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Pubdate: 05-Mar-1996

Edition: Late


Subsection: Arts

Page: 18

Wordcount: 1054

Melbourne ruins hit city of Light


EM FARRELLY E. M. Farrelly is the Herald’s architecture and urban design critic and chairman of the 1996 Australia Award for Urban Design.

ADELAIDE is the first arts festival to include architecture and urban design amongst its major themes. Ironic, then, that the town itself should be such a casebook of classic urban design don’ts.

With North Terrace reduced to a grubby traffic-sluice and the formless, internalised Adelaide “Square” unable to relate to street or river but blocked instead into endless repetition of its own idiot geometries, Adelaide would have been a lot better off without the 1970s. The festival buildings themselves are equally catatonic, their white and black hooded patterns and planter boxes that merely dramatise the absence of any known life form.

There’s nothing unusual about squandered waterfront opportunity. Melbourne, Perth, Sydney, Brisbane and even London and New York are having to rethink their waterfronts, some more successfully than others. But it does make Adelaide a brave place from which to try to give urban design legs as a free-standing intellectual/artistic discipline.

For all that, Adelaide is Australia’s only planned city and much is made, throughout the “viz-arts” side of the festival, of the apparently misunderstood genius of Colonel William Light, who planned Adelaide and first scribed its much-vaunted street grid into the SA dust.

The grid, of course, is usually seen these days as a symbol of colonial (and cognitive) oppression of the particularities of the place on which it settles. Light, however, is up for reconstruction, and is emerging, even now, as a counter-hero, heralding multi-culturalism (he was half Portuguese or possibly Thai), pluralism and all things fragmentary, poetic and particular.

This makes Light OK, and ditto his grid, which luckily incorporated a now-modish change of axis. Puns on light and shadow and chiaroscuro (read, half-caste) permeate the festival literature, just as visual puns on the grid permeate its visual installations. Echoes everywhere of the grid, the square, and – Adelaide’s proudest contribution to world culture – the Hills ubiquitous Hoist, which nests in flocks along the river and, festooned with flares and incandescents, marks all nodes, paths and points of

festive significance.

A prime strategy in realising all this was to import some of Melbourne’s intellectual grunt – with an exhibition by Peter Corrigan, coyly entitled A Bow of Burning Gold, Some Arrows of Desire, and a series of river-bank installations, orchestrated by

Melbourne’s Professor Leon van Schaik, under the title Ruins of the Future. Here students and others were encouraged to explore, again, the obscurities of the grid; universal v particular, reason v imagination, and so on. Discipline v indulgence. Nothing adolescent about that.

Seven installations have been erected along the Torrens, some by students, some by invited guests. Curiously, in view of the emphasis on the particular, van Schaik rejected the local, Adelaide entrants in his competition, as “appallingly bad … no dialectic at all”, preferring the poetic insights of his own architecture school, RMIT.

And it is clear that the artists so chosen have enjoyed themselves immensely. For the audience, though, the first challenge, amongst the riverfront bric-a-brac, is to discern what is art and what is not. Mercifully, the art is labelled. How else would you know that Jeanne Sillett’s five-metre-high wooden crates, sitting riverside, contain in fact 25 million blue crocus bulbs, to be planted across Adelaide’s unsuspecting topography in perennial lines – “the abstract map grids which unite the world on the world’s surface”?

One is invited to think of these installations as follies, and some, such as Sillett’s, are charming ideas. But there’s something in the old adage that says works that need explanation are not working.

Durer’s House is student work, a (very) loosely interpreted Georgian facade, plywood cut-out, plastered with unsourced and unintelligible apothegms resting on too-obvious scaffolding and spied through view-finders – which comment, presumably, on the importance of viewpoint and framing in the determination of cultural value.

Other architectural miscellanea include a Seidler exhibition, which proffered two works; Seidler’s “self-contained community” for 2,500 people on the banks of the Danube, in Vienna, and his proposal for the world’s tallest building in Melbourne. Both projects are based unrepentantly on the idea of the absolute, and of a truth which is universal throughout not only space, but time. Neither responds in any tangible way to the niceties of place or culture, so that a change of site, such as the tower’s move from railyards to docklands, occasions not so much as a change of dress.

Corrigan’s show couldn’t have been more different – obsessionally pointing out the uniqueness not of his work, but of himself. The walls are strewn with an apparently random selection of all the documents that have ever passed through Corrigan’s life – football tickets, fan letters, scribbled Parisian addresses, bags from MOMA (NY), last week’s memo from the vice-chancellor, and even his (yes, Yale) diploma. A curious amalgam of selfglorification and selfabasement, the exhibition is based on the intriguing presumption that any of this should actually matter to any art-going adult beyond the personal aura.

A third architectural exhibition, completing this odd triangle, shows the work of the Finnish grandmaster Alvar Aalto. The show, entirely in black and white, is guaranteed to appeal to initiates only, and yet it includes no plans, which were the real repositories of Aalto’s genius.

Paul Carter’s installation Light (the Colonel, not the radiation) is another where the written story is more interesting by far than the work itself. The work is profoundly reminiscent of Laurence and Foley’s Edge of Trees in Sydney, although less profoundly moving. It comprises some truncated columns – in a grid, of course – with mirrors, and a cross-axial runway etched in sawdust into the grass. Speakers issue sclerotic rhythms, but their intended meaning as the Colonel’s last, bubbling tubercular breaths is available only to readers of the fine print.

Perhaps the main lesson in all this is just how hard it is to make ephemeral gestures carry any genuine meaning for architecture or urban design, which are essentially about continuity and permanence. Adelaide’s one such gesture, for and beyond the festival, is its new SA Art Gallery, designed by Andrew Andersons and Robert Dickson. Skilfully extending and connecting a rabble of existing buildings in a sacred historic precinct, the new gallery is no great shakes on the outside, but very successful within, where it is relaxing but never casual.

The use of materials, the control of light, and the arrangement of space are contrived with a discipline and simplicity from which other participants – and the building’s own outside – might benefit. So simple, in fact, and so understated, that it is difficult to focus for long on the architecture, because the art keeps taking over. Which is exactly how it should be.


Two illus: Above, one of the Ruins of the Future installations; right, the Hills ubiquitous Hoist.

Photographs by SAHLAN



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