Tag Archives: architecture

The Australian Ugliness

Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness was first published in 1960. It is mostly a complaint about Australian suburban taste and its insecurities. It is an angry rave against ‘featurism’; Boyd’s word of complaint about the myopic focus on features without an overall aesthetic consideration or design. Basically is a rejection of the previous generation’s love of decoration and patterns, as well as, a rejection of the superficial modernism that Boyd identified as American.

Victorian Artists Society - Romanesque Revival building

Victorian Artists Society – Romanesque Revival building

Parts of the book are still, unfortunately, a very accurate description of Australia, even prescient in spite of being written fifty-five years ago. Boyd’s critical view of Australian culture is accurate and psychologically astute from arborphobia to insecurity, however he appears psychologically inept, telling an insecure population that they are unable to produce good design because they are too insecure. But then, much of late modernism was appears totally psychologically inept imaging that everyone would adopt their utopian vision.

Some of what Boyd was writing about has been, in part, rectified particularly with the planting of trees in the suburbs and better urban design. Although not by his snobbish dislike for American culture that has perniciously grown in Australia. Australian arborphobia has some practical reasons with many eucalypts shedding not just leaves and bark but whole branches making many Australian trees unsuitable for a city.

Cherry picking evidence to support his claims Boyd fails to mention the first ‘garden suburb’ was built in Australia. In 1901 the Garden Suburb Movement established  Haberfield in Sydney. It was Australia’s first planned model suburb with no lanes, no pubs and Edwardian homes with height limits. (See Art and Architecture.)

Many architects and designers, along with Boyd have dreamed of a unified aesthetic but he stumbles at the first hurdle. How to adapt, rather than simply replace, the entire history of European architecture in Australia. Boyd is a modernist hoping that “…gradually, the family itself would become the designers of its own pattern of standardised units, as suggested by Walter Gropius.” (p.137) However, he is practical enough to realise that know that there are not enough designers and architects to complete his vision.

Boyd and other architects who write about aesthetics are like astrophysicists writing metaphysics, both are only playing a philosophy. Playing in that they have no training or experience, imagining that it is as easy as they think. Boyd has an underlying belief in “universal” objective aesthetics of design. When he finally gets around to trying to define ugliness (p.235) we quickly find that featurism doesn’t fit his definition, announcing on that “if beauty were all there is to architecture, Featurism would be enough.” (p.239)

Boyd’s ugliness is not what I think of Australian ugliness? In contemporary architectural design the pastiche of patterns and textures has returned to feature in both suburban homes and urban tower blocks. Some of Boyd’s ugliness is simply a difference in taste. For me the Australian ugliness is the empty, run down waste-land, a cultural wasteland of aboriginal genocide, detention camps and environmental destruction on an industrial scale leaving the land denuded of any natural features, exploited and abandoned like the mullock heaps of the former goldfields.

Although Boyd believes that aesthetics and good design is independent of culture, politics, and the beliefs of the population because he believes that it is objectively good. It is Australian politics that planned and created the vast suburbs that Boyd dislikes, it is the politics of inequality, the exploitation and destruction of the natural environment that created the Australian love of features.

The Australian ugliness is more than just skin deep as Robin Boyd claimed, it goes, if I can continue anthropomorphising of the amorphous entity known as Australia, to the heart and soul. Boyd knew this, his contempt for the White Australia policy and the treatment of Aborigines is clear throughout his book.

All quotes from Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness (Text Publishing, 2010 Melbourne)


Architecture & Fashion

I saw a few exhibitions this week that united art, architecture and fashion: “Transitions” at No Vacancy and the combination of Denise Wray’s “Compartments” and Jake Preval’s “Costumes for the Ark” at the George Paton Gallery. This seems an odd remark because I rarely see exhibitions that unite art, architecture and fashion and yet what is the difference between them?

“Transitions” by Make Shift Concepts: Armando Chant, Donna Sgro and Oliver Solente is part of the L’Oreal Melbourne Fashion Festival’s cultural program. “At first glance it will look like just a video and some sculptures.” Oliver Solente (from the exhibition paper.) It did look like that but the suspended dresses and video of the dress worn on the catwalk reminded me that this was a fashion exhibition. The suspended dresses were not hung to suggest a human form but hung to show potentials in their architectural form, much like the angular architectural forms of the sculptures.

