New Suburban by Stuart Harrison (Thames and Hudson) is a survey of recent Australian architecture set firmly in the suburbs. The “new” part not only refers to the fact that it is a new book, but also perhaps to the fact that the houses show a distinctly postmodern style, a supposed reinvention of the suburban style. Like much recent architecture this, on the whole, means juxtaposition. Most modern architecture “plays off” something. It is a contrast against symmetry, classicism, sympathy. Modern building that relies on the formalism of the past is usually dismissed by architects as cliché and kitsch (though kitsch does have its moments in the postmodern sunshine), no matter its quality.
I wonder if this is a symptom of a wider societal malaise which elevates novelty over consistency. Much of recent urban architecture is playful, and challenging, rather than solid and harmonious. Unfortunately, relentless novelty goes stale. And it can be an excuse for taking shortcuts – whack up a coupled of concrete slabs but paint it with weird colours and – voila – it’s postmodern! Or tack on a renovation to a Federation-style house, cut the windows at weird levels and give it odd angles, and you supposedly have a clever reinterpretation of suburban living. In New Suburban there is certainly some clever architecture. But there is not much harmony and sympathy. Do our cities need more gimmickry? Our lives are bombarded enough with novelty. Can we have some more harmony please?
There are a few exceptions. Particularly when it comes to clients, sometimes due to budget restrictions, focussing less on making a grand statement, and more on living sustainably, on a small footprint, and on simple, understated elements that suggest a certain homeliness. The grand statements in this book can be found in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, for example. In contrast, it may be unsurprising that an example of small-scale, sustainable design is found in, yes, Coburg. Exposed brick, books and toys, pot plants, and a tiny floor plan.