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Q and A with Hannah Lewi on Australian Modernism

From the National Gallery of Victoria to suburban homes and rural community buildings, modernism is spread throughout Australia. Australia Modern showcases the architectural legacy of modernism featuring over 100 modernist buildings with images as well as essays by leading voices in architecture.

We spoke to Professor Hannah Lewi, author and professor at University of Melbourne, about the influence of modernist architecture in Melbourne, how we define modernism and how we remember and honour modernist buildings in Australia.

Blueprint: Your book Australia Modern covers architecture, interiors, landscapes and even furniture design. In terms of buildings, what is your favourite project covered in the book, and why?

Hannah Lewi: I have to declare my bias that I am originally from Perth so my favourite projects would probably be from there. I have been interested for many years in the athlete’s village built for the Commonwealth Games held in Perth in 1962. It provided a range of modest but modern house designs which were sold to the public after that and had an influence over the style of housing built in the suburbs of Perth for some years following the Games, including the house I grew up in.

BP: Do you think one of the reasons modernist architecture is still appreciated today is the use of robust materials such as concrete and the principles of functionalism that lend themselves to timelessness in design?

HL: Yes, in some ways, functionalism was a factor in realising useful but typically economical buildings and places that re-shaped Australian towns, regions and cities across the 20th century. Although Modern Design was certainly not just about fulfilling a function, as many of the examples in the book show, architects were also interested in lyrical, playful and creative designs that provided new ways of solving problems and creating amenities with shared meaning. Ironically many of the material used however, like early concrete structures, plastics and other experimental fabrics have not lasted nearly as well as might have been expected and need much maintenance and upkeep. 


Modernist architecture in Melbourne

National Insurance Company of New Zealand Queens Street Melbourne Victoria. Sievers, Wolfgang, 1913-2007, photographer. – State Library of Victoria.

BP: In your book, you refer to general events such as the availability of ready mix concrete and precast concrete elements shaping the design and function of buildings. Considering the explosion of lightweight construction in recent years, do you think the resulting design principles will be remembered as fondly as the modernist principles in years to come?

HL: The future, and in particular changes in aesthetic tastes, are hard to predict, but if I had a crystal ball I would guess that we are not going to be able or expected to keep a lot of recent buildings given their lightweight construction. We need to re-think paradigms of sustainability – across broader historical timespans, or perhaps build in a much more overtly temporary manner but with less wasteful and more innovative techniques.

BP: Some of the boldest modernist structures are seen in master-planned cities such as Brasilia and Chandigarh, which makes them easy to recognise. How can the untrained eye spot a modernist architectural design in Australia? Could we be living in one or drive by one every day and not notice?

HL: We have been deliberately broad in our definitions and examples of modern design in the book – both in terms of timespan so as to capture pre-WWII places up to the mid-1970s, and styles which can range from the more European influenced early experiments, to much more expressive and robust structures – the Sydney Opera House being a prime example. Modern design principles can be seen therefore in a whole range of places from the everyday, like the local bowls club, to the iconic and the monumental.

But essentially modernist design favours the raw expression of materials over decorative details. It has a clarity of plan, form and shape, a typically flat roof line and often a closer relationship between inside and outside through glass or major openings that relate more to the landscape and site. Modernist design features new aesthetics that are not copying or re-interpreting earlier historical architecture styles like the classical or the gothic. 

Most famous Modernist building

Sydney Opera House


BP: Would you consider Boyd and Seidler’s influence on Australia’s design landscape in a similar league to the likes of Niemeyer and Corbusier influence in South America and India?

HL: Sure – it would be nice if the rest of the world knew a bit more about the likes of Boyd, Seidler and other Australian modernists too. Canberra is a significant capital city of the 20th century like Brasilia or Chandigarh, but it has grown more organically and piecemeal.

BP: You mention the Moe courthouse as an unloved and obsolete example of modernism, are there others in Victoria or Melbourne like this?

HL:  There are countless examples of unloved houses and public buildings in Victoria, that would benefit from some sensitive adaptive re-use rather than demolition. There are other sites which undoubtedly are probably best redeveloped in new ways for new purposes. One of our motivations of a previous book we wrote called Building Modern Australia, was in part about re-thinking these ubiquitous public places that make up our suburbs, like kindergartens, libraries, sporting clubs, but which are largely taken for granted until they are gone.

Modernist Bowling Club Canberra

Canberra South Bowling Club Austin St. (at La Perouse St.) Griffith Canberra – Harry Seidler – 1958. Wille, Peter, 1931-1971, photographer. – State Library of Victoria.

Professor Hannah Lewi is an author and professor at the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning at the University of Melbourne. She has been a registered architect with AIA; is a past President of SAHANZ and past co-editor of Fabrications Journal; current vice-chair of DOCOMOMO Australia, and member of DOCOMOMO international; and the AA(UK). You can purchase her book Australia Modern here.

Learn more about the modernism influence in Melbourne covered in our episode Why does Melbourne look like this?