SUVENDRINI PERERA is Professor of Cultural Analysis at Curtin University. She has lived on Malcolm Street, Fremantle, for more than 10 years.
AT a meeting on October 22, despite a range of spoken and written objections from more than a dozen locals, a majority of Fremantle councillors approved a development on Malcolm Street in a decision that will diminish this city’s store of cultural heritage, contributing to the effective obliteration from the landscape of a highly distinctive form of Australian architecture: the migrant house of the 1950s and 1960s.
This shortsighted move in the name of “development” stands to homogenise the city’s layered multicultural heritage at the same time that progressive local councils in NSW and Victoria are moving to recognise the cultural, aesthetic and, yes, economic value of this form of Australian vernacular architecture, sometimes known as Fediterranea for its blending of Federation and Mediterranean styles.
Researchers from the School of Architecture at Deakin University note in a recent scholarly report that migrant houses of the 1950s and 1960s are characterised by a distinctive visual idiom and set of cultural practices. They point out that traditional architectural histories, and the planning policies to which they have given rise, often fail to recognise the value of the architectural contributions of migrants “from such countries as Italy, Greece and Yugoslavia after the Second World War [who] brought previous knowledge of building methods and materials, their own decorative styles and aesthetics, and divergent everyday life practices” (Is the Migrant House in Australia an Australian Vernacular Architecture, 2013).
The houses were often built by the residents themselves, drawing on traditional techniques and communal resources, with men from the community working together on a building during weekends over extended periods, while women cooked and served the longed-for foods of home at the end of each day. As such, these houses represent a unique Australian social, architectural and visual history.
Within the monocultural framework adopted by many architects and planners, the vernacular buildings of non-British migrants to Australia are viewed as so many blots on the landscape: out of place, awkward, ugly. Yet, in their very divergence from colonial British norms, these visual reminders, no less than the new culinary and cultural forms of non-Anglo migrants, assert a different claim to space.
In an urgent message to councillors and the Fremantle planning department, Professor Joseph Pugliese of Macquarie University, a colleague with whom I collaborate, pointed out that “distinctive architectural features of Mediterranean migrant house [including features] such as sculptural figures of lions . . . are designed as boundary markers that defy monocultural spaces by asserting migrant difference and identity”.
“The use of Mediterranean colonnades and columns are also key features of this architectural style. Such architectural features evoke important cultural relations between migrant countries of origin and their new homeland in Australia. These features exemplify the development of distinctive migrant architectural styles that contribute to the rich and diverse built heritage of our suburbs.”
Professor Pugliese, who uses visuals of the house on Malcolm Street in his lectures on migrant architecture, pointed out that whereas, “migrant architectural styles are often dismissively derided as examples of ‘bad taste’ what this architecture actually demonstrates is . . . a graphic instance of cultural resistance to dominant, assimilationist demands”.
“The migrant home/garden, for example, that intermixes fruit, vegetables and flowers in the same space, enables the articulation of migrant cultural identity whilst simultaneously creating a space for refuge and sanctuary.”
Pugliese, a scholar of international reputation, did not receive so much as an acknowledgment of his expert input from council staff or representatives.
My own attempts to raise related concerns both in public meetings and individual consultations too were dismissed on the grounds that council planning guidelines do not allow for the recognition of anything other than Victorian or Edwardian architectural heritage. A councillor stated the question of the migrant house might be considered in future council meetings, but had no response when it was pointed out that by then it would be too late for the house in question.
The loss of one of the last remaining migrant houses on our street is a matter of sadness for Fremantle with its strong multicultural past. Along with the olive trees, lemon trees and grapevines that have spread themselves through our gardens and verges, the architecture of the migrant house—its proud lions acting as threshold markers, its columns and balusters lovingly connecting this place to remembered landscapes, its hybrid materials and strong colours—speaks of an Australian identity that resists the assimilationist effort to contain and domesticate.
Such houses refuse to present the sanitised and prettied up face of “diversity” so favoured by our neoliberal proponents of “development”. They are not the ephemeral commodities dreamed up by market multiculturalism, but living artefacts of migrant histories.
The spirit of such living artefacts is imperceptible before the unrelenting monculturalism of our planning codes. The fate of the house, the presiding councillor bluntly declared in closing to the assembled residents of our street, was not a matter of a “peoples’ plebiscite” but adherence to “planning policies”. Policies before people: out of its own mouth, could there be a more appropriate credo for a local leadership that arrogantly derides community sentiment as it sets about the business of remaking this once bold, vibrant and inclusive town in its own narrow and unimaginative image?