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Griffin connects architecture and civilisation

Walker, M. Kabos, A. Weireck, J. Building for Nature: Walter Burley Griffin and Castlecrag 1994

Building for Nature

By Walter Burley Griffin

Mr. Griffin discourses on the relation between architecture and civilization. His article supplements the narrative in our September number of the experiment being tried out on the shore of Sydney Harbour, where a community of idealists are inhabiting a distinctive type of dwelling designed to simplify and beautify life. Mr. Griffin came from America to lay out Canberra.

Building Records Life.

Buildings are the most subtle, accurate and enduring records of life – hence their problems are the problems of life and not problems of form; but through the forms and material of buildings we can gain an insight into the life of the past. In many cases that is now our only approach, and where archaeology and history have afforded a check I like to believe that buildings convey the most truth of the mental and spiritual states of various peoples and times. In the aggregate the architecture of a people certainly represents the greatest amount of human effort applied to the realization of purely human ideals.

Modern Architecture Lifeless.

…The dwindling of creative architecture and the deprivation of new beauties on the earth for so many years is not the worst side of the picture, for there has been active destruction going on, not only in the inevitable breaking up of old idols but in the wanton despoliation of nature Nature has come to be regarded primarily as a field of economic exploitation, and its beauty only considered in the few cases where it can be exploited profitably.

In a world dominated by individual curiosity, success and arrogance, the marvels of inorganic and organic creation are being ruthlessly converted into transitory expedients of personal aggrandisement and physical stimuli, and the upshot of such a process must be a quarried world of rank weeds and domestic pests on the one hand, and on the other hand a few useful but diseased, dependent, degenerate plants and animals tamed and cowed.

…when the physical senses have become calloused to excitement, more men will be turning their attention inward to the possibilities of co-operation between head and heart in social service and creative effort.

The scientific beliefs of our intellectual philosophy, which have failed to develop an organic communal life, have been inconsistent or fundamentally in conflict with an enduring civilization. We have come to recognize an external natural order of things which, we see, hear, touch, smell and taste and consider real, but such a world of isolated, individual intellect supplies no place for instinctive ideals or desires such as justice or beauty, and if the supernatural or divine world once conceived by us to support those ideals has lost its reality we must find something else that will. Perhaps the pioneers who have for some years been exploring the complexities and conditions for the full rounded, healthy working of the human mind or soul may be evolving a practical religion, compatible with modern objective science, taking into account without the prop of external agencies mankind's vast subjective activities, desires and needs…

. . . the monotony of the modern environment is not merely here but everywhere. The isolated relics of earlier art as well as the unique variations in races of men and genera of plants and animals are being obliterated in the ubiquitous standardised product of our building art. It is significant that not until the modern intellectual age of renaissance did we hear much of anything about architects, and it is not to the architects that we go to learn architecture now, even in the schools where the cult is taught, but ultimately to the unidentified origin back in the naive, subconscious creative periods when art was not in conflict with the surrounding natural world nor a reflex of internal strife.

"Back to Nature."

The definite idea of architecture to my mind lies in the organic, systematic way of creation that nature shows in fitting an infinite variety of means to as many ends with perfection of form for every function – to recall Louis Sullivan's alliteration: "Form follows Function".

Communion with primeval nature is the common school for future architects that it was in the beginning of civilization, where everywhere in every race and every climate anonymous architects expressed fitness and beauty in their constructions.

Nowhere in the modern world have the conditions set a more attractive problem for the architect than in the wooded rock ledges of the headlands of Sydney Harbour – a nice problem, for the factors are definitely clear-cut and simple socially, economically and aesthetically:- A million people free to exercise their own judgment, economically able to provide themselves with fully equipped and appointed substantial homes with a beautiful, easily worked stone underlying their sites and all other building materials indigenous, and all skill and equipment handy, and the most beautiful outlook, background and garden setting possible to imagine; complete to start with.

The aesthetic requirements are modesty to the extent of subordination of structural features to the striking characteristics of the forested cliffs, using the stone and level coursing uniform with them that will accomplish this, and a diminutive scale of one story that can accord with the diminutiveness of natural forms without breaking with the established habits and accepted type plans. After a hundred years during which every alternative has been introduced from every corner of the earth this natural formula is now being tried out at Castlecrag, in Sydney Harbour.

The Comprehensive Home.

Two of the factors in the simplest equation concerning the social side of urban life have, strangely enough, been lost sight of in all modern cities, which are essentially industrial and treat humanity as one industrial unit – even in the decentralised British form of municipal government that applies to Australia. In tribal or village communities, from which all civilization has arisen, there were essential intermediate social units between the family and collective industry. At least there was the neighbourhood of a few families with many interests in common and also the domestic community of some two thousand persons all well known to each other. These were the relationships that provided natural standards of conduct, easy and varied ways of emulation and encouragement to free expression, and the growth of independent thinking as well as healthy outdoor living and human contact. The physical basis out of which these qualities have grown in the past is lacking in modern cities, and so is the human product wanting and degenerate, and the leadership is being recruited from constantly diminishing rural communities.

Effort is being made in some parts of some cities to overcome this fatal deficiency, as it has to be overcome, by making available common properties and common spaces in these two separate groupings, the neighbourhood and the village.

Reproduced with the permission of the Walter Burley Griffin Society Inc.

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