The perceptions and criticisms of Multicultural Architecture in Australia

As migrants from a multitude of cultural backgrounds settle, the urban fabric of Australia alters – in terms of the construction of new buildings and typologies as well as a fundamental shift of the identity of Australia. But despite Australia’s embrace of a multicultural society, the perception in which media and the wider public perceive the built environment remains fairly homogenous. Architectural expressions that reflect ethnicity are often regarded against broader social demands for assimilation, to where their proclaimed ‘success’ is debated.

The Oswal residence, known to most people as ‘the Taj Mahal in Perth’ was a building that brought many fragmented opinions to the fore. In 2007, Pankaj Oswal and his wife Radhika sought to construct a new palatial home, as they called it, ‘a little india’ on their 6600 square metre superblock in Peppermint Grove that overlooked the Swan River.[1]

Later in the year, The West Australian brought attention to Oswal residence, sensationalising it under the headline ‘The $70m Taj Mahal-on-Swan: It has its own temple, observatory, separate gym and parking for 17 cars. But what do the neighbours think?’ [2] As we will see, not much. In this article, it described the mansion as as “an opulent two-storey, Indian-infused luxury residence,” catering and designed to ‘the traditional Indian principles of Vaastu Shastra’. [3]

In the planning submission for the Oswal residence, it is explained that its intention was to “appropriately reflect the family’s cultural and spiritual heritage.” [4] In the facade of the residence, Indian architectural references were adopted to where its exterior displayed Mughal domed turrets and rounded arches. [5] In its initial scheme, it was apparent that the domes were more Islamic in profile but adjustments were needed to be made for approval; revised into conformity with more bulbous forms, reduced in height and numbers. This significant alteration suggests that local appreciation of traditional Indian architecture was limited and that expectations of an “Australian” culture concealed internal differences linked to class and religion.

After the Oswal’s Pilbara fertiliser empire collapsed in 2010, the Oswals left Australia amid allegations of unpaid tax and construction on the site came to a halt. [6] One estate agent assured potential buyers that there was ‘scope to reshape it into something more European’. [7] Here, significant are the connotations of ‘European’, not ‘Australian’. As no buyers were forthcoming, local media and newspapers revered the fear that the work in progress Oswal residence were to be something more permanent – heralding a ‘Derelict “Taj” Fear’ and that the ‘Taj on Swan may be left as is’ – indubitably the anxiety of the would-be neighbours. [8]

The criticism of the Oswal residence implies that despite its presence in the Australian built environment, it was considered to belong elsewhere, outside of Peppermint Grove. Moreover, that ‘elsewhere’ does not lie in the civilisational lineage to which critics imagined the suburb to be. This notion is symptomatic of a tendency to regard non-Anglo-Celtic societies in the terms of how they assimilate into a pre-established and presumably homogenous image of a neighbourhood instead of the ways in which they may transform it. Such criticisms insinuate a specific positionality towards an assumedly ‘true’ Australian identity in which the image of the Other is positioned as un-Australian.

Hage suggests that “multiculturalism without migrants” asks migrant groups to contribute, but it asks them to abate contentious issues or to eliminate them from their contribution or else risk social rejection and criticism. [9] In this, perhaps the Oswal residence would have evaded the critics, the media, and its fateful demolition in 2016 if the mansion projected an image that was more accommodating to the apparent expectations of an “Australian culture”, one that was seemingly more European. It is unfortunate, as the combination of people of different backgrounds and cultures lends a unique quality to the collective Australian built environments. This needs not only be understood but celebrated, as they are contributing to the development and language of Australian urban culture.

 

Bibliography:

 

Burrel, Andrew. “The $70m Taj Mahal-on-Swan,” The West Australian, (2007), accessed September 7, 2017.

Campbell, Kate. “Oswals unfinished Peppermint Grove mansion,” The Courier Mail, (2016. Accessed September 7, 2017.

Dalzell, Stephanie. “Perth council votes to demolish abandoned Oswal mansion,” ABC news (2015), accessed September 7, 2017.

Lewis, Nigel “Persian and Islamic Architecture: Australia.” The La Trobe Journal, (2009): 94.

“Oswals seek to offload ‘Taj-on Swan’ Perth Mansion,” Domain, accessed September 6, 2017.

Vernon, Christopher. “Racism: an architectural litmus test?” Australian Design Review, (2011), accessed September 6, 2017.

 

Images:

  1. Stewart Allen, “The now derailed Oswal mansion Peppermint Grove mansion” Perth Now, assessed September 6, 2017, http://www.perthnow.com.au/news/western-australia/taj-on-swan-peppermint-grove-mansion-to-be-demolished-within-21-days/news-story/26aa9ed0c42c41a9166306e82dbc6292

 

  1. Matthew Poon, One of the bedroom domes inside Peppermint Grove’s Taj-on-Swan, the unfinished home of former Perth couple Pankaj and Radhika Oswal that will soon be demolished,.” Courier Mail, Assessed on September 6, 2016, http://www.couriermail.com.au/news/national/oswals-unfinished-peppermint-grove-mansion-tajonswan-ready-for-demolition/news-story/d4d8875a22787e967a0d7d0fd0b1e80f

 

 

[1] Kate Campbell, “Oswals unfinished Peppermint Grove mansion,” The Courier Mail, (2016), accessed September 7, 2017. http://www.couriermail.com.au/news/national/oswals-unfinished-peppermint-grove-mansion-tajonswan-ready-for-demolition/news-story/d4d8875a22787e967a0d7d0fd0b1e80f

[2] Andrew Burrel,  “The $70m Taj Mahal-on-Swan,” The West Australian, (2007), accessed September 7, 2017. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-03-25/70m-taj-on-swan

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Nigel Lewis, “Persian and Islamic Architecture: Australia.” The La Trobe Journal, (2009): 94.

[6] Stephanie Dalzell, “Perth council votes to demolish abandoned Oswal mansion,” ABC news (2015), accessed September 7, 2017. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-03-25/taj-on-swan-unfinished-oswal-mansion-to-be-demolished/6347154

[7] “Oswals seek to offload ‘Taj-on Swan’ Perth Mansion,” Domain, accessed September 6, 2017. https://www.domain.com.au/news/oswals-seek-to-offload-tajonswan-perth-mansion-20110104-19e8z/

[8] Christopher Vernon, “Racism: an architectural litmus test?” Australian Design Review, (2011), accessed September 6, 2017.

[9] Ghassan Hage. White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society (Annandale: Pluto, 1998), 17.

1 Comment

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