Category Archives: Architecture

The City As Art

The buildings in the centre of Melbourne are both familiar and unknown, they seem to change around like something out of the movie, Dark City. Exploring the city has to be a regular activity as there are changes occurring all of the time and a once familiar area transforms.

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The city as a creation, as a great co-operative work of architecture, art and engineering stretching over a vast area and reaching into the sky, a larger concept than a medieval cathedral. The creation, curation and alteration of which is a mix of planning, adapting and neglect.

The city draws you along its streets, wanting to see what is coming around the corner. Each street creates a new scene, one block is totally different from the next.

Underneath the city, the ground level is as constructed on foundations. How deep does it go? The labyrinthine network of tunnels, the subway, the subconscious of all cities. There is a mystery beneath all cities, the mystery of  the labyrinth and at its core the Minotaur.

Too much repetition in a city reminds one that it is also a labyrinth where a Minotaur hunts for sacrificial victims. “Bloody tribute!” says Theseus after tagging the wall with an outline of his hand sprayed by mouth in red ochre, or is it bull’s blood?

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Cities are visually dense; signs and symbols compete for our attention. The accretion of images, of advertising and signs. The many shiny surfaces reflect the many lights further confusing the vision. The visual density of the city has presented a challenge to visual artists for the last two centuries.

Graffiti and street art rise to this challenge by imitating the visual intensity of the city, by being part of and by being framed by the infrastructure of the city. Graffiti tries to fit into this environment by becoming a tag, a personal logo in a world full of corporate logos. Both the graffiti writer and the street artist rectifies the urban environment by adding their designs to the layers of images, personalising the alien, impersonal architecture of the city.

The whole of Melbourne could be seen as an un-curated art gallery for graffiti and street art. Except that there are small semi-curated zones, like… roll the credits… Doyle’s Blender Alley and Lovelands, the area of Fitzroy curated by Shaun Hossack of Juddy Roller, Dean Sunshine’s factories in Brunswick. Gordon Harrison, the City of Melbourne engineer should also get some credit of street art in the CBD. I’m sorry if I have missed anyone.

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Zombie Suburbia

Legend has it that the suburbs are full of zombies. They must be somewhere because the suburbs look so dead. Is it quiet because the rampaging zombie hordes has already passed by? It looks dead because it is so quiet and there is all this stuff around that is never used. The suburbs are so quiet that Melbourne psychogeographer, Nick Gadd, in his blog post “The real and the fake in Abbotsford”, had to asks himself: “where is everybody?”

Zombie in Hosier Lane

Two zombies in Hosier Lane

The suburban zombie might look like ordinary people but they lack a life. Suburban zombies are often employed; zombies make good workers for menial labour, but they are not living their own life.

How to live your own life is the most important cultural questions of all time. Not to be confused with how to live a life, or the life that others want you to live. Others might value your life for their own reasons – some just want to eat your brain.

The classic post-war consumer dream was sold to millions of zombies: a TV, a car and a house in the suburbs. The payments for this borrowed dream go on for ever. Life in the suburbs is a commercial product and fear is good for business. The suburb continues to sell as a product and it’s nervous. Are the suburbs really full of transitory inhabitants watching the house prices, always ready to sell up and move on if the price is right or if the zombie horde descends on the area? This mix of home life and commerce contributes to fear and further alienates the suburbanite from their home. Even cars are kept largely impersonal to maintain the best resale value.

Examples of suburban paranoia are common. The secrets keep building up in the suburbs, they are so discreet and genteel. Your neighbour might be judging you as criminal, alien or anathema. The paranoia, the susceptibility to fear mongering that such suburbs create. It appears idyllic except that the suburban mentality is paranoid. Isolated in the suburbia, living next to unknown neighbours, fear is an understandable response.

Suburbia was designed to create a homogeneous, assimilated population. The soporific repetition of suburban landscapes creates an unnerving sense of déjà vu. Here and there are the odd flourishes in suburban architecture, gardens or decoration. Small triumphs against conformity or simply demonstrations of eccentricity?

There is an absence of any real landmarks or even hubs in the suburb, means that there is no logical place to rally the population against the ravenous zombie hoards. Transportation designed on a circulatory system of capillary roads feeding into arteries view hubs as undesirable points of congestion. Place where several paths intersect are designed to have no holding qualities.

The only place in the suburb that has any holding power is the home. It is there that the population intends to bunker down. Fear of the zombie hordes have driven people to retreat to fortified zones at the back of their houses only venturing out to their front yards for the daily commute.

Design responds to both the realities of life and the unrealities of desires. The mass experience of suburban life tried to create a middle ground between the inner city, cosmopolitan life and the country life for the middle class. The suburbs are a reactionary location, rejecting the urban environment rather than trying to improve it. The problem with suburbs is not simply a question of design any more than it is a choice of what weapons to use in the zombie apocalypse. It is a problem of how to live and it will require both changes in the mind set of the population and bricks, concrete and steel of the city.

