Featurism is not simply a decorative technique; it starts in concepts and extends upwards through the parts to the numerous trimmings. It may be defined as the subordination of the essential whole and the accentuation of selected separate features. Featurism is by no means confined to Australia or to the twentieth century, but it flourishes more than ever at this place and time. Perhaps the explanation is that man, sensing that the vastness of the landscape will mock any object that his handful of fellows can make here, avoids anything that might be considered a challenge to nature. The greater and fiercer the natural background, the prettier and pettier the artificial foreground: this way there are no unflattering comparisons, no loss of face. Or perhaps it is simply that man makes his immediate surroundings petty in an attempt to counteract the overwhelming scale of the continent, as man always in building has sought maximum counteraction to natural extremes—of cold or heat, of all the other discomforts of open air. It is unusual, however, for counteraction to apply in the artistic approach. Throughout the history of architecture there have been buildings which gently lay down with nature and buildings which proudly stood up in contrast. ‘Two distinct trends,’ as Sigfried Giedion wrote in Space, Time and Architecture: ‘Since the beginning of civilization there have been cities planned according to regular schemes and cities which have grown up organically like trees. The ancient Greeks put their mathematically proportioned temples on the top of rocky acropolises, outlined against their southern skies.’ On the other hand Frank Lloyd Wright sometimes nestled his houses so closely into the folds of the earth ‘that they seem to grow into nature and out of it’. Neither of these two constantly recurrent ways of approaching nature is necessarily superior. ‘The artist has the right of choice.’ But Featurism is a third and the most common approach to nature which Giedion didn’t mention, because it is seldom adopted by respectable architects. It is neither sympathetic nor challenging, but evasive, a nervous architectural chattering avoiding any mention of the landscape. Featurism is not directly related to taste, style or fashion. The features selected for prominence may be elegant, in good taste according to the current arbiters, or they may be coarse and vulgar. Featurism may be practised in Classical or Contemporary style, in the most up-to-date or the dowdiest of old-fashioned manners. It may be found in architecture or in the planning of cities or the design of magazines, espresso bars, neon signs, motorcars, gardens, crockery, kitchenware, and everywhere between. It is the evasion of the bold, realistic, self-evident, straight-forward, honest answer to all questions of design and appearance in man’s artificial environment.
Text from The Australian Ugliness, by Robin Boyd (first published 1961).