Posts Tagged ‘Architecture Australia’

It began with a seal. Or maybe it was a sea lion. At the opening of the exhibition Placemakers: Contemporary Queensland Architects, as Anna Bligh, state premier, stood on the Gallery of Modern Art concourse delivering a rapturous opening speech, we latecomers hovered at the back beside Michael Parekowhai’s sculpture The Horn of Africa. Depicting a glossy black life-size seal, balancing an equally glossy black life-sized grand piano upended on its nose, it maintains an impossible feat of balance, defying gravity with a manner both effortless and insouciant. Craning unsuccessfully to see the speaker, I returned instead to contemplating this seal and idly wondered: who here was performing the most virtuoso trick? Was it the premier, producing a cheer from the crowd with her line that “art, architecture and design are just as important as scientific endeavour,” as she simultaneously and invisibly balanced the state’s mineral prosperity on one finger? Or was it the gallery, flush with the success of its new building and two blockbuster exhibitions, seemingly achieving the impossible balance of popular success and high art without dropping either? Or was it the exhibited architects, juggling all the disparate and desperate constraints of contemporary practice, and still managing to produce a series of fine architectural constructions, now rewarded with inclusion in this major exhibition? Well, they were all virtuoso, really. But perhaps there were also more tricks at play here than first met the eye. Continue Reading »

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Abundant. The word has rich connotations: the diverse and fertile garden, the bountiful harvest, the cornucopia, the surfeit. We all know, after years of intoning the song, that our land abounds in nature’s gifts. But with the Australian pavilion at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale, the creative directors – Neil Durbach, Vince Frost, Wendy Lewin, Kerstin Thompson and Gary Warner – propose that this beauty, rich and rare, also abounds in our architectural culture. Continue Reading »

Lacoste and Stevenson have added to and refurbished the Jubilee Oval Pavilion at Sydney’s Blackwattle Bay Park, near Glebe. This is a small and modest project, but it nevertheless tries out several architectural ideas, in a charmingly lighthearted manner. The architects call the project ‘camouflage,’ and it is indeed self-effacing – the addition is not visible from the oval side at all, and from the rear approach effectively disguises itself by mirroring the grassy hillside at its back, the façade being de-materialised with a broken surface of stainless steel and glass, and the whole topped off with an Astroturf roof. Continue Reading »

They say that culture is what turns milk sour. The biological metaphor is apt – the germ of an idea falls into a fertile medium, and before you know it you have a thickening swampy yoghurt of new artefacts, new behaviours, new ideas. You would think that the RAIA national conference would be exactly the place where such germs would be swarming around in a fecund cloud, and where we, the architectural fraternity, would stand ready to catch them and cultivate new colonies of architectural culture. Is that what happened at this year’s conference? Well, yes and no.

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In the law of warfare, when it becomes clear that a given city can not be held against imminent invasion, its government may declare an “open city”. This declaration bears the expectation (or hope, since it has historically not always been respected) that the invading army, meeting no further resistance, will march in and occupy the city without destroying its architecture and landmarks, or attacking its civilian population. It is a mode of surrender, intended to preserve built fabric and human life, but it is also a powerful metaphor: in it the city becomes porous, without boundaries, something to be flowed through and filled to the brim. In a peaceful place such as Sydney, the warlike metaphor may seem inappropriate. But the notion of permeability, of the city as a diaphanous network of open pores, remains potent, and it well describes the event of Sydney Open. Organized biennially by the Historic Houses Trust, Sydney Open is an architectural open day when a large number – this year 65 – of city buildings are accessible to the public.
Some of these are part of specially ticketed “focus tours”, which provide “in-depth access to private and fragile properties”, most often led by the architect or building owner. But the majority are buildings opened for this single day to anyone who holds a general admission ticket. Sydney Open began in 1997, following other successful events in London, New York and Toronto. It is now a fixture on the Sydney cultural calendar, and continues to grow in popularity and scope.

On the face of it, it is perhaps surprising that this event should be run by the Historic Houses Trust (HHT), given that most of the buildings featured are not houses, and many are also not “historic” in the sense of being old. In fact there is a fantastic collapsing of historical periods here – buildings that might usually be known as architectural “heritage” are displayed on the same plane as the most recent and cutting-edge constructions. And in this sense the event is entirely in keeping with the innovative and engaging public programmes of the HHT, an institution that contributes immeasurably to the cultural life of the city. In many ways the HHT leads the way in the display and dissemination of architectural ideas, both contemporary and historic, to a broad public audience in Sydney. In the Sydney Open guide book Peter Watts, director of the HHT, writes that the aim of the event is to “encourage a greater awareness of, and appreciation for, all forms and styles of architecture and design that contribute so much to our heritage and culture, encouraging us all… to develop a sense of ownership of our city.” Accordingly, the Trust reports that this year 5,000 people bought general-admission tickets, up from 3,706 at the last event two years ago. The most popular sites this year were Deutsche Bank Place, with a staggering 2,000 visitors, the Great Synagogue, and the Mint.

