Is this Perth’s greatest building?

newspaper house

Welcome to the Stripped Classical, our favourite architectural style named after our favourite way of not wearing clothing. You are certainly familiar with Newspaper House on St George’s Terrace, but probably only because it now leads to a range of different drinking establishments behind. But before you drop into Print Hall for a glass of Shiraz, take a moment to study the façade.

If the building looks almost perfectly proportioned, that’s because it is. Designed by warrior-architect J. J. Talbot Hobbs and opened in 1933, every ratio, every line, every window is exactly (and we mean exactly) according to the rules laid down by architects from the Renaissance onwards. To see what we mean, look at the building below.

deutsche bank

This is the Deutsche Bank building in Bremen, Germany, which was finished in 1891 and is designed in the Historicist Style. It obviously has many more pretty bits than Newspaper House, but if you were to overlay a picture of Perth’s building onto the German one every column and window and floor would line up perfectly. Talbot Hobbs did not copy this building, he just used the same mathematical rules as the German architects.

But where are all the famous columns, entablatures and architraves (and other technical words it is necessary to know to convince people you are a real architectural historian) that we associate with classical architecture? They are simply missing. Well, except for two Ionic columns we will return to later.

Stripped Classicism is a response to two things: Modernism and the Great Depression. Modernists were obsessed with getting rid of all the decorative elements on a building, and façades should only reflect exactly the function of the rooms behind them. No ornament, no trimmings, no colours, just arrangements of spaces. A mechanised architecture for an increasingly industrialised society. And, yes, Modernists thought this was a good idea.

The Depression meant developers had less money to spend on buildings, so anything that saved cost, like not having ornamentation on the outside, suited them perfectly. Yet Newspaper House is not a Modernist building, and its shape does not simply reflect the functions going on behind the façade. So what is going on here?

There is a big argument in the history of architecture as to whether the Stripped Classical is anti-Modernist or just another development of Modernism. We won’t go into details here, but simply state that we hold to the second opinion. Talbot Hobbs was Modernist enough to want to get rid of details, something the owners, The West Australian, would have loved, but didn’t want to go down the route of plain white concrete walls. Instead, he chose classical proportions and allusions to pillars, while keeping the building thoroughly modern and cheap(ish).

munster house

For a very different Stripped Classical building, although slightly less naked than Newspaper House, look at Munster House on Murray Street, not too far from King Street. Designed by Frederick Upton and opened in 1929, it has slightly more going on at the top and a few more twiddly bits, but exactly conforms to the mathematical principles of classical design.

So, if Stripped Classicism was cheaper than standard classical architecture, and more pretty than Modernist buildings, why did it only exist for a such a short time? The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is two people: Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. They fell in love with Stripped Classicism and many Nazi and Soviet buildings show exactly the same design principles. After World War II, doing things that Hitler liked was, for some strange reason, not very popular, so it fell out of fashion.


And now to return to those two Ionic columns in the middle of Newspaper House. Why are they there? Did Talbot Hobbs suddenly regret his use of a modern idiom and start to long for a return to older architectural motifs? Probably not. The answer almost certainly lies in the fact that Newspaper House was built in the centenary year of The West Australian, and they would have wanted this connection with the history of the State to be reflected. Look at what they hold up: the words ‘Newspaper House’. The whole building is supported by real history, although thoroughly modern at the same time.

So Talbot Hobbs created one of Perth’s most interesting buildings, by combining history, modernity and the needs of the owners. And now you have our permission to go inside for a glass of wine.

Down, down, prices are down


Yesterday Dodgy Perth delved into the less-than-grown-up way our politicians planned the State War Memorial. Now the story continues.

Location, location, location. There’s no denying that the Memorial has all three. What it lacks is scale, dignity and style. Transplant it from its sublime location to a local park and it would look like your council put it up on the cheap.

How cheap?

Victoria’s Shrine of Remembrance? A whopping £80,000. South Australia went economy class for just £25,000.

And WA?

We shelled out a whole £3,000. And look what we ended up with.

The brave men who fought, and often died, for their young nation ended up with a Red Dot bargain-basement memorial.

As mentioned yesterday, the Government refused to fund the project, and the various local authorities told him they weren’t going to pay for a memorial which was only going to serve the City of Perth. They’d have their own memorials, thank you very much.

So the City of Perth must have paid for it.

