If an era’s architecture tells us about the times, what do today’s houses tell us about modern society and values?
On Sydney’s North Shore lies a collection of old army bases, from the 1980s onwards the military started moving out and some of the land was handed over as national parks, other parts were converted into office parks or cafes while the disused married quarters were sold off to private home builders.
The old stores and administrative buildings have been adapted into artists’ studios and elegant, if expensive, offices. Overall, that’s been a success which has created quite a thriving businesses and creative community.
Many of the colonial officers’ and NCO’s quarters, impressive sandstone and wood structures, have become offices, restaurants or function centres. Although some are still looking for a purpose.
What happened to the functional three bedroom 1960s and 70s brick veneer homes that housed a generation of army brats is less encouraging and tells us much about the times in which we live.
A few of the old post World War II homes remain for Navy families in the still operating, and expanding, HMAS Penguin and these show us the houses that once lined Middle Head Road in Mosman.
These are perfect examples of the functional family homes that covered Australian suburbia during the 1960s and 70s. While nothing exciting or particularly pretty, they were adequate for their task as baby boomers built their families in the post war prosperity.
When they were sold by the Federal government most those modest family homes on Middle Head were bulldozed to make way for the grey behemoths of the 21st Century.
Like the Mc Mansions that crowd today’s suburbia, these feature four, five or even six bedrooms with on-suites, multicar garages and games rooms. Just as every child today has to win a prize, every room has to have a plasma TV.
These monuments to the modern consumerist economy triumphantly march along a road that once featured modest homes with gardens, trees and lawns.
In many ways these modern buildings represent the ethos of our time – grey, non-descript, poorly built, overcapitalised and dependent on cheap, never ending debt.
A striking aspect about them is their hostility to the pleasant surroundings and the 1930s mansions that make up most of the street. With their battleship grey, security features and blocky air raid shelter lines they look much more like some sinister military installations than the red brick army homes they replaced.
What’s also notable about these new buildings is many are empty. Some of them are being refurbished, only a few years after being built, and many are undergoing substantial repairs – a testament to how Australian building standards have declined in the past two decades.
Strolling along Mosman’s Middle Head Road its hard not to imagine that if Dorothea Mackellar were writing her iconic My Country poem today, she would have included the lines;
I love a sunburnt country
a land of capital gains
The tragedy for Australia is those old three bedroom houses could have been used by a visionary government to help low income families in Sydney’s increasingly unaffordable suburbs.
However we don’t live in visionary times and government assets today exist to be sold off as quickly as possible to Australia’s rapidly growing rentier classes.
There was little chance those modest housing blocks would become anything more than expensive, over capitalised gin palaces for bankers and the city’s well connected business elite who are never slow to see a coal mine or old military property going cheap.
Architecture tells us a lot about our times and the abandoned Middle Harbour army base is a good commentary on the phases of Australian development through the twentieth Century and the beginning of this century.
The houses also tell how Australians see speculating on overcapitalised property as a safer investment than building the technologies and businesses necessary to prosper in this century. How that will turn out remains to be seen.
What will be interesting is how our great-grandchildren see us and our legacy when they look upon the grey, hostile buildings we built to celebrate our good fortune in the early 21st Century.