So there we all were on the day itself, Sunday 5 November, 2006. It was a grey, cold, and windy day in Sydney, with the city raked by fast-moving squally showers. In spite of the weather, there was a celebratory atmosphere and a sense of camaraderie between participants, as we hiked around the city with our umbrellas and cameras, looking out for other people wearing the distinctive red admission sticker. Most also clutched a well-thumbed brochure, the map at the back marked up with each person’s individually plotted itinerary. There were many possible themes through which to organize the day’s path through the city; materiality, for instance, could have been one linking thread – examining the role that sandstone plays in the architectural life of the city, perhaps starting with the convict mason’s mark on each individual stone in the wall around Darlinghurst Gaol (now the National Art School). Or you could visit Sydney landmarks including White Bay Power Station, the underground remnants of the Tank Stream, and the Sydney Town Hall. Or you could stick to contemporary, award-winning architecture. Whatever your taste and interest, people who wanted to nosy around the latest apartment design were equally as welcome as train-spotting historians, and both appeared to be outnumbered by regular, curious citizens of Sydney, hoping to see the city from new vantage points, to discover unexpected and secret spaces. Suddenly buildings which you might have walked past literally every day for years became more than just a facade: they are opened in every sense, taking on a depth of both space and experience.

Who would have thought, for instance, that there was such a sumptuous cast iron staircase in the Société Générale Building, which climbs acrobatically up a marble-faced lightwell towards an extraordinary stained glass ceiling. And while it has always been possible to see from the outside the sublime brutalist mass of the Sydney Masonic Centre and Civic Tower, who could have known that to be in this interior, with its highly figured off-form concrete and swooping heavy forms, would be like being among the turning cogs of a giant machine, the spaces themselves turning and meshing against one another.
Sydney Open also allows the populace an opportunity to see and understand those buildings that are “public” – institutions serving the public, working for the collective good – but which are not usually publicly accessible. Most people would hope never to see the inside of the cells and courtrooms at Darlinghurst courthouse, for instance, but the presence of this institution, the knowledge that it both symbolizes and facilitates the orderly processes of law, is a central part of living in a social democracy. But aside from these lofty ideals, in visiting these buildings it is also the detail that is interesting, including the graffiti on the cell walls at the courthouse – “this cell has ears!”; “whatever you have done, remember God”. Likewise, the interest of Darlinghurst Fire Station is not just the lively brick and stone of Walter Liberty Vernon’s design, but the opportunity to see the way the firemen’s coats and boots are lined up, the whiteboard with notes about sporting teams, fundraising drives, and a phone number for “Deano”, the open-air boxing gym on a roof garden which would be the envy of any inner-city resident. There is a sense, throughout the fire station, of the many many hours spent here, training, keeping fit, and mostly simply waiting for the emergency which will send the trucks hurtling out onto Victoria street with sirens blaring. While the building itself is interesting, especially in the context of two other fire stations designed earlier by the same architect (at Pyrmont and Randwick), it is more compelling for the insight it gives about the working life of a professional fire-fighter. It is not just as artefacts that the buildings suddenly become fascinating, it is as the intimate spaces of other people’s social and working lives.
By taking one day to specifically frame and re-present the city back to itself, Sydney Open makes architecture, in all its lived and built and temporal complexity, a legitimate object of appreciation in its own right. It reveals the consummate pleasure of becoming a tourist in your own city for a day.

Leon van Schaik has recently argued in his book Design City Melbourne that, for all its great qualities, Jørn Utzon’s Opera House has made little impact on the architectural culture of Sydney. In fact, he writes provocatively, it has had ‘as much consequence for the local design culture as if it were from Mars.’ There is however a quite definable streak in Sydney architecture that would argue otherwise, and it was made very evident in a series of four recent talks, every Wednesday evening throughout the month of April. Convened by Eoghan Lewis, each had different speakers but all were dedicated to ‘celebrating the work and influence of Jørn Utzon’. The timing was set to coincide with Utzon’s birthday, but also the ongoing work at the Opera House, including the opening of the new Western logia. The events were an extension of a long-running series known as ‘slide night’, convened by Lewis and Simeon King. Slide night has become a Sydney institution as an opportunity to talk informally about architecture, and it has staged some now-legendary events in locations such as the Spanish Club and on the roof of the Palisades hotel. This focussed series on Utzon was a new initiative which, in collaboration with the Historic Houses Trust, formalised and shifted the discussion into the more plush institutional venues of the Museum of Sydney and the Mint.

