Australia is a country really isolated and far away from everything, which might make many people think it is a strange place, nonetheless, at least culturally, it is not far from what we westerners consider familiar at all. Therefore, it is not a surprise that there are so many similarities between Australian, North European and North American Architecture and urbanism. More in particular, as expected, Australia has a lot in common with other former British colonies, such as US, Canada, South Africa and of course the very source of all this influence, the UK itself.
To begin with, there is something very common in the urban development of all Australian cities regardless of differences in size, landscape or climate conditions. An aerial view of a typical Aussie city usually gives you the impression of a spinning top, with an extremely high concentration of high rise buildings in the so-called Central Building District (CBD – city Centre in the UK or downtown in North America) surrounded by a spread out area (suburbia) that predominantly consists of houses with gardens, big parks and recreation zones.
It is an undeniable fact that Australia lacks anything but space. It has more or less the size of Europe, the US or Brazil, though at the same time its population is hardly 25 million people. In other words, almost an entire continent (if you exclude New Zealand and some other nearby archipelagos) has roughly the population of Shanghai, Sao Paulo or Mexico City alone. Australia has 7 states with quite big climatic and landscape differences, which inevitably affects each place’s architecture.
The states are Western Australia (WA), Northern Territory (NT), Victoria (VIC), South Australia (SA), Tasmania (TAS), New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland (QLD). The respective capitals are Perth, Darwin, Melbourne, Adelaide, Hobart, Sydney and Brisbane. The country’s capital lies in a small enclave within NSW and is called Canberra, in honour of the Aboriginal (native Australian) name of the country before the arrival of the Europeans, Camera. Its biggest cities are Sydney (5.1 miles), Melbourne (4.8 miles), Brisbane (2.4 miles), Perth (2 miles), Adelaide (1.3 miles) and Canberra (0.5 miles). Tasmania’s capital Hobart is a bit smaller (225.000) and Darwin even smaller (145.000). It is worth highlighting here that the decision to place the government’s seat in such a small city between Sydney and Melbourne – worth mentioning that even the 2nd biggest city of Queensland and maybe most popular holiday destination, the Gold Coast has almost 0.7 mil people – was made due to the continuous rivalry between the 2 by far largest cities.
Contrary to most economically developed countries, that are usually cold, Australia has a climate that varies from moderate in the south (close to or even warmer than the Mediterranean one) to tropical (warm and humid) in the north or hot and dry in inland’s deserts. Victoria and the big island in its south called Tasmania are the coldest states, whereas the northern part of WA, NT and QLD are the most tropical ones. These climate differences inevitably have an impact on local weather phenomena, such as severe drought in the middle of the country, devastating cyclones in Queensland or heavy storms and hurling winds in the WA. In other cases, like Sydney’s in NSW there are other obstacles to be surmounted, such as the extremely complex landscape that consists of numerous oblong gulfs and bays, formed by the deep penetration of the water into the land, which results in obliging people to link the different parts of the city with big and of course structurally demanding and costly bridges.
However, all states have something very important in common, which is by far the biggest advantage of the Australian construction sector in comparison with other, even ostensibly similar countries which is the lack of earthquakes. This, together with the lack of archeological findings – due to the young age of the country and the nomadic life of indigenous tribes before the arrival of European settlers – and a vast, practically limitless landmass simplified the life of local builders and developers providing them with the extraordinary privilege of ex. building houses without concrete or steel structure. Instead, just timber cladding with bricks and tiles would prove to be more than sufficient.
Nevertheless, despite all these significant sizes, landscape and climatic differences, Australian cities are based on certain repeated patterns and share quite a few common features:
- There is a huge height difference between the CBD and the surrounding suburbs and outskirts.
- They are all extremely spread out to the point that sometimes it is extremely hard to define metropolitan areas’ boundaries.
- There is no need for central heating even in the theoretically coldest parts of the country. In a typical Aussie house or apartment you will mainly come across AC systems.
- The lack of earthquakes allows the omission of concrete and steel structure at least in one store buildings.
- All internal walls are made of gyprock. Brick walls are extremely hard to find.
