London architecture scholars appraise Snelling

Posted by Davina Jackson 19 November 2015

In 2016, centenary of Douglas Snelling's birth at Gravesend, on the Thames east of London, British publishers Ashgate-Routledge are launching the first book about Douglas Snelling. How will his career and creations be judged by architecture historians in his birth country?

Two thought leaders with London's Architectural Association School of Architecture – Mark Cousins and John Andrews – provide their initial impressions of Snelling as an 'Englishman abroad'. Before commenting, they separately surveyed images of Snelling's furniture, interiors, buildings, landscapes and resort concepts, and were briefed on his basic story by Snelling's biographer, Davina Jackson.


Mark Cousins—AA Director History and Theory Studies

Mark Cousins

Mark Cousins

Q: Here is a studio portrait of Douglas Snelling at the height of his career in Sydney — and you know his basic biographical details. What are your first impressions?

This guy seems tailor-made to be in some sense loathed by academics; university-based architectural historians. Because he is in several senses an outsider. First of all, he's working class in a profession which at the time was very much for gentlemen with a private income. Secondly he's self-taught. Thirdly, it seems likely to me that his modernism was picked up, like someone else's language.

To the academics, he didn't go through the spiritual suffering of many [European] modernists; to purge himself of too much knowledge of the architecture of the past ... because he probably didn't have too much. And he was probably the sort of person who thought 'this is cool, this is new, this is what is up-and-coming' ... he sounds more enterprising than spiritual, whereas academics like the spiritual modernist, one who, on the basis of very little learning, can give massive interpretations.

Academics feel they are guardians of drawing up the canon. Anything that comes along that starts threatening the canon ... [Regarding rejections of the Snelling thesis] I am trying to think myself into the position of an examiner who sort of says ... 'your work very rightly identifies this very minor character  ... but unfortunately  your work wildly overstates the claims for him ... and you know, as a consequence, what could have been worthwhile ... etc etc ... They deal with his marginalisation by marginalising you ...

He's the kind of person that academics don't like. They choose people who they want to argue for. Any kind of commercial architecture they don't want to know ahout. There are incredibly successful architects in the States who never get their work [discussed] ...a bit like Portman ...

There was some research and a paper actually done by Rem Koolhaas which says essentially... in architecture we work with these highly intellectualised canons of who is important or not, because we judge it in respect of our notions of modernism itself. But actually, out there, there are architect-developers who are incredibly influential in real architecture, the architecture that people live in. You don't have to like it but they are very important and we should pay attention to them and study them.

Q: What do you think of his work, in this Powerpoint?

I think it's strange that one of the things that the interiors convey ... they are quite like a lot of film sets of modernism, I can remember the late fifties onwards ... where the design wasn't genius but it was there for the purpose of expressing this is a modernist interior. This has that kind of interesting feel to it, that it's an intelligent, commercial attempt ... certainly pragmatic.

This is a guy who didn't mind obeying the constraints of the commission or the site ... and it's there to sort of suggest ... what's up to date and kind of modern ... which became so important in the sixties.

I guess the late fifties were the time in Sydney when, on the one hand, there's a degree of money around to enable you to think of your house as more than just a functional box for you to live in ... and where people are beginning to almost discover the fact that they are in the Pacific.

Q: What will British architects now think of Snelling, when he is published here?

I'm not sure they are going to have a view. I'm not sure they would feel anything about him. My instincts tell me that his route to some recognition will come not through the canon of architects but through the route of cultural studies. He relates not so much to the philosophy and theory of modernism but what people thought it was ... the photographs [by Max Dupain] are very important. Julius Shulman [the Los Angeles photographer of modern architecture] was not just photographing the houses, but with people living in them; a new way of life ... he was sort of teaching people how to sit and stand in these new environments.

Q: Does British modernism want much from its expatriates? Are there many expatriate architects known in British modernism?

The situation is complicated by the fact that in the thirties English architects could 'work abroad' without really going anywhere. That was the reality of colonialism at that time.