It was these angular architectural forms that reminded me of the structure of the masks in Jake Preval’s “Costumes for the Ark”. Preveal’s exhibition isn’t in the fashion festival’s cultural program but it should be, it is like the queer alternative. The exhibition is basically a series of photographs of queer couples wearing only black underpants and Preveal’s cardboard masks. The architecture of the couple’s bodies as they posed together is what made the photographs. Love the scattered black underwear around the room, suggesting that the couples from the photographs had stripped off their costumes and left the ark.

Denise Wray’s “Compartments” definitely united art, architecture and fashion. If art and architecture is about filling or not filling a space than Wray’s four works did that, with stitched zips, acrylic on canvas, polyester twine and leather strips. It looked like Wray gone mad after reading too much Greenberg and books on Duchamp and had raided a leather garment factory’s bins to make ‘art’. I liked it is ironic in punk deconstructionist way.

I wouldn’t say that I’m a big fashion, design or architecture fan; it is too cool for me. I want passionately engage – this why I’m very interested in sculpture and I enjoy writing about it. It is odd because sculpture and architecture are so similar – it is often difficult to distinguish where one begins and the other ends – visually it is often difficult to distinguish them, they might be indistinguishable. But what is the difference between sculpture and architectural or fashion forms? Function appears to be too simple an explanation as sculptures are also functional (see my post on the Uses of Public Art). Given that I can’t clearly distinguish between sculpture and architecture I don’t know why I feel differently about them.

The difference between sculpture and architectural forms is not an insubstantial issue and can have legal, as well as, aesthetic implications. The Copyright Website reports that in the case of Leicester vs. Warner Bros. the Los Angeles “district court found that the towers (Andrew Leicester’s sculpture Zanja Madre), although containing artistic elements, were actually part of the architectural work of the building.”


Hamer Hall – architecture & garden

The Melbourne firm of architects, Ashton Raggatt McDougall (ARM), designed the new Hamer Hall. ARM also designed RMIT’s Storey Hall, the Melbourne Recital Centre and other notable projects in Australia. ARM have the art of architectural redevelopment down with earlier project including redeveloping Melbourne Central Shopping Centre and adding a Visitor Centre to the Shrine of Remembrance where the character of original building is not lost but simply and subtly improved.

Hamer Hall

The new riverside front of Hamer Hall with its dynamic curves and cut away windows reminded me of Hive, graffiti architecture, only on a larger scale. (See my post: Graffiti & Architecture.) The contrast with the old, mossy stone of Princes Bridge designed by the architect John Grainger (1854-1917), the father of the composer, Percy Grainger.

Kaeru, a garden of recycled materials on the upper lawn terrace of the new Hamer Hall is a temporary, environmental art project. Created by Japanese installation artist, Hiroshi Fuji in collaboration with Melbourne’s Slow Art Collective and the people of Victoria. The Slow Art Collective is Tony Adams, Chaco Kato, and Dylan Martorell; they have impressed me in the past with their installations especially the audio aspect. I have seen works by their members before at Gertrude Contemporary, the Counihan and Lamington Drive (See my 2009 post: Dylan Martorell @ Lamington Drive.)

Kaeru Garden, Melbourne, 2012

Hiroshi Fuji has done a number of installations using found plastic. There is so much plastic in the world that it will pollute the world for a thousand years, so you might as well reuse and enjoy what is already around. Kaeru demonstrates that this is possible.

Kaeru all looks like a giant spider web made by a psychedelic spider. There were some great seats where I sat and watched the Yarra River run by in the early spring sunshine and enjoyed the audio elements of this garden. Gardens are not silent – only the dead are silent and even an unnatural garden like this needs sounds. There is the rattle of pinwheels, the occasional clang of metal from wind chimes and hanging speakers attached to glass balls emitting ambient sounds.

Seating in Kaeru


Graffiti & Architecture

If graffiti is a major design movement, the contemporary equivalent to art deco, a total style from graphics to fashion to architecture. When I first wrote about street art and architecture in 2009 there was very little to write about apart from bigger walls. Now there are whole buildings.

Reka on building in East Richmond

Painting whole wall or whole building is becoming more common in Melbourne with works by Reka, Ears, Ghostpatrol and others. Most pieces use a section of wall as simply a support for the paint without consideration about the size of piece in relationship to the size of the wall. Going around the corner, looking at the whole wall or painting a whole building is something else.

