"Nationalism... has never been a source of good art"

Ken Woolley is the only remaining partner of the Sydney architectural firm of Archer, Mortlock and Woolley, which he joined in 1964. He has been recognized as a person who is flexible in his approach to any architectural problem. One of his most notable achievements was the design of thousands of project houses in the 60s and 70s, thereby making excellent architecturally designed homes available to all and not just a privileged few. Other important works include Town Hall House in Sydney, 1970 the Queenscliff Surf Pavilion, N.S.W. 1982, and more recently, the competition winning design for the National Archives building in Canberra, and the Australian Pavilion at the World Expo 1988 in Brisbane.

We asked Mr. Woolley to talk to us about Australian Style in architecture today. Does Australia have a distinct style of its own which contributes to international architecture or are we, in fact, representative of many styles from other parts of the world and periods in time?

"There is a fundamental reason behind my reservations about recognizing an Australian style and it is this: the purpose of this search for a style is to use it as a sort of "prescription", we are looking for a style in order to tell people how to do it, and I am totally opposed to prescriptions for art. Our recent surge of nationalism has encouraged this quest of a style - it isn't the whole story by any means, but there is a lot of nationalism, and nationalism as such has never been a source of good art.

My approach is to defend one of the fundamental requirements of art: freedom from prescription. I come back all the time to the artistic value of what is being produced, and even rude Australian architects may be producing something of great artistic value. There is absolutely no reason why we cannot be provocative, vulgar, patronising or anything else - we can be anything as long as what we do has the quality that is expected. You cannot measure art by innovation."

Woolley sees Australia's contribution to world architecture as being inevitable because we are part of global architecture. "There is no question that we are a part of Western culture with certain elements that we have developed because of our environment. So you can't just cut your culture off and decide to be an Australian. An Australian means a European in Australia. There is an Australian variation in our European languages through our mode of expression of our accents. In the period around Federation, a leading architect would go on an overseas tour for eighteen months and come back with some kind of inspiration which he found in Europe. Nowadays magazines, television and books keep us in touch with what's happening in the world. We are just as affected as somebody in, say, Philadelphia for example. There is an attitude in our outlook on life which is a subtle variation of the European, and the same applies to our architecture and art; they are influenced by the environment, climate and available materials. You work with what you've got. So the combination of these physical things and the history, current political and social reality and the conventions of how the society tends to use buildings all produce something which is quite recognisable in comparison to what is being done in other parts of the world. There are local characteristics, and I think that is the Australian style. You get Australian architecture if you practice Architecture in Australia."

But what of our cities? They are an important part our life - how does Woolley see Australian cities changing with the growth in our population and our changing expectations for our own lifestyles.

"When I build in Australian cities I change them in some way because I add something to them. That is what cities are; physical creations through the efforts of many people, and that is how they should be. I am strongly opposed to the imposition of concepts to any city. The only individual concepts that I would endorse are ones which suggest a system for cities that would enable them to adapt to changing circumstances, as opposed to restrictive concepts of what they should look like. Cities grow. They represent the efforts of our society over hundreds of years and they have a life of their own. Our responsibility is to contribute in acknowledgeable way when we have the choice; the ease in the direction we think it should go. That's what keeps the city alive and vital, this expression of the people who live and have lived in it. Rome is perfect example of what I mean. It is layer upon layer of buildings and monuments, yet it is not a mess. It has vitality. Every clash, or what may be regarded as a clash between cultures and eras and enterprises and ambitions of that city is an enrichment to it.

"The suburb is a great institution in Australia and I think it should be recognized as such. It is an expression of the freedoms, social conditions, the economy and opportunities for us all that have existed here in Australia. The suburb is a part of our culture.

"I think that people expect too much from architecture and don't understand how much it represents our culture. By criticising a new piece of architecture, you are very often criticising your own culture and then you may be criticising yourself because you represent them mechanism form which that sort of building came about. However, architects who are doing good work are exposed to an optimistic view which is that there are a great many clients who are patrons of good design and quality."

Woolley's three favourite landmarks in Australia are the Sydney Opera House, the New Parliament House in Canberra, and his own recently built weekend home. "Clearly, one of the fine buildings of Australia is the Opera House, and while from the performers point of view it is a failure in functional terms, it is a great poetic statement about opera house and concert hall, about site and symbolic architecture.



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