- The mounting of prefabricated panel technique prevails in the industry even when it comes to high rise building concrete structures thanks to the lack of earthquakes which does not impose the use of reinforced poured concrete.
- Safety and disabled persons’ protection is of utmost importance in Australia and certifiers are particularly meticulous about it. Even stores of globally renowned brands fail to obtain or even lose the permit to open or continue to operate due to lack or even slightly incorrect installation of ostensibly small and trivial items like tactile indicators in front of staircases (small relieve knobs on the floor that allow blind people to perceive an eventual change of direction), escalators and travellators, handrails even for 2-3 step staircases, smoke baffles (protruding glass barriers hanging from entrance lintels that prevent smoke from leaking and spreading throughout the rest of the shopping Centre in the event of fire) and so on. Moreover, it is a common observation for example that structural engineers tend to exaggerate by asking for the extreme amount of steel just to support retail shopfronts inside a totally protected environment of a shopping Centre in a country without earthquakes. People of the industry have even invented the special term “over engineering” to describe this phenomenon.
- A great deal of old listed, government and public buildings, in general, tend to resemble ancient Greek or Roman temples, something quite common in other countries too, especially in new found territories outside Europe like America. It is extremely common for instance to come across a city hall with Doric Order capitals or an Ionic Order bank or a Corinthian Order museum. The prevailing theory about it is that when a building reminds you of an ancient temple you tend to trust it more. It makes sense. Most people would trust temples and churches, wouldn’t they?
- The vast majority of the people prefer shopping Centers (Attention! Mall = promenade or pedestrian road down-under) to free-standing stores and oddly enough in all shopping Centers you come across more or less the same brands which are placed in more or less the same order.
- The country’s biggest companies have an identical skyscraper in all big (over 1 million) city Centers.
- Almost all main Australian cities are at the water. The only exceptions are the capital which lies in the inland between Sydney and Melbourne and Alice Springs which is in the very middle of the desert. This is clear evidence to the fact the ocean and water, in general, is an extremely important element to people’s lives and consequently to their architecture. Aussies love building next to water and Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane, Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast, Noosa and many other places along the endless Australian coastline have amazing architectural samples of all kinds at the water. Something that really catches the visitor’s eye is the big number of buildings of various sizes lying on platforms based on piles installed on the bottom of the water. This clearly indicates the people’s wish and effort to live and operate as close to the water as possible and, as a matter of fact, this is the closest someone can get.
- The young age of the country is more than obvious in the small towns because everything there is brand new and built from scratch. It is impossible to miss the lack of history and the succession of different historical periods usually reflected on the architecture of the “old world” like Europe (especially Italy and Greece whose history goes deep back in time), China, Japan, Thailand or Cambodia in Asia or Peru and Mexico in America.
- Despite the huge number of various nationalities that live nowadays in all big Australian cities you cannot really spot massive differences among neighbourhoods since people tend to mingle more than in respective cases in countries like the US for instance. This results in astonishingly low social and economic gaps between different ethnic and social layers, lack of ghettos and surprisingly low criminality rates. The only obviously marginalized group in modern Australia are the native Australians (alias: Aboriginals) who had more or less the same fate as native Americans or other indigenous populations swallowed by western expansion throughout the world.
- The obvious economic growth, the multinational society, the limitless landmass, the institutionalised religious, racial, sexual, speech and other types of freedom, the fact that it is the only western country, together with New Zealand, next to Eastern Asia and the without precedent climate, landscape, flora and fauna diversion renders Australia a unique case globally and this couldn’t possibly have left its architecture unaffected. Especially its public architecture includes impressive common areas, huge parks on the limit of being called forests, imposing suspended bridges, perfectly preserved and equipped motorways, tunnels, airports, railroad networks, stunning sport complexes, temples of all known religions, gigantic shopping Centres, museums, picturesque markets and arcades, well preserved and cleverly reformed and utilised listed buildings and so forth are just some of the architectural achievements both locals and visitors could enjoy in Australia.
Let’s have a closer and more detailed look at the main architectural styles and at what Australian architecture has to offer nowadays.
Australia’s most important architectural styles