Habitus is a new quarterly Australian architecture magazine of some promise. The Australian architecture and interiors magazine market is pretty well stocked, led by the likes of Monument, Architecture Australia, Architectural Review Australia, (Inside), Artichoke, C+A (the extraordinarily elegant publication of Cement Concrete and Aggregates Australia - yes, really), and several others. There are some failings in this set - they’re perhaps overly fixated on image (though this tends to come with the medium); perhaps overly focused on domestic architecture - a particular local strength (and failing) - and Architecture Australia occasionally suffers from being the ‘house mag’ of the AIA and so can be a little “uncritical” (in the words of a local architect friend). There’s nothing particularly avant-garde here either, for which we’d turn to a few of the good university offshoots, such as Mongrel/Subaud. All told, though, there is often good value in all of these publications and it’s a pretty strong showing.
However, Habitus launches unperturbed into this feisty local market with a smart new take on what local actually is. The editorial stance that particularly interests me is its focus on the architecture of Australia, New Zealand and South-East Asia, seeing this region as a broad continuum of spaces, places, terrain, climate and culture. In the words of editor Paul McGillick:
“Habitus is about cultural engagement - about architects and designers from Australia, New Zealand and South-East Asia enriching one another in an on-going dialogue. The differences and commonalities all add up to a matrix of ideas which can lead to better outcomes for the environment we live in.”
This is not only a great idea but a strong guiding mission, recognising that Australian and New Zealand cities are essentially Asian now, and also the potential for local architects and designers in this wider ‘common market’. It also means the pages are replete with gorgeous tropical houses from Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines, all warm concrete and burnished wood slowly being engulfed in verdant foliage, surrounded by green-tinged pools and dense eruptions of palms and Tembesu trees. The sheer fecundity of these environments often combine to make the Aus/NZ houses look as if they’re situated in positively spartan terrain, no mean feat. The projects range from enormous mansions to the smallest interventions in the environment, and are balanced with contributions from across the region (though there’s little from Australia north of Sydney in this particular issue, unfortunately.)
There are houses here by ‘superstars’ such as Glenn Murcutt and Bruce Rickard, and established regional architects like Kevin Low and Casey Brown Architects, as well as intriguing choices of work by artist/architect Richard Goodwin, for instance - an extraordinary winged structure in Tasmania, with details inspired by a Messerschmitt ME109 no less - and many South-East Asian architects who were new to me, but instantly fascinating.
It’s also good to see a simple renovation in suburban Melbourne amidst the superstar properties. Ensuring that these more modest, attainable houses and renovations remain part of the mix will broaden its appeal whilst retaining a role as a standard-bearer for everyday good design. There are decent spreads on furniture, interiors and product design at the newsy front end of the book and a brief coda based around an excursion to Berlin’s art-led urban renewal and Milan’s Salone, which provide a counterpoint to the focus on this part of the world.
The editorial design looks to be a little ‘inspired’ by Monocle (similar size; same ‘classical’ approach to layout and typography; matt paper stock for the first half, gloss for the photo-led second half; “issue 01” and so on), but this is no bad thing. It certainly reaches up to the bar in terms of production design, clarity and gravity.
My cut of projects in this issue would include Kevin Low’s beautiful garden houses in Malaysia, Murcutt’s White House in Jamberoo, CASE’s ‘TEN Bangkok’ development, Bedmar & Shi’s twin houses in Nassim Road in Singapore, Ko Shiou Hee’s Landscape House from the same city, a lovely review of a 1970 John Scott home for potters Bruce and Estelle Martin in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, and the midget Mudgee Tower by Casey Brown Architecture.
As Philip Drew points out, the Mudgee Tower looks like an outsized take on Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly helmet from the outside, but opens up to the landscape like a flower.
If we can be a bit critical, the magazine’s subtitle “Living in design” indicates that its focus is domestic, a message reinforced by the choices inside. However, I’d love to see the focus broaden from this, to include other places for living, such as workplaces and communal or community spaces. Living and working and playing are not diametrically opposed, but blurred into one another. This gives the magazine a far wider remit than it has observed thus far.
I’d also suggest that it is falling into a well-worn trap when surveying the region’s architecture - that of the wondrous house as ‘object in the remote landscape’, which is all too easily beautiful, given the landscape in question. A far more interesting architectural problem is how to create civilised living spaces in tight, dense urban contexts rather than the Mornington Peninsular - something I’ve written about before. The idea of these houses as a “laboratory for new ideas”, in the words of Robin Boyd talking about the modern experiments of the Mornington Peninsular and Port Philip Bay from the 1950s onwards, is all well and good but not many of those new ideas have moved to the city - to where people live - during the half century since. Given the regional remit - does it extend as far north as Hong Kong or Okinawa? - it’s also an area that Habitus where could genuinely make a difference, drawing from the best practice of South-East Asia and colliding that with the history and context of Australasian cities.
To be fair, the communal TEN Bangkok housing project by CASE begins to explore these ideas, as do some of the ideas in the wonderful houses of Boonlert Hemvijitraphan, albeit expressed in fairly luxurious form. TEN Bangkok is particularly interesting given the co-created design process led by the eventual inhabitants (see also the wonderful community development Machida-Shi in Tokyo, in the latest Monocle, incidentally. These developments, where a group of client/occupants are also the designers of medium-density living spaces, would be a useful theme for someone to explore in more detail.)
From a production point-of-view, the editorial design needs a little tightening - if you go for the rigour implied by the grid and typography, every single aspect has to be perfect - but is generally elegant, restrained and thus easy to use. In avoiding the playful graphic ploys and pleas of Dwell, Mark and the rest, it strives for a higher order of discourse on its subject. Traditional, almost restrained in form and approach, it actually provides a useful contrast to much of the rest of the architecture magazine market.
A fold-out of the Murcutt house works beautifully, given the long, low cattle shed form.
It's also good so see an architecture magazine occasionally featuring photographs of buildings with people in them.
The writing is a little variable, as ever, but the articles by Philip Drew and a couple of others set a high standard indeed. It’s good to see plans for all houses (save the Mudgee Tower, which has a little sketch instead) as well as all details of contractors, furniture etc. The binding fell apart in my copy, perhaps not helped by being short-hauled between Brisbane and Sydney a couple of times, but this is the fate of a handbag-sized magazine and needs fixing.
But these minor quibbles can be dealt with over time. It’s good to see this smart little magazine emerge, particularly given the smart regional focus, and good luck to it. Issue 02 of Habitus is out now and available worldwide.