Terrace housing is experiencing a revival in many Australian cities. New replica (sometimes called “reproduction”) terraces are particularly popular in the large regional cities where medium density is promoted by councils and land values as a compromise between detached housing and high density apartment living.
The popularity of terrace housing in Australia has waxed and waned since they first proliferated in the mid 19th century. While Australian terraces fell out of favour early in the 20th century, there have been a number of “revivals”. Various historical architectural styles have been revived over the past couple of centuries, the stereotypical Australian terrace style is no exception. And for the casual observer, it can sometimes be very difficult to tell them apart.
So let us take a brief look at the different revivals and look at some of the tell-tale signs which their origins.
Early terrace house revivals
During the Federation period (1900-1919), the trend for housing in Australia was squarely toward detached housing. In contrast to the late Victorian period when inner city terraces would expression of prestige for the middle class, attached housing became rare in this period. The economic depressions saw large stands of speculative terraces neglected and the style fell out of favour. Increasingly housing was split with the wealthy moving out to the suburbs and detached housing and the poor confined to apartments. As such the few examples of terraced housing from this period were often semi-detached or sometimes flats which appeared like terraces. During this period the first conversions of older terraces into apartments began. Nevertheless, some architects from the period remained attached to the Victorian terrace style and as such there are examples of the Victorian filligree terrace style from the Federation period.
1960s & 1970s Nostalgic revival – “The ugly”
Replica terrace houses began to re-emerge in the late 1960s and 1970s with the rise of the nostalgic movement in Australia. Mock terraces became widespread. Motels capitalised on the charm of the style to attract patrons and developers would often use the style when constructing inner city flats and offices to circumvent heritage aware councils. The availability of cheap materials made it possible to emulate some aspects of the terraces. Notably, aluminium decorative elements made it relatively easy to create the impression of Victorian cast iron decorations.
However many short-cuts were taken that added to a distinct “mock historic” impression made these revivals aesthetically inferior both externally and internally.
- Ceilings and rooflines – New regulations meant that it was common to build to a mandated height that was well below that of pre-war period.
- Brickwork – the favoured 1960s and 1970s brown brick contrasts significantly from the historically favoured red-brick and polychromatic cream highlights of Victorian terraces. This was highlighted by the fact that few if any revival terraces from this period were rendered and due to the economics involved very few featured the decorative elements (such as stucco urns and reliefs) so common in terraces of the boom era.
- Windows and doors – while traditional terraces often featured timber double hung windows and panelled Victorian doors, nostalgic revivals would typically use large doors and windows of cheap sliding aluminium and glass. Some doorways would feature mock historic transom and sidelights, however replica decorative glass was often of a contemporary style.
- Driveways and carports – unlike the few terraces that featured carriageways, the dominance of the motor car makes these nostalgic revivals easy to spot, by a simple carport and driveway easements.
- Roofline – most mock terraces from this period lacked the distinctive features of Victorian terraces, notably party walls and chimneys and often less steeply pitched roofs
- Interiors – few interiors looked remotely like Victorian terraces. Replicas from this period would often use cheaply made cornices, ceiling roses and fittings that were used in other houses including the Spanish revival.
To be brutally honest, the cheapness of the nostalgic era had very much gave all mock historic architecture, including replica terraces, a bad name.
Architects in the 1980s shunned the nostalgic style of the previous decades, preferring instead to emulate abstract symbolism in postmodern interpretations using contemporary decorative elements. Townhouses were becoming popular, however seldom in the typical terrace style. For this reason, many 1980s townhouses are easy to spot.
In some cities, like Melbourne, the terrace form was widely adopted for infill public housing in the 1980s. In stark contrast, many of these deliberately substituted cheap materials, such as metal poles and lattice for the brick and render of yesterday.
1990s to present
With postmodernism in full swing and new materials and techniques available some remarkably convincing replica Victorian style terraces have emerged since the late 1980s.
An outstanding early example of the trend toward more authentic terraces include rows built in the growth cities such as Perth and Brisbane during this period. Entire stands of replicas were built along Brisbane’s Gregory Terrace to appeal to cashed up interstate migrants and Tyler Terrace, for its time, is one of the best examples of a late 20th Century Italianate revival terrace. The success of developments such as this heralded more widespread development of replicas across the big Australian cities and later in the bigger regional centres.
Unlike earlier examples, replicas from this period are often better executed and would often feature authentic looking architectural details including (but not limited to):
- Ceilings and rooflines – Many postmodern terraces re-introduced the classic Italianate parapet with authentic looking details such as cornices, pediments, arcotera and urns.
- Brickwork – rendered brick was often used or polychrome brick with materials that more closely resembled that of the Victorian period.
- Decorative elements – Party wall decorations including authentic looking corbels and sometimes vermiculation can be used to good effect.
- Windows and doors – Attention to detail including double hung windows and transoms using materials that look like wood.
- Driveways and carports – shared driveways and paths often hidden discretely behind the rows add to the authenticity.
With such attention to detail how to spot the difference ? Well apart from looking newish and undeteriorated now (they will eventually also age), there are still some things that give these replicas away. Developers will cut corners in certain areas and the most likely are things such as courtyard gardens and gates. While Victorian terraces can have cheap aluminium gates added or as replacements, when an entire row of homes features this it can be easy to tell. In addition “old style” fittings such as lamps often appear kitsch.
Conclusion – Are replicas a good or a bad thing ?
Are replicas good or bad ? Well, from the author’s opinion there are strong arguments on both sides.
One could argue that there has always been and always will be revivals as styles do periodically come back into fashion. It is a testament to the Australian terrace style that contemporary architects seek to emulate the style of the past, that homebuyers aspire to a style of living pioneered centuries ago, and that councils aspire to a pedestrian friendly medium density model for our cities. Fulfilling the ideals of the early postmodernists who advocated that architecture should be sympathetic to its context, infill replicas can go a long way to restoring the urban fabric of many inner city areas.
On the other hand, there is a definite element of pastiche. Though in a self obsessed era of perfect Facebook profiles and plastic surgery architecture is similarly skin deep. Many architects would see replicating old styles as stifling creativity and denying an opportunity to create new architectural expression that use past styles for ideas and inspiration rather than duplicate them.
The development of replicas and contemporary Victorian era inspired townhouses presents a very real threat to our heritage. Buyers are presented with a choice – to live in sometimes run-down areas, spend a large amount of money maintaining older homes often with substantial challenges, or to live in a new development which incorporates the terrace lifestyle while being built with durable materials and the modern conveniences in mind. Councils are often also faced with a choice of whether to retain B-grade heritage areas, or to opt for medium density urban renewal with developers using the styles to sell their ideas more easily.
Personally I’d take the charm of a run down old terrace any day, but each to their own 🙂
What do you think ? Let us know in the comments below.