(Not So) Anti-Architecture

Robin Boyd was Australia’s most famous architecture critic. In a bracing and still relevant essay from 1968, he challenges the field to cast aside its perennial political timidity.

Left behind in the Internet era is a rich store of essays on design which have limited cultural presence because they are not online. In our ongoing series Future Archive, we republish significant 20th-century texts, each selected and introduced by a prominent scholar.

Robin Boyd, ca. 1970.
Robin Boyd, ca. 1970. [Robin Boyd Foundation/Mark Strizic]

Robin Boyd (1919–1971) would surely be pleased to see himself profiled in this Places series. Naturally he would be less happy to see himself framed as partially forgotten in the 50 odd years since his death — but he would feel rightfully placed amongst the stellar critics and historians who were his peers. Boyd was enormously ambitious for the possibilities of architecture and, as an advocate for his profession, he sought influence on the world stage. Given that he was Australian, and given our powerful national culture of self-apology (to which I will return), this was a bold plan. But he actually came close to realizing his grand vision; at the least, he is certainly the most famous and influential architecture critic this country has ever produced. He has the unique distinction of having been accepted, in the words of his biographer Geoffrey Serle, as “Australian architecture’s chief spokesperson,” a role which no one else has held before or since. 1

Boyd was that rarest of creatures: a talented and innovative architect practitioner, who was also wonderfully expressive in drawings, and who wrote beautifully, with a distinctive voice, a masterful control of tone and style, both wit and humour, acuity and lyricism, liveliness and precision, didacticism and gratification. Which is to say he could speak to a broad range of audiences. This can be taken quite literally; he was a household name in his home country partly because of his writing in books and newspapers and also because of his extensive radio and television work, all devoted to educating a general public about architecture. 2

Boyd had a wonderfully sly way with metaphor, the ability to cut like a scalpel but also to be gentle and thoughtful in prose.

Boyd had a wonderfully sly way with metaphor, a deft touch with caricature, the ability to cut like a scalpel but also to be gentle and thoughtful in prose. But you can excel at the craft of writing and yet fail to have interesting ideas, or insights, or critical positions; so it’s especially notable that Boyd could walk and chew gum at the same time — he was not just a great architect and writer but also a great critic. His experience as a practitioner meant his knowledge was grounded and specific, but he also had the breadth of (historic, conceptual) understanding to make imaginative leaps between ideas or movements, to observe and name new themes as they emerged, and to track their significance and implications.

Boyd was precocious. At university he was an active pamphleteer, editing the journal Smudges in 1939 and engaging in impertinent criticism of architectural culture in Melbourne by awarding (sometimes controversial) “Blots” and “Bouquets” to local buildings. Later, as the author of such semi-popular histories of Australian architecture as Victorian Modern and The Walls Around Us, he showed that he possessed a quality which is arguably more important than the forensic rigor of conventional scholarship: the ability to bring history to life and reveal its ongoing significance. 3 He was interested in social movements as well as architecture. It’s telling that Australia’s Home: its origins, builders and occupiers, published in 1952, is not just about houses but also homes — this is architectural history interwoven with social history.

He possessed a quality arguably more important than the forensic rigor of conventional scholarship: the ability to bring history to life and reveal its significance.

Boyd was an important architect, although his career was somewhat thwarted: he never made the breakthrough to large public and cultural commissions. In fact scholars have argued that it was his fame as a writer and critic that actively stymied his architectural ambitions: that his reputation as a “scribbler” and a “stirrer” stood against him. 4 Whatever the reason, with the exception of one apartment building and a university college, his work was small scale; and with the exception of some important exhibition designs, notably for the Australian pavilions at the 1967 Montreal and 1970 Osaka World Expos, it was primarily houses. But what houses! The Walsh Street House of 1959 and Featherston House of 1969 are acknowledged highlights, and even today look fresh and innovative. 5

Robin Boyd, Featherston House.
Robin Boyd, Featherston House. [Robin Boyd Foundation/Mark Strizic]

Robin Boyd, Walsh House.
Robin Boyd, Walsh House. [Robin Boyd Foundation/Mark Strizic]

In his time, and in his prime, Boyd was read around the world. He published widely in U.S. and British as well as Australian periodicals (including Architectural Forum, Architecture, Progressive Architecture, Architectural Record, Architecture Plus, and the Architectural Review, as well as generalist magazines such as Harper’s, Meanjin, and Quadrant). He wrote about influential buildings and architects worldwide, from Habitat 67, to Reyner Banham and New Brutalism, to the Sydney Opera House during the controversies over the sacking of Jørn Utzon. Boyd saw himself as an emissary between Australia and the world (and vice versa) and between a global avant-garde and an often retrograde architectural culture in his home country. He wrote scholarly and popular books, including The Walls Around Us (1962), intended for children, and Living in Australia (1970), in which he described his design philosophy and presented his own completed works, along with photographs by Mark Strizic — the closest thing to a monograph or manifesto he produced. He was an expert on Japanese architecture well before the curve, publishing a monograph on Kenzo Tange in 1962 and New Directions in Japanese Architecture in 1968. His most famous book, The Australian Ugliness (1960), was a best-seller.

