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Sculpture vs. Architecture

Architects, rather than sculptors have created many of Melbourne’s memorials and public sculptures. This is not a recent development, it has been going on for a century; a firm of architects, Irwin and Stevenson created Melbourne’s art deco Boar War Memorial, on the corner of St Kilda and Domain Roads, in 1924. Architects and designers often compete with sculptors for the same commissions for public sculpture.

Bertram McKennel, Victoria Parliament House, 1888

Bertram McKennel, Victoria Parliament House, 1888

In the 19th Century it was different, architecture created commissions for sculpture rather than competed with it. Classical inspired architecture requires bas-relief and other sculptural ornaments. From the figures at the tops of buildings to the Corinthian columns with their stylised Acanthus leaves on their ornate capitals they all had to be designed and carved.

And in the 19th Century many sculptors in Melbourne worked producing architectural ornamentation. Paul Montford was part of the New Sculpture movement that tried to emphasis the connection between sculpture and architecture. In 1888 Bertram Mackennal created two allegorical reliefs depicting industry, commerce, arts and agriculture for the façade of Victorian Parliament and the spandrels of the Mercantile Chambers, Collins Street. Mackennal’s father, an architecture modeller and sculptor had also worked on figures and decorations for Parliament under the supervision of Victoria’s first public sculptor, Charles Summers.

Bertram Mckennel, Victoria Parliament, 1888

Bertram Mckennel, Victoria Parliament House, 1888

In the modern era along the disappearance of sculptural ornamentation in architecture there was a change in how sculptors saw themselves. No longer supporting architecture modern sculptors saw themselves mini-architects with the same ambitions to create formal 3D shapes. It was an odd move world public sculptures were seen as a means of ameliorating the aesthetic effect a functionalist a modern building. Public art was expected to humanize the alienating undecorated architecture with an artistic gesture.

Robert Juniper, “Shadow Form III", 1988

Robert Juniper, “Shadow Form III”, 1988

Now Melbourne has an increasing use of architectural forms in the decoration of freeways, roundabouts and buildings. The stark minimalism of the modern era has gone and now sculptors are expected to work in collaboration with the architect from the start of the project.

Denton Corker and Marshall (DCM) is a Melbourne firm specializing in architecture and urban design. DCM’s work can be seen all over Melbourne from the Melbourne Museum to the Web Bridge in Docklands. Ron Robertson-Swann’s statue haunts DCM like Banquo’s ghost at the banquet, because they had designed the city square and championed the sculpture. DCM’s “City Gateway” in Flemington is a reference to Vault. Like Vault the big yellow beam is better known by other nicknames – “the cheese stick”.

However the competition between sculptors and architects has lead to resentment by Melbourne sculptors. William Eicholtz argues that architects have pushed the art, especially sculpture, out of Melbourne’s urban/suburban environment. Another Melbourne sculptor, Anton Hasell was able to explain why architects have an advantage over sculptors in applying for public commissions; architects firm has the computing power and in-house graphic design to make their applications standout compared to a sculptor’s application.

Is public sculpture a subset of architecture, itself a subset of design? Or is there something that the art in the sculpture brings that should not be confused with architecture and design?

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About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

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