On painting bricks white

This is one of Charmian Clift’s essays ….while she supported the rights of women  and migrants ( this is back in the 1960s remember), called for social justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, 

opposed conscription and the war in Vietnam, acknowledged Australia’s role in the Asia-Pacific, fought censorship, called for a local film industry and much much more, she set a new benchmark for the form of the essay in Australian Literature.

I chose this essay from the new edition of “Sneaky Little Revolutions” as before this I was never brave enough to admit how much I loathe brick houses!!

(From “Sneaky Little Revolutions” Selected Essays by Charmian Clift. Edited by Nadia Wheatley. Published by NewSouth.) 

Idling around the neighbourhood blocks just a little time ago we noticed a piece of construction – or alteration, rather – in progress on a private garage that fronts one of the avenues. A couple of men were busily bricking in the entire opening. This in itself was not very interesting and I don’t know why we even remarked on it, except that it is a little curious these days to see someone sealing off car space rather than building extra, and one wondered (vaguely) why. Had the owners come to what is called The End of the Tether with all automobiles? Or were they nobly sacrificing car space to a growing family’s need for living space? Making a rumpus room? An extra bedroom? A garden shed? Another few square feet of brick doesn’t matter much one way or another around these parts. 

Only, the next time we passed that way we really did stop and stare. Because the couple of men had a brush apiece, and a big pail, and they were sloshing whitewash all over the completed area of raw brick. Real whitewash. We both stifled a mad impulse to cheer. Instead we walked around the corner to look at the house (which the garage obscured) for the first time. An ordinary house, brick, of course, of the post-World War I ‘bungalow’ period, uninteresting architecturally, but soundly built, probably very comfortable inside (one imagined plaster ceilings with mouldings, and vaguely William Morris fanlights), and transformed from ordinariness into grace by the fact of being painted white. 

This was like being given a bonus, or an unexpected Christmas present, and led us to some further explorations, and some further thoughts on the pleasingness of painting bricks white. 

Australian suburban architecture is without doubt or question the ugliest in the world. There is nothing to come near it on the civilised globe – or uncivilised either, for that matter: grass huts are beautifully cohesive and harmonious. 

Approach any capital city from the air and just look at the rectilinear grids of terracotta ruled out in a stupendous monotony of elementary geometry, a statistical nightmare of raw repetition. Actually, if one makes the urban approach by road instead of air, it is all too horribly apparent that the sameness is deceptive. How in all the world do Australian brick manufacturers manage so many variations on such a painful chromatic theme? 

Over and above the dominant Humours – Choleric, Sanguine, Phlegmatic, Melancholic – there are Splenetic bricks, Liverish bricks, Apoplectic bricks, Bibulous bricks (those purplish ones like old drunks’ noses), and bricks which appear to have been steeped before baking in the Pancreatic Juices for a special variegated effect. 

This is all the more fascinating since bricks aren’t (or shouldn’t be) in themselves hideous. Bricks are a good honest form of building material and have a long and distinguished history. 

Men have been building with bricks for at least five thousand years and probably a good deal longer. Bricks were the very first prefabricated building material. The Egyptians used them, and the Mesopotamians, the Assyrians and the Persians. The Etruscans brought their ancient craft knowledge to Italy, the Romans passed it on to the Byzantines, who, in turn, influenced the Seljuk and Ottoman Turk. Byzantine brick buildings furnished prototypes for the great Lombard development of brick buildings in the eleventh century, and bricks came to dominate the architecture of northern Germany, Denmark, the Low Countries, and England. 

Bricks were good enough for Ur of the Chaldees, the Tower of Babel, the Pyramids of Dashur, the Palace of Sargon, the Sassanian dynasty palace near Baghdad, the Colosseum, the Church of Agia Sophia in Constantinople, Brunelleschi’s dome in the Duomo in Florence, Michelangelo’s in St Peter’s, Wren’s in St Paul’s, the palace of Hampton Court (as well as a thousand other brick castles, manor houses and chateaux all over Europe), whole cities such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen, and the supreme grace and elegance of the Georgian period of architecture in England. 

It can’t be just age (and soot?) alone that produces that effect of quiet, mellow vibrancy. Perhaps it is a peculiar quality of light? For, certainly, whether one approaches an Australian city by land, sea, or air, all that brick gives a sort of inflamed effect. 

Very distinguished architects and authorities have talked a lot and written a lot about the Great Australian Ugliness, and fulminated (with justice, I think) against the architectural errors of the past, and the architectural delinquencies of the present. I have just been reading Robin Boyd (whom I would recommend as required reading to anyone really interested in what makes us tick as a people and as a country) and agree with him absolutely that it is the uses to which perfectly honest bricks have been put that is the core of the ugliness. 

But – alas – what’s done is done, and we can hardly, even in the cause of aesthetics, bulldoze down whole square miles of errors and delinquencies and start again. No, the double-fronts and the bow-fronts and the feature windows and the sundecks will have to stand now, and the ‘contemporaries’ and the ‘semi- contemporaries’ and all those ‘home units’ that look like tall, ransacked chests of drawers. Perhaps, one golden day soon, people will begin planting trees to replace those that have been hacked down by the subdividers – those great Australian axemen – to make way for the bare building plots, and then branches and leaves will mercifully soften and disguise the nude brick boxes. 

In the meantime, what we could do – and I know this is a revolutionary thought – is to get out the whitewash brushes. 

In the course of our explorations (begun on the fact and the hope of one whitewashed garage) we happened upon some lovely individual discoveries of white houses – old, new, beautiful, ugly-made-beautiful – and finally a whole street of white houses. I would think they were built in the 1920s, not one of them pretentious, not one of them beautiful, with the usual old half-verandah and projecting gabled front room, all standing back at a decent number of feet from their front gates and lawns. 

But because they were all white the whole street was cohesive. It had a harmony and unity and dignity far beyond the architectural worth of any of its individual components. No house was competing with its neighbours for attention, and all that clean white under the blue sky made a tranquil background for pretty gardens and green grass and a few spectacular blood- red bracts of bougainvillea. 

I was reminded, naturally enough, I expect, of Mediterranean towns, towns of Calabria, towns of any Aegean island, towns that are really only huts made of mud and daub riveted to bare treeless hillsides and breathtakingly beautiful because they are painted white. Property owners (and tenants too) are compelled by law to whitewash their houses once a year. On Mykonos, an island busting out at every cobbled seam with civic pride and tourist-awareness, it is twice a year. 

The point is that the tourists – Australian tourists, many of them, straight from the inflamed brick areas – make the proper gasping responses and start in frenetically with their cameras. 

Perhaps it is all a question of the peculiarities of light. Naked brick becomes mellow and vibrant under soft European light, but just wouldn’t do in the Mediterranean, where whitewash works better, for harmony and beauty (and camouflage too). 

I know it’s a daring suggestion, but I’ll make it anyway. Might not a poultice of whitewash reduce the inflammation of our brick areas also? 

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