ became ‘consumers’, and the influence of building material manufacturers and popular media in building and advertising ‘the appeal of the modern’. It’s a fascinating meditation on when and how architecture became an instrument of such a stylization of life – which today is totally ubiquitous.
The exhibition is strongest at this conceptual level, interrogating the stories we write about architecture and the selective stories we tell about its meaning. It is weaker in the design and installation of the exhibition – illustrated mostly with photographs and drawings from the Chappel archives, it is subject to both the blind spots and the limitations of this collection itself. Chappel’s own architectural photographs are technically proficient but rather numb – highly stylized black-and-white views, mostly devoid of people or signs of habitation. Curators have sought to counteract this by using more vivid, vernacular forms of photography – family photographs and snapshots of house occupants, as well as contemporary video interviews. And the show is further enlivened by an ambient soundscape – the chirping of birds, the rhythmic whistle of a sprinkler, the hiss of a kettle on the stove, the music of a garden party.
But it remains a very textual presentation that struggles to be a totally spatial and immersive exhibition. The interpretive text is turgid in places, and unfortunately the archival drawings are all presented as reproductions, which is a waste. From cyanotype outlines to hand-drawn ink sketches with blurs and smudges, some hand-colored, others annotated and drawn, most on flimsy and cracked and taped paper, these drawings would have been captivating to see as real artifacts.
The exhibit includes life-size reproductions of newspaper pages containing Chappel’s commentary. I spent a good hour reading his columns, as well as 1960s “do-it-yourselfer” advice – how to build a seesaw, how to remove a rusty screw, how to prolong the life of your brush. Similarly, the advertisements have induced historical oddity in their exhortations to build with asbestolite (“fire retardant, white ant proof, permanently durable…it gets better 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, state libraries across the country have recognized that architecture can provide a window into larger social and cultural histories. In major, sometimes big-budget shows, they drew on their own collections, supplemented with important new primary material. It’s exciting to see the State Library of SA get in on the act, with the most modest but very absorbing Thirst for lifestyle.
Thirst for lifestyle: Modern Adelaide homes 1950-65 is on view at the State Library of South Australia, Adelaide, until June 5.
INSTALLATION Van Gogh
The Lume, Melbourne, until June 30
EXPOSURE Making Place: 100 views of Brisbane
Brisbane Museum, from March 5
VISUAL ART I will tell you my story
UTS Gallery & Art Collection, Sydney, February 8 to April 1
EXPOSURE Pamela and the Duchess: life on the last windjammers
South Australian Maritime Museum, Adelaide, February 13 to April 29
VISUAL ART Reflux
Fremantle Arts Centre, until April 25
INSTALLATION A view of Newcastle: postcards and panoramas
Lovett Gallery, Newcastle City Library, until February 5
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 5, 2022 under the headline “Domestic art”.
A free press is a paid press. In the short term, the economic fallout from the coronavirus has taken about a third of our income. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.