On the gables of many of the Federation houses in my neighbourhood are panels and shapes filled with a curious pattern of squiggly lines. Older buildings, such as the grand two-storey houses that have since been split up into single-room flats, feature the same tracery on sandstone quoins or in wedge-shaped blocks above entryways.
This pattern is called vermiculation, and is an imitation of worm-eaten timber. It’s one of a number of stonework techniques collectively described as rustication. Stone blocks left deliberately rough-hewn are another example of the style.
Rustication has the same etymology as ‘rustic’, and the common thread in these imitations of old and worm-eaten wood or chunky dry-stone walls seems to be an evocation of the old, honest and agricultural—the nostalgia for the simple life down on the farm that has appealed to people for thousands of years. Country and western music, the fad for coachwork and colonial furniture in 70s interior decoration, eighteenth-century aristocrats play-acting as poetic shepherds, the Australian National Party and the Georgics of Virgil all link arms across the millennia in admiration of humble farm life, corny—in both the figurative and literal senses—though it may be.
The path from the fake worm-tracks above the front windows of Dulwich Hill bungalows to their real worm-track origins is a bit more complicated, however. By the time it came into use in early 20th century Sydney, rustication had been an element in the formal language of classical architecture for millennia. In ancient Greek and Roman architecture, stone blocks had been deliberately left rough-hewn to give an impression of rural strength and simplicity. Ornamental bits and pieces like vermiculated gables and acorn-topped gateposts on the solid double-bricked cottages of the inner west were almost certainly not seen as adding colonial charm or rusticity by their builders and original owners. On the contrary: the real agricultural buildings of the 1910s—many of which were still standing in the Cooks River valley at the time—were weatherboard farmhouses with corrugated-iron roofs. The rusticated decorations on the handsome, newly subdivided suburban homes expanding westwards into the lost farmlands of Sydney were instead an assurance of sophistication, in that tradition of Australian domestic architecture that critic and architect Robin Boyd named ‘featurism’.
Classical European architecture has its origins in the Renaissance’s self-conscious adoption of the forms of antiquity, which, when scaled down to a three-bedroom cottage, could appear pompous or ludicrous. Architectural features like vermiculation belong to a vocabulary of ornament intended for large public buildings, many examples of which can be seen in Australian capital cities. In the parliament houses and state libraries of the colonies, the irregular patterns of vermiculation and the bold chunkiness of rusticated blocks are contrasted with ashlar (smooth-cut stone). Adrift from their origins as references to farmhouses or forts, they have become elements in an elaborate and formalised vocabulary, many of which are also transfigurations of an original—the pilaster, for example, is the outline of a column, no longer bearing weight, but providing a vertical visual element—and some of which, like vermiculation, have been rendered abstract to such an extent that it’s no longer obvious what they were imitating in the first place. In the hands of a skilful architect, the coordination and balancing of these elements are what give the best neoclassical buildings their dignity and grandeur, and it is from this tradition that the bungalows of suburban Sydney were attempting to borrow a touch of class.
We’re now several levels deep: a house whose stone blocks are made to imitate worm-tracks, which are borrowed from an architectural tradition of the Renaissance, and which comes from the other side of the world. An Australian modernist would reject this as fakery across multiple dimensions—transplanting a European tradition to the Antipodes, a tradition that had—according to Modernism—already become outdated and rhetorical. Furthermore it was based on ornament, the great original sin—architectural Modernism insisted sandstone remained just that, sandstone. Why dress it up in an abstract pattern derived from worm-holes? Worse still, the tradition of Classical architecture is itself a conscious revival of the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome, largely as embodied in the work of the Roman architect Vitruvius. The whole shebang, from metope to portico, is (again, according to Modernism) as hokey an imitation of the ancient world as a fraternity toga party.
Unfortunately, the Modernist styles that most deliberately sought truth to materials—the raw concrete of Brutalism, or the exposed plumbing and structural elements of the Pompidou Centre in Paris—are widely despised. When modern architecture is frank about its use of concrete and steel, people hate it, and the terminology they use—‘factory, ‘bunker’, ‘Stalinist’—evoke the worst qualities of industrial civilisation. The best-loved modernist buildings are those that to some extent dissimulate the fact that they are made of steel and concrete by their adoption of older, more ‘authentic’ façade materials such as stone, or the off-white ceramic tiles of the Sydney Opera House. Or, those that retain the proportions and geometry of Classical architecture, like the National Library of Australia.
Is the lesson from this that architecture needs an element of fakery to be admired? Perhaps the construction of any building more than two stories high requires us to propitiate the farmhouse and the temple, paying back a debt to those countless ancestors who were lucky to have shelter at all, and for whom aestheticising the walls that kept out the chill would have been an incomprehensible luxury.
The appeal of agriculture, perhaps, is that it provides a model of life that is in touch with (if not exactly at ease with) the natural world. In the last few decades, following the lead of Glenn Murcutt, corrugated iron has become a featured material in many Australian buildings, as part of a school of architecture emphasising ecological values and integration with landscape. There’s a touch of genteel utopianism in this, and it seems unlikely that a handful of architect-designed houses and public buildings will be able to reconcile the split between the structures we are capable of building and those with which we are comfortable. The undulations of corrugated steel may some day be like the wiggles of vermiculation: an abstract pattern whose connection with the farm is only dimly remembered.