Q: Snelling was 'an Englishman abroad' ... are there other architects who worked abroad that British architectural historians know about or care about?

Perhaps Venturi and Scott Brown -- Denise Scott-Brown is a graduate from here [the AA School] ... but she's considered an American, I doubt many people know that she is from England.

Really the key issue is that architects don't have an interest in commercial buildings. That's the truth of it. Someone who is practising as a commercial architect; they are really considered not intellectual enough to be assessed. Consequently a great gap opens up between the architecture that everyone lives with and sees, and the architecture that is canonical for architects, but is quite rare.

I sense that architects who value their intellectuality are not going to like this stuff because they are going to claim that it 'hasn't understood the principle of modernism' and has used it as a kind of cut and paste architecture ... that in a sense, it's 'just mimicry'. Now I don't think that distinction can be sustained, and that's why this case is interesting ... They would be dismissive and say that it's derivative. And here's something I don't like, the way that architects talk ... that it's 'just fashion' ... as though they were completely opposed to fashion .... I'm not opposed to fashion, I think it's a very serious issue.

Q: What do you think are the main points about this guy that you think might be of note to UK historians of modernism?

It's difficult to answer that without studying the context of the period where he worked ... late 1950s and early 1960s. It seems this work is charting the way that a kind of post-war affluence begins to show, leading to a sort of second-generation modernism ...  but this time more obviously modernist, or influenced by modernism.

Q: Are you saying he's a precursor of later advances... ?

On the one hand he's using as his models something that was a generation before. But in a sense it's really directed to a generation subsequent. In trying to produce a kind of commercial modernism which fits in, but maintains a notion of the new way of being, I mean the new form of life, a modern form of lif. It seems the precursor of a lot of hotel architecture ... he is a precursor of that sort of tropical resort architecture ... and in a sense, the detached modern house that the owner wants to look modern, but doesn't want to make a fetish of it being modernistic like a pure, Mies van der Rohe house.

Something has radically changed since this guy practised. Part of the academic defence of the canon was always this belief that it would never be 'commercial'. So the people you admired in architectural schools were for the most part not people who were going to be commercially successful ...

Q: So how do we go now with the likes of Zaha Hadid?

That's my point. I think that for the first time in the late 1980s-early 1990s, avant-garde architects knocked on the door of corporate capitalism, expecting to be shown the door, again; but this time they were welcomed in ... and nothing they could think to say or do was turned down ... hence Abu Dhabi.

The critique of Abu Dhabi is that it's silly, I mean the architect should go to his room ... but still they will build anything.

Q: What is the relevance of California modernism to British modernism?

I don't think it's sufficiently well known. People know it but that doesn't mean it's any kind of model here ...

Q: Are there still colonial sentiments in Britain? Do you think British historians may be interested in Snelling as a 'local boy' who succeeded on the other side of the world?

I don't think hustorians would find the fact that Snelling was British surprising ...

Q: But would they find him interesting?

They would be more interested that he was working class ... by and large, English architects of his period would have had a private income.


John Andrews—Councillor of the Architectural Association, Studio Leader in Architecture and Urbanism at the University of Brighton, former Professor of Interior Architecture at RMIT University.

John Andrews.

John Andrews.

Q: Here is a studio portrait of Douglas Snelling at the height of his career in Sydney — and you have his basic biographical details. What are your first impressions?

In this black and white portrait, Snelling bears an uncanny resemblance to 1930s-40s Hollywood actor Errol Flynn, who left Australia (Tasmania), via Papua New Guinea, to work in America.

[Snelling] seems to join the international pantheon of expatriates who not only settled into a new world, but who made a significant contribution to the host country’s cultural persona. The list is long and diverse – including Walter Spies (Germany-Bali), Jim Thompson (USA-Thailand), Edward Weston (England-Mexico), Walter Burley Griffin (USA-Australia), Berthold Lubetkin (Germany-England) and Geoffrey Bawa (England-Sri Lanka). The main quality they share is an empathy for their adopted country.  While they are mostly architects, for the purpose of an observation on Snelling, the same may be said of many artists who have settled in exotic lands.