 


Redevelopments and Public Sculptures

There is constant redevelopment in the CBD, buildings are being torn down and new buildings built, but two redevelopments have caught my attention because of the public sculptures caught up in these developments. Although these sculptures are public, in that they are on premises open to the public, they are privately owned. These are the redevelopment at the 360 Collins Street and 447 Collins Street.

The forecourt on Lt. Collins Street

The forecourt on Lt. Collins Street

My interest in 360 Collins Street is focused on the forecourt area on Little Collins Street where there are several sculptures by Peter Blizzard’s Shrine to the Ancient River, Paul Blizzard’s Fossil Stones and Chris Booth’s Strata. See my blog post.  In 2011 there was a proposal approved for 15-storey development in the forecourt area whereas the present 2015 proposal retains, refurbishes and redevelops part of the forecourt area. For more on the development see Urban Melbourne.

Michael Mezaros, John Pascoe Fawkner, 1978

Michael Mezaros, John Pascoe Fawkner, 1978

Ironically it was a dislodged slab of its marble facade in 2012  that spelt the end for the National Mutual building at 447 Collins Street designed by architects Godfrey, Spowers, Hughes, Mewton & Lobb in 1965. It’s façade of marble slabs was its one notable architectural feature, a move away from the curtain wall of earlier modernism. 447 Collins Street is now vacant and approved for demolition. In the forecourt of 447 Collins Street are the statues of John Batman by Stanley Hammond and John Pascoe Fawkner by Michael Mezaros, see my blog post.

What will happen to the sculptures? The Moral Rights provisions in the Copyright Act in 2000, under section 195AT, the owner of a moveable artistic work is liable to the artist if they destroy the artistic work without first giving the artist opportunity to remove it. The artist or their heirs, as two of the sculptors are now deceased, have the right to be informed about the removal, storage or subsequent reinstallation.

Percival Ball architectural ornaments now the entrance to the carpark at Melbourne Uni

Percival Ball architectural ornaments now the entrance to the carpark at Melbourne Uni

In the past Melbourne University was eager to provide new homes to sculptures dislodged from their original locations in the city, see my blog post. None of the sculptures at either 360 Collins Street or 447 Collins Street are site specific so it should not proved difficult to find a new home for them, if they are not returned to refurbished forecourts at their present locations.


Melbourne’s Gothic Revival

Gothic Revival is mostly found on Melbourne’s late nineteenth century churches, law courts and banks. “The Gothic Revival in Australia was a fabric of myths” write Robin Boyd in The Australian Ugliness (The Text Publishing Company, 2010, Melbourne p.61) Boyd goes on to note that: “Australia is full of Gothicky churches of crashing structural dullness struck about with decorative features.” Boyd maintained that the idea that the Gothic Revival was based on the northern European gothic tradition was a myth.

ANZ Bank, Collins Street

ANZ Bank, King Street and Collins Street

Gothic Revival architecture in Australia had a great appeal as it was seen as both particularly British and patriotic, as well as Catholic because of Augustus Pugin. Pugin designed the interior of the Palace of Westminster is widely regarded as the father of Gothic Revival and was a convert to Catholicism. There are a number of Catholic churches in Sydney and Brisbane designed by Pugin who was invited to Australia by the first Bishop of New South Wales.

There are many kinds of gothic revival in Australia from the decorative to the austere. The five-storey Venetian Gothic style building at 673 Bourke St that was built circa 1890 and is now known as “Donkey Wheel House”. There is the gothic revival of decorative grotesques, including an image of Jeff Kennett amongst the gargoyles of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne or the austere gothic revival of peaked arches Coburg’s Methodist church. The combination of dark basalt walls and light sandstone is repeated in many of Melbourne’s older churches and cathedrals irrespective of their denomination, they all believed in the gothic revival because it referred back to their medieval heritage and created for them a hyperreal European medieval presence in a city on the other side of the planet.

ANZ Bank detail

ANZ Bank detail

As well as churches and universities Gothic Revival was favoured for banks building cathedrals of commerce. The English Scottish & Australian Bank was designed the architect was William Wardell. Boyd describes the English Scottish & Australian Bank as “probably the most Italian-looking thing in Australia until the expresso bars of the 1950s.” (p.62) The adjacent stock exchanged (both now the ANZ bank on Collins Street) was designed in the gothic revival by architect William Pitt and completed in 1883. It is an extravagant building both inside and out that is well worth a visit if you are in the city during business hours.

Interior ANZ Bank

Interior ANZ Bank

The rich sculptural ornamentation of  Gothic Revial buildings kept many sculptors and stonemasons employed. In 1888 the sculptor, Bertram Mackennal was commissioned for the spandrels of the Mercantile Chambers, Collins Street. However the borrowed ancient splendour of the gothic revival style did not protect the banks from the financial disaster of the Australian banking crisis of 1893 when several of the commercial banks and the Federal Bank collapsed.