Lewis is well known in Sydney as the convenor of the Sydney Architecture Walks, and is a prominent figure in local discourse and education. His intention with the series was to examine Utzon’s significance for this city and for 20th century architecture more generally, and to approach his major work, the Sydney Opera House, tangentially – to ‘talk about the object by talking around it’. The idea was that local debate about this seminal modern building could be made more ‘pointy’, both in the sense of being more topical, and more critical. Accordingly, the four talks were framed as a kind of loose before and after, beginning with ‘the Bayview Houses’, followed by ‘Utzon vs the Liberal Government’, then ‘After Sydney: Denmark, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Majorca’, and finally ‘The Legacy’.

The series opened, appropriately enough, with Richard Leplastrier, who worked for Utzon between 1964-66, and who was clearly deeply influenced by that period. Whilst the talk was ostensibly about the unrealised house projects that Utzon designed for his family at Bayview, it was more an occasion for storytelling about Utzon’s time in Sydney. This first event was sold out, and the audience sat riveted, giving occasional little hums of empathetic agreement or lightly clicking tongues in surprise. This was not your usual architectural audience. But they liked what they got, as Leplastrier recounted what it was like to be in ‘a group of young people working for this amazing man’. There was a palpable nostalgia here, but one which was strangely moving at times, as when Leplastrier described those idyllic days of forty years ago when he and Utzon would go sailing in fine weather rather than working in the office, wistfully saying that ‘it was just so nice…’

The second talk in the series featured Elias Duek Cohen, Bill Wheatland, and Sylvia Lawson. In this more than any of the other sessions, one had a sense that this was oral history being performed before our eyes – that this testimony to the minutiae of the political and legal processes which preceded and followed Utzon’s departure from the Opera House project must be preserved for the historic record. Bill Wheatland in particular, as the architect left to ‘clean up’ Utzon’s affairs and to pursue his court case for unpaid fees, was in a unique position to observe the machinations of the architectural and the political. Sure enough, the HHT has recorded and will archive this, and all of the discussions.

The third talk in the series was given by Alex Popov, who worked for Utzon for ten years and thus was probably the closest to him of all the speakers, in both personal and professional terms. Perhaps because of this familiarity, his was a refreshingly matter-of-fact presentation, which retained a critical acuity sometimes lacking in the other papers. His presentation of the work ‘after Sydney’ was also illuminating – it sometimes seemed that Utzon was cursed, with almost every major project in the years following his leaving Sydney being stymied in one way or another. The Zurich Schauspielhaus for instance, which Utzon had won in an international competition, was abandoned from one day to the next after seven years of documentation.

The fourth and final talk in the series was the most indicative of the true impact Utzon has had on the local scene, since it largely focussed on the concept of influence, and by extension, on genealogy. The speakers were Chris Bosse of PTW, Peter Poulet, and Peter Stutchbury. In different ways each addressed the theme of nature, and its role as an inspiration and source for architecture. But the most revealing moment of the whole series came in Stutchbury’s presentation, when he recounted an anecdote that had already been told by Leplastrier three weeks earlier, about sailing with Utzon on Pittwater and his pointing out a particular cloud formation rising up and over a headland. While this moment was clearly something of an epiphany for Leplastrier, what is really interesting is the way this very same story was re-told by Stutchbury, one of Leplastrier’s own students. This telling and retelling of stories down the generations, their dissemination by disciples to their own disciples, is precisely what writes history into myth.

Perhaps, these days, it is impossible for a public audience to gather and talk about the ‘Great Dane’ without a strange intellectual rowdiness emerging – an anxious desire to loudly cheer the hero and throw tomatoes at the villains. At one point James Weirick referred to ‘the Opera House tragedy’, and there is indeed something of the theatrical epic tragedy here, complete with Greek chorus, and with wailing. There is a distinctly odd mixture of hushed reverence, quasi-religious hagiography, and a surprisingly vehement – albeit to me rather misguided – vilification of Hall, Todd, and Littlemore, who took over the project after Utzon’s departure. There is an almost palpable sense of communal guilt, apology, and a fierce wish for redemption. In Sydney, today, it is perhaps not possible to be clear-eyed and critical about Utzon and his legacy. The subject is so overwrought, both the hagiography and the cynicism are so thick, the trees press so close it may be impossible to see the forest.

In this context Lewis’s decision to circle around the Opera House without directly addressing it seems a very wise one. But van Schaik’s question of the Opera House’s consequence for Sydney architecture remains. It seems to me that this impact is quite distinct, but also that it is less a formal influence, and more one of architectural attitude, design process, and personal connection. Genealogy maintains a very firm grip in Sydney architecture, and there is a privileged lineage which springs from a handful of ‘masters’ including Utzon, and leads onward through several generations of disciples. The fact that many of these figures have held influential teaching positions, and indeed have been great teachers, has perpetuated this system, and thus a reverential emulation has passed down through the years. It has fundamentally inflected what we know as Sydney architecture today.