It is hard to overstate Boyd’s cultural and intellectual significance in Australia, and especially in Melbourne. His lineage is local artistic royalty. The Boyds were a family of artists, writers, and architects; Robin was the son of Penleigh Boyd, a notable painter, and his first cousin Arthur Boyd was a celebrated modernist artist. The ghost of Robin Boyd is everywhere in Melbourne, partly because of his prodigious journalistic output (by one estimate, more than 700 newspaper articles, for three daily papers) and partly because of his deep engagement in public life. 6

Robin Boyd, Expo '70, Osaka.
Robin Boyd, Expo ’70, Osaka. [Robin Boyd Foundation/Mark Strizic]

His hero status in local circles rests arguably on his work as founding director, in 1947, of the Small Homes Service, a collaboration of the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects and the local newspaper The Age. 7 For this project, stock plans and simple construction drawings for modest houses were published in the newspaper and available to anyone to buy (and build) for an affordable fee. This active, altruistic intervention into mass middle-class housing was a high point of the democratization of design services in this country. From our contemporary perspective — when that same market is dominated by developer-driven tract housing in the form of poorly planned, badly oriented, bloated, energy-guzzling McMansions — Boyd’s modest, well-designed houses seem wildly progressive. Architects here have never again to any significant degree been able to influence this market, despite many efforts and much yearning.

Boyd counted leading international architects amongst his friends, including Walter Gropius and Pietro Belluschi, who invited him to teach at MIT. 8 Indeed he seemed poised to take his place as a public intellectual on the world architectural stage. Which it could be argued, he did; but it didn’t last, and he didn’t achieve the stature or influence of, say, Banham, or Charles Jencks, and since his relatively premature death in 1971 and despite a posthumous AIA Architecture Critics’ Medal (1973), his fame endures only at home. Elsewhere, no matter our restless global culture, he is largely forgotten.

The Anti-Architect

The essay reproduced here, “Antiarchitecture,” was first published in Architectural Forum three years before Boyd’s death, when he was nearly 50, in 1968. In light of that most historically significant of years, the first thing to say is that the essay was prescient (then) and is timely (now): it might have been written yesterday, or this morning. Not that our tone of millennial despairing dissent has much in common with the hopeful revolutions of 1968 — not in architecture, or any other sphere. But still, for better or worse, we now find ourselves in a state of real-world and architectural-world foment and crisis, which feels reminiscent of events five decades ago; even if history is replaying these as tragedy, or farce.

Architecture has failed to interrogate its entrenched institutions and practices, and their enshrining of unjust political and power relations.

Just as Boyd wondered then, we might wonder now: what is the possibility for architects amongst all this radicalism and rebellion? “A protest movement had to happen in architecture as in everything else,” he writes. Yes indeed. Yet “even now it seems to lack real anarchical heat and a true sense of purifying destructiveness,” and the architecture students are late to the party. Ain’t that the truth. Thus we get to “the thinness of the attack so far by the practicing avant-garde on architecture itself, compared with the attacks on every other kindred activity from art to religion, drama, and the novel.” 9 So here is the hard truth: architecture might timidly engage in forms of social or spatial or cultural critique — but what it has notably failed to do, now as then, is to turn upon itself, to interrogate and if necessary to negate its own entrenched institutions and practices and canons, and their collective enshrining of unjust political and power relations.

In another essay — the memorably titled “Look Back in Apathy” — Boyd frames (or damns) architecture as an “artistic field in which the young men are tranquil, docile, almost apologetic for being young.” They are, he continues, “… free of anger. They look back in ennui, seemingly, if they look back at all; and they look forward with a sort of polite, pessimistic fatalism.” Boyd pointedly contrasts this lack of passion amongst architects with the fury their works often incite in “the layman.” And implicitly he contrasts it also with his own anger: a righteous fury which motivated all his work. 10

Boyd frames (or damns) architecture as a ‘field in which the young men are tranquil, docile, almost apologetic for being young.’

These days we comfort ourselves (compliantly, meekly) with the excuse that the failings are elsewhere: it’s the developers, or the builders, or the clients, who consistently thwart architects’ desires to make perfect and beautiful buildings, and cause us to make banal and venal ones instead. It’s not the fault of architecture, it’s the fault of the flawed world, we protest. And likewise in “Antiarchitecture,” Boyd’s assessment of the architectural avant-garde in the first half of the 20th century: “loyally fighting on architecture’s side.” Whether in the “cosmic” mode of the German Expressionists, or the “dour realist” mode of the New Brutalists, the aim was the same: to knock off the barnacles and reveal what lies beneath, to “find, cleanse, and elevate the spirit of architecture.”