Gothic Revival was the main alternative to neo-classical architecture in Melbourne, alternative not as a rival but another option for architects, just as Fanta is an option to drinking Coke. All of these architectural revivals, the Gothic revival, Babylonian revival and the other architectural revivals in Melbourne’s architecture is part of a Victorian revision of history. It is as if the upper class Victorians were playing an enormous game, like a strange kind of Cosplay or the Society for Creative Anarchronism, dressing up not just themselves but their buildings in ancient fashion to play at knights. And perhaps they really were, after all Queen Victoria’s favourite portrait of Alfred depicted him wearing armour (although I’m not sure which one as there are several that do).


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)


Collingwood, HaHa and the Street

I went to see Regan Tamanui’s (aka HaHa) ‘Residency’ at the House of Bricks in Collingwood. HaHa is amongst the best stencil artists in the world and House of Bricks is one of the funky converted warehouse gallery spaces focused on the street art scene. Why a ‘residency’ was my first question? He explained that was offered the space due to a cancelled exhibition.

HaHa cutting stencils with both hands.

HaHa cutting stencils with both hands.

It is an informal way of working in public. Set up a studio, just a couple of tables and chairs, at the House of Bricks. With the roller doors of the House of Bricks open, Regan is practically working in the street and in public.

On the white wall he was taping up his work for sale at the very affordable price of $60 a piece, so I bought one. He is also offering to do stencil portraits for $100.

Regan is happy to explain and demonstrate his multi-stencil technique or just chat with the people who come in. He said that he has been attracting a fair number of local identities and eccentrics. He told me the best advice was not make eye contact with them otherwise they would talk forever.

There were small stencil studies for future work inspired by recent trips to Singapore, the Northern Territories and Papua New Guinea: orchids, crimson sunbirds, kookaburras, the Devil’s Marbles in the Northern Territories, along with portraits of dogs and people.

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After that I wandered around the area. Regan told me about a large concrete cast spray can in an empty lot behind a chainlink fence a block away. I’m sure that is by Dface when he visited Melbourne in 2011. At the back of the lot against a concrete wall there was also a fake tomb stone, presumably also by Dface, that reads ‘Cheat Death’ (too far away for the zoom on my little camera).

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On my walk I saw Tom Civil’s wooden cut out versions of his figures decorating the wall of the community garden on the corner of Cecil and Gore streets. It is not a big garden just a few planter boxes and benches but it makes a big impact on the street.

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In Easey Street there were these decorated power poles, I didn’t think much of them, they looked a bit ugly, not surprising given the Christmas theme of some of them.

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Also on Easey Street is the graffiti influenced architecture of the End To End building with the three train carriages on its roof. (For more see my post on Graffiti and Architecture.)

End to End building


More Microparks

Microparks, or how local city councils in greater Melbourne are learning to practice the art of urban acupuncture trying to hit the magical lay lines of psychogeography. Melbourne is well known for its parks; Victoria’s car license plates once sported the slogan “the garden state.” Large parks surround the city but beyond that parkland in the inner city can be sparse. Local councils are finding vacant land between two buildings, at a corner or on an under-used section of road to rejuvenate an area with a park.

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The City of Yarra wants to create new open spaces in Collingwood as the area was originally overbuilt. Wandering the Collingwood gallery district I find a new park on Oxford Street with lots of decking, a drinking fountain and contained patches of grass. It looks as if it is primarily intended for sitting and eating lunch. There is another new small park only a few blocks away on Peel Street with its curved red seating and piles of concrete blocks, as if that part of it was designed using Minecraft.

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Compared to the earlier micro park on the corner of Gertrude and Smith Streets, where two benches and a hippy looking garden bed is dominated by the billboard advertising, these new parks are masterpieces in urban architecture and design. Novelty seats by artists are out, now seating has to have design features. (See my post Crazy City Comforts) and, basically be a comfortable place to put your bum. The architecture of discipline is out for these parks; the anti-sleeping, anti-skateboarding bumps are not visible but rather subtly understood in the design. Design is the key feature of these parks, not an anonymous utilitarian effort nor a naive hope that the community will do the rest.

In Brunswick off Sydney Road there is Wilson Avenue existing pop-up park from last year is now to be made permanent. Wilson Avenue in Brunswick, off Sydney Road. An urban bouldering wall allowing people to do more than just sit in the park.

Temporary or permanent these spaces are mostly about rejecting the dominate car culture to provide more space for pedestrians. It takes more than a few seats and a little bit of vegetation to make a successful urban micro park or pedestrian space. If you build it will they use it?

On the subject of sitting, with the television full of documentaries about Tony Robinson, Will Self or Alan Cummings going for a walk, I have decided that sitting is going to be the next big thing. Sitting is what is required for style and comfort. My cat does a lot of sitting; for her there are seats of power, seats of comfort and seats to explore. In the 21st century everything is extreme and there is the extreme sitting of Maria Abranivich sitting in MOMA for day after day. Public seating is a civic necessity for the aged, the sick, the tired. Having public seating reduces isolation. The Guardian reports on the City of Dijon in France introduced public armchairs, as it is easier for the elderly to get up from a seat with armrests.


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