Robin Boyd’s 1960 book The Australian Ugliness is a seminal critique of both Australian architecture and culture. It remains influential to this day. In After The Australian Ugliness, 20 architects, landscape architects, architecture and design academics, writers, social commentators, curators, historians, publishers, archivists and editors put Boyd’s work in a contemporary context. In her essay from the book, ‘Peeling back the veneer,’ reproduced in full below, designer, film producer and Walbanga and Wadi Wadi woman Alison Page ponders the influence of Aboriginal architecture on Boyd’s thinking, and points to the positive potential Indigenous knowledge has to shape the future of Australia’s built environment and broader culture.
Peeling back the veneer
by Alison Page
‘The white man is still a foreigner in Australia, still looking at the fragile greys and ochres of the landscape through European eyes.’
– Robin Boyd, The Australian Ugliness (AU), p. 174)
I often wonder if Robin Boyd spent much, or any, time with blackfellas. It seems to me his sensibilities and philosophies had a latent propensity and feeling that was somewhat aligned with the Indigenous Australian worldview, but I can only ponder whether he was aware of this. Was he subconsciously tapping into a cultural substrate that has existed in Australia for thousands of years?
Many great artists and architects, subconsciously or not, have opened the cornucopian curtain on Australia only to find it lacking meaningful design or a social narrative regarding its earthy, inherent beauty. Hence the disappointment of many who set out to find the ‘real’ splendour of this land, only to find an irresponsible overlay of the ugly, the maudlin, the confused and the pastiche. I share Boyd s disappointment with the Australian pastiche and his observation that veneering has become entirely respectable , particularly the ‘practice of sticking a film of imported wood over the plain native boards’ (AU, p. 21), which is a disturbing metaphor for colonial dominance over a deep and rich culture.
When The Australian Ugliness was published in 1960, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were not yet recognised as Australian citizens. Although Boyd doesn’t labour the point, it seems this was not lost on him when he wrote that Australians are ‘aggressively committed to equality and equal opportunity for all men, except for black Australians’ (AU, p. 74). And in the first paragraph of the book, he says: ‘The ugliness I mean is skin deep … But skin is as important as its admirers like to make it, and Australians make much of it. This is a country of many colourful, patterned, plastic veneers, of brick veneer villas, and the White Australia Policy.’ (AU, p. 3)
This is the origin of the Australian ugliness – the start of our uncomfortable relationship with our history that has perhaps led to the Australian obsession with shallowness, as well as the multiple incoherent narratives that exist about our national identity. He continues: ‘The national character is as cut up and mixed up as it can be … It is so confused and so subtle that all but the historian or an intense student are likely to lose patience in the search.’ (AU, p. 4)
Boyd describes the use of veneer as a form of cloak and camouflage . If so, then the most damaging type of veneer is the concealment of our true history, and what is revealed through the fabric of our built environment – our decision to veneer – is a rejection of authenticity and truth. Our education system has mostly spared us from this truth as it is likely too painful for many to deal with. Certainly, in 1960, denial was much more palatable, and so our instincts to cover things up were subconsciously reinforced with every renovation and new build. The aesthetic of the cloak hiding the truth was irrelevant; all that mattered was that it was never peeled back. Because the truth is, Australia is the most beautiful jail on Earth – the biggest offshore detention centre ever created. When I am fishing in pristine waters off Arnhem Land, my friends and I laugh that the joke is on England. How lucky Australians are to be locked up in nature’s wonderland.
If we are locked up in this paradise, it is because we have not yet emancipated ourselves from our true history. Before James Cook even landed in Australia, the country’s identity had been decided by an empire that committed untold atrocities on blackfellas and convicts in the name of colonialism, then forgot it ever happened. This is reflected in our built environment, as Boyd observed using Hobart as an example: ‘The vicious slaughter of the Aborigines and the brutality to the convicts were accompanied by a gentle discretion in everything built … The city today is a monument to the destructive progress of twentieth-century Australia. The brutality of the foundation era is a closed book.’ (AU, p. 112)
Cook was instructed in his orders from the Admiralty in 1768 that, ‘in case you find any Mines, Minerals or valuable Stones, you are to bring home Specimens of each’. (1) The fact that mining, such a fundamental part of the livelihoods of so many Australians today, was prioritised before Cook even arrived is just one aspect of our colonial history that now defines our national identity. This would lead to so many crimes against aesthetics. Our obsession with mining has not only destroyed the environment and undersold our abilities in manufacturing and technological innovation, but it has also clothed hundreds of thousands of Aussies in hi-vis clothing, a scourge on anyone’s aesthetic sensibilities. The fact that hi-vis is now worn in airports, schools and other workplaces for no real safety benefit is baffling. Perhaps this is a testament to our servitude to authority; the need to constantly ‘follow the rules’ could be a legacy of our jailhouse. As Boyd remarks, Australians have a ‘resigned acceptance of social restrictions and censorship narrower than in almost any other democratic country in the world’ (AU, p. 74). We must come to terms with the reality that we are, to a significant extent, still convicts following the rules of the mother country.
I feel Boyd would be pleased to see that many of the veneers cloaking our true history are now being ripped away. The reconciliation movement is exceeding the expectations of a generation of Indigenous Australians who were just teenagers in 1967, when 90 per cent of Australians voted to include them in the census. Boyd would have been one of them, and I am sure if he were around today he would be pleased with the last fifty-three years of progress, which have seen Australia begin to deal with its uncomfortable history and face it with purpose and courage. And we must continue, because once we peel away the toxic sheeting of our colonial history, what is revealed is the framework of a culture rich in ecological and spiritual knowledge. With this we can build a meaningful collective narrative for Australia.
At a fundamental level, the greatest payoff from increased engagement with Indigenous culture, and the one we could most see reflected in our architecture, is the promise of reconnection with nature. No one has ever denied the beauty of Australia’s natural environment, but human separation from nature has produced indecision in our response to the built environment, which has led to ugliness. Boyd likens this separation to ‘a nervous architectural chattering avoiding any mention of the landscape’ (AU, p. 20). By contrast, in Indigenous culture and spirituality, the natural world is central. This is why connection to Country is one of Indigenous Australia’s defining foundations.
Country, from the Indigenous perspective, is multidimensional. There is land, sea and sky Country, and culture is built around preservation and a responsibility to care for Country like you would a member of the family. Boyd may have been pleased to learn that in the Indigenous worldview, everything is part of Country, even things made by humans – the built environment is an extension of the land, houses are second skins, and our objects are living entities. Therefore, architecture and design that is comprehensible to nature is seen as an essential biological element of society.
When we tear back the veneer, the framework revealed is not just a collection of songs, stories and myths from the ‘noble savage’. What we now know, through genuine engagement and deep listening, is that beyond the dots in the paintings and the etymology of the language is a network of symbols revealing traditional knowledges that have allowed Indigenous people to survive, despite major changes in climate, with a culture coherent with nature. But the potential goes further. The arrangement of these knowledges within the environment, both built and grown, is achieved through songlines, a method of recording vast amounts of ecological data without the written word.
The term ‘songlines’ was coined by Bruce Chatwin in his book from 1987 of the same name. Chatwin describes the Aboriginal Dreaming – the ‘Tjukurpa’– as a vast and multi-sensory database of traditional knowledge written in geographical locations, star constellations, song, dance, rock art and objects. Australian author Lynne Kelly, in her book The Memory Code (2016), describes how Indigenous Australians use the three-dimensional world around them – mountains, rocks, rivers and the stars – as visual triggers to remember traditional knowledges. This is further reinforced through songs, elaborate Dreaming stories and dance. As people repeatedly move through Country over time, that knowledge is embedded into the synapses of the brain. The built environment is also part of this invisible web of knowledge.
What a transformational perspective – for designers and architects to be part of an Australian design ethos that views the creation of the built environment as an extension of our Creation stories, that ‘things’ could be sung into existence with a purpose of clarity that reinforces our connection to Country and our ecological responsibility to care for it. Imagine if we set a challenge for all Australian architects, that when they contribute to the Australian landscape an essential part of their brief must be to demonstrate how their work is enhancing and protecting this network of knowledge, so that every day, when we walk from home to the office, for example, an essential thread of traditional knowledge could be embedded into our brains through beautiful visual cues. Could this be a new motivation for what Boyd calls the ‘universal visual art: the art of shaping the human environment’, which he says is an ‘intellectual, ethical, and emotional exercise as well as a means of expression’ (AU, p. 265)?
It may help to view contemporary Australian architectural practice as a continuum that began 65,000 years ago, when traditional ‘gunyas’ were constructed out of readily available materials such as sticks, leaves and bark by a nomadic society that moved around according to sophisticated seasonal calendars. To the early colonialists, these structures would have appeared rudimentary, but they incorporated sophisticated functions. All over Australia, traditional structures were masterfully constructed according to the climatic conditions of the areas they were built in. They were also ephemeral so they could adapt to prevailing winds. This is architecture that is coherent with nature.
Boyd writes in The Australian Ugliness about the sensitively designed (but temporary) mining town of Mary Kathleen. Until it was dismantled in 1984, this village of 1300 people was located near Cloncurry, in western Queensland. As Boyd explains, its houses were ‘not standard prefabricated cottages, but were planned specially for the gruelling climate … orientated on the north south axis to catch the prevailing breeze and … raised on long stumps two feet above the grassed flat which the river watered annually when it swelled in the wet season’. (AU, p. 129)
Without knowing it, Mary Kathleen’s architects, Ernest Milston and Donald Fulton, were consulting with Country to create buildings with design principles that were inherent in traditional Aboriginal structures like gunyas. Anthropologist and architect Paul Memmott’s study of traditional structures in the same part of the world as Mary Kathleen has revealed the use of spinifex as a highly effective method of insulation, allowing for comfortable living in over forty-degree weather. His studies also emphasise how the arrangements of town camps at various times of the year reveal a sophisticated approach to design within Australia’s landscape. (2) The designers of Mary Kathleen followed a similar blueprint, and so too have more recent Australian architects such as Glenn Murcutt and Peter Stutchbury.
Town camps also functioned as a way to reinforce the social fabrics of societies. These traditional ‘towns’ were organised according to a sophisticated language of kinship networks, where certain members of the family and different genders were arranged according to traditional lore. Because traditional structures were made from readily available organic materials, they inherently followed an aesthetic design principle of harmonising with the environment. They also enhanced ‘community’ through the strengthening of extended family relationships. These are concepts I am sure Boyd would gravitate towards. As he says, ‘many sensitive Australians are uncomfortably aware of the rootless nature of their artificial environment’ (AU, p. 32). An Indigenous philosophy that integrates the built and the natural environments offers us a meaningful foundation upon which to build our future. It is anti-ugly because it all has a purpose – to order the human relationship to nature in a holistic way, which to Boyd would be anti-featurist. It is aesthetic in the true meaning of the word because it engages with all of the senses.
German philosopher Alexander Baumgarten, in his dissertation from 1735, ‘Meditationes philosophicae de nonnullis ad poema pertinentibus’ (‘Philosophical considerations of some matters pertaining to the poem’), chose the term ‘aesthetics’ because he wished to emphasise the experience of art as a means of knowing. This is an utterly Indigenous concept. In our culture, art and aesthetic is not wallpaper, a ‘nice-to-have’ because it decorates an interior. Art is a ‘must-have’, because it is the means by which vital ecological and cultural data is passed on through songlines. This is why our ‘products’ are not just tools for living. They are seen by our people as animate. They have life and spirit. The artist or creator of the object is seen as a medium through which the ancestors are speaking to create the artwork or product. It is essential for it to be part of the ancient network of songlines. This is why many Western Desert painters still ‘sing’ while making their work. The carvings on these objects are visual cues to stories that are part of the memory code; therefore, art and ornament have a function. To view them as mere decoration is to belittle this deeper, more meaningful, connection. Boyd, with his disdain for the unfunctional, would have been interested in this idea: ‘When every scroll or figurine had to be carved by hand, no one questioned their right to exist’ (AU, p. 246).
In the absence of written history, Indigenous symbol creation is an important and purposeful part of a philosophical framework with which it is difficult to argue. These objects, these living entities, are inherently precious as they are embodiments of traditional lore. This idea is the antithesis of mass-produced, $2 shop ‘things’. While we can never expect to return to a handmade world, the concept of building meaning and preciousness into the objects we use every day is a worthwhile idea for Australian designers to contemplate. We need, as Boyd puts it, a ‘co-ordinating discipline of traditional craft technique’ (AU, p. 33), a National Design Policy that drives contemporary architecture, urban design and the manufacturing of products within a framework with roots that are thousands of years old. This may help Australia overcome its ‘psychopathic pioneering attitude to the landscape’ (AU, p. 126). What this means on the ground is legislating for the integration of Country into new infrastructure developments. This is at least becoming a priority for the NSW government through the employment of Indigenous knowledge keepers.
The idea of having a policy to drive Australian design may be new, but it can help us see ourselves in a new light – a people truly reflected in our environment as an accepted and sophisticated culture that has left behind the trauma of its colonial beginnings. It will reject the concept that England is the homeland and allow our identity to be derived from the land itself. It is time for Australia to, as Boyd puts it, stop acting like the younger brother or sister to America or England, copying our older siblings to seem more sophisticated (AU, p. 82). I am as aggravated by this as Boyd clearly was. We are home to the oldest living culture on Earth, a culture with sustainable agriculture, flexible and ecological architecture, and a lifestyle where art and ceremony are central to our way of life.
Aden Ridgeway, a Gumbaynggirr man and former leader of the Australian Democrats, has said many times that Australia will only truly mature when it can look in the mirror and see its Aboriginality. What he means is that Indigenous culture, which is designed not only to survive on this land but to be in harmony with nature, is a beautiful foundation on which to build a new, old Australia. We have the opportunity, right now, to have national pride that will be reinforced as we engage in our built environment.
If I could stand on the beach with Cook, I would wish to have a heartfelt meeting of the minds about how we could have the best of both worlds. And I would want Robin Boyd standing with me to be part of a new dialogue about Australian beauty.
1. James Cook, correspondence with Great Britain Admiralty, 1768, Cook’s voyage 1768–71: copies of correspondence, etc., National Library of Australia, MS 2. (Digitised version available at <http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-229111770>, accessed Sep. 28, 2020.)
2. Paul Memmott, Gunyah, Goondie + Wurley: The Aboriginal Architecture of Australia, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 2007.