The antiarchitecture of Boyd’s essay might be working towards other ends; ends which are yet more pressing now than in Boyd’s time. If antiarchitecture “yearns for the day when it will be able to surrender itself entirely to a computer,”’ then that day has surely come. Likewise, if antiarchitecture “is fascinated by the population explosion and plugging-in and pop, by McLuhan, of course, and by systems and electronics,” then the grim early decades of the 21st century are also obsessed with such things, albeit for the opposite reasons. Not only have the debates and ideas discussed in the earlier essay persisted, but their intensity has ratcheted up and up, in our algorithmic and parametric age.

He describes how architecture manages always to eat itself: appropriating the novel into the canon, the anti-aesthetic into form and ‘look.’

But for all his forecasting of the storms which now engulf us, Boyd’s own position is not as anarchic as he implies, nor quite as welcoming of the revolution. In fact, as the essay progresses, his version of “antiarchitecture” comes to seem itself conventional and canonical. He doesn’t want to negate or abandon the field; rather he wants an end to the sort of building that is “purified during its creation by total and deliberate disregard for appearances”; he wants an end to buildings not formed in response to “social pressures and technological development.” One might say his subject is not antiarchitecture but instead anti-aesthetic architecture. As he attests later in the essay: “the forces that are potentially antiarchitectural are fragmented and diverted”; they are pushed off course and become “merely antistyle or antigeometry or antiart or anti the architect.” We might equally say that Boyd starts with the promise of antiarchitecture and ends with its impossibility — or its incompatibility with his own faith in “positive” architecture. 11

He is on firmer ground when he sets out the ways in which antiarchitecture is not a style, yet is everywhere appropriated in stylistic and aesthetic terms. He describes how architecture manages always to eat itself: perpetually integrating and appropriating the novel into the canon, the experimental into convention, the anti-formal and anti-aesthetic into form and “look.”

Just as soon as anyone does manage to achieve antiarchitecture, an instant later it will become architecture. For immediately someone is bound to like the way it looks, if only for its novelty. … The new thing will be a new style or at least a new esthetic influence.

True indeed: we have seen such patterns repeated over and over in the latter half of the 20th century, just as, incidentally, we have seen the “fashionably clumsy,” “shattered forms,” or “ugliness” return again and again as modes of radical chic. But none of these are antiarchitecture; which is to say none are genuinely political.

In his writing Boyd often used binary opposition as an organizational device, and we see it here, as he divides “any advanced architects who come to mind” into “those who have and those who have not yet declared” for or against the new spirit. There is an enjoyable sorting-out — Reyner Banham, Buckminster Fuller, John Johansen, and “the Archigrams” are dropped into the antiarchitecture bucket, while Paul Rudolph, Louis Kahn, the Japanese Metabolists, and Charles Moore and “all the New Barnists” are evidently inveterate architects and fall into the canonical bucket with the rest of the defenders of the architectural faith. Robert Venturi gets stuck somewhere in-between — edging towards antiarchitecture, but ambivalent. And of course this raises the question of where Boyd saw himself; a question which has no easy answer.

The architectural historian Philip Goad is an expert on Boyd, and I sought his opinion on this matter of Boyd’s allegiances. 12 Goad sees the essay as important in Boyd’s oeuvre because it showed that he understood both the limits and potentials of antiarchitecture; and also because “no one else was writing like this, in terms of overview.” No critic or historian was offering this sort of ranging perspective, not even the prolific Charles Jencks, whose influential books Architecture 2000 and Adhocism appeared a few years later, in the early ’70s. 13

Robin Boyd, Fishbowl Restaurant.
Robin Boyd, Fishbowl Restaurant. [Robin Boyd Foundation/David Watson]

One of the most intriguing aspects of “Antiarchitecture,” in Goad’s view, is its ambivalence to the increasing influence of Venturi, who had burst on the international scene with projects such as the Vanna Venturi House and with the publication of his manifesto, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. Boyd was, at the time, likely designing his “Fishbowl” restaurant: a seemingly Venturi-esque, post-modernistically literal and thus rather aberrant moment in his larger career, which Goad sees as Boyd’s “possibly desperate attempt to use what he’s seen in expos and exhibitions and then apply it to the street — but without engaging with Venturi’s ideas.” In this light Goad sees “Antiarchitecture” as a “crisis piece … a form of resistance to the growing acceptance of Venturi.”

But no matter his ambivalence about Venturi, Boyd’s own position is ultimately clear. Even as he articulates architecture’s tendency to neutralize subversive or critical ideas by aestheticizing them, he boldly closes his essay by flipping the equation on its head (in a rather Orwellian, or perhaps Vattimo-esque moment), and arguing that architecture’s strength lies in its weakness — in its conceptual and political suppleness, its ability to “slip out from under any attempt to squash it,” to bend and spring back again, to take all attacks and keep standing. Architecture, he says, “can comply with any new demand of society or technology without losing its inspirational quality as an idea.” So there we have it. Boyd comes down on the side of “inspiration,” on the side of architecture. He’s no anti-architect. But still, the possibilities and challenges that he identified almost half a century ago grow more pressing, by the day.

The Popular Critic

It is commonplace to bemoan the lack of serious architectural discourse in the public domain. To point to the collapse of print publishing and its commercial revenues; to the demise of the newspaper architecture critic. No wonder that architecture has become an annex of real estate and that architects design only the outermost inch of contemporary buildings. Someone should do something, the script goes.

The divergence between architects’ and critics’ ways of discussing buildings, and popular (dis)interest in architecture, has only become more pronounced over time.

Yet few have actually managed (or even tried) to bridge the gap, to write with intelligence and clarity about buildings for readers not trained in architecture, for popular and mainstream commercial media. Those who have managed it lately (we might controversially cite philosopher/commentator Alain de Botton, or television personality Kevin McCloud, both in the U.K. 14) have not been trained as architects. The point is that Boyd was the exception that proves the rule: the real deal, the expert with the common touch, the architect who could speak to the punters and avoid being dismissed as either a tosser or a prig.

Amazingly, he left a lengthy reflection on what it means to write “popular” architectural criticism. In a 1957 essay in the Journal of Architectural Education, he noted that “the death of criticism is comparatively recent. Eighty or so years ago at the height of Victorian eclectic opulence architects used to attack each other in the … professional press with every literary egg and dart they could lay their hands on.” But this kind of criticism, “light in weight and not too low in level, died alongside dedicated attitudes to style.” And so Boyd finds that “at present the intelligent layman is simply bored by the whole outlook.” What he advocates for, then, is witty discussion, open and engaging, not necessarily written by architects, and concentrating not on a building’s technical aspects but rather on its evident “conceptual idea.” And he wanted such critiques to be published in the daily newspapers and weekend reviews:

What we need will not come from any development of the familiar types of architectural writing — the scholar’s perspective or the home-talk, chatty description. Satisfying popular comment will come spontaneously and pleasantly when ordinary, normally-educated people understand the essentials of architecture as they understand drama, literature, cooking, knitting, and football. 15

Such sentiments are remarkably durable. I confess I have written similar things myself, and pinned my hopes on various means and media by which the new era may come about. That Boyd was writing in 1957 proves not only how long we’ve been lamenting the crisis of criticism (how acute can it be if it’s dragged on for decades? It’s a long, slow slide into this grave); but also how quick he was to see the trouble at its source. “A lot of strength left architecture about the time we started mincing our words,” he writes. The divergence between architects’ and critics’ ways of discussing buildings, and popular (dis)interest in architecture, has only become more pronounced over time. Boyd put his money where his mouth was: working to educate the public, through engaging with truly popular media, and in ways that were meaningful to “ordinary, normally-educated people”: on the radio, and on television, and in the daily newspapers.

I like to think this was because he had a clear ideological position, to which he was totally committed: he was a lifelong advocate and apologist for international modernism. Both his aesthetic and ethical predilections were right up front. Thus he could never have been accused of being a vague connoisseurial dilettantish aesthete, which would never have flown in the somewhat philistine cultural context of Australia at mid-century.

The Australian

It’s impossible to fully understand Boyd’s work without contextualizing him within his time, and perhaps more importantly his national context, characterized (then as now) by a powerful sense of inferiority, marginalization, and a crushing sense of being at a distance from where it’s at — a complex summed up in the notion of “cultural cringe.” This is particularly powerful in relation to artistic production; it feeds the notion (widely held in Boyd’s time) that despite a landscape of stunning beauty and ancient grandeur, Australia is a nation characterized by intellectual poverty (if not actual philistinism), by insipidness, conformity, mediocrity, timidity, a beige lack of imagination and general sense of facile superficiality; and that such a place could not produce great art, or only rarely, and in spite of itself. So far, so post-colonial, I hear you thinking, and you’re right — all such ideas can be linked to the idea of the colony as an inferior (Antipodean) copy of the (European) original.

Consider, for instance, these lines from the poem “Australia,” by Boyd’s contemporary, A.D Hope: “a vast parasite robber-state / Where second-hand Europeans pullulate / Timidly on the edge of alien shores.” Likewise in Donald Horne’s 1964 book of the same name, Australia is famously described as “the lucky country.” This label has been widely taken up (and is still mindlessly trotted out) as a nickname, or badge of honor, but Horne’s original meaning was negative: “Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck.” His argument was that the prosperity of Australia, its wealth and position in the world, had been largely an accident of circumstance — of natural resources, and also colonial history — rather than the result of particular talents or good ideas.

Boyd was motivated by a powerful sense of what his country could be, and what its architecture might achieve: the true realization of international modernism.

Earlier I mentioned The Australian Ugliness. Boyd’s best known book is one of the most sophisticated and enduring texts in the genre. Like Horne’s The Lucky Country, the title is, even today, everywhere — it remains a catch phrase. As a child, when I had heard the phrase but not yet read the book, I imagined there was an ugliness peculiar to us, or perhaps that Australia was particularly ugly. In some sense both ideas are argued in the book, although Boyd was railing against the same “ugliness” of commercial clutter and ill-conceived development that has long been a feature of developed Western cities. But while the book might be (and at the time was) taken as unpatriotic, in fact Boyd was motivated by a powerful sense of possibility, of what his country and its people could be, and most importantly what its architecture might achieve: the true realization of international modernism; a simple, direct, unaffected, and logical way of building, true to structure and form and without ornament. It was the country’s then-current distance, even alienation, from that vision, which motivated the cutting caricature of The Australian Ugliness.

The book is a kind of taxonomy of local ugliness. But more than that, it is an account of the social and cultural elements that this ugliness was intended to hide. Boyd invented various terms for these elements. “Arboraphobia,” for example, is the fear and horror (and resultant clipping, pruning, and violent lopping) of native vegetation, especially trees, ostensibly because they might cause inconvenience but actually because they symbolize a morbid fear of the wild, ancient landscape. Another memorable Boydism is “Austerica”: that part of Australian culture which slavishly and vacuously imitated (imitates?) American junk culture, although not too daringly. “The latest American style is just a little too glamorous for Australia,” he wrote. “About two years old is usually just right.”

Boyd’s book is a taxonomy of local ugliness, and an account of the social and cultural elements this ugliness was intended to hide.

But the cornerstone of Boyd’s attack on Australian parochialism, tackiness, and taste was “Featurism.” An amusingly pithy version of what he meant by this can be seen in his letter to a Melbourne schoolboy who was trying to understand the Fishbowl restaurant: “I look mainly for an idea — that is, one main idea per building — instead of the usual assortment of little ideas which are shaken up together to make a building; typically, the ‘Featuremarket,’ with its many loud, stale ideas mixed together,” he wrote. 16 Much of Boyd’s critical energy focused on Featurism at the level of domestic décor and ornamentation. 17 There, in the suburban house and garden (and beyond that in urban planning, and further still in the national psyche), Boyd saw a kind of creeping encrustation of dainty, cluttered, superficial “features” designed to draw attention and catch the eye — all unnecessary, and all a quaint distraction from harder and bolder truths. As Peter Conrad wrote in a review of the 50th anniversary edition of the book:

The Australian Ugliness is actually a condemnation of the Australian prettiness. The vice it castigates is Featurism, which — according to Boyd — flinches from utility and camouflages everything in a layer of decorative kitsch that passes for beauty. A coffee table masquerades as a boomerang, and ballerinas sprinkle stardust on doormats. Suburban windows sprout gratuitous gables, and a pub passes itself off as a colonial relic with an overlay of “chintzy old-lavender charm.” Boyd saw this ornamental fussing as a symptom of our revulsion from the hot, dangerous, uninhabitable land that lies beyond the perimeter of our cities; it was evidence of our timidity, our preference for comforting illusions. 18

This anniversary version shows the text as both dated and yet still relevant, and underscores its ongoing significance in national cultural life. Conrad describes the book as “less a work of architectural criticism than a scathing literary satire” which “belongs in a tradition inaugurated in the 18th century by Pope and Swift, who also scourged ugliness and considered it a moral flaw as well as an aesthetic failing.” To be sure, the book’s approach wasn’t entirely original, even if it was early: Mathew Aitchison has convincingly argued that The Australian Ugliness, and its later cousin, Donald Gazzard’s Australian Outrage: The Decay of a Visual Environment, emerged directly from a tradition of architectural protests against the effects of modern planning and development, which has had a history and a currency on both sides of the Atlantic. 19

In the U.S. this critique was famously seen in Christopher Tunnard and Boris Pushkarev’s Man-Made America, of 1963, and a year later, in Peter Blake’s God’s Own Junkyard. In Britain, the cause was championed by the Architectural Review, specifically through its “Townscape” campaign, which began in 1949, and earlier through works such as John Betjeman’s Ghastly Good Taste, or, A Depressing Story of the Rise and Fall of English Architecture, from 1933. Aitchison finds that Boyd’s work particularly echoes Betjeman’s “peculiar fusion of the historical and the satirical,” 20 and Betjeman wrote the preface to the 1963 edition of Boyd’s book (in which he described it as being “as interesting and amusing and un-technical as a novel”). Boyd’s debt to the ideas and arguments published in AR is underscored by the striking similarity between his own illustrations and the cartoons of Gordon Cullen and Osbert Lancaster.

Antiarchitecture implies something belligerent and oppositional; something which does not take for granted architecture as the given solution to a problem.

You can, I think, trace a rather direct line from the cultural critique of The Australian Ugliness to the political argument of “Antiarchitecture.” And it’s hard to think about “antiarchitecture” without also thinking about “non-architecture” or “un-architecture.” Non-architecture might be (or might traditionally have been) a category of buildings inferior to architecture, structures which didn’t embody sufficient gravitas, or beauty, or conceptual excess, to qualify as architecture. Un-architecture might be something more entropic, something starting out as architecture but losing that status through ruination; or perhaps (more in the zombie mode) something which looks like architecture but is in fact its uncanny opposite. But antiarchitecture is another thing altogether; antiarchitecture implies something more belligerent, more oppositional, more critical, and perhaps more nihilistic; something which does not take for granted architecture as the given solution to a problem, or perhaps refuses architecture per se, as building or form.

Maybe it’s time we architects finally found our passion and our righteous fury, and joined the protest.

Antiarchitecture, wrote Boyd, “wants desperately to be in with the big league revolutionaries of the other arts and to smash open the core of architecture and find something absolutely different inside.” So what if architecture were not the solution, but in fact the problem? Antiarchitecture would be the best possible response. Maybe its time has come: the time to overcome our docile apathy, our polite fatalism, our beholdenness to (apolitical) disciplinary institutions and (repressive) disciplinary canons. Maybe it’s time we finally found our passion and our righteous fury, and joined the protest. Just how much do we have left to lose? Maybe the moment is finally here: to smash open the core of architecture, and be ready to embrace the “absolutely different” social and political antiarchitectural practices we find inside.

Architecture Forum, November 1968.
From Architectural Forum, November 1968.

Antiarchitecture (1968)

by Robin Boyd

A protest movement had to happen in architecture as in everything else. It was a bit late on the scene and sometimes even now it seems to lack real anarchical heat and a true sense of purifying destructiveness. Symptomatically, the architecture students in their various universities around the world have been among the last to jump on the Student Power steamroller. But the more interesting phenomenon is the thinness of the attack so far by the practicing avant-garde on architecture itself, compared with the attacks on every other kindred activity from art to religion, drama, and the novel.

For instance, an acceptable antihero of a satisfying anti-novel is unquestionably a nauseating slob bearing no resemblance whatsoever to the traditional product. Beside him Venturi is a square and the Archigrams are Tories. Perhaps it is, as Reyner Banham once suggested, that architects make poor revolutionaries because they don’t like the idea of buildings being blown sky-high. Banham is a true revolutionary, and so is Buckminster Fuller, but neither is an architect, strictly speaking, and to be an effective antihero you must first be cast in the hero’s role. Nevertheless, an architects’ antiarchitecture movement is at last warming up. It is not to be confused with any of the stylistic revisions that have swept through modern architecture since the revolution. Throughout the first 50 years of this century most of the avant-garde in each succeeding generation was loyally fighting on architecture’s side. Sometimes the revolutionaries were romantics, like the Utopians of Germany after World War I, embarrassing architecture with claims of cosmic immortality. Sometimes the revolutionaries were dour realists, like the New Brutalists of Britain in the 1950s, intent on scraping away all sticky accretions and getting down to the core. The aim, with one exception, was to find, cleanse, and elevate the spirit of architecture.

The one exception was the Constructivist movement of the 1920s, which gives antiarchitecture a nice ancestry. Its revival is a product of the ’60s. Antiarchitecture promises a more radical revolution than that of any new design style. It is fascinated by the population explosion and plugging-in and pop, by McLuhan, of course, and by systems and electronics; and it yearns for the day when it will be able to surrender itself entirely to a computer. All this leads to a concentration on open-ended planning, subdivision of elements, changeability, even portability. But these qualities are found in a lot of advanced architecture. Antiarchitecture goes further. It is compulsively opposed to visible concepts, design, and order. It wants desperately to be in with the big league revolutionaries of the other arts and to smash open the core of architecture and find something absolutely different inside. Its credo goes something like this: burn, form, burn; only social pressures and technological development will shape buildings from now on.

