Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Near invisible, with a whopping presence
The War Memorial’s Anzac Hall is a moving counterpoint to the braid and ballyhoo, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
When the bodies of the four Japanese crewmen who attacked Sydney Harbour in midget subs were cremated in Sydney in 1942, Admiral Muirhead-Gould insisted on full naval honours, beneath a Japanese ensign, to mark their heroism.
Sixty years on it sounds almost absurdly honourable, like Asterix’s Romans and Gauls stopping the battle for afternoon tea. War is different now. We think differently. Who’d offer bin Laden the time of day, much less an honorific niche in posterity, given the choice?
How, then, should we commemorate wars? How will we remember the current one, Operation Infinite Regress? Can we glorify courage without sanctioning slaughter? Can we teach the Anzac story with reverence but not humbug? Can we make it real for ourselves?
Anzac Hall, the new Denton Corker Marshall (DCM) addition to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, deals with the issues poetically, which is possibly the only way.
Canberra, our paramount if neglected national symbol, is well supplied with war memorabilia. Monuments to the various forces and conflicts line up along the “land axis” which, bisecting the central triangle of our central place, links Parliament House with the War Memorial proper.
We’ve given them pride of place but somehow distant in time and space they still feel like someone else’s wars. Even Vietnam, searing as it was, has all the vivid immediacy now of a schoolkid reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
The War Memorial itself, notwithstanding its huge popularity as a museum, suffers the same lack of intimacy. Its very monumentality envisioned by C.E.W. Bean in 1916 as “the finest monument ever raised to any army” has a profound distancing effect.
To some extent, this is probably programmed in. The business of commemorating the fallen is no more comfortable a part of everyday life than is recognising mortality itself. And it’s reinforced by the original architecture stripped classicism as pompous as it is austere.
The old building was the product of a shotgun marriage between two otherwise unrelated Sydney architects, Emil Sodersten and John Crust. Sodersten, one of Sydney’s young, leading-edge art deco designers, had in fact won the job in international competition in 1927. His appointment, however, caused such an uproar in the profession that Sodersten was forcibly conjoined with the relatively obscure Crust, who is said to have contributed the idea of cloistering the Roll of Honour.
The AWM itself was the brainchild of Charles Edwin Woodrow Bean (1879-1968) and John Treloar. Bean, an Oxford-educated (Australian) barrister and historian-to-be, was official war correspondent from Gallipoli on. Treloar (1894-1952), also a Gallipoli veteran and head of the Australian War Records Section in London, became the memorial’s founding director (1920-52). From the start they conceived the memorial with a tripartite role part-shrine, part-gallery, part-museum.
Bean, appalled by the promiscuous wastage of war (after landing at Gallipoli he had visited Poziers in 1916, where more than 28,000 Australians died in less than seven weeks), craved a national locus for grief. But he also wanted a way of reifying war for those at “home”.
With Treloar, Bean commissioned official artists and photographers, including Will Dyson, Arthur Streeton, Herbert Wilkins and the intrepid Frank Hurley. They began to collate “relics” from the front. Later, during the second war, Bean would write to Treloar: “The kind of relic that would stir me to the marrow is, say, a section of the original Kokoda trail … part of the charred wharf from Darwin … a uniform taken from a man after a muddy jungle fight.” Nothing pickled or freeze-dried for him.
From its opening on Anzac Day, 1923, the AWM collection connected with its audience, pulling crowds in Melbourne and then Sydney. To be fully meaningful, though, the relics and images needed a permanent showcase; in 1935 they moved to their new home in Canberra.
The contemporary AWM consciously maintains this triple role, ever more clearly articulated by its buildings. The shrine function is still, quite rightly, dominant comprising the Hall of Memory (its Unknown Soldier interred as recently as 1993), and a serene, Moorish court that encompasses the Pool of Reflection, Eternal Flame and wall of a hundred thousand
Gallery wings have been added either side of this centrepiece and the 1984 administration/archive building, designed by DCM in its literal post-modern phase of the decade before last, sits neatly downstage left. Anzac Hall, the new wing designed explicitly to house the AWM’s exhibition function, sits at the back, smack-on-axis but, deferential to the last, behind the curtain.
Wing indeed. Designed for invisibility in this most prominent of possies, Anzac Hall, says John Denton, of DCM, is shaped to sit “within the shadow” of the Sodersten original. In fact, though, it’s more like the shadow itself, the shadow-wing of some huge stealth bomber part-interred in its own burial mound.
The wing metaphor is deliberate, of course, complete with appropriately militaristic motifs. A huge matte-black aerofoil made of riveted metalloid panels (actually fibre-cement), its camouflage consists of the battleship grey stone wall that curtains Anzac Hall from the memorial proper, and against which the wing forms a vast, earth-sheltered lean-to.
Even from Mount Ainslie it’s hard to see. But for a near-invisible building it has a whopping presence; you’d hardly want Anzac Hall to be completely self-effacing.
In fact, the built version is DCM’s second go at Anzac Hall. The first, downed by budget, was more than twice as big and stylistically closer to both DCM’s own Admin Building and the Sodersten original. So what changed? Money, for one thing. But also time. The use of metaphor and decoration may be postmodern but the zeitgeist idea, so close to modernism’s abstract heart, is alive and ticking. You just can’t comfortably build in the ’90s what you designed in the ’80s.
The stripped classicism of DCM’s Admin Building intones, with the slightly ponderous elocution of an east-coast military academy, “here is the civic, civilised face of militarism”. Such imagery sits easily with Sodersten’s deco-cum-de stijl classicism. And Anzac Hall mark I, designed by DCM at the same time, cloaked its hangar nature in enough sandstone, symmetry and decorative steel to suggest the same general accent.
Anzac Hall mark II, however, declares its difference. Still post-modern, in the sense of using metaphor explicitly to carry meaning, it nevertheless forsakes the language of neoclassicism (symmetry, primary forms, the aesthetics of weight) for a freer shape-making, balanced between figuralism and abstraction.
One of Anzac Hall’s primary tasks was, while linking physically to the existing building, to leave it emphatically, visually separate, “in the round”. No small ask, especially when the original in question was pointing its convex, apsidal bottom their way. So DCM, old hands at smart design strategy, used difference to achieve it. The actual moment of linkage, with the black-glass tube butting mercilessly through the curved stone, is not the building’s finest. But the plan required it so you could walk axially from the sacred to the profane and the client insisted.
Once inside, Anzac Hall is arresting, seductive, unforgettable. A moving counterpoint to all the braid and ballyhoo. Where the sacred court is white, hard-edged and linear, Anzac Hall is velvet black. Where the court is pristine and abstract with celestial connotations, the hall is real with blood, fear and torn flesh.
Not that the exhibition is over-literal. Hardly. Barbed wire is etched in light upon the darkness: the Jap mini-sub hangs like an exercise in exquisite packaging, torn open by some huge, hyperactive child: field periscopes, gun towers and fragile wooden ambulances surreally demonstrate the stark futility of organised mutual death.
And yet here, more than all the uniformed halls, one senses too the value of it all the loyalty, the courage, the sheer daily valour of humans in extremis. When early next year G for George, the much-loved WWII Lancaster bomber, takes his rightful place filling the western half of the wing, the show will be complete. The stanza’s last line writ.
TWO ILLUS: Winging it …
Anzac Hall’s deliberately militaristic exterior purposely provides dramatic contrast to the rest of the memorial.
Photo: Sean Davey;
Heart of darkness …
Anzac Hall’s velvet-black exhibition space.