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The Australian Ugliness

Nick Bryant | 20:56 UK time, Thursday, 15 April 2010

Book titles do not come much more provocative than The Australian Ugliness, the caustic polemic penned by the architect Robin Boyd which was published in 1960. Boyd took aim at the unsightliness of post-war Australian suburban design, and what he described as its vulgar featurism: the gauche decorations, brick veneers and fussy stylistic embellishments that disfigured cul-de-sacs across the land.

Among Boyd's targets was the Sydney Harbour Bridge, at that time the most celebrated structure in the land. Its stone pylons at either end were a featurist monstrosity, Boyd believed, because they were structurally superfluous. "[I]ts design is a spectacular example of Featurist irrationality," he observed.

Boyd's opus work came on the heels of Barry Humphries' great comic invention Dame Edna Everage, who poked at the social pretensions of suburban housewives. It was also published four years in advance of Donald Horne's The Lucky Country, with its wider critique of post-war Australia. As Peter Conrad, the Australian-born Oxford academic has noted Boyd "belonged to the first generation of intellectuals for whom the denunciation of Australia counted as an urgent patriotic duty".

To mark the 50th anniversary of its publication, a new edition has just hit the shelves. So does it still have resonance?

To begin with, much of what Boyd wrote about the mediocrity of urban design might seem particularly germane as planners and architects consider how to accommodate Australia's growing population. In the McMansions which are proliferating on the outskirts of the major cities many might see modern-day manifestations of the Australian ugliness.

But re-reading an old copy that I found in a second-hand book shop not so long ago, I was most intrigued by Boyd's observations on his fellow Australians. In a chapter called Anglophiles and Austericans, he speaks about "the pervasive ambivalence of the national character".

"Here also are vitality, energy, strength and optimism in one's own ability, yet indolence, carelessness, the 'she'll do, mate' attitude to the job to be done. Here is insistence on the freedom of the individual, yet resigned acceptance of social restrictions and censorship narrower than in almost any other democratic country in the world. Here is love of justice and devotion to law and order, yet the persistent habit of crowds to stone the umpire and trip the policeman in the course of duty.....

"The Australian is forcefully loquacious, until the moment of expressing any emotion. He is aggressively committed to equality and equal opportunity for all men, except for black Australians. He has high assurance in anything he does combined with a gnawing lack of confidence in anything he thinks."

It is a statement of stunning banality to say that massive changes have overtaken Australia since Boyd's book was first published, socially, economically, racially, culturally and architecturally. But 50 years on, does The Australian Ugliness still echo? Writing the forward to the new edition, the author Christos Tsiolkas is in no doubt: "He got us. He still gets us."

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