John M. Johansen is one of the latest to voice it. “The ‘form giving’ period is waning,” he wrote, apropos of his design for Oklahoma City’s Mummers Theater. “Architecture as we knew it is no longer effective in its solutions,” Johansen declared, but he betrayed a sneaking regard for it, just the same, when he added “— nor even compelling in its esthetic expression.” A really determined antiarchitect has no time for esthetics of any sort, and is not looking for alternative expressions.

Sooner or later we will all have to declare ourselves for or against it. Some pattern in the tangled web of current architectural theories and practice (or at least some harmless amusement) may be found in the exercise of categorizing any advanced architects who come to mind into those who have and those who have not yet declared. On the right you place all those still seeking architecture in the Vitruvian sense: with strength, utility, and appearance (however odd) balanced somehow. On the left you put those seeking antiarchitecture by kicking away the third leg of the tripod.

For instance, while John Johansen has now all but declared himself for antiarchitecture, not so long ago he and Paul Rudolph could be, and frequently were, associated among the leaders of the space-makers. The whole corpus of Rudolph’s work, however, indicated that he stands for architecture forever. So, undoubtedly, does Louis Kahn, but not necessarily all the Diagonalism set that follows him.

Again, Robert Venturi is edging always closer to antiarchitecture and will finally eliminate his own contradictions only when he actually achieves it. Yet Charles Moore and all the New Barnists are confirmed on the side of architecture. (Incidentally, unfamiliarity or ugliness are in themselves no reliable indicators of antiarchitecture. The fashionable clumsy look is deliberately created, positive architecture. Shattered forms and complexity are esthetic devices. Contradiction, however, is a splendid antiarchitectural invention.)

Then, the English Archigrams and the Japanese Metabolists may be easily dropped into left and right groups respectively. Their fanciful megacities have much in common, but at heart the two movements are very different. While the Archigrams have visions of freedom from all esthetic rules and demands, the Metabolists are deeply concerned with the traditional qualities of composition and unity. Their motivating concept of orderly growth and change is meaningless except in the framework of architecture.

Antiarchitecture has its foot in the door to architectural theory, but it is hampered by two or three realities. One is that all the examples we have seen so far are only on paper. Antiarchitecture has not been built — yet.

Another disability is that every successful example of antiarchitecture seems to be doomed to almost immediate self-cancellation. Just as soon as anyone does manage to achieve antiarchitecture — that is, a building purified during its creation by total and deliberate disregard for appearances — just as soon or an instant later it will become architecture. For immediately someone is bound to like the way it looks, if only for its novelty. The visual quality will thus be extracted. Then someone else or the originator himself will repeat the formula. The purity will be gone. The new thing will be a new style or at least a new esthetic influence. The best projected attempts to reach antiarchitecture — from the Vesnins’ design for Leningrad’s Pravda building in 1924 to the Archigrams to Johansen — already have merged into a recognizable image. It has a diversity of unrelated shed shapes and cylinders connected by tilted service pipes and conveyer belts. In short: Minehead style.

The secret of the weakness of the antiarchitecture movement is in the strength of architecture: not necessarily as it was, is, or will be practiced, but as an idea. Its strength is in its suppleness. It is as loosely defined as art, and so can slip out from under any attempt to squash it. It can comply with any new demand of society or technology without losing its inspirational quality as an idea. So the forces that are potentially antiarchitectural are fragmented and diverted. They become focused on side issues and finish up as being merely antistyle or antigeometry or antiart or anti the architect. Architecture can take all such attacks and keep standing.

So architecture will bend to meet antiarchitecture and immediately will spring up again. This is inevitable because, while to its planner and its computer programmer and its owner and its occupiers a building may be reduced to matters of strength and utility, no one else cares much about its strength or gives a damn about its utility. To all the rest of the world it is important only as part of the environment and a machine for being looked at.

About the Series

This is the latest installment in Future Archive. Seeded by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, the series is now supported by contributions from our readers.

Editors' Note

“Antiarchitecture” was originally published in the November 1968 issue of Architectural Forum. The magazine ceased publication in 1974, and the essay appears here with the permission of the Robin Boyd Foundation.