On entering a new country, one's perception is heightened and briefly it is possible to view things with a fresh and optimistic eye. For Snelling, who arrived in California from New Zealand, his perceptions of a new landscape, people and culture must have been intense. I am reminded of the bright light in David Hockney’s 'Bigger Splash' paintings, juxtaposed to the subtle hues emanating from his hometown in Yorkshire.

The unique aspect of Snelling’s particular form of modernism is the inclusion of an Oceanic aesthetic, which separates it from its European counterpoint. His seamless spatial arrangements are indicative of Pacific Island architecture, where there is an ambiguity between the exterior and interior; and his detailing also reflects an understanding of Polynesian mythology.

Q: You were the professor of Interior Architecture at RMIT (Melbourne) during the 1990s ... what do you think of Snelling's interiors [from the few images  you've seen]?

Interior architecture specifically deals with the structure of space ... precisely the idea of spatial arrangement. The key people who come to mind are obviously Barragan, who was a master at creating an ambiguity between the exterior and interior; Alvar Aalto … and Frank Lloyd Wright, who worked in a similar way. Although passionately mastering the craft of making, Charles Rennie Mackintosh was also labelled a modernist. Richard Neutra incorporated industrial elements. Snelling sits halfway between the ambitions of these two architects.

Going back further, a very good symbol for interior architecture is Sir John Soane, who sculpted the interior within his own suite of terraces beside Lincolns Inn Fields. After his wife died, he spent most of his time in his own house-museum, and he became excessively interiorised.

Compared to those good examples of interior architects, I think interior decorators are more to do with the surfaces of spaces inside a building. In America, interior architecture is linked to retail and commercial and sophisticated residential projects. Snelling was more about placement of objects in a space, rather than sophisticated spatial compositions ... but there are some exceptions, with his sections for the split-level houses.

I am intrigued by Snelling. First he left New Zealand; he hadn’t taken any formal education, then went up to States and around various places in the Pacific. He strikes me as someone who had a sophisticated sense of perception about things that were going on.

He was an eclectic, and copier; he was also keen to experiment with interior and furniture design. He was designing at around the same time as the Festival of Britain over here in London. An interesting period: 1945-50. A lot of things happened at that time. Designers were putting in new concepts of modern life. People didn’t have much money to do big projects. People often worked within existing structures. Tremendous amount of poverty too. Europe and the UK were different to the US, which was much more open to new projects, and clients had more money ... Snelling seemed to attract clients with money in Sydney.

When I was working in Australia, George Freedman (New York-trained modernist interior designer based in Sydney) said he was surprised [when he arrived in Sydney in 1970] how bad the situation was with architectural interiors. Lots of things were done on the cheap, people were making do. It struck him as very provincial.

There's that great term 'Good-life modernism', promoted by Mark Jarzombek from MIT. It struck a chord for me about Snelling's architecture in Sydney ... whereas modernism in the UK and Europe was very serious and had a lot to do with socialist values … it was 'bad-life modernism'.

Snelling’s interiors also struck me as being a little bit more exotic than most modernist architectural ventures, including the influence of Khmer artefacts and Tiki totems. I was expecting to see the origins of the infinity pool., but was disappointed to see a proliferation of carpets and curtains … I also expected to see something a little more 'tropical avant-garde'.

Some of Snelling's interiors reminded me of the house of an Australian family that I visited in Lai, Papua New Guinea, during the 1990s. The living room and adjoining kitchen contained a mixture of modernist furniture (possibly from the fifties) and lots of tribal art, including shields, robes, figures and weapons. A picture window, high ceiling and a Dean Martin soundtrack ...

When I was working in Australia, one difference that I noticed between Sydney and Melbourne was that Sydney had its eyes wide open to southern California whereas the eyes of Melbourne were somewhere else, more to the east.