But it is still just another façade.

Hive Graffiti Apartments in Carlton

In 2011 ITN Architects built Hive Graffiti Apartments. Located in the inner city suburb of Carlton. The project is the architect’s home; I went along to see it when it was open to the public as part of Open House Melbourne 2012. It is a joint development by the architect Zvi Belling and Melbourne old school graff artist ‘Prowla’, both of whom reside in the building. For more images and a floor plan of Hive see DeZeen Magazine.

‘Prowla’ was a member of the Rock Da City graffiti crew (1987 – 2009) – his dog was calmly watching all the people waiting in the garage from the stairs to his apartment.

On one side of the building large concrete letters and windows spelled “Hive” along with a couple of arrows on the upper floor and some dynamic old school design. But what apart from the façade was graffiti about the apartments? It is hard to know as this may well be the first graffiti style building in the world. The Hive is the first in a promised series of Hip Hop buildings designed by ITN Architects maybe when we see some more it will be easier to say. Perhaps, it is the collaboration in the design, or, incorporating existing urban elements – from the original street face of the old tailor’s shop, the old brick walls and the laneway entrance. The house is like a fresh new piece in an old laneway. Inside the lines are crisp, it is compact and the angles flow with a cool direction.

The street art collection hanging in the house was familiar – I’d seen some of it at a Melbourne Stencil Festival exhibition many years ago. The house was also familiar in a way, there was no feeling of being unable to imaging living there; it is like a typical flat only cooler.


Orphan Sculptures

In researching public sculpture in Melbourne I am a little surprised to find orphan pieces; ‘orphan’ are pieces left out of the catalogue or a catalogued items with very little information. It is surprising that something as large as a sculpture is forgotten or lost in the records. But I’m only a little surprised it is not as if there is a catalogue of all the buildings, sculptures, fountains and things that are in Melbourne or any in any other city.

unknown orphan sculpture, possibly Lyndon Dadswell, 118 Russell Street

Most of the statues owned by the City of Melbourne come with a brass plaque set into the pavement that states the sculptor, title and date. But this is not the case with privately owned sculpture on public display. Many of these sculptural works were commissioned for private commercial buildings in Melbourne, like or the base relief on 118 Russell Street. The art deco figure of Mercury could indicate that it might have something to do with communications and would help date the piece.

Likewise it is not known who made the many figures on the facades of Melbourne’s buildings, like the Atlas figure on the former Atlas Assurance Building on Collins Street, the Druid on the Druids Building on Swanston Street or the metal motif of a rather skeletal modern merman on the outside wall of the Port Phillip Arcade on Flinders Street.

The rust covered corten steel sculpture out the front of The Domain (1 Albert Street) has been identified as Robert Jacks but there are more works of unknown or unidentified sculptors. Who made the three masted sailing-ship atop the weather vane that was installed c. 1919 at the Mission to Seamen. And who made the “French Fountain” a bronze fountain with granite plinth, from the International Exhibition of 1880 at the east entrance of the Exhibition Buildings?

The stories of these pieces have been lost to history. These orphans need help – if anyone has any additional information on these sculptors could they please comment or contact me (melbourneartcritic at gmail dot com).


Art Deco Coburg

According to real estate agents there are plenty of art deco houses in Coburg but real estate agents are not experts on architecture and most of these claims are based on some ceiling moulding and a few other left over features. There are some art deco buildings in Melbourne’s northern suburb of Coburg but art deco in Coburg was not prestige buildings rather it was new facades for old factories, pubs, shops, garages, houses and a community hall. Art deco architecture was a sign that the upwardly mobile working class industrial suburb was keeping up with the times.

Now that the old Union Knitting Mills has been gutted and transformed into multi-story flats I started to consider how the “modern geometric style” (as art deco was then known) was received and used in Coburg. The new building is a dramatic change but sensitive to the old streetscape and preserves the best aspects of the architecture. The renovation retains the original curving banded art deco façade and entrance. Even the original factory sign has been restored.

A block down from Union Knitting Mills the Post Office Hotel also has an art deco façade covering an older building. The façade has recently been restored – I’ve enjoying several meals at the Post Office Hotel and the pub has gained a reputation for its superb food both in its restaurant and counter menu. The iron ribbon lettering of the Post Office Hotel sign is similar to that of several pubs in North Melbourne.