Er… no. Not one penny was forthcoming from them. They loved the idea. Just not the idea of spending anything towards it.

So the public was asked to pay for the Memorial. The target was £30,000.

And the public responded. With fifteen pounds. Yes, you read that correctly. When the appeal closed, they had raised a whole £15.

In 1925, they tried again. This time the target was £35,000. By the time the appeal closed (still nothing from Government or councils), less than a tenth had been raised.

But still, if that was all they had, that would have to do.

The ‘honorary architect’ (read: offered to do it for free) was Sir Talbot Hobbs. Even though vastly overrated as an architect, he had served with distinction during the Great War.

But for no fee, he wasn’t going to put any effort in. Hobbs had knocked up a few monuments in France and Belgium, so he simply recycled one of these, with no thought for context at all.

Even with a free architect, and a greatly scaled-down project, they still managed to run over budget. So when the monument was erected, it didn’t get a setting or lighting.

They had to scrape together another £300 to put in some steps in so it didn’t look completely ridiculous.

Just to remind you: Melbourne spent £80,000 on their memorial.

A contemporary satirist imagined Sir Christopher Wren being summoned from the dead to comment on King’s Park’s latest addition:

Well, it will be a memorial all right, but it isn’t a design—there is no design in it. A memorial of brave men and valiant sons certainly. But people a hundred years hence will wonder what it symbolises, what it commemorates, why it was perpetrated.

As people of a hundred years hence, Dodgy Perth couldn’t agree more.

This story is adapted from one published last year. If you liked it then, you’ll have loved it again.

The battle over Anzac Day


So, with Anzac Day coming up and the hundred year thingy being all important, Dodgy Perth asks the question: Won’t somebody think of the children?

More specifically: How should we introduce Anzac Day to the kids?

We have been pondering this since enjoying the savage beating Peter Stanley inflicts on Anzac Ted (an appalling-written book for pre-schoolers).

So Dodgy Perth now looks back to a different war. One between the Government and the RSL.

In the 1920s schools would invite a digger to speak on the subject of Anzac Day. Until 1925 when the Minister for Education banned them.

The RSL was outraged. Seriously, seriously outraged.

Led by the holy trinity of Rabbi David Freedman, Archbishop Riley and Sir Talbot Hobbs, the anger still seems palpable 90 years later.

The peacenik teachers and politicians were more concerned with ‘turning the other cheek’ and the newfangled League of Nations than teaching children to do their duty.

“Whether certain people like it or lump it,” Talbot Hobbs declared to loud applause, “we are going to do our duty by our fellow comrades.”

Anyone who said the RSL wanted to go into schools to teach children to kill people or war was a glorious thing was simply a liar, he thundered.

The Government, though, stuck to its guns.

There was no question of children not being taught about Anzac Day, it insisted. The question was not what should be taught, but who should do the teaching.

In this case, people who are trained to give instruction to young minds (we call them teachers, usually) were ideally placed to deliver lessons on the War.

Returned soldiers had certainly done their duty, but they were not qualified to communicate with the kids. That was best left to teachers.

In any case, there had been complaints after one digger spoke to the assembly for more than two hours the previous year. Which showed exactly how much they understood young minds.

Interestingly, for all their concern over children, the RSL regularly banned kids and women from the Dawn Service in Kings Park. Women and children do not lend an air of dignified respect to the occasion said the RSL, so they had to stay away.

So, nearly a century later, what have we learned about how to teach pupils about the Anzac story?

Given the regular fights between opposing camps of historians, Dodgy Perth suggests the answer is we have learned bugger all since 1925.

Lest we forget???


It will be a memorial all right, but it isn’t a design—there is no design in it.

Estate agents will tell you that three things make a property great: location, location, and location. There’s no denying that the WA State War Memorial has all three.

What it lacks, though, is any sense of scale, dignity, or architectural style. Transplant it from its sublime location to your local park and the SWM would look like the council put it up on the cheap.

And cheap is exactly what it was. Victoria’s Shrine of Remembrance? £80,000. South Australia went for a less costly memorial at only £25,000. And WA? We managed to shell out a whole £3,000. And look what we ended up with.

How was it that the brave men who fought, and often died, for their young nation ended up being commemorated with a Red Dot bargain-basement memorial?

Let Dodgy Perth take you through another tour of Western Australian history.

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