  1. Geoffrey Serle, “Foreword,” Transition, no. 38, 1992, 15
  2. See for example Helen Stuckey, “ABC Television Series; Introduction,” Transition, no. 38, 1992, 132-134, and the transcript of the ABC Television series “The Changing Face of Australian Cities,” of 1961, Transition, no. 38, 1992, 135-156.
  3. See Robin Boyd, Victorian Modern: one hundred and eleven years of modern architecture in Victoria (Melbourne: Victorian Architectural Students Society, 1947).
  4. Geoffrey Serle writes: “He was seen mainly as a domestic architect and writer. Berenice Harris is certain that he had no appeal for businessmen: ‘Perhaps they thought he was too “arty” and wouldn’t be tough enough.’ … Daryl Jackson agrees: a critic, a theorist, one who had been such a stirrer, was automatically banned.” Geoffrey Serle: Robin Boyd: A Life (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1995), 263. Serle writes also that Boyd was “a stirrer who, professionally and otherwise, to some degree suffered from his stirring.” Geoffrey Serle, “Foreword,” Transition, no. 38, 1992, 15. Philip Goad relays fellow architect Roy Grounds’s description of Boyd as a “scribbler,” meant as pejorative. See Philip Goad, “Robin Boyd and the Art of Writing Architecture,” in Naomi Stead, editor, Semi-Detached: Writing, Representation and Criticism in Architecture (Melbourne: Uro, 2012).
  5. The Walsh Street House is now the headquarters of the Robin Boyd Foundation, which holds part of his archives and runs exhibitions and educational programs.
  6. On the 700 articles, see Geoffrey Serle, “Foreword,” Transition, no. 38, 1992, 15. For a more detailed account of his writing for The Age, The Herald, and The Australian, see Philip Goad, “Robin Boyd and the Art of Writing Architecture.”
  7. See Neil Clerehan, “The Age Small Homes Service,” in Transition, no. 38, 1992, 57-69
  8. “The Boyd/Gropius Letters, selected correspondence between Robin & Patricia Boyd and Walter & Ise Gropius, 1958-1962,” in Transition, no. 38, 1992, 119-131. There are fascinating moments here, as when Ise Gropius writes to Boyd in December 1959 that she has brought his writing to the attention of Giedion: “We had wanted very much for him to get acquainted with your writings since there are so very few voices not intoxicated with one or other of the current fashions. The drought of relevant criticism here in the States is phenomenal and if it weren’t for Mumford’s occasional blasts there would be no consistent comment at all. But he is a rather sour apple as you know and people get tired of Kassandraesque lamentations if ever so distinguished, just as women in general would rather attend the end of the world in a Dior dress instead of in ‘sackcloth and ashes.’” (This quotation has corrected the numerous typographical errors in the original.)
  9. Around the time of Boyd’s essay, in the art world, Marcel Broodthaers and Hans Haacke and their ilk began (after Duchamp) to engage in institutional critiques which would push the conventions and assumptions of art and its institutions to the brink, such that most progressive art practice has become a form of attack on, or negation of, art itself.
  10. Robin Boyd, “Look Back in Apathy,” Meanjin, Vol. 17, No. 2, Winter 1958: 175-178. About the layman’s response, he wrote: “Nothing else produced by man in the name of art — no poor play, no incompetent painting, no dull poem, no cacophony of music — makes a layman so furious as a building which he considers arty but impractical.” See also Conrad Hamann and Chris Hamann, “Anger and the New Order: Some Aspects of Robin Boyd’s Career,” Transition, no. 38, 1992, 17-43.
  11. Peter Raisbeck argues that Boyd did attempt to enact some principles of anti-architecture in his built work, namely Menzies College at Latrobe University of 1965, and the Space Tube, designed for the Australian pavilion at Expo 1970 in Osaka. Peter Raisbeck, “Architecture or AntiArchitecture: Robin Boyd’s Experimental Tectonics,” in Fabrications: The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians of Australia and New Zealand, vol 21, no 1, January 2012, 6-33.
  12. I’m grateful to Philip Goad for his generous assistance in the preparation of this article. See also Philip Goad, “Robin Boyd and the Art of Writing Architecture” and Geoffrey Serle: Robin Boyd: A Life.
  13. Personal communication with Philip Goad, via email, 9 June 2017.
  14. There are certainly other commentators and critics working in the Australian and U.S. contexts who might also claim this title. I name de Botton and McCloud here because of their engagement with mass media — de Botton through his blockbuster books of popular philosophy, most relevantly The Architecture of Happiness, and McCloud through the long-running TV program Grand Designs, broadcast on Channel 4.
  15. Robin Boyd, “These Critical Times,” Journal of Architectural Education, 12: 2 (Summer 1957), 33-6, http://doi.org/cd98.
  16. Robin Boyd, letter to Martin Elks, published in Transition, no. 38, 1992, 190.
  17. See Hamann and Hamann, “Anger and the New Order: Some Aspects of Robin Boyd’s Career.”
  18. Peter Conrad, “Coming of age: Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness fifty years on,” The Monthly, January 2010.
  19. See Mathew Aitchison, “The Boyd Ultimatum,” AA Files, No. 66 (2013), 59-67
  20. Aitchsion, “The Boyd Ultimatum,” 63.
Naomi Stead, “(Not So) Anti-Architecture,” Places Journal, October 2017. Accessed 03 Oct 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/171017

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