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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 25-Nov-1997

Edition: Late

Section: News And Features

Subsection: Arts

Page: 22

Wordcount: 1231

Canapes amid the chaos



I KNEW you’d say that. And (this’ll surprise you) I agree. Definitions are not the point. Who gives a bilby’s bollock whether architecture is a defined as decorated shed or – one of the daffier deffos – frozen music? What, as Downer Jnr might have said, could matter less?

Still, if it helps to know what we’re looking for here, you could do worse than Mr Wootton’s aged adage: Commodity, firmness and delight. Space, structure and joy. Or, if you prefer, quantity, quiddity, quality.

But good architecture offers something else, too. Order. For a while now, since well before Jesus was a wee thing, architects have striven to sustain the necessary delusion of order rendered out of chaos. The idea that meaning – created or discovered – is thus achievable and habitable in an essentially bewildering universe has appealed through the ages and across the seas.

Except in Melbourne, which, as a fundamentally neat town, has been cultivating chaos, or its trappings, for years. And now, it seems, in Canberra. Of all places. The new National Museum of Australia – possibly Canberra’s last monument ever – will be, is being, designed by the Melbourne architectural group Ashton Raggatt McDougall, a leading proponent in the field of designer chaos.

Like it or otherwise it, Canberra is one of Australia’s bravest experiments. A world treasure in the making. Sure, opportunities have been lost, but there are more on the way. In another couple of centuries the place could really justify an e-mail home.

Few cities, with the possible exception of Washington DC, more vividly manifest a sustained collective effort to extract meaning – from landscape, democracy, Federation, whatever – and embed it in physical order. The parliamentary triangle, the land axis, the water axis . . . Walter Burley Griffin’s underlying narrative is as gripping in the abstract as it is illegible on the ground.

Such trifles notwithstanding, Canberra, as Australia’s permanent symbolic heart, has been heavily endowed over the years with monuments. The early examples stood white and proud, fearless in the new authorised landscape. More recently, Giurgola’s new Parliament House is a national monument of a different stripe, with no steps up to a front-door-which-you-enter-sideways, and a roof the populace can wipe their feet on.

Arguably such symbolism is apt. Griffin’s plan was intended to manifest democracy, after all. But Griffin’s vision was distinctly urban and comparatively formal, for all that. Clear, walkable streets, a legible hierarchy of spaces, a meaningful, created order. The plan represented democracy, yes, but also Canberra’s unequivocal centrality to the nation.

The latter-day casualisation of Canberra has run hand-in-hand with a feeling that Canberra itself no longer has a right to specialness. This affected egalitarianism is a fashion thing partly. What Keating started with his “if you’re not in Sydney you’re camping out” prime ministerial mindset, Howard has doggedly pursued.

And now, with the evisceration of the national capital all but complete, Canberra’s final monument has been plucked from the rapids of international design competition by a jury of long-time Canberracrats. No surprise that Ashton Raggatt McDougall’s winning design is frantically, fervently, flamboyantly anti-monumental.

ARM is a late flowering of an architectural attitude (I use the word advisedly) hatched by the Philadelphian theorist Robert Venturi in the 1960s and coddled by the British writer Charles Jencks through the ’70s and ’80s. The essence of it is hey, relax, to be popular/-ist is OK. There are lessons to be learnt from Vegas and main street, and if the price of populism is the ousting of architecture by the decorated shed, where visuals are applied, not inherent, so what the heck? Quit the precious, precious.

This pop-arch stance has long appealed to intellectuals of a certain political complexion, since it enables one to be highbrow while appearing to be populist, and vice versa as required.

ARM’s winning design is a playful (if not random) arrangement of lean-to sheds whose otherwise undistinguished metal-deck roofing and glazed curtain-walling are enlivened by a series of adhesive devices including supergraphics, cloud-shaped shade-structures (representing clouds) and loops-a-daisy canopies (read canapes).

The site, squabbled over for more than a decade, is not in the obvious spot, walking distance from the other nat gals in the city centroid. Instead, the new museum will sit on a picturesque prehensile protuberance that extends rather left-of-centre into Lake Burley Griffin, distinctly off-axis and not-quite sideways-on to the main game.

But of course. The Acton Peninsula, of exploding hospital fame, enjoys views of (ahem) city to the east, Parliament to the south and mountains to the west, as well as six months of westerly wind-chill from the Brindabellas.

ARM’s whimsical sheds are arrayed around the periphery, near but not actually exploiting the water’s edge, with a rather uneventful promenade (and service road) between human and lake. There is no attempt to defend the site from that bitter Canberra wind or, within the gallery spaces, to choreograph the view, make poetry with light or enchantment with spatial order, in the best gallery tradition. (One thinks of Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Gallery in Fort Worth, Hollein’s gallery at MoÈnchengladbach or Bo and Wohlert’s Louisiana outside Copenhagen.)

No, no. Much too scary to strive for beauty, too arrogant. This is Oztraya. We go for the easy stuff, the gimmicks: the colourful crazy paving in the Garden of Australian Dreams represents the Mercator grid, the Great Suburban Plot, Aboriginal language boundaries and points of massacre, all at once; the “Uluru line,” marching vaguely north-westish beside the car park, and coincidentally parallel to Griffin’s water axis; the word Australian inscribed in the grass at the drive-in entrance. The floating clouds on sticks. Excuse me?

Call me old fashioned. Call me elitist. But, like the man who choked to death on a plastic alligator, I prefer my toys less literal. Canberra may be unfashionable and government may be downsizing, but are these really sufficient reasons for our National Museum to read like a suburban child-care centre?

So, how do we stand with old Henry Wootton’s architectural requirements? Commodity? Well, expansion space in the design is limited but, on the other hand, the collection is smallish and will be doing well to fill the space proposed, so maybe this is immaterial. Firmness? You can make anything stand up, but whether the sheds will convey any sense of permanence is another question. In 20 years – let alone 200 – how will they feel then? And what about delight, after the quaint-and-quirky lose their shine?

Beyond all that, though, is the meaning thing, the question of representative order. Precious few intimations of existential reassurance in these flaky geo-metries. Sure, it’ll hit the architectural mags. But Canberra is our national heart. Where, on the eve of Federation’s centenary, are we taking it?


Two illus: Artist’s impression of the new National Museum.

From the wacky people who brought you Storey Hall in Melbourne .



our national heart is about to get the ARM treatment.


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