There are other touches of art deco in the suburb. Richard Broome, Coburg – between two creeks, (Lothian, 1987) reports a building boom immediately after the Great Depression, people had been waiting for better economic times before starting their construction. There are modern/art deco elements in facades of a few Coburg factory facades along Sydney Road dating their construction.

Akins Auto Service on Nicholson St. is another example of the modest art deco buildings in Coburg. Akins Auto Service was established in 1932. There are also art deco elements in design of the façade on the Progress Hall and parts of the memorial opposite the Coburg Town Hall on Bell Street. The memorial is dedicated to the first Coburg resident killed in WWII: the griffons on the memorial are impressive.

For more of Melbourne’s art deco buildings see Art Deco Buildings blog by David Thompson. Although he has not written about Coburg, Thompson does look Art Deco in many of Melbourne’s suburbs.


Pentridge Rehabilitated

Pentridge Prison has been rehabilitated. Pentridge Prison was built in 1850 to cope with the over crowded Melbourne Gaol and the prison hulks in Port Phillip Bay. The prison closed on the 1st May 1997; wreaking historian Richard Broome’s 1987 prediction that the “it is likely to last another 136 years.” Richard Broome, Coburg – between two creeks, (Lothian, 1987)

Penal history is a major feature of Australian colonial history and Pentridge Prison is the gravesite of Australia’s most famous folk hero/outlaw, Ned Kelly. Although some Australians take pride in a convict past the residents of Coburg didn’t and repeatedly called for the removal of the prison. Pentridge Prison haunted the upwardly mobile aspirations of the homeowners and residents of Coburg for generations. The city changed its name attempting to disassociate the city from the prison. Now Coburg won’t be forgetting Pentridge with parts of the prison now being classified for its heritage value and other parts being replaced by a slowing growing housing estate. The rehabilitation of the former Pentridge Prison into Pentridge Village has slowly progressing for several years.

I am not interested in spruiking the real estate; I am interested in the cultural issues of this urban redevelopment. I am interested in the mix of historic, residential and retail that the transformation includes. At least Pentridge Village is not another anonymous housing estate or apartment block; there is plenty of the prison’s character preserved and the new residents won’t forget the history of the place. This is not to suggest that the architecture of a 19th Century prison does not have its charm or that the new flats and apartments look like a prison. The better bluestone construction has been preserved; the granite “bluestone” was mostly quarried, cut and built by prison labour (except for the external walls for obvious reasons). Barred windows, old signs and other features are being preserved as the prison is being rehabilitated. Some streets have been named after part of the prison like “Warden’s Walk” but others are just bizarre property development words.

Pentridge Village does feature some new innovations; Warden’s Walk utilizes permeable paving to capture of storm-water runoff.  The storm-water harvesting and reuse (I saw some enormous water tanks) is used, in part, to water the extensive rose bush planting as a symbolic reference to the past (the prisoners maintained a rose garden within the prison as well as poetic reference). Some of Pentridge is still a building site and wasteland and in other parts residents have been living there for years. The spaces for shops and businesses are still vacant except for one restaurant. Although the heritage space has been used for fashion shows and old cells transformed in to boutique wine cellars according to Style Melbourne.

Having lived in Coburg for decades I can remember the prison in operation, closed the location being slowly rehabilitated. I can still remember hearing the howls that came from Pentridge at midnight on New Year’s Eve in 1991 when I was living very close to the prison walls. I also saw and photographed parts of the prison shortly after it closed. The escape proof Jika Jika Unit that looked like Space Station Despair has been demolished; although the architects could build on the nostalgic ambiance of the 19th Century parts of the prison, the modern penal architecture of the Jika Jika Unit could never be reformed.

Pentridge Prison, Coburg

The historic entrance and other parts of the historic precinct of the old Pentridge Prison are yet to be rehabilitated. The front of the prison still stands looking abandoned with heritage issues yet to be resolved. There are no statues yet in this redevelopment and the front of the prison definitely needs a suitable statue that is sensitive to the history without being mawkish. (For information on the art of prisoners see my post about Prison Art @ Pentridge)

Perhaps saying that Pentridge Prison has been rehabilitated is going too far; it scrubs up well and has taken significant steps to reform its character but it is still a work in progress.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,161 other followers

%d bloggers like this: