What's Australian about contemporary Australian architecture? According to which photographic panel one consults in the exhibition "Old Continent, New Building," a fascinating report from the antipodes on view through April 19 at the Australian Embassy, the answer would be (almost) nothing or (almost) everything.
Sponsored by the Design Arts Committee of the Australia Council, the antipodal equivalent of our National Endowment for the Arts, and selected by two independent curators, the exhibition of photographs is a model of its kind -- broadly representative, superbly mounted and accompanied by an informative catalogue. If every major country were so assiduous in showing its recent architectural wares (this exhibit, re- cently updated, has been touring for two years), we would know a great deal more about the state of world architecture, circa 1985.
The tension between national, regional or local characteristics and international technologies, ideologies and styles is the leitmotif of our architectural age. The increased interest in preservation, historic styles, energy efficiency, human scale, vernacular buildings and the existing architectural context, born of a popular and professional reaction against the excesses of modern architecture and planning, is as evident in Sydney as it is in Washington.
But it is the particulars that give the story its richness and texture. In "Old Continent, New Building," we get a focused look at how Australian architects, over the past 15 years or so, have grappled with these central issues. The fundamental oppositions are starkly set at the entrance to the show in enlarged color photographs of an abandoned farmhouse in the parched western hills, which could be nowhere else in the world but Australia, and an overview of downtown Sydney, which has been so transformed by mediocre skyscrapers that it could almost be mistaken for a stamped-out postwar city anywhere in the world.
Of course, this contrast is a bit too harsh, too simple. Sydney, a city of pretty hills and a spectacular harbor adorned with Jorn Utzon's opera house, by now recognized worldwide as a symbol of the city, is a vital place that retains much of its special charm. And that farmhouse in the Outback -- the vast region stretching westward beyond the range of hills that shelter the populous cities and suburbs of the east coast -- is, after all, abandoned. It refers as much to the past and to the myth of Australia as it does to present-day realities.
Nonetheless, the contrast sets the poles between which the Australian argument takes place. In Sydney, for instance, a boom of speculative, Rosslyn-like commercial building during the 1960s stimulated a number of important clients and architects to try to do better, although with two major exceptions the results are mainly bigger, not better, and in any case would be just as at home in Chicago or Atlanta as in Sydney.
One of the exceptions -- the American Express Tower, designed by John Andrews International -- will be especially interesting to Washingtonians because its striking system of "see-through" sun control panels attached to stainless steel frames was the model Andrews used for the multifaceted skin of his Intelsat building here. Whether the image is more fitting to downtown Sydney than to uptown D.C. remains a pertinent question, but it is good to know that the system works: The building's artificial energy requirements are 60 percent less than those of a comparable conventional structure.
The other exception, a gracefully curved skyscraper designed by Harry Seidler and Associates, the country's leading large-scale modernist firm (Seidler, born in Vienna, studied under Walter Gropius at Harvard), also employs an energy-conscious sun-screen design strategy.
Australian architects, however, have been much more successful in adapting buildings to local conditions when working on a smaller scale. This is nowhere more evident than in the Woolloomooloo district of Sydney, where six firms working for the New South Wales housing commission provided six different, though equally brilliant, solutions to the problem of how to insert new buildings into an older, historic context. The Woolloomooloo project was in fact a benchmark of recent architectural theory and practice in Australia, comparable in importance to the New Orleans Vieux Carre'e or Baltimore Inner Harbor victories in the United States: The district was earmarked for obliteration and was saved only after huge public outcry.
Architectural strategies, to say the least, were changed, and the emphasis on preservation, rehabilitation and blending new with old has produced propitious results throughout the country. Anyone interested in comparing the way this process works in Washington with its Australian counterpart will want to pay particular attention to projects designed by the McIntyre Partnership and Gunn Hayball in Melbourne and Philip Cox and Partners in Sydney.
Probably the most remarkable aspect of recent Australian architecture is the work being done in housing -- somewhat the reverse of the situation in this country. The collection of very beautiful clustered or free-standing homes, each in its own way adapting conventional Australian materials and motifs (such as corrugated iron, hipped roofs and large "living" verandas) and each existing in harmony with the terrain and climate, is the unquestionable highlight of the show.
There is no way to list them all here, but designs by Andrews, Suzanne Dance, Peter Crone, Cocks and Carmichael, Glen Murcutt and Gabriel Poole deserve special mention. In a very real way these designs and others relate to both the myth and the reality of the cattle stations isolated in the Outback, and they attest to ways in which, as one essayist puts it, a "sense of the distance and stillness of the land" has helped to reinvigorate Australian architecture.
Other outstanding facets of recent work in the antipodes are the very hip pieces inserted into the suburban puzzle by the firm of Edmond and Corrigan, which takes full advantage -- and then some -- of the traditions of ordinary suburban buildings, and the designs by Peter Myers focused upon needs of the aborigines.
Besides these examples of what I see as the fresher currents in contemporary Australian architecture, the exhibition contains numerous examples of chest-thumping modernist buildings that serve as foils for the better works. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule, and in that spirit I should like to point to one in this show: the thrilling, crisp, no-nonsense stadium and indoor sports training center designed for Canberra by Philip Cox and Partners.
I should also point out that not all of the best Australian work is done by Australians. The beautiful Parliament House under construction in Canberra, designed by Romaldo Giurgola, an American, fits perfectly into its very special Australian niche. A model of this building, embassy officials say, will arrive sometime next week and be added to the exhibition.
The embassy, at 1601 Massachusetts Ave. NW, is open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and, for the duration of this show, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday. Although sales are not permitted in the embassy building, copies of the excellent paperback catalogue can be ordered there and will be delivered by mail. The bookstores at the American Institute of Architects, 1735 New York Ave. NW, and at the Franz Bader Gallery, 2001 I St. NW, also have copies for sale.