The Atomic Peace of East and West

William Hardy Wilson is a fairly well regarded Australian architect of the 20th century and is such usually afforded a few paragraphs in biographical dictionaries and encyclopaedias. These will mention in passing a few well regarded buildings and pay brief mention to an unrealised effort late in his career to create a new architecture combining European and Asian aesthetics.

This does us a great disservice! Hardy Wilson’s later work was an attempt in his own mind to do no less than save civilisation. His own historical theory of everything, which dictated this work, was amazingly bizarre and for this alone is worth recounting. But he also held strong visions of a future Eurasian Australia. The parallels and contrasts with our own multicultural society are striking in both superficial and deeper ways.William Hardy Wilson

Historical theories of everything are something I’ve always liked (which should be clear from my earlier posts). I’m not alone in this as an economist; Paul Krugman has cited Isaac Asimov novels about such a science, The Foundation series, as his inspiration for studying economics and the legacy is clear in New Economic Geography.

What such theories often have in common is some sort of chauvinism, cultural baggage or barrow to push. They champion or condemn cultures and religions or they reduce history to the march of given ideologies or class struggle. Hardy Wilson’s is refreshing in that it is completely sideways from any mainstream debate or conflicts.

Hardy Wilson’s theory is distilled in the following paragraph from his self published work Atomic Civilisation (1949), a hand gilded copy of which I read in the State Library.

I see the world, not as struggling between communism and democracy, but simply and directly obeying the dictates of universal instinct to force humanity to obey the laws of esthetic creativeness which control the world, and thereby raise the people to their rightful place of esthetic leadership, which alone makes man the first animal.

In short, all of human history, all of human progress and civilisation has been shaped by this drive for aesthetics. All morality and judgement of historical actors should be taken in light of this goal. This is the sole and guiding force of humanity. The implications of this led him to put queer skews on historical events and old prejudices.

For instance he subscribed to the regrettably mid 20th century notion of a global Jewish conspiracy. Regrettable prejudice, but with a unique flavour. Jews, he thought, lacked the ability the create aesthetics and thus spent all their time manipulating everyone else into wars and disasters and the like.

The conspiracy was A Good Thing.

New aesthetics came from fusion between cultures. Subsequently this benevolent Jewish conspiracy was doing all this plotting and scheming to drive gentile populations into each other. For instance the recently completed Second World War centred on Operation Barbarossa, an attempt to drive Russian culture south to combine with Turkic/Arab cultures. The world owes Mr Hitler a great debt for this awakening, for which he paid with his life. Subsequently the Morgenthau plan was designed to destroy the ability of German culture to live in Germany, driving it south into the Mediterranean.

Hardy Wilson therefore welcomed the influx of European Jews that entered Australia after the war. These would be essential for the future of humanity and Wilson’s own mission in life. The creation of a combined European and East Asian culture in Australia.

This is where my fascination takes a wholly different tact. Hardy Wilson made great attempts to design both this aesthetic and the society in which it would take place. The contrast of this synthesis by design with contemporary Australian culture which is reaching its own form of synthesis by organic means is illustrative.

The home for this new culture was to be a new metropolis. The City of Kurrajong on what is now the North West outskirts of Sydney, nestled against the Blue Mountains. He had already begun lobbying the Chifley Government to allow an influx of Chinese migrants to populate this city along with native born European Australians. He provided an urban plan for this city; a wonderful mix of straight lines and French curves peppered with occasional bursts of irregularity and street names brimming with technological utopianism. He also sketched its public buildings and temples.

These buildings are rather unsubtle in their fusion or East and West, basically columned pagodas, but there are other elements in the sketches of note. Frequently the Australian lyrebird was paired with its Chinese equivalent the Phoenix in the foreground. In the background was Hardy Wilson’s towering symbol of peace; a mushroom cloud.

He was really quite taken with the mushroom cloud. I guess his taste for fusion was balanced with a euphoria for fission. Apart from filling the background of architectural sketches, he had designed a monument to atomic peace to be placed on Middle Head in Sydney Harbour, pairing philosophies from each quarter of the globe on its sides; Taoism and Confucianism; Buddhism and Hinduism; Judaism and Islam and Catholicism and Communism. In a landscape picture drawn from above the site of the future metropolis of Kurrajong he has added both a temple on the hill below him and far away in the basin another mushroom cloud.

I can confirm, having found the lookout from where this sketch was made that this cloud rises from the site of the Sydney CBD.

Kurrajong remains much like it was in Hardy Wilson’s time. The old city he apparently desired destroyed brims with brims with East Asian culture paired with the existing European elements, but how different the vision is.

Kurrajong was just a vision, and a rather shallow one at that. The fusion was cosmetic with eclectic visual elements crudely tacked onto each other and not a society with any depth even imagined. How can a culture, something so vibrant and complex, be planned anyway?

The Eurasian culture in the old city, and indeed the vast majority of Australia, is an altogether different beast. It is organic and has mutated and grown at a constant pace whether the support of it from the highest levels was triumphalist under Keating or hesitant and then resigned under Howard.

Apart from the occasional regrettable effort, it has not been as manifest in architecture. It has and will be in the basic assumptions and thought of Australians now and in the future in ways I feel incapable of speculating.

Nonetheless, this relatively unknown world view of Hardy Wilson is fascinating. As a totally heterodox view of world history, as an unrealised future and as a thought experiment about Australian culture.

Zeny Edwards, in an unfortunately limited book run, is one of the few people who have delved into this.

About Richard Tsukamasa Green

Richard Tsukamasa Green is an economist. Public employment means he can't post on policy much anymore. Also found at @RHTGreen on twitter.
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[…] I like to go back to the 1940s, and William Hardy Wilson’s Kurrajong – a topic which fascinates me